A session pianist and frequent shout-out for the likes of Lauryn Hill and Kanye West, whose vanity label is distributing his debut album Get Lifted, John Legend appears on the inside of the CD cover entering the back of a church sanctuary with his arms outstretched to feel the backs of pews, a gargantuan pipe organ looming over his shoulders. Messianic much? Actually, the overstated picture (as well as John’s stage surname) betrays the tone of the album: an unassuming, shapeless collection of R&B throwbacks that errs to the side of tasteful. In other words, Get Lifted is a soul album that oddly doesn’t take it to church but, rather, out on the veranda for the Sunday afternoon congregation picnic.
No track on the entire album fulfills this characterization more than “It Don’t Have to Change,” which sounds as though it could’ve taken a cue (metaphorically, at least) from the central tension point of Yasujirô Ozu’s heart wrenching Late Spring, in which Setsuko Hara deigns to remain living with her widowed father, subservient to him in exchange for allowing herself to cloister away from social contact and the social mandates of leaving childhood behind. To wit, John pleads for time to stand still, and for the world he grew up knowing to never have to change. “Do you remember when the family was everything?” he asks. “I wanna go back, wanna go back to those simple days.” Appropriately enough, a panoply of Stephens family members provides backing vocals, hand claps, and finger snaps.
“It Don’t Have To Change” is the only Stephens family reunion on the LP, but the tone carries through the album proper, with Kanye West producing a number of tracks with an understated, ‘70s M.O.R.&B sheen. (Think Al Green remaking a de-sexualized Let’s Get It On.) The almost-title track “Let’s Get Lifted” sees John comparing the effect of his music on the listener to sex, drugs, and transcendental meditation, but the easygoing piano undulations and pillow-fight beats from West suggest nothing so dangerous and mind-expanding. “Number One” dissects distrust in relationships, but the bouncy, Stevie Wonder-circa-“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” sound is about as comforting and familiar a style as can be expected from a neo-soul album. John Legend needs to drive toward an original angle on the genre before he truly earns his moniker, but, in the meantime, Get Lifted is a satisfying mixtape for the journey there.