John Legend wants his new album, Bigger Love, to give us we what we seem to need right now: moments of optimism in a troubled world.
“The album was written before the world locked down because of the coronavirus and before people were marching in the streets in protest here in the US,” he says during a online listening session.
“But hopefully it can speak to people in this moment of turmoil, uncertainty and fear and can lift them, bring them some love and some joy.”
It is a tall order, but the singer pulls it off with a collection of mostly breezy pop tunes radiating with warmth and positivity.
The National was invited to the online event where Legend played and discussed 13 of the new album's 15 tracks. He also shed light on how his two young children and wife, model and television personality Chrissy Teigen, reacted to some of the new music.
1. 'Ooh Laa'
A vibrant opener that sets the hopeful tone of the album, the song is a summer jam fusing soulful piano with hip-hop beats. “The producer Oak Felder pitched this idea of do-wop meets trap,” Legend says. “He played this beat for me and I wrote the vocal part for it and it became one of my favourite songs on the album. It became natural for it open the album.”
Continuing on the hip-hop bent, Legend samples the stringed intro and spidery riff of Dr Dre's The Next Episode and of a few love letters to his wife Teigen.
"The chorus goes 'action speaks louder than love songs', and this one is really about knowing what it feels like not to live up to the words of your love songs and hopefully try to be a better person," Legend says.
3. 'I Do'
Could this be the next TikTok sensation?
Judging by the reaction of Legend's two young children, daughter Luna, 4, and Miles, 3, it very well could be. Legend says the up-tempo track was a hit in the household.
“My kids love it,” he says. “It’s their favourite song and we have dance parties at home where I play songs from the album and this is one of the songs that they dance and sing along to.”
4. 'One Life'
Another tune that is a hit with his children because it maintains that dance vibe. This sun-kissed number is co-written with RnB cult hero Anderson .Paak. One Life is a paean to optimism with Legend urging us to "taste the joy in every minute."
5. 'Wild' featuring Gary Clarke
It may be his name on the album cover, but a hallmark of Legend's success has always been his collaborative streak.
With Wild, he brings together two disparate artists, the gnarly bluesman Gary Clark Jr and the super poppy English production team TMS for a mighty power ballad fit for an arena.
The best part is that searing guitar solo from Clark Jr. “He is amazing off course,” Legend says. “That guitar solo is absolutely epic.”
6. 'Bigger Love'
From Glory to All of Me, Legend's songs have always appealed to our better qualities. The album's title track, which came with a quarantine inspired home and fan video, is all about embracing our capacity to love and heal.
That message is augmented with a vibrant dance production featuring vocal samples and Afro-Caribbean percussion. Co-written with One Republic’s Ryan Tedder, Legend says the song is home to the album’s key theme: “It's about hope. It's about love. It's about resilience as a humanity and being able to rise above the challenges that we face.”
7. 'U Move, I Move' featuring Jhene Aiko
The track is full of lingering vocals and colourful metaphors, but Legend has always kept love ballads classy.
RnB singer Aiko's sensual contribution will hopefully expose her to the wider audience she deserves. “There is a beautiful energy between the two of us,” Legend says of Aiko. “The harmonies and the interplay between our vocals just work.”
8. 'Favourite Place'
A focused number where everyone in the studio is on top of their game. Legend's vocals are elastic as ever as they weave over stuttering high hats and yearning strings.
Legend attributes a lot of the album's sonic vision to executive producer Raphael Saadiq (Whitney Houston, Mary J Blige and Solange Knowles) who is an acclaimed soul musician in his own right.
“He infused a lot of his flavour to the tracks that we do together,” Legend says. “He plays the bass, guitar and arranges the horn. He adds a lot of ‘oomph’ to the record.”
9. 'Slow Cooker'
This track is an album highlight. While Legend and Teigen have been sharing the occasional culinary tips with fans (check out Legend's Hearty Chili recipe online) this slow jam is not an ode to the kitchen appliance he so loves.
It is, instead, a metaphor to describe the ups and downs of a relationship. Legend’s lyrics read like a recipe for love as he describes a relationship “that’s worth waiting for. Just let it stew some more. Bring out each flavour and spice.”
10. 'Conversations in the Dark'
The song that Teigen loves. Heard before on an episode of the drama This is Us, this track continues Slow Cooker's theme of maintaining a seasoned relationship.
The lyrics here are stark, however, with Legend laying down some of the anguish that comes with a love on the rocks. "I will never change you," he states in the chorus. "I will always want the same you."
The music is similar in that it is paired down and punctured with the occasional stabs of strings.
"It's about romance. It's about intimacy between two people that love each other. And, and it's about that promise to not break one another's heart," Legend says. "When Chrissy heard it and saw the lyric video, she said it was her favourite thing I've done since All of Me. That is a good sign."
11. 'Don’t Walk Away' featuring Koffee
Sorry John, but the guest steals the show here. This sprightly pop-dance hall hybrid is carried by the sheer charisma of Jamaican star Koffee.
“This song will make you feel all the summer feels that you want,” Legend says. And it does.
12. 'Remember Us' featuring Rapsody
Marking the album's powerful closing section, the track is steeped with melancholy nostalgia. Remember Us has a driving rhythm that suits Legend and rising hip-hop star Rapsody, as both go down memory lane recalling joys and paying tribute to inspirational figures recently lost.
“When Rapsody takes it home and sings about some of the people that we lost already like (basketball star) Kobe Bryant and (rapper) Nipsey Hussle and making references that mean a lot to folks of a certain age, that makes me emotional,” Legend says. “I shed a tear almost every time I hear this song.”
13. 'Never Break'
After skipping the following two tracks – I'm Ready, featuring singer Camper and Always – Legend takes us to the epic album closer Never Break. The song recalls his Grammy and Oscar award-winning track Glory in its scope and grandeur, as it moves from solitary piano to symphonic crescendo.
“It closes the album on a note of optimism, hope and resilience,” Legend says of its lyrical themes.“It about the idea that love can get us through tough times. And like I said, this album is kind of about that. I felt like this song would be the perfect ending for the album, given the moment we're living through right now and the need for love to help us get through all these tough challenges together.”