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John Legend, ‘Once Again’ (G.O.O.D. Music/Sony Urban/Columbia)

On his 2004 debut, former R&B session guy John Legend admitted he didn’t have the paper to woo a lady who was in the market for a big baller like Diddy or Jay-Z. Two years later Legend still feels inadequate about the ring of his bling. “Her favorite colors be platinum and gold,” the singer/keyboardist frets on “Stereo.” Dude needn’t worry: Get Lifted sold three million copies worldwide and won Legend the Grammy for Best New Artist. Gold diggers can sleep safely in his arms.

Like Lifted, Once Again offers a mesmerizing blend of canny sample science and Stevie Wonderful live-band R&B. In the opener, “Save Room,” coproduced by the Black Eyed Peas’, Legend explains that “love hurts sometimes when you do it right” over a creamy organ riff swiped from “Stormy” by the Classics IV. Benefactor Kanye West laces “Heaven” with a dusty block-party beat that adds warmth to Legend’s request to “make love like way back in the day.”

Once Again also reveals compelling creative growth, proof that commercial success hasn’t turned Legend into an out-and-out hit-seeker. “Show Me,” the album’s Raphael Saadiq–helmed highlight, is a simmering psych-soul stunner in which this former gospel-choir director asks God why he allows “so much suffering.” There’s nothing cut-rate about it.

Now Hear This: John Legend – “Save Room” REAL PLAYER John Legend – “Heaven” REAL PLAYER

>> Listen to John Legend on Napster