Photography by sry85.

Photography by sry85.

When it comes to smooth, mature soul music, John Legend is the man to beat. The protege of Kanye West, Legend (born John Stephens) has amassed strong sales, five Grammy Awards and critical kudos for his first couple of albums, Get Lifted and Once Again. He’s become known as the R&B singer you can take home to mom, a piano man in the mold of Lionel Richie and Brian McKnight. However, he’s also got a more pronounced hip-hop vibe and a wink-nudge, sly sexuality that’s a refreshing change from the crassness found in most R&B and hip-hop lyrics these days..

Legend’s third album, Evolver, has been talked about as a departure. The spacy 80s synths of the bouncy first single Green Light certainly isn’t what you’d normally expect for the buttoned-up crooner, but a rap from the irrepressible Andre 3000 and the fun groove makes the song swing.. With Evolver finally in stores and online, two questions need to be asked. 1) Is the entire album a departure for John Legend, and 2) Can he make it work?

The answer to the first question? A little. Legend’s no stranger to hip-hop grooves, but Evolver is certainly more danceable in parts than what you’d usually expect from Legend. However, as you’d expect, Evolver’s best songs are the ballads. The Trevor Horn-produced This Time has to be one of the best songs Legend’s ever written and performed, with a majestic, cinematic quality. The other spectacular ballad is If You’re Out There, a political-tinged “up with people”-type song that Legend performed for Barack Obama at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

The remainder of Evolver manages to successfully incorporate a few different styles while staying true to John Legend’s sound. Highlights include the dramatic Brandy duet Quickly, where the former teen diva and the piano man somewhat improbably prove to be a good matchup. There’s also a couple of reggae-flavored tunes that suggest Legend has gotten the island fever. No Other Love is a grooving, melodic jam with a quick cameo by Legend discovery Estelle (of American Boy fame), while Take Me Away finds Legend handing his pen over to another songwriter for the only time on Evolver. No surprise that the songwriter is current “it” man Ne-Yo. However, the song’s feel is decidedly unlike most of Ne-Yo’s other material, and as much as I like the music of both men, I don’t think John Legend would sound very good singing a stereotypical Ne-Yo song.

The great thing about John Legend is that he brings out the best in collaborators who are talented but don’t always put out satisfying work. Black Eyed Pea has turned out to be a great songwriting partner, and the three songs he’s written here are strong enough to forgive My Humps (but not Fergalicious). The best of that bunch is the almost-rock ballad I Love, You Love, which makes skillful use of a Dire Straits sample. The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams also delivers a winner with It’s Over. The signature horns from Grandmaster Flash’s Freedom are tastefully woven into this midtempo banger, and it’s enough to excuse the album’s low point-a half-assed rap cameo from Kanye West, who really, really needs to put the Auto-Tune machine away.

Evolver is certainly one of the better R&B albums of 2008, and Legend goes a long way towards proving himself as a jack of all trades. This more electronic, less organic version of John Legend is more or less as enjoyable as the balladeer stuck behind the piano. So I guess that answers question #2, doesn’t it?