Given the immodest last name he chose for himself (his real name is John Stephens), neo-soul newcomer John Legend, 26, clearly hopes to go down as one of the R&B greats. To that end he has hooked up with Grammy-nominated rapper-producer Kanye West
, himself no paragon of humility, who tapped Legend as the first artist released on his GOOD (Getting Out Our Dreams) label. And, with West producing four tracks, the singer-songwriter and pianist flies high on Get Lifted
, bringing to mind such bona fide soul legends as Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and Al Green. Legend—who paid his dues as a sought-after keyboardist and background vocalist for such stars as Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"), Jay-Z ("Encore") and Lauryn Hill ("Everything Is Everything") as well as West ("Jesus Walks")—steps up front impressively.
Indeed, this disc's heartfelt highlight, "Ordinary People," demonstrates that he is anything but one of those. With Legend accompanied only by his own lithe piano, he sings about the imperfectness of love in a rich, emotionally raw voice that evokes Hathaway. It's the kind of classic R&B ballad that they just don't make any more. Elsewhere he keeps the honest lyrics flowing over the Latin-tinged groove of "Used to Love U": "Maybe, baby, Puffy or Jay-Z/Would all be better for you/Cuz all I could do was love you." Legend maintains the hip-hop influences at a minimum, only bringing in guest rappers for two cuts: West on the single-worthy "Number One," which samples the Staple Singers' 1975 hit "Let's Do It Again," and Snoop Dogg on the gospel-infused "I Can Change," which, showing off Legend's skills as a former choir director, will truly lift you up.
DOWNLOAD THIS; "Ordinary People"
Be As You Are: Songs from an Old Blue Chair
Sounding as if he is ready to trade in his cowboy boots for flip-flops, Kenny Chesney spends most of Be As You Are
rhapsodizing about the island life. On this misguided follow-up to last year's hit When the Sun Goes Down
, the country star is so obsessed with the Caribbean that he has recorded one of the dumbest songs of all time, "French Kissin' Life," on which he sings about "French kissin' life square in the mouth and sailing out on the sea." Even "She's from Boston" is about a woman who wears a Red Sox cap only to "hide her baby dreads." Trotting along dutifully in Jimmy Buffett's footsteps, Chesney adopts Buffett's feckless, loosey-goosey style so much so that one wonders why he doesn't just go ahead and cover "Margaritaville," "Jamaica Farewell" and "The Banana Boat Song." Chesney's backup band, especially Tommy White on dobro, does everything but bring in palm trees to give him a picturesque background. Pleasant backgrounds can't compensate for empty foregrounds, however. If Chesney wanted to evoke the image of someone strolling idly on a beach, he has succeeded. How musical he sounds may depend on how many margaritas you've had.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Guitars and Tiki Bars"
The Tracks of Tyler Hilton
If you think Tyler Hilton looks and sounds as if he were tailor-made for one of those WB teen dramas, you'd be right: The 21-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist has a recurring role on One Tree Hill
, and his music has been featured on the show. And with his earnest, easy-on-the-ears blend of pop-rock and alt-country—think a younger John Mayer crossed with a more freshly scrubbed Ryan Adams—it's clear from this debut why Hilton is hanging with the WB crowd. Tracks such as the single "When It Comes," with its light, breezy bounce, provide the perfect soundtrack for teen angst and romance. Hilton, who will also appear as the young Elvis Presley in this year's Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line
, excels at country-accented numbers like the plucky ditty "The Letter Song" and the acoustic-guitar-driven ballad "Rolling Home," which showcase the California native's low-key charm and wistful, slightly smoky vocals. Still, all that TRL
appeal can't save a few generic pop-rock cuts, like "Kiss On," that are about as fresh as Dawson's Creek
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Rolling Home"
must be trying to make up for lost time. After not releasing any new recordings for seven years, she returned to the pop scene last October with the Christmas CD Silver & Gold
. The former Miss America follows that up quickly with another holiday-pegged disc, a collection of '70s love songs that arrives just in time for Valentine's Day. Although these classy covers of everyone from Melissa Manchester to the Fifth Dimension can't top the originals, they will hardly snuff the candlelight out of a night of romance. Williams, an underrated singer who never oversells a song, sets a soft, sensual mood with smooth-jazz revamps of the Jackson 5's 1971 hit "Never Can Say Goodbye" and Stevie Wonder's 1979 chestnut "Send One Your Love." And her string-laden version of Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is pretty if predictable. But Williams's tasteful approach can sometimes be a little too bland. She hardly has the soulful firepower to compete with Chaka Khan's original vocal on "Everlasting Love." Two duets produce mixed results: "With You I'm Born Again," with George Benson, generates a gentle warmth, but she and James "D-Train" Williams suck all of the funk out of "I'll Be Good to You."
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Never Can Say"
Our Kind of Soul
Since we first heard them croon "Sara Smile" like two street-corner serenaders in 1975, Hall & Oates have successfully crossed the color lines with their brand of blue-eyed soul. So if any pop duo have earned the right to record an album of classic R&B covers, it's them. Daryl Hall and John Oates find new inspiration in old gems (plus three nicely integrated originals) that are a perfect fit for their patented harmonies and Philly soul-inspired stylings. Appropriately, they pay homage to The Sound of Philadelphia with reverent renditions of the O'Jays' 1978 hit "Use Ta Be My Girl" and Teddy Pendergrass's 1980 slow jam "Love TKO" that show their love for the source material. They also shine on well-chosen covers of the Spinners' "I'll Be Around" and Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Neither One of Us," which brings out lead singer Hall's most affecting vocal. However, their take on Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Babe" shows that not every song is meant to be remade.
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Love TKO"
Who Killed the Zutons?
The Zutons' single "Pressure Point," a cool brew of Doors-esque rock and New Orleans funk, is featured in the Levi's 505 commercial where the dog chases a woman up a tree to retrieve her boyfriend's jeans. There's more than a savvy marketing tie-in, though, to this coed quintet from Liverpool, England. On their groovy debut, the Zutons update '60s psychedelia with a futuristic spaciness that brings to mind the Jetsons on acid. The result is art rock that is never pretentious but playful on tracks like the infectious stomper "You Will You Won't" and the cleverly titled "Havana Gang Brawl."
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Pressure Point"
Mario: R&B heartthrob Mario (full name: Mario Barrett) recently hit No. 1 with his single "Let Me Love You," off the 18-year-old Baltimore native's sophomore CD, Turning Point
ON BEING COMPARED TO USHER It is a great compliment because he's led the way for artists like myself. I can remember when I was 11 or 12, listening to him and watching his videos and thinking, "Wow, I wish I had that."
ON HIS VOICE CHANGING That is the reason that we didn't do a lot of songs we had planned for this new album. It was scary. I thought I was losing my voice.
ON CUTTING OFF HIS BRAIDS It was hard, but it was a part of me growing up. I sacrificed my hair. Actually, I saved all my hair in a little Ziploc bag.
ON HIS FEMALE FANS
The No. 1 question [I get asked] is, "Do you have a girlfriend?" And then, "Can you take me to the prom?" I am single right now. I've dated fans—I love my fans. I took one girl to her prom.
ON LINDSAY LOHAN
VS. HILARY DUFF Lindsay Lohan
. I love her eyes and those freckles. I just want to grab her little cheeks and kiss them.
For information on where to find our Download This picks, go to www.people.com/downloadthis or AOL (Keyword: People)
- Chuck Arnold,
- Ralph Novak,
- Kwala Mandel.