Hubris is a many-splendored thing. Presented the wrong way, it is taken the wrong way, and in the life of commoners, there is no grace in arrogance. But the flimflam of the pop industry depends on iceman composure and lean, certain strides as the foundations for our allegiance. We believe them because they believe in themselves, and then they believe in themselves a little more. It was an unflappable belief in his skills that catapulted Kanye West from fine print to top billing last year, but it was when that belief took on a narcissistic accent that he truly became a star.
One of Kanye’s first high-profile protégés, singer-keyboardist John Legend arrives with a very polished CV (Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys) and a stage name only a Svengali could love. Surveying his debut, Get Lifted, one gets the feeling that that overpowering, almost laughable handle smuggles a person with far less self-importance. If anything, Get Lifted is distinctive for its humility. Rich with sanctified, workmanlike swoops and a chalky, Donny Hathaway-esque croon, Legend’s songs of innocence and experience seem quaint when compared to his contemporaries: The lust is neither antsy nor gross, the swagger is properly proportioned, the episodes of infidelity are betrayed by a gleeful, innocent delivery, and the lone flash of violence registers as little more than an under-the-breath, slurred mutter. He sings like he can’t tell a lie.
Legend’s best songs are honest and bare, upright and confident without seeming moralistic. “Maybe, baby/Puffy, Jay-Z would all be better for you/’Cause all I could do is love you,” Legend glides in the modest gem “Used to Love U.” “Ordinary People” is a brittle, almost schmaltzy piano ballad about everyday lovers who take their cues from movies and fairy tales and metaphors, but who can’t quite compute the difference. It’s this undersized, down-to-earth, choirboy-done-good quality that makes Get Lifted such an evocative success. When he opens the album by crying, “Come on and go with me,” you imagine that Legend actually believes there is something new and good just around the corner. When he congregates the family for the hokey sing-along “It Don’t Have to Change,” you imagine the accompanying montage of satisfied backslaps. And you imagine that rouge of embarrassment the first time he took the stage with the name Legend rather than Stephens.