John Legend’s superb 2004 debut, Get Lifted, struck an optimal balance between R&B and hip-hop akin to The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, but aside from the first few tracks of his new album, Legend opts for a more consistently straightforward adult contemporary sound, due partly to mentor Kanye West’s reduced presence (he only produced one track here). Once Again‘s best two songs come back to back: “Stereo” would just be another song about “big stage[s], bright lights, short love, long nights” if it wasn’t at least minimally inventive (“Her favorite color be platinum and gold/She only loves in stereo,” Legend sings) and “Show Me,” produced by Raphael Saadiq, recalls the existential quests of Stevie Wonder’s rich spiritual period in the early 1970s, Legend’s intimately whispered falsetto evoking that of the late Jeff Buckley. Unfortunately, there was no divine intervention on the next track, “Each Day Gets Better,” one of several serviceable but rather pedestrian R&B tunes. Songs like “Where Did My Baby Go” and “Another Again” practically write themselves. And there’s nothing risqué or daring about the music or lyrics to “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)” (“Let’s sneak and do it when your boss is gone,” Legend sings as if he’s asking a girl to go to dinner and a movie and not to fuck in public); the very next song, the “Let’s Get It On”-esque “Slow Dance,” is far sexier, due in large part to Legend’s scratchy, raw vocal. While songs like the bold “She Don’t Have To Know” countered Legend’s nice-boy demeanor, largely propagated by the bruised performance of his hit single “Ordinary People,” Legend only seems to fancy himself the victim this time around. It’s a wise choice, to be sure, as it won’t dash his fawning female audience’s fantasy that he’s the kind of man they could bring home to Mom and Dad, but it’s indicative of the play-it-safe approach on display here. Like its predecessor, Once Again‘s midsection bulges with excess MOR fat, but unlike Legend’s debut, the album doesn’t resurrect itself by the end. In other words, it never really reaches the heights of Get Lifted. Other male R&B crooners, however, have made entire careers out of much, much less and Once Again, in comparison, is worthy of its inevitable string of Grammy nominations.
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