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John Legend
John Legend performs live on stage at the Intimate Evening event with Grammy Winner John Legend on March 2, 2006 at 20 Pine in New York City. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
CD REVIEW

Legend gets closer on 'Once Again'

Perhaps people were fooled by the name.

When John Legend released his 2004 debut "Get Lifted" he was immediately thrust onto the neo-soul throne by listeners and critics more for what he represented than what he did. Here was a young, positive, well-educated black man making clean, accessible R&B, not hip-hop. It didn't hurt that he was being coronated by red hot rapper-producer Kanye West.

It was an easy call: You sing, you play piano, you've got soul, you're classy? You're the male Alicia Keys, kid. Here, have some Grammys.

The problem was that "Get Lifted" -- like Keys's equally lauded debut -- was more a showcase of his potential than a true masterpiece. The tempos dragged a little too much, the influences were a little too naked, and the hip-hop tics a little too intrusive.

On his sophomore release "Once Again," in stores today, the man born John Stephens begins to live up to both his adopted surname and his Best New Artist Grammy hype.

Like its predecessor, the new album is a pillowy, laid-back affair. But "Once Again" improves on that set by showcasing Legend's developing assets as a melody writer, a synthesizer of varied influences, and, of course, as a singer. His brushed corduroy voice is even more dynamic here, and he wisely reins in the sample-happy instincts of co-producers like West and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas in favor of an organic style that favors live musicians.

Still, you can hear everyone from Marvin Gaye to Jeff Buckley to Sting in Legend's sensual murmur. Smokey Robinson, Steely Dan, and Burt Bacharach haunt his polished, gently swinging soul-jazz arrangements.

The intimate ballad "Show Me" recalls the gentler side of Jimi Hendrix -- think "Little Wing," not "Purple Haze." "Each Day Gets Better" is a joyful tale of burgeoning romance lifted by an irresistible conga line and Legend's ambling piano licks. "Slow Dance," with its tantalizing blues guitar sass, should inspire plenty of sexy pas de deux by listeners, both on dance floors and in private.

Unfortunately the stylish way in which Legend presents himself is occasionally undercut by what he's actually saying.

In the melancholy lament "Where Did My Baby Go," Legend sings with believable wistfulness and confusion over an icy piano line. But even though he doesn't know where his baby went, listeners will be well aware where the lyrics are going after the first verse: "friend" rhymes with "again," "there" with "fair," and so on.

These lyrical banalities stand out mainly because Legend demonstrates flair elsewhere. The Latin-flavored "Maxine" cleverly twists a mistaken identity premise, while the frothy lite-funk of "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)" persuasively contends that getting caught in flagrante, al fresco is an adventure everyone should have.

"Once Again" could use a little more of that spunk but on balance, this set of songs bring s Legend closer to the artist you know he wants to and can be.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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