There's a retro movement in R&B these days, loverboys such as Bruno Mars and Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and Frank Ocean dipping into the smooth, soulful '60s and '70s for inspiration. It's proved pop-smart, profitable.
And now here comes the new John Legend record, the epic baby-makin' music of Love in the Future, a mood-setter co-produced with a startling calm by, among others, Kanye West. Legend, however, is a retroist with a twist. He's not trying to sound like Marvin Gaye or Barry White at all; he's not into biting styles, although he'll throw a sepia-toned sample in now and then.
His talent, his vibe is innately, seductively old-school anyway, maybe more than any R&B star today. This is how they did it back in the day, baby. He takes his time, his gorgeous, if curiously weathered, croon always in the front of a mix that would rather get the point across than overload with trickery. He doesn't want to fight or provoke; Legend wants to kiss you all over, girl.
Thanks to her social-media addiction, her smartaleck wit and her looks, Chrissy Teigen, Legend's supermodel fiancee, has become a star herself since her man's last album, 2010's Wake Up!, a socially conscious collaboration with the Roots. Their hush-hush wedding should go down any day now. As a result, this album is naturally, essentially about her, which makes it even more of a romantic powder keg.
A few special guests show up on Love in the Future, including rapper Rick Ross, in an amusing Lothario role, on head-nod first single Who Do We Think We Are. Neo-soulster Seal appears on We Loved It, which can only be found on the album's deluxe edition but is well worth the cash if only to hear those incandescent voices intertwine.
For the most part, though, this is purely Legend's show, and his voice is a marvel. He's from Ohio, but there's an island lilt in there among the whiskey smoke, a combination that has helped him nab nine Grammy Awards so far. This album doesn't know when to quit, but credit Legend for keeping you hooked.
Just listen to the piano ballad All of Me, a sorta-sequel to his hit Ordinary People. This doozy is headed for wedding-song status, and Legend, who comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall Nov. 4, delivers the weeper with a restrained elegance. "You're my end and my beginning / Even when I lose, I'm winning." It keeps coming: "How many times do I have to tell you / Even when you're crying you're beautiful, too." Are you writing this down, boys? Legend's doing you a favor.
As for Kanye, he's crazy but he's smart. He may need Auto Tune to sing, but Legend sure doesn't. So he creates open spaces for that voice. On The Beginning..., 'Ye loops a chilly Sara Bareilles piano line, adds a few beats and lets Legend take care of the rest. The producer gets more rambunctious on the steam-drill drive of Made to Love, but the album is so lush, and occasionally close to nodding off to dreamland, it needs a fun get-down track here and there. Legend might be the only person on the planet who can truly soothe Kanye West. That's not just seduction skills, gang. That's supernatural.