John Legend

Evolver

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Evolver is more clever and appealing as an album title than Dabbler, yet the latter would be much more emblematic of John Legend's third studio album. Legend is up-front about his lane changes, not just by admitting to the press that it does not sound like him, but also through the album's lead single. "Green Light," decked out in giddy synthesizers à la Paul McCartney's tolerated-or-loathed "A Wonderful Christmas Time" (or, OK, the glitziest part of Kanye West's "Flashing Lights"), sounds like an increasingly bad fit with each play, full of simpleminded gestures ("Dying to meet you/So let's mess around") while benefiting from André 3000's upstaging, off-the-cuff, don't-give-a-damn appearance. Following it is "It's Over," a relatively characteristic breakup song (albeit one where an Auto-Tuned West shows up to rhyme "kiddies" with "titties") that effectively sets the tone for the album's all-around erratic nature. There's a show-stopping ballad, a reggae-flavored Estelle feature, flashes of tropical lushness, a couple throwbacks to soul-informed soft rock, a clumsy track full of chunky synth riffs, a brave topical message song to close, and a couple other diversions throughout. The album's lack of focus would go down easier if a majority of the songs had the feeling and finesse of the highlights from Once Again and Get Lifted; the hooks aren't nearly as memorable and come off as forced, and Legend often sounds like he is being fed directions on what emotions to channel ("scorned, belligerent"; "heartbroken, twinkle in eyes") while remaining occupied by the satisfaction that comes with hearing what his vocal cords are capable of achieving. Easily the least accomplished of his albums, Evolver is nonetheless a refreshing change of sorts, for all its faults, at least as far as missteps are concerned. Safe, retraced steps from accomplished R&B artists are all too common, and this, if anything, is nothing of the sort.

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