NEW YORK (Billboard) - Sitting on a couch in the New York offices of Columbia Records, John Legend is surrounded by walls displaying framed portraits of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. It’s an appropriate setting for Legend, whose 2004 debut, “Get Lifted,” was a collection of urban-tinged midtempo songs, and whose “Once Again” in 2006 featured ‘60s-inspired tracks with lush instrumentation.
But as he spoons out Celestial Seasonings tea from a small white cup, Legend, sporting a V-neck T-shirt, dark jeans and high-top sneakers, looks anything but retro. And the music on “Evolver,” his album slated for release October 28, is anything but nostalgic.
“This album doesn’t sound like me,” he said. “The tempo is faster than I’ve done before. It will be different for people, because ‘Evolver’ has a bit more instrumentation than I’ve used before. But it’s not like you won’t recognize the artist — it’s still me.”
After selling more than 3 million records in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, Legend is banking that fans will embrace his new sound.
From its bouncy introduction, it’s clear that Legend’s first single, “Green Light,” which features Andre 3000 (of OutKast), isn’t in his traditional style. The track boasts a galactic spin with electronic keys and shooting-star sound effects over a quick two-step drum beat.
“Good Morning,” in which the singer begs a lover for one last roll in the hay before she starts her morning commute, is Legend’s favorite “Evolver” cut. An instrumental of the track opens the album, and the full cut closes it.
“My songs are always about love and devotion,” Legend said. “ ‘Good Morning’ is about sex more explicitly than I’ve written about before. Sooner or later I had to go R. Kelly on my fans ... without going all the way.”
Legend has been busy on nonmusical fronts as well. He recently returned from Africa, where his nonprofit organization Show Me is working to stabilize several villages in Tanzania. “I just got back from a cluster of villages called the Mbola cluster,” Legend said. “We were able to see new buildings, the school’s increased attendance, an increase in crops from this last year to this year as well as new health centers.”
As for his musical transition, Legend is taking it in stride. Call his new smooth sound electronic or pop — just don’t call it adult contemporary.
“I hate that term,” Legend said. “That’s likening my music to the Kenny G’s of the world — just because it’s mellow and adult-friendly doesn’t mean it’s like that. ‘Once Again’ was romantic and nostalgic. I feel like I’m having more fun on ‘Evolver.’”