The Week In Pop

John Legend Made A More Interesting Album Than He Had To

The cognitive dissonance is strong. “The Edge” is a 1967 instrumental by David McCallum, the Scottish actor who once starred in the ’60s spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and who for nearly two decades has played Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard (yes that is really the character’s name) on NCIS. It sounds like a grand, shadowy introduction, like a secret agent crash landing on enemy territory and brushing off his shoulders before getting down to business, like a bomb dropping, smoke clearing, and the world snapping back life. If you know this particular noir-ish easy listening jazz-funk track — and chances are very high that you do — it’s probably because Dr. Dre sampled it on his massively popular 2001 track “The Next Episode.”

“The Edge” was produced by David Axelrod, a favorite among crate-raiding hip-hop producers. It has been sampled so many times that I am stunned we never ran a Breaks With Tradition column about it. Yet that sample is so thoroughly intertwined with Dre, Snoop, and Kurupt in my mind that hearing anyone else’s voice over it is disorienting — especially when the voice belongs to John Legend, and the music immediately pivots into one of the gospel-inflected adult-contemporary tracks Legend made his name on.

“Actions” is the second track and second single from Bigger Love, Legend’s first non-Christmas album in four years, which saw release last week on Juneteenth. He and his collaborators on the track — producer Warren “Oak” Felder and a fleet of cowriters including Cautious Clay and Sebastian Kole — intended the sample as a direct callback to “The Next Episode.” Legend even reflects back Snoop’s “la-da-da-da-da” in his own smooth, soulful style. But it’s also a flashback to a few years later, when Legend was first breaking through. In a track-by-track interview with Apple Music, Legend said the lyrics hearken back to the era of his 2004 debut album Get Lifted, when “I was writing all these romantic ballads but also being pretty messy and not, you know, living up to them.” Over a churchy chord progression that works in that percussive funk guitar figure from “The Edge,” he repeats the refrain, “Actions speak louder than love songs.”

It works better than it probably should. Like all things John Legend, “Actions” is overly sanitized and a little bit corny, but his voice remains a formidable instrument, and it tends to reach the peak of its power when cut with a hip-hop edge. Bigger Love benefits from that juxtaposition quite often. Oak, one half of the famed duo Pop & Oak, pulls a similar trick on opening track “Ooh Laa,” matching “shoo-bop shoo-bop” backing vocals from the Flamingos’ classic “I Only Have Eyes For You” with trap 808s. “Come and get me wasted,” Legend beckons, before rattling off a set of sexual instructions reminiscent of Ariana Grande’s “Sweetener”: “Smack it, flip it, rub it down/ To the sound of ooh-laa.” He stretches out each of those last two syllables out to a fleeting infinity, floating in his falsetto range the same way time slows down when LeBron takes flight toward the basket. That one works pretty well too.

In that same Apple interview, Legend said “Ooh Laa” helped him identify a thematic core of “vintage sounds with a modern sensibility… big… joyful… classic but contemporary at the same time.” That is essentially boilerplate copy where John Legend is concerned, and yet Bigger Love finds interesting corners within the template. Working with executive producer Raphael Saadiq, the R&B sophisticate who also helmed his A Legendary Christmas album in 2018, Legend zeroed in on that retro-meets-modern vibe. He summoned a battalion of talents including Rapsody, Charlie Puth, Gary Clark Jr., Anderson .Paak, Ryan Tedder, Tayla Parx, Julia Michaels, Koffee, Jhené Aiko, Teddy Geiger, Ricky Reed, Mr. Hudson, and more. They came away with an album safe enough not to alienate any of his less adventurous fans but far more engaging than John Legend skeptics would expect.

In recent years Legend has emerged as both a formidable presence in the celebrity sphere (thanks to his Extremely Online family life with Chrissy Teigen and their kids) and a reliable mouthpiece for progressive political causes — a star who can calmly and reasonably unpack, for instance, the movement to defund the police, on the same platform he uses for playful marital barbs about his love of Ohio State football. Legend’s music hasn’t always exhibited the homespun charm and forward-thinking ethos of his Twitter feed. “All Of Me,” his biggest song ever, is pure sentimental schlock, albeit highly effective sentimental schlock. Last year he joined The Voice as a coach, which made sense because he tends to gravitate toward that show’s saccharine comfort zone.

Legend is clearly gifted, and the thought of him turning himself loose on an art-damaged experimental album is enticing. Because such a left turn is not likely forthcoming, Bigger Love may be the best-case scenario for this moment in Legend’s career. The production is resplendent, be it the orchestral flourishes and tinkling lounge piano of the neo-soul slow-burn “Remember Us” alongside Rapsody or the stadium-ready hugeness of the booming, spacious, guitar-powered Gary Clark Jr. collab “Wild.” Worlds collide subtly but effectively, like when the brisk lite-funk jam “I Do,” cowritten by Puth, begins with a quick nod to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” or when Aiko’s misty R&B balladry blurs into Legend’s more polished and cinematic stylings on the phenomenal “U Move, I Move.” He reminds us how good he can be at conjuring the sound and feel of an old Marvin Gaye song on “I’m Ready” (cowritten by Tayla Parx) and pulls off what amounts to sing-rapping on symphonic trap-pop exercise “Favorite Place” (cowritten by Julia Michaels).

Every time a flavorless slog like lead single “Conversations In The Dark” slows the momentum, Bigger Love veers off into some other surprising direction. Even “Never Break,” the album’s grand finale, is more artful than your average inspirational power ballad. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it really is intended as a compliment. John Legend made a much richer, more fascinating album than he had to. Bigger Love is essentially the network-primetime version of a superstar prestige album. What could have been the musical equivalent to NCIS is instead more like This Is Us or Black-ish, stylish comfort food a cut above others in the same field. It’s a show worth tuning in to if you’ve ever enjoyed a John Legend song in the past. And if not? Just chill ’til the next episode.

CHART WATCH

Tekashi 6ix9ine has the #1 song in America. The controversial New York rapper debuts atop Billboard’s Hot 100 this week with “TROLLZ,” his new collaboration with Nicki Minaj, less than three months after being released from prison. “TROLLZ” is 6ix9ine’s first #1 song and Minaj’s second. She picked up her first just six weeks ago by hopping on a remix of Doja Cat’s “Say So.” So after going a full decade in the spotlight without hitting #1, Minaj has now done it twice in under two months by teaming with a frequenter of racist chat rooms and a convicted sex offender. This world is crazy.

According to Billboard, with 116,000 units sold, “TROLLZ” boasts the best one-week sales figure since Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie’s “ME!” in May 2019. It’s one of only 40 songs to debut at #1 in Hot 100 history, but already the fifth such debut this year — a new record for most #1 debuts in a year, and we’re not even halfway through 2020 yet. Furthermore, “TROLLZ” is the seventh straight collab to hit #1 and the first #1 on an independent label since XXXTentacion’s “Sad!” posthumously topped the Hot 100 in June 2018.

DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” descends to #2, followed by another big debut, Lil Baby’s protest song “The Bigger Picture,” at #3. It’s Baby’s highest-charting song to date, surpassing the #4-peaking Gunna collab “Drip Too Hard.” Per Billboard, this is only the fifth time two songs have debuted in the top three. The rest of the top 10: Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage,” the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions,” SAINt JHN’s “Roses,” Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me,” and Roddy Ricch’s “The Box.”

For the second week in a row, no new albums debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. Per Billboard, this hasn’t happened outside the post-Christmas lull since March 2013. Lil Baby’s My Turn continues to fill the vacuum created by a lack of splashy album drops. The late February release returned to #1 last week, more than three months later, and it now spends a third week atop the chart on the strength of 72,000 equivalent album units, 71,000 of them via streaming. The rest of the top 10 comprises releases from Lady Gaga, DaBaby, Post Malone, Drake, Future, Gunna, Lil Uzi Vert, Polo G, and the Weeknd.

POP FIVE

Beyoncé – “Black Parade”
This gets better with every listen. Those horns! That beat! The flute! “Trust me, they gon’ need an army/ Rubber bullets bouncin’ off me.”

BTS – “Stay Gold”
One of the most immaculately produced, intuitively catchy BTS singles to date. It’s not really my speed, but the execution is undeniable.

Victoria Monét – “Experience” (Feat. Khalid & SG Lewis)
Love to hear Khalid on a beat with some oomph to it! Victoria Monét and SG Lewis are going places! Exclamation points all around!

Usher – “California” (Feat. Tyga)
I like Songland but it’s a little disheartening how limp the winning songs tend to be.

Ashe & Niall Horan – “Moral Of The Story (Remix)”
When a song that’s been out for more than a year gets a new remix with a known star, you know there must be some serious promotional muscle behind the artist in question. At least in this case the invisible hand is pushing something with some character.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Pharrell joined Governor Ralph Northam to announce that Juneteenth is now a state holiday in Virginia. [Pilot]
  • Meanwhile Usher penned a Washington Post op-ed about why it’s important to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. [WaPo]
  • Nicki Minaj congratulated Lil Nas X for finally coming out as a Barb. [Vulture]
  • In other Lil Nas X news, he and King Princess join Jane Fonda to star in the campaign for Gucci’s “Off The Grid” sustainable fashion line. [YouTube]
  • Billboard profiled TikTok influencers-turned-musical tastemakers Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae. [Billboard]
  • Janelle Monáe is the guest on today’s WTF With Marc Maron. [WTF]
  • Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Quavo, J Balvin, Shakira, and others will perform at Global Citizen’s Global Goal: Unite For Our Future – The Concert on Saturday. [Global Citizen]
  • A Selena Gomez x Trevor Daniel x DJ Snake collab seems to be on the way. [Twitter]
  • Twenty One Pilots released a “never ending music video” for their quarantine single “Level Of Concern.” [YouTube]
  • Louis Bell was named Songwriter Of The Year at the ASCAP Pop Music Awards. [ASCAP]
  • J Balvin launched a Colores-inspired GUESS collection. [V Magazine]
  • Cardi B got a bunch of painful looking new piercings. [Instagram]
  • Meanwhile Post Malone got a tattoo of a skull on his skull. [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME