Legend in fall: Singer got lifted by Kanye, now soars

November 5, 2006


  • John Legend made his first auspicious appearance on a Chicago stage in February 2004, duplicating the keyboard and backing vocal parts he performed on the debut album by his friend Kanye West, which had been released a week earlier.

    "I remember that night really well," Legend recently said of that show at the House of Blues. "It was something special, playing with Kanye in his hometown, celebrating the release of 'The College Dropout.' "

    But that was only the first in series of high points in the months that followed: By early 2005, Legend would be a major star in his own right, having sold almost 2 million copies of his debut, "Get Lifted," and snaring three Grammys, including Best New Artist.

    Now, with his second album, "Once Again," the 27-year-old singer and songwriter is sealing his reputation as one of the most talented new voices in R&B, and he's returning to Chicago fronting his own nine-piece band and headlining at the Riviera Theatre on Thursday.

    "It's been a heck of a ride," Legend said with a laugh. "And Chicago feels like family. If I'm not a favorite son, well, at least I'm a second cousin."

    Start as session piano man
    Born John Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, the musician can be forgiven for choosing such a boastful stage name, since he seemed destined for success early on: He graduated from his high school as the salutatorian at 16 and served as both prom king and president of the student council. While studying African-American literature at the University of Pennsylvania, he served as the music director at a local church, and wound up befriending some impressive members of Philly's burgeoning neo-soul movement, including a former Fugee who tapped him to play piano on her 1998 hit, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." But it was another fortuitous meeting that led to his big break.

    "I met Kanye in 2001 in New York City; he had just moved out here, and his cousin, Devon Harris, went to college with me and was my roommate in New York at the time," Legend said. "It's a very small world. Kanye wasn't famous yet: He was still a young producer trying to make it, and I met him before his big break came when Jay-Z used his song as the first single on 'The Blueprint.' After that, he really became an in-demand producer, and he was able to use his position to get me work. He would bring me in to play piano on the records he was producing for other people."

    Legend joined West in the studio to contribute to albums by Talib Kweli, Common and Mary J. Blige, among others. In between, the keyboardist helped the producer with his own project. "At the time, it was just a demo, because Kanye didn't have a record deal as an artist yet. But that demo became 'The College Dropout,' and I was singing on those tracks back when he was still recording in his apartment in Newark, N.J. We met back then and we just kept working together, and obviously, he blew up, and he was able to bring me with him."

    Compared to R&B greats
    If Legend benefitted from the spotlight West shone on him, he was more than ready to seize the moment. With its old-school emphasis on live instrumentation, lushly crafted melodies and lyrics that were more about romance than sexual conquests, "Get Lifted" seemed like a breath of fresh air on an R&B scene dominated by stale synthesized sounds and raunchy, pandering seductions. Critics compared him to soul greats Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, and record buyers were just as enthusiastic.

    "It's an honor to hear those kinds of comparisons, and I'm absolutely flattered, but I don't let it go to my head too much," Legend said. "I know that my career can't be compared to Stevie's anytime soon, just because I'm only two albums into it. I have a lot of dues to pay before I can really be compared to Stevie or Marvin. The best thing [about the success of 'Get Lifted'] is it makes you believe that good music can sell. There's still a lot of mediocre music that sells, but at least it makes you know that if you do something that is really quality music, it can actually sell."

    Expectations were high for "Once Again," but Legend denied that he felt the pressure while writing and recording. "I wasn't trying to live up to reviews; I wasn't trying to live up to Grammys; I wasn't thinking about all of those things when I was writing the album. For me, the writing process was very much a creative, artistic process: It was really about the music, and I was just trying to make the best songs I could make."

    For inspiration, the artist listened to the R&B greats critics were comparing him to, as well as surprising favorites such as indie-rock heroes Jeff Buckley and Sufjan Stevens and pop great Tony Bennett. "When I think about music, all those genres and classifications and even eras, the divisions between them are very blurry to me," he said. "I don't really see any divisions; I really feel like they're all the same thing -- they're all music. When I write and arrange my music, I'm always subconsciously referencing all those different elements, so when people try to put my music in a box, it always frustrates me, because I don't think of music in boxes like that.

    "Every day, I would go to the studio with the producers, and we didn't have any rules about where we were going to go with the music; we just tried to come up with something that we would be excited about -- something special. That was the only aim, and I figured if we did that, the minimum would be that we would do as well as 'Get Lifted' creatively. As long as we did that, I felt like everything else would come together."

    Poetry and melody trump all
    If some of Legend's new songs can veer toward the saccharine -- witness "Each Day Gets Better" and "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)" -- the beauty of both the lyrics and the melodies is undeniable in others such as "Stereo," "Save Room" and "Show Me." The latter is particularly striking as a song that is partly a bedroom confession to a lover and partly a prayer to a higher power. "Maybe we'll talk / Some other night," Legend sings. "Right now, I'll take it easy / Won't spent my time / Waiting to die / Enjoy the life I'm living."

    "When it feels right to me, when I feel proud of every line in the song, when I don't feel like I'm getting bored or I didn't say the right thing or I took the easy way out on the lyrics -- that's when I know I've written a good song. Some things just sound so beautiful that it seems transcendent to me, and 'Show Me' is one of the songs that feels like that. ...

    " 'Show Me' really just came in one burst -- a night, or maybe a night and a half. You can't overthink these things, and you know from the basic groove and the basic chorus whether or not the song is right. That's the beginning. If it doesn't have those things, then it's not going to be a great song, no matter how profound the lyrics are or whatever else. With 'Show Me,' as soon as I got that, then I knew it was going to feel good."

    And how much of his material comes from personal experience?

    "It's not autobiographical all the time -- there are elements of autobiography, and there are some elements that I just choose to make up or incorporate from books and movies or whatever, just like any fiction writer might do," Legend said. "But it's always my sensibility, my perspective, and the way that I would say things. In that sense, it's always me."

    Legend: Other R&B sounds juvenile, 'silly'
    As outspoken and occasionally controversial in interviews as his friend Kanye West, John Legend hasn't hesitated to offer his opinions on the state of R&B, taking his peers to task for a lack of creativity in their music and a pervasive disrespect toward women in their lyrics.

    "I hate what's on the radio right now," Legend said in a recent interview with the New York Daily News. "So I've put my bet on being different."

    I asked him to expound on these and other comments.

  • "I'm just stating the obvious: If you listen to the radio, the stuff that's getting a lot of airplay, most of it sounds juvenile to me," Legend said. "It sounds like a 12-year-old wrote it, and if I'm in an interview and people ask me about it, I have to say that.

    "The thing is, the fans don't really appreciate that music that much, because if you look at record sales, they're terrible this year. That shows you that it's not just on a critical level; it's on a commercial level. This music isn't actually doing very well; so we have to figure out, with all of these pressures like the Internet and illegal downloading, what makes people actually want to buy an album anymore. And I'll tell you, the silliness is not selling albums or concert tickets. It might sell you a ring tone, but that's about it."


  • When Legend talks about the "silliness" in R&B, it's hard not to think of recent hits such as R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet," I noted.

    "I won't comment specifically on different artists, but I will say that one of the main issues with R&B right now is that because hip-hop is so dominant, it's hard for people to make a truly authentic, soulful record without catering to some of the kind of disposability that hip-hop sometimes has. I love hip-hop, and a lot of my favorite artists are rappers, but I think what happens with R&B singers who try to be rappers is that they end up sounding silly. That's an issue in R&B that, because hip-hop is so dominant on black radio, everybody is trying to contrive their connection to hip-hop, and R&B singers do that by erasing melody from their songwriting and trying to talk like a thug in their songs when they're not really a thug. That's what passes for R&B these days.

    "Now, I don't mind when people talk about things that aren't so nice to talk about. I don't mind when people talk about murder, like Biggie [Smalls] did, because he did it so eloquently. I'm not just talking about subject matter, but the actual artistry that went into the record. I feel like Biggie put a lot of artistry into being a gangster, and he did it so well, you can't hate on that, no matter who you are or what you think about it. But I think the problem in soul music right now is that there is very little artistry."


  • And what about his attitude toward women? Is he trying to make a statement about the difference between "sexy" and "sexist"?

    "The thing is, if I sang disrespectfully to women, it would just come across as inauthentic for me, because it's just not the way I talk about women, and it's not the way I feel. I just try to be honest in my records. Even when I say things that not everybody might agree with, at least I'm being honest, and it comes off as authentic. For me, everybody else can talk the way they want to, but it just wouldn't ring true if I tried to talk down to women or disrespect women in my songs, so I'm just not going to do it."