On paper, John Legend and Kane Brown couldn’t be any different. The first up is an EGOT whose quavering vocals and romantic, interpersonal lyrics have made him the toast of present-day soul. The other is an open-throated country singer with issue-oriented tracts and a hip-hop lean. What unites each man, however, is that both have always sounded older than their respective ages, more mature than their contemporaries, and avoiding anything too trend-conscious, or out of their reach. They’re old souls.
But on their respective new releases that came out Friday, Brown’s “Different Man” and the semi-eponymous “Legend,” these two stars manage to change their respective highways’ lanes a bit while remaining somewhat on their usual paths.
John Legend’s new album marks a change in more than just its music. Since 2004’s “Get Lifted,” and through 2020’s “Bigger Love,” the pianist-composer-singer was with Columbia Records. With “Legend,” he’s moved over to Republic, and gone for something way more ostentatious than his usual offerings: a double album that trades on the potency of his epic-sounding last name IN BIG BOLD LETTERS. Bathed in brighter production values and upped tempos than on his usual amniotic-bath tones, the expanse of “Legend” allows the vocalist to do something he rarely does: play around and have a laugh.
With the album broken into two acts, one sensual and free, the other stable and home-bound, Legend’s theater of R&B includes more guest rappers than usual – old pal Rick Ross on the boozy “Rounds,” throaty new friend JID on the awkward “Dope,” Saweetie on the salty “All She Wanna Do.” More feel-good than feel-bad, Legend sounds as if he’s having a fine time throughout the rubbery soul of “Guy Like Me,” while enveloping himself in the water-sporty grooves of “Splash.” While his wriggly “Waterslide” isn’t exactly pop, it’s not not pop, a kit bag Legend rarely reaches into.
Lest it seems as if your favorite smooth and stalwart operator has lost himself in the pleasure, prickle and expanse of “Legend,” think again. The woozy, tender duet with current Grammy goddess Jazmine Sullivan that is “Love,” and the wealth of smart, lover-man song dedicated to being a one-gal-guy that is all of Act II, is fine vintage John. New tracks such as “Wonder Woman,” the jazzy “Honey” (featuring Muni Long, and one of the album’s best cuts) and “I Don’t Love U Like I Used To” bring the listener back to Legend’s usual earthen tones and his earliest Columbia albums’ swooning. But for the most part, he has gone for a more-is-more aesthetic, and mostly nailed the jump.
Brown’s “Different Man” also has an ever-so-bold, sunnier tone, perhaps due to the fact that the vocalist has co-produced this, his third studio album. There’s also something woodsy and organic as to how Brown approaches his mixed-bag sound, more so than on past albums. If the fact that he had a platinum single last year collaborating with Blackbear leads you to expect his new album will veer more in that direction, he’s actually drifting further into a pure-country lane, instead.
Yes, Brown’s “Grand” could pass for an up-tempo Drake cut, with its less-is-more chord shifts, its sultry, clipped delivery and its synth-phonic arrangements. It’s a reminder that Brown has certainly never shied away from R&B swishes and hip-hop twitches in his past. But this time out, on “Different Man,” roaming into rap’s path is more of the exception than its norm, as Brown is more dedicated to presenting his Chattanooga-born, country-gospel-Southern-rocking musical roots and homespun lyricism than anything radical.
Along with finding a folksy setting in which to duet with his wife, Katelyn, on the cozy, sanctified “Thank God,” Brown takes Blake Shelton for a roots-music hayride on “Different Man,” feasts upon blues-rock muscularity on “Grand” (co-written with Mike Posner) and settles into loopy country grooves on cuts such as “One Mississippi,” “Drunk or Dreamin'” and the sly and wily “Whiskey Sour.”
While Brown has touched on socially conscious issues before, any sense of his home state being in the news recently is far away on the album’s bookend-ers, the holy-rolling, Dann Huff-produced “Bury Me in Georgia” and the warm embrace of “Dear Georgia,” where the vocalist and lyricist goes for love and reminiscence. Only “Riot,” with its lyrics dedicated to grabbing torches, starting fires, telling lies and defending his home, touch on anything forcefully political without getting specific as to the case of his ire. “Different Man” is soft on the socially astute or any tinges of a hip-hop vibe and goes still deeper into Brown’s country sounds and old-school values.