If you've listened to Top 40 radio or flipped through the video channels during the past few years, odds are pretty good you know something about John Legend. He played piano on Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything" and might as well be considered Kanye West's sidekick, having assisted the producer and MC on several sessions -- Jay-Z's "Encore" and Slum Village's "Selfish" being two of the more prominent 2004 singles featuring his work. A former choir director, he has also released a handful of energetic live discs, some of which are credited to his less hubristic birth name, John Stephens. And though he claims "I've got something new," you've also heard substantial chunks of Get Lifted in records made decades ago by Sly & the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, and Bill Withers. This might not be a problem for listeners who crave anything that recalls the music they first heard in their youth, but Legend's over-reliance upon his inspirations is an impediment as much as a slick way to grab attention. That's because he has more than enough talent and charm to get by on his own. His own lyrics and hooks are unique and clever enough to get the point across that he's no everyday R&B artist and, just as importantly, he has a personable and instantly fetching voice you could listen to all day long. However, the association with West -- whose Sony-distributed boutique label released the record -- is very helpful. Without it, Legend would likely be zoned into neo-soul (2003's Live at SOB's New York City really makes this notion apparent), thereby standing little chance of reaching the ears of anyone younger than 30. The production work supporting his songs strikes a fine balance between soul and hip-hop, allowing him to appeal to those who are coming from either angle. This is a very good record. It's a given that Legend is destined to make at least two others that top it.
John Legend was already pretty big news when this debut album came out in 2004. A piano-playing prodigy at the University of Pennsylvania, blessed with a wonderful voice, his break came when the then-unknown Kanye West asked him to sing some hooks on The College Dropout, his own breakthrough release. A slew of session work followed. West, well aware of the scale of Legend’s contribution to his work, made him the flagship artist of his new label, Getting Out Our Dreams, and the rather more mundane John Stephens soon became John Legend. Produced by will.i.am and Dave Tozer alongside West and Legend, Get Lifted is a remarkably assured debut. It isn’t smothered in tricks as it doesn’t need to be: the quality of the writing is, in the main, outstanding.
Legend was never going to hide his natural talent, and the album opens with a piano flourish and an invitation to the listener to “Come on and go with me, there’s something new for you to see”. The title track runs through a variety of drug metaphors for his musical ability, which may sound hackneyed on paper but in practice it works perfectly, and does so again on the minimalist, Ennio Morricone-inspired reprise 10 tracks later. It is Legend’s confidence with his clichés that carries Get Lifted. I Can Change – a simple plea from an errant lover to his partner – is rendered widescreen by a gospel choir, and then the rap is delivered by the bad man’s bad man, Snoop Dogg. When Snoop says “this is legendary shit” at its close you have little choice other than to believe it. The low-key shuffle of Stay With You, the touching Ordinary People and the Caribbean-influenced Refuge all maintain the high standard. Even a mawkish concoction like the overwrought So High is grounded by Legend’s sincerity.
Get Lifted is an album that not only lived up to the hype, but rose squarely above it. Yes, at times it is a patchwork of the past filtered through Legend’s ever-present influences, but the quality of his writing and performance, and his collaborators’ contributions, make it worthy of the awards and plaudits it rightly received.