There are a number of words to describe contemporary mainstream r&b, but “elegant,” “mature,” “breezy,” and “sophisticated” aren’t usually among them. Luckily, they apply to John Legend’s subtle follow-up to 2005’s Grammy-winning, multiplatinum Get Lifted. At 28, Legend writes the type of songs that old people (which for the sake of this argument is anyone over 40) bemoan that “they” don’t write anymore. Consider the piano-driven ballad “Again.” Sparsely produced by Craig Street, it articulates the anguish of succumbing to desire; like a gnawing feeling keeping you awake, that sentiment picks up again four tracks later on the jazzier, more upbeat, Kanye West–produced “Another Again.” Like the rest of Once Again, those tunes might get a little sappy, but they’re thankfully devoid of the machismo that passes for modern r&b romance. That lack of aggression causes Legend, with his creamy vocals and airy ’60s pop flourishes (think Bacharach or the Fifth Dimension), to be painted with a soft brush. Fine. If being soft means not waxing on about waxing her ass, then Legend’s as limp as a wet noodle.
The single is the jaunty, “Stormy”-sampling, finger-popping “Save Room.” Produced by Will.I.Am (way smarter than his Black Eyed Peas output indicates), it’s resplendent with backup vocals so pert and girly you can hear the bouffants bouncing. That may be the hit, but the CD’s soul is “Show Me.” Produced by the damn-near-flawless Raphael Saadiq in conjunction with Street, it’s a haunting prayer to a higher power: probably God, but like Al Green’s “Belle,” just as likely a force more sexual than sacred. His voice reduced to a whisper, Legend is weak in the presence of that power, as halting basslines, fuzzy unfiltered guitar chords, strings, and a melody that burns like a fever dream coax him along. If loving you/Him/her is wrong, Legend clearly doesn’t want to be right.