The Week In Pop: John Legend Reaches Peak Normalcy
Is he really a legend or isn’t he? There’s no doubt John Legend is a music industry power-player, the kind of safe yet pliable talent who moves in many circles, who appeals to many demographics, who’s such a lock to appear at the Grammys every year that he inspired this genius tweet from our own Tom Breihan during this year’s broadcast:
Do the Grammys just keep John Legend frozen in carbonite the other 364 nights a year?
— Tom Breihan (@tombreihan) January 27, 2014
During his first decade in the public eye, Legend released at least one indisputable classic song (the solo piano soul-pop master class “Ordinary People“) and played a pivotal role in one of the greatest albums of all time (contributing vocals to “Blame Game,” the Aphex-Twin-sampling, soul-shattering climax of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). For those two songs alone, his place in history would be cemented. You also probably know the ultralounge-ready Andre 3000 collab “Green Light” too even if you thought it was called “Ready To Go,” and you likely recall that he made an entire album with the Roots. All of his albums besides the Roots collab Wake Up! have debuted in the top 5 (that one entered at #8), and all of them went gold. The first two went double-platinum. Despite these achievements, Legend was never really an inescapable cultural force until this year, when his single “All Of Me” became a slow-burning blockbuster.
“All Of Me” was released 8/12 of last year, a full 30 weeks ago, at which point it did about as well as Legend’s songs usually do — that is, it made waves with his faithful audience but didn’t reverberate much farther than that. He worked it hard, though, performing it on Letterman, on Kimmel, on The Wendy Williams Show, on the Grammys. In January he got help from a Tiësto remix. Over the winter the song kept building momentum and crossed over to Top 40 radio. In March it leapt to #4 on the Hot 100, becoming Legend’s first-ever top 10 hit. This week, after inching its way up to #3 and what seemed like an eternity at #2, “All Of Me” became Legend’s first #1 single, besting “Happy” and by a hair to end Pharrell’s 10-week reign and thwarting Ariana Grande’s intentions of debuting at the top with “Problem.” Just when I was starting to wonder if he really did relocate to a cryogenic freezer deep in the NARAS compound, Legend reached a new career pinnacle.
How did he do it? Firstly, by going back to the sound that put him on the map in the first place. “All Of Me” is a gospel piano ballad, just like “Ordinary People.” It’s Legend’s wheelhouse. He excels with this sort of thing, much more so than the utterly forgettable Rick Ross collab that precedes “All Of Me” it on Love In The Future. Actually, that whole 20-track(!) album is pretty forgettable besides the other stripped-down ballads: “For The First Time,” which really ought to be called “For The Second Time” on an album that also includes “All Of Me,” and the vocoder-tinged “Dreams,” which manages to sound like “Get Lucky” despite the absence of drums and which almost certainly will get some burn now that “All Of Me” has conquered humanity. And OK, the languid soul throwback “So Gone” is also a winner, which further demonstrates that Love In The Future only excels when it’s stuck in the past. The thing is mostly elevator music, waiting room music, your parents’ 6-CD car stereo music. Even the forehead-slappingly obvious Seal pairing doesn’t connect.
Secondly, Legend managed to make a gospel song sound like something you’d hear at white church too. I can’t help but think about “Butterfly Kisses,” that Christian crossover adult contempo smash, when I hear “All Of Me.” There are no explicit religious references in Legend’s tune, and it’s clearly about a lover rather than a daughter, but it gives off those same baldly emotional Hallmark vibes. It could pass for the Fray, a former Christian worship band from Colorado. And anyhow, per the Cartman doctrine, white church music and adult contemporary are basically the same thing, give or take a few “baby” and/or “Jesus” references. The point is this: Every conservative suburban dweller you know felt their knees buckle when they heard this song.
Thirdly, “All Of Me” is just an instant classic in the saccharine love song genre. It completely validates the album title Love In The Future in the sense that it will be the first dance at hundreds of weddings a year forever and ever. How many kids brushed up against another human body for the first time ever during this song at prom this year? How many freshly dumped people bawled their eyes out to it while desperately grasping at the embers of an old flame? How many couples pegged it as “our song”? That such a formulaic song wields so much power is proof that painting by numbers can yield a masterpiece.
All of this makes perfect sense. Legend is a traditionalist who happened to fall in with one of the least traditional music superstars of his time (Kanye West). He’s been around rap superstars at least since the late ’90s, when Lauryn Hill hired him to play piano on “Everything Is Everything,” but he’s at his best when he’s forgoing “neosoul” or “jazz-hop” or whatever you want to call it and channeling predecessors that existed well before hip-hop — Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Al Green, those guys. The further he ventures from the basics, the more out of place he sounds, “Blame Game” notwithstanding. Go back and listen to “Green Light”; it’s pretty dated. Alternately, the explicitly retro Wake Up! feels fresh and alive. And “All Of Me,” the most straight-laced song in his catalog, is timeless. Legend might never crank out another tearjerker of this magnitude, but I’d like to see him try. I’m still not convinced he should be calling himself a legend, but if he’s going to be at the Grammys every year, it might as well be for songs people remember.
YEEZUS & SHEEZUS, TOGETHER AT LAST
Who finished second to Frozen this week? That’d be Lindsey Stirling, the theatrically inclined EDM violinist who knows a thing or two about ice palaces herself. Stirling’s sophomore album Shatter Me debuts at #2 with 56,000 copies sold — in other words, about half of the 106,000 copies the Frozen soundtrack moved in its twenty-third week in stores, good for 13 nonconsecutive weeks on top. Still, as Billboard points out, 56,000 is enough to make Stirling’s Shatter Me the strongest debut for an independently distributed album since five months ago when, um, Garth Brooks’ Walmart-exclusive Blame It All On My Roots spent three weeks in the top 2. If a Walmart-issued Garth Brooks album counts as independent, the word truly has lost all meaning.
Other strong debuts include folksy singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne’s Supernova at #3 with 40,000 and Take It All, a live Christian worship album by the Passion collective, at #4 with 30,000; both releases mark three straight top-10 debuts for the respective artists. EDM-oriented pop duo Timeflies sails into the #8 spot with close to 20,000 in sales for sophomore full-length After Hours, while rockers Whitechapel enter at #10 by moving 16,000 copies of Our Endless War. The rest of the top 10 includes Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic (#5), Pharrell’s G I R L (#6), Future’s Honest (#7), and Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party (#9).
As indicated above, we do have a new champion on the Hot 100. But John Legend’s “All Of Me,” which dethroned Pharrell’s “Happy” by the narrowest of margins, might not be long for the top spot if Ariana Grande has anything to say about it. Grande’s Iggy Azalea collab “Problem” became one of the fastest-selling digital singles ever, and it debuted all the way up at #3 on the singles chart, just barely missing a #1 debut. It becomes the highest-charting debut ever by multiple female solo acts, besting the #13 2012 debut for the Madonna/Nicki Minaj/M.I.A. Super Bowl single “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” Azalea’s Charli XCX collab “Fancy” is up to #4 this week, so big week for her too. All this new action in the top 5 means chart mainstays “Dark Horse” (#5), “Talk Dirty” (#6), and “Turn Down For What” (#7) have started their decline. Justin Timberlake’s “Not A Bad Thing” (#8), Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” (#9), and Bastille’s “Pompeii” (#10) round out the top 10. Now here’s Grande awkwardly dancing her way through “Problem” on Ellen, just because.
Shakira – “Dare (La La La)”
Besides magnificent orgasm jam “Empire,” the Dr. Luke-produced opening track “Dare (La La La)” is the best Shakira’s self-titled album has to offer. As a dance-floor track it’s pretty much irresistible even as it openly rips off LMFAO. According to Idolator the video was filmed in Lisbon a full two years ago during the early stages of Shakira’s pregnancy and “Dare” was originally intended to be the album’s lead single before being passed over for the Rihanna duet “Can’t Remember To Forget You.” This would’ve made a much better impression, especially since Rihanna’s presence in the somewhat corny “Can’t Remember” barely even registers. (Bonus Spanish version here.)
Allie X – “BITCH”
The steep decline from “Catch” to “Prime” to this Lana-Del-Rey-goes-witch-house monstrosity is discouraging.
American Hi-Fi – “Allison”
Fun fact: Stacy Jones, longtime drummer and music director for Miley Cyrus, used to drum for Veruca Salt and Letters To Cleo. He is also the lead singer for American Hi-Fi, the mall-punk project responsible for 2001 hit “Flavor Of The Weak” (and three albums after that one, if you can believe it). A fifth album called Blood & Lemonade is on its way this year, and “Allison” is its indistinct lead single. Give me Bangerz over this faceless garbage any day.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Apparently Japanese audiences responded positively to Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video. [Billboard]
- Here’s the hand-drawn picture that inspired Mariah Carey’s ridiculous album title Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse. [Popjustice]
- Monica Lewinsky has corrected a certain lyric from Beyoncé’s “Partition.” [E!]
- The votes are in, but Clay Aiken’s race to be the Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District is still too close to call. [AP]
- And as long as we’re talking politics, Alanis Morissette wrote a campaign theme song for congressional candidate Marianne Williamson. [MarianneForCongress]
- The four covers for Ebony‘s black music issue (featuring Beyoncé, Jay Z, Rihanna, and Kanye West) look exquisite. [The YBF]
- Add Diplo to the list of modern-day movers and shakers Madonna is collaborating with. [Instagram]
- Apparently Kylie Minogue would like to be on Madonna’s list too. [Reddit]
- As for the always-prolific Diplo, he and Avicii each have a hand in the next AlunaGeorge album. [Facebook]
- Michael Jackson wanted *NSYNC’s “Gone” to be a duet between he and Justin Timberlake. [MTV]
- Who’s ready for the Nick Carter/Jordan Knight supergroup Nick & Knight? [EW]
- Jennifer Lopez will become the first woman to win the Icon award at the Billboard Music Awards. [Rap-Up]
- Hilary Duff is working on a comeback album. [Popdust]
- Miley Cyrus wants fans to smoke weed, not cigarettes, at her concerts. [Idolator]
- US customs asked Lily Allen if she was going to be the next Ellie Goulding. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME