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January 3, 2009 | 9:01 p.m. CST
As Darwin hypothesized long ago, evolution is a naturally occurring phenomenon intended to better a species. In the case of John Legend’s Evolver, it’s unfortunate that natural selection does not carry over to music. For a man who was discovered by Kanye West and garnered multiple Grammys for his albums since, evolution is a hard concept to embrace. Can change honestly produce anything better? John Legend takes natural transformation head-on with his third LP.
Originally celebrated for his daunting soul-power vocals, Legend wastes no time in demonstrating his dramatic shift to a more pop-oriented sound. A short and slightly unnecessary instrumental introduction leads into the album’s first single, “Green Light,” which features Andre 3000 of Outkast. Legend appears to insist that listeners give him permission to show off a fresh, more buoyant style as he sings, “Give me the green light / Give me just one night / I’m ready to go right now.” Although this number seems poised for top-40 airplay, Andre 3000 serves as the track’s glue, and the song’s upbeat style is not representative of the rest of the album.
Legend continues to roll out the red carpet on tracks “It’s Over,” featuring old pal West, and “Quickly,” featuring Brandy. “It’s Over” might have served as one of the album’s sole reminders of the dynamic beats present on Legend’s older material, but it’s hampered by the light synthesizer effect layered onto West’s vocals. Picture a gauzier version of the modulation featured in Mr. West’s “Love Lockdown.” “Quickly” exemplifies what Legend’s music has become: seemingly elementary beats and choruses stocked with emotional cravings such as “Could you love me quickly, quickly / I want you to love me like the world is about to end.”
Sandwiched between the aforementioned tracks is “Everybody Knows,” Evolver’s standout ballad. It’s the only point where Legend truly stretches the range of his gospel-inspired voice, and the song is layered over subtle yet catchy monophonic instrumentation, pushing this song above the rest.
Legend swiftly sends the guest stars on their way and steers the second half of Evolver on his own, allowing the album to finally take shape and develop a consistent pattern of movement. The songs keep a somber demeanor, which aligns itself with the less-dynamic instrumentation. Legend travels off into the world of the mundane, which makes it difficult to keep the listener engaged. This inevitably turns the previous inconsistencies into the album’s strong point.
Based on Legend’s instantaneous career success, it’s easy to see Evolver as a step in the wrong direction, but in his mind it was just a natural evolution. “This time I want it all / This time I’ll take the chance,” Legend sings. He did take the chance, but he’ll have to reverse evolution to get back to the heights where he once stood.