Getting Out Our Dreams/Sony
As a producer, rapper, and talent scout, Kanye West effected a kind of hip-hop hegemony in 2004, gobbling up all the industry awards and A-list collaborators, cranking out radio hits like the next Neptunes, and generally imposing his will on a public that was all too ready to submit to his friendly Motowncentric aesthetic. With the help of his protégé John Legend, the first artist on his new label, West seems poised to expand his empire into R&B territory. A relative newcomer but no novice, Legend (né Stephens) is already familiar to those of you who bother to read liner notes: In addition to voicing some of the most memorable hooks on West’s multiplatinum debut The College Dropout, the twentysomething singer/pianist and former choir director has worked with Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, Janet Jackson, the Black Eyed Peas, and Alicia Keys, among many others.
On Get Lifted, his major label début, Legend strives to live up to his immodest moniker with an ambitious hybrid of neosoul, hip-hop, and gospel sounds that complement his church-trained pipes and upbeat personality. Sounding a bit like a raspier Stevie Wonder or a less tormented David Ruffin, Legend resists the temptation to indulge in the flashy vocal acrobatics and over-the-top emoting so prevalent among his contemporaries, preferring instead to serve the songs. Anchored by his confident and often inventive piano playing, the 14 tracks on Get Lifted have an old-school vibe despite trendy production flourishes from West (the album’s executive producer), will.i.am (Black Eyed Peas), and longtime collaborators DeVon“Devo” Harris and Dave Tozer. The lead single, “Used to Love U,” is the smash hit that it deserves to be, a sly, horn-happy kiss-off to a materialistic lover that contains the immortal couplet “Maybe I should rob somebody/So we could live like Whitney and Bobby.” “Alright” weds a percolating hip-hop beat to intoxicatingly goofy tuba (!) counterpoint and female back-up vocals, and the more straightforward balladry of “Ordinary People” succeeds with nothing more than Legend’s simple, elegant piano accompaniment. From the spirited gospel of “Stay With You” and “It Don’t Have to Change” to the playful Afropop stylings of “Refuge (When It’s Cold Outside),” Legend proves that he’s got more on his mind than being the next Usher. He may not be a legend quite yet, but he’s on his way.
Notorious Lightning and Other Works
On his latest EP, Notorious Lightning and Other Works, Daniel Bejar revisits half of the songs from last year’s full-length Your Blues with the help of fellow Vancouverites Frog Eyes. Bejar, the singer, songwriter, and only permanent member of Destroyer, is never content to stick with a predictable sound, and the six tracks on Notorious Lightning are reinventions, not rehashes. Whereas Your Blues presented the songs as MIDI-fueled miniatures, frigid, pseudo-baroque experiments that Bejar himself has described as “hollow-sounding,” this EP gives them the ramshackle rock treatment, stretching out the arrangements, scratching up the surfaces, and dramatically upping the noise quotient. Frog Eyes, which served as opening act and backing band on the last Destroyer tour, is ideally suited to deconstruct Bejar’s oblique and mannered compositions. Like some unholy combination of David Bowie and the scruffy adjunct professor you had a crush on during your junior year of college, Bejar has perfected a slacker-glam aesthetic that combines absurdist lyrics, self-referential theatricality, and chaotic instrumentation with sticky pop refrains. The five members of Frog Eyes, who play a kind of shambling avant-punk, don’t so much augment Bejar’s singular gifts as channel them, lending a reckless, road-seasoned charm to the proceedings that sounds both spontaneous and inevitable.