You’ve got to give it to John Legend. At this point, he’s got one of those voices where he could be singing anything, and it would still sound great. Such is the control and ease with which he swaps from smooth tenors to falsettos – and even dropping down the register – that he could just be telling us how to make a tasty stew in a slow cooker and it would still be listenable (spoiler alert: he actually kind of does this. And it’s great).
Despite that, it’s impressive that even here on Bigger Love – his eighth studio album release – he’s still covering new ground.
Bigger Love marks Legend’s second collaboration with executive producer Raphael Saadiq – formerly of Tony! Toni! Toné! and all-round neo-soul legend. Following the success of their previous collaboration A Legendary Christmas, this album sees Legend dipping into his classic wells-of-choice as he delivers another 16 cuts of prime R&B and soul with a 00s hip-hop styling to the production.
Saadiq’s influence plays well as the album is full of muted production, allowing Legend’s crisp, clean vocals to take centre stage while throwing in enough fun touches such as the disco-flecked strings of ‘One Life’, the warm brass of ‘Slow Cooker’ (I told you), or even the Tyrone Davis ‘It’s You, It’s You’-sampling sophomore track ‘Actions’ that brings to mind the GOAT use of that sample – Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg’s ‘The One & Only’ – without ever feeling like it’s trying to be that.
Album opener ‘Ooh La’ sets a faintly-experimental yet still comfortable tone with some lo-fi hip-hop beats to study/relax to underpinning a stunning vocal. Sometimes the album seems almost too comfortable, with many a track very pleasantly drifting past but not exactly sticking in the memory by the time the next one’s rolled around.
Some of the strongest work on the album sees Legend in full collaborator mode. ‘U Move, I Move’ – with its production reminiscent of Kanye West’s underrated ‘Only One’ – finds his vocals intertwining with Jhene Aiko’s beautifully.
‘Don’t Walk Away’ – benefitting from a great hook by young reggae wunderkind Koffee and the contrast between Legend’s silky vocals and a jagged, staccato verse by Rhapsody on ‘Remember Us’ – help expose a bruised heart to a lovely string-led number. Whereas ‘Wild’ finds legend in generic stadium pop mode until a rip-roaring guitar solo by Gary Clark Jr lifts proceedings considerably.
Packing 16 songs into less than an hour does result in some of the endings feeling a little thrown away, which does leave some of Bigger Love’s slighter tracks like the stripped-back, more acoustic number ‘Focussed’ or old-school torch song ‘I’m Ready’ seeming like they could have done with another draft or two before they’re truly album-ready. You wonder if they’d trimmed the album down to 11 or 12 tracks, how good this could have been with a little more focus.
Yet, saving the best for last, album closer ‘Never Break’ is true anthemic songwriting. Starting with just piano and vocals, it builds through choral backing, timpani, and hammond behind a consistently rising chord progression that builds the emotion to really end the album on a high note – but one that leaves a lump in the throat from the sheer emotional impact of legend’s central performance.
His is not just a technically satisfying voice, but one full of warmth, humanity, and variety. It highlights everything the album could be if it just trimmed itself down a little.
Ultimately, complaining about an album having no bad tracks but too many that are simply OK seems a little picky. But even without a hint more litigious editing to proceedings, this is still a strong collection of songs that might dilute the impact of the standout tracks a tad purely via placement. But it’s still a surprisingly easy listen, even clocking in at an impressive 57 minutes.
We know Legend can sing. He can really sing. And we know he can write a good tune. And even if he’s not the most selective when it comes to picking only his strongest numbers – when his weaker numbers are still this good, why bother?
Bigger Love is out today. Buy or stream it here.