John Legend is an anachronism. Married to a former swimsuit model, a sometime actor (‘La La Land’) and longtime fixture on the Billboard charts, he should have either exploded in a burst of celebrity scandal or faded away like so much famous dust long ago. Instead, he persists, and not even in the way that you wish he would just go away. Instead, since 2004’s ‘Get Lifted’ – breathtakingly, an album that was released 13 years ago – he has managed to install himself, his brand of educated RnB and, more recently, his relationship with his wife, in the glowing, untouchable depths of public consciousness. Especially in this era of celebrity malfeasance, Legend seems to exist in a parallel universe in which his music, personality and lifestyle choices are almost uniquely beyond reproach. ‘Penthouse Floor’, a song from last year’s ‘Darkness and Light’, speaks volumes about how just how he’s managed to stay up there, above it all, all these years.
‘Penthouse Floor’ is a simple song, executed to memorable effect. It’s four components consist of a bass line, some synthetic drums, a light brush with piano chords and, naturally, Legend crooning over the top of it all. So much of Legend’s appeal lies in that voice, effortlessly emotional, seemingly constantly on the edge of breakdown, and the way it is layered, often over gospel-style harmonies evocative of his upbringing in the world of choir music. But more than that, it’s his ability to render the basic profound that has endeared Legend to scores, now generations, of fans. ‘Ordinary People‘ famously did this, with serious impact. ‘Penthouse Floor’ is maybe even better, though, for its subtlety. That funky bass line, the ebb and flow of Legend’s mellifluous vocals, even Chance’s appearance, all give the initial impression that this is going to be a typical, suave but not too serious John Legend track.
To be sure, John Legend has done conscious RnB before. Most recently and memorably, he collaborated with one of the OGs of the movement, Common, to win a Grammy for the Selma-assisting ‘Glory‘. But where ‘Glory’ wore its (historical) political message on its sleeve, ‘Penthouse Floor’ is swathed in just enough gloss, just enough tuxedo shmickness, that it’s easy to miss the subtext. At first glance, this is more of hip-hop’s obsession with frippery; the penthouse floor is just the architectural synonym for automotive’s Maybach, cognac’s Hennessy. But Legend is smarter than that, and more cunning to boot. He dresses up the track with all the trappings of typical RnB decadence to throw us off the scent of the themes of upward mobility, protest and social change. Talented, intelligent and not embroiled in the muck that usually envelops celebrity, Legend toils quietly but forcefully on the margins, with impressive results.
John Legend – Penthouse Floor Ft. Chance The Rapper