John Legend refreshes soul on his new album 'Future'

Los Angeles TimesAugust 31, 2013 

John Legend performs on stage on August 17, 2011 at the Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento, Calif.

A.TAMBUNAN — atambunan@sacbee.com

There's one second of sound on John Legend's new album, "Love in the Future," that sums up his current artistic mission. It's on the delicate, gloomy track "Asylum," and the sound is a snare drum.

Or rather a blast of raw, percussive white noise that punctuates his future soul tale of a love "where we both go crazy." "We were leaning toward progressive, cool samples with space and minimalism," Legend said. "How do you refresh a genre that's so traditional and classic?"

Although he is indebted to Sam Cooke's pristine phrasing and piano ballads, his "Love in the Future," coming out Tuesday, sounds remarkably modern. Almost a decade after his 2004 debut, "Get Lifted," made him a pop star and put him at the vanguard of adult R&B, Legend (born John Roger Stephens) is figuring out how an old genre relates to new ideas about love.

Five years after his last album of original material (his 2010 collaboration with the Roots, "Wake Up!" was a collection of '60s and '70s covers), Legend is asking what constitutes soul music in a time when technology can connect us in undreamed of ways but also distract us from real emotion.

"That's part of what we were trying to answer with this album," he said of his fourth solo album. "What's the place for soul in 2013? This album is our answer."

From the back porch of his Hollywood Hills home, Legend has a wide view of Cahuenga Pass. His bulldog Puddy scampers around his feet as Legend talks about his new album. He looks relaxed because he took his time making this one.

"Love in the Future" was supposed to come sooner. After a successful run with the U.K. combo Sade, Legend had booked a high-profile fall 2012 arena tour, tied to his long-expected follow-up to 2008's "Evolver." But he scrapped it to finish work on the record, which tacked on an additional year's wait for a new album of original material.

It was a rare crack in the armor for the consummately professional 34-year-old singer (and former management consultant).

"I had to choose the lesser of two evils," he said. "I hated the idea of letting fans down. But I'm defined by the quality of the experience, on record and in performances. I wanted to go out with new music, but I couldn't go out without my best."

If it took an extra year to get right, it shows in the record. "Love in the Future" can be read as a kind of distant cousin of Kanye West's "Yeezus," and not only because West (a longtime Legend collaborator) was co-executive producer of the album with fellow Legend-vet Dave Tozer. If the wildly experimental, angry "Yeezus" is pure id and ego, "Love in the Future" is the grown-up superego tamping down that raw emotion while trying to make sense of it.

"Who Do We Think We Are" has some of '70s soul staple Donny Hathaway's incandescent glow, but it's ringed in a psychedelic digital fog, and it wraps up with a cameo from rapper Rick Ross. Lead single "Made to Love" is built on crunchy distorted drums and scattered vocal echoes (courtesy of New Zealand's Kimbra) evoking classic house music.

Even the most straightforward cuts, such as the singer-songwriterly "All of Me," have sly, uncanny production flourishes in the margins. "There's actually a lot of '70s prog rock elements on this album; the guitars on 'Asylum' are very 'Dark Side of the Moon'," said Tozer. "The productions have to be in support of the songs first, and John's always had good writing, but now he wanted to challenge himself. 'Made to Love' is the most progressive single he's ever released. 'All of Me' is a pure piano ballad, but we also had to add some robot voices on there."

Legend's voice is as unrobotic as ever, though, and his well-seasoned vocals and songwriting fully inhabit and cut through the sometimes alien arrangements. "Future's" 16 songs are investigations into the pleasures, pains and transformations of a long-term relationship, a purposeful counterpoint to the rallying cry political overtones of "Wake Up!" For Legend, who recently announced his engagement to model Chrissy Teigen, the album is unflinching in its look at intimacy in general and his own romantic life in specific. "This long-term relationship changed me," he said. "I hadn't been with anyone for a long time, and I'd definitely enjoyed my bachelor status. This is my first album with the benefit of that relationship. I'm much more emotional and passionate in my musical life than my personal life, and these songs are a self-examination and a way for me to get there."

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