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R&B

The Legend grows

November 3, 2008
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John Legend

Evolver (Columbia)

ESSENTIAL "Everybody Knows"

Laid-back soul stylist John Legend decided to make his evolution a team effort on his near-great third release, enlisting famous friends for vocal cameos and production assists.

Andre 3000 adds a playful rhyme to the toe-tapping opener, "Greenlight," a slice of fizzy, uptempo synth lines and handclaps. Brandy provides pitch-perfect harmonic complement to the urgent "let's get busy now!!" jam "Quickly." Briefly swiping T-Pain's Auto-Tune, Legend benefactor Kanye West spices up "It's Over," rhyming over heavy, bouncing beats. And Estelle bolsters the breezy, reggae-ified "No Other Love."

On some contemporary R&B albums, the disparate gifts of numerous special guests drown out the host's central personality. But here each partner enhances Legend's overall sense of cozy seduction.

He's no slouch flying solo either. He opens up expressively on the spacious piano pop ballad "This Time" and makes a persuasive case for the transformation of platonic love to the romantic variety on "Cross the Line."

Legend also manages the impressive feat of exploring more electronic sounds without undercutting the essential warmth of his voice or sounding like he's aping anyone in particular.

Yet the singer-songwriter could benefit from both a little judicious editing - dropping a couple of ho-hum numbers - and tightening up his craft - elevating the lyrics of the "inspirational" closer "If You're Out There" to the level of the melody. But as the title suggests, Legend is a work-in-progress, and this stage in his evolution is worth hearing. (Out now) - SARAH RODMAN

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