As the most popular male romantic balladeer of his generation, John Legend has often seemed like a throwback to a more universal era of pop superstardom — before harsh division and hashtag individualism, when love (and a perfect melody) was all you needed. In a way, Legend done for R&B what his friend Chris Martin has done for rock. He’s the master of the elegant piano bear hug, lifting us up with songs like his recent hit “Conversations in the Dark,” in which he promises he will never try to change you, and always love the same you, as if devotion can halt history itself.
It can’t, of course, and Legend knows that too; he’s become a prominent -liberal voice on Twitter, cleverly and passionately savaging Trump and drawing speculation that he might run for public office, perhaps bringing his music’s big-tent humanism to politics.
Bigger Love, his seventh album, shows off the emerging subtlety of his musical craft and social messaging. Legend does romantic Sturm und Drang with a light touch. Check the way “Ooh Laa” weaves together an interpolation of the Flamingos’ ever–ready doo-wop classic “I Only Have Eyes for You” and some quaking hip-hop bass as Legend drops frisky lines about how he’s going to “smack it, flip it,” while still sounding like a gentleman. “Remember Us” is a smooth homage to Al Green, with a guest verse from socially conscience Southern rapper Rapsody that lovingly mentions Kobe, Nipsey, and Biggie, transforming tragic history into tender memory. “Don’t Walk Away” is an urgent plea for prebreakup salvation with a hot guest spot from rising reggae singer Koffee.
Legend said that he thinks recent events will make Bigger Love feel “more relevant.” Indeed, its beatifically slick title track, shimmying along like one of Drake’s bright, island-scented hits, is an ode to staying upbeat even if “the world feels like it’s crumblin’.” An even more self-aware moment comes on the single “Actions,” in which Legend sings, “Actions speak louder than … love songs,” as if he might be questioning the very efficacy of mass-market valentines in a world on fire.
The desire to reach for a higher love comes through most powerfully on the LP’s closing track: “Never Break,” an epic piano ballad that prays for solidarity against impossible odds. He’s singing about marriage, but as his voice lifts and the strings swell and the lyrics evoke waters rising and “a foundation stronger than the pain,” you can almost hear it soundtracking an MSNBC montage of inspiring 2020 footage — health care workers on the front lines, protesters kneeling with cops, voters in socially distant lines at the polls, a burdened America with its chin up, grasping a future as hopeful, sane, and generous as the man who’s singing this song.