Some would say the notion that a song could be your life is one best left to childhood fancy and rockcrit hyperbole. Yet here, on the eve of the winter of my discontent, there is such a composition that has penetrated my defenses: John Legend's "Show Me." The magnificent standout from Legend's second Sony release, Once Again, "Show Me" not only sounds like the late Jeff Buckley and Jimi Hendrix at play up from the skies (and thus vitally precious to my soul), but it may just be Legend's finest expression to date.
Among cherished rockcrit parlor games are the rush to anoint an artist and playing spot the influence. If I can be accused of the latter, it should be forgiven in the case of Once Again wherein Legend actively samples the Four Tops, evokes the mid-1960s bossa nova vogue on a pair of songs centering on the titular "Maxine," and -- unconsciously or not -- summons Sam Cooke and the Iceman-era Impressions to the same blue-light basement party on the sultry "Slow Dance." Indeed, a cursory first rotation of the disc triggered the thought: "Someone's been listening to a lot of Todd Rundgren;" only subsequently did I learn that Legend had cited "Hello, It's Me" as his favorite song in a Gap advert. The sonic case for Legend's deep adherence to a late '60s/early '70s AM pop aesthetic is made plain from the git-go through Once Again's opener and "Stormy"-sampling hit single "Save Room" (a heartening, rockin' sign that producer will.i.am hasn't completely taken leave of his senses in thrall to Fergie's Londonlondonlondon).
Musician friends of mine have, at various times and in different ways, tried to denounce genre boundaries by proclaiming, "Music is music. It's either good or bad." Be that as it may -- and certainly anyone who follows this space regularly knows these ears range wide -- the world is not there yet. While music criticism is guilty as a deus ex machina ordering sound and subcultures via taxonomy and establishing arbitrary hierarchies, the average listener independently brings value judgments to bear on how they perceive and consume music. With an artist of Legend's provenance -- Midwestern church upbringing, intersection with the Philly neo-soul elite as a Penn undergrad, a sonic CV featuring L-Boogie, Jigga, Common and Mary J., and, above all, his status as Kanye West protégé -- it's disingenuous to ignore the ways in which black music traditions and an early so-called urban audience has shaped his career. These very factors are currently impacting the reception of Once Again, an uneven but great effort that is a quantum leap forward from the Grammy-winning Get Lifted as a work of art.
Even if the decline of the majors and radio has signaled the impossibility of monoculture in the 21st century, some local Charlotte listeners on the black hand side, most avowed fans of Get Lifted and primed for Legend's upcoming December 1 concert at Amos' SouthEnd, have expressed lukewarm appreciation for the new CD because they claim it eschews the debut's more hip-hop-oriented sound and seems an obvious bid for crossover status. Only groupie lament "Stereo" and the West-produced "Heaven" overtly heed hip-hop soul convention -- the rest of Once Again sees Legend striving through the mostly mid-tempo compositions to keep pace with accelerating sounds in his head. Meanwhile, Stereogum has taken umbrage at Legend's Buckley tribute -- the artist explicitly told Rolling Stone that this was his aim -- couching its prejudices in the arch hipster argot of the Blogosphere. But I hear Legend's simulation and echo of Buckley's soaring croon on "Show Me" as a heartening sign of potential for moribund pop as a whole, not just the neo-soul plantation Stereogum's invested in. If his G.O.O.D. label head West can famously collaborate with hip L.A. producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple), why shouldn't Legend expand his sonic horizons without censure?
And speaking of prejudices, it's time to confess my own where Legend is concerned. I've never denounced him as "the male Alicia Keys"; however, after a few years in this profession, one becomes inured to incessant hype and that surrounding "Ordinary People" last year was almost beyond bearing. To be sure, it's not Legend's fault that a plainfolks piano ballad should be overburdened with such fervent kudos. Yet a music writer's desk is bombarded with scores of talented comers, many of whom will never get the exposure they deserve since they lack West's current Midas touch -- what makes a self-anointed Legend more significant than those who will toil in obscurity or the indie ghetto? More to the point, I was bred in an era and environment when a song well sung was the standard (a given extended even to the dancefloor: Sylvester, Donna Summer et al.), and young artists expected to apply and apprentice themselves before the laurels were flung. Hopes were not so diminished that the industry and audience could be rendered weak at the mere sight of a young man capable of writing a simple song and playing piano instead of going multi-platinum due to how many times he'd been shot. And Legend's professions to the press of admiration for my Chocolate City homeboy Marvin Gaye as a career model only gave me foreboding.