John Legend is the rare artist who admits to listening to his critics, so while I don’t think constructive criticism is any more a necessity for a successful review than explicitly telling readers whether or not an album is worth their hard-earned 10 bucks, I occasionally find myself doing just that when I genuinely like an artist. Legend suffers from a similar condition as the comparable Alicia Keys: When he isn’t singing like he’s simultaneously sucking on a throat lozenge, as he does on the opening track of his new album, Love in the Future, Legend’s voice is supple and enveloping, but in the absence of exceptionally strong songwriting (his debut single, “Ordinary People,” being one example), he requires exceptionally strong production to keep and hold your attention.
Like his previous efforts, Love in the Future, his first solo album in five years, is uneven in that regard. The back-to-back standouts “Save the Night” and the Q-Tip-produced “Tomorrow,” respectively, feature a prominent loop of what sounds like children giggling and a crisscrossing vocal arrangement, while “Made to Love,” co-produced by longtime collaborators Dave Tozer and Kanye West, coasts along on a rhythm collage of tribal handclapping and djembe drums reminiscent of West’s 808s & Heartbreak. Other tracks, like the brief “Hold on Longer” and “Dreams,” feel more like zygotes than fully formed songs, with the latter only becoming interesting in the final 30 seconds when Legend’s voice morphs into a Vocorder solo.
Though Love in the Future purportedly has its ear on the future, Legend frequently draws on his past, most notably with a subtle melodic nod to “Ordinary People” buried inside the cool “Wanna Be Loved.” He takes stock of his extravagant lifestyle on the album’s first single, “Who Do We Think We Are,” which, thanks to a verse by Rick Ross cataloging a list of indulgences, doubles as a comment on hip-hop’s excess. But the track falls back on a tired Kanye trick of employing an old-school soul sample to capture a vintage vibe, and while it certainly complements the texture of Legend’s smooth pipes, the effect feels more dated than retro in 2013. At 16 tracks, the album moves surprisingly fast, with few songs outstaying their welcome, but it ultimately fails to successfully push Legend into the future.