2004, John Legend (then known primarily as an in-demand all-star
studio session man) stepped into the solo spotlight as a premier
singer-songwriter-pianist-performer in his own right with his debut
album Get Lifted. Driven in part by the hit singles "Ordinary
People" and "Used To Love U," Get Lifted was a critical
and commercial triumph, earning John an astounding eight Grammy
nominations -- he won Best New Artist, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance
("Ordinary People") and Best R&B album -- and selling
more than three million copies worldwide.
For most performers,
achievements of that magnitude would be the culmination of a dream.
For John Legend, however, awards and sales are merely fringe benefits.
His real goal and gift is to tap into something honest and true
within his audience and himself and to connect on that level. When
asked what he hopes his fans will glean from his much-anticipated
sophomore album, John replies, "I want them to hear that I've
grown. That I'm trying to take them to new places and to be excited
about that. This album is an expansion more than anything else.
I'm trying to be me and embrace all the parts of me that have grown
up, listened to more music and soaked up more influences. Get Lifted
was me then. This is me now."
John's new album, is many things, chief among them, it's a pop/soul
album fueled by intelligence, intuition, sensuality, spirit and
a creativity made possible when you're in tune with yourself. Helping
John expand his horizons is an eclectic team which includes Raphael
Saadiq, Kanye West, Craig Street and will.i.am, who brought the
lead single, "Save Room," to John. Breezy and sexy, "Save
Room" is a joyful, cool love song, inspired by an old AM radio
single, "Stormy," by the Classics IV (a 60's Top 40 band
best-known for "Spooky"). As John recalls, "will
brought the sample. I didn't even know the original. I just knew
it was a nice organ sound and wanted to write to it. I just started
mumbling along to it, finding my place in the melody and it worked
Laced with a
somewhat more dramatic flair is the mid-tempo "Where Did My
Baby Go." Says John, "It was one of the only songs written
before I began recording this album, and was in my head for a long
time. I didn't know what I was going to do with it because at the
time it didn't sound like anything I'd done before. It ended up
fitting perfectly because I ended up writing more stuff in that
direction so it became a precursor to where I was going this time."
takes a somewhat political perspective on the stately "Coming
Home," which he says is "about a soldier who wants to
come back to his family and his uncertainty about being away and
whether or not he might die. It's subtle but it still manages to
speak to some important issues about life and death, war and peace."
ups and downs are the subject of the swaying Kanye West-produced
"Heaven Only Knows." "It's a song that just came
together in a natural effortless way, which is how Kanye and I work,"
John explains. "He played me a sample and a drum loop, and
I started writing around it." Legend recorded 30 tracks, including
four with Kanye, for his new album. Two of the West-produced tracks
made the final track list, with West also serving as co-Executive
Producer of the album. "On a creative counsel level,"
John says, "I benefit from his taste and judgment."
which John cites as one of his favorites, is hushed, haunting and
deliberately ambiguous. Co-produced by Raphael Saadiq and Craig
Street (Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Cassandra Wilson), "Show
Me" was, according to John, "intended to be about God,
but I also wanted it to have the feel of a romantic song as well.
But while I could have done what I usually do and write about a
relationship, this felt like such a spiritual song. I've never sung
or recorded my voice like that. When I'm with a girl and I have
a song in my head I kind of whisper it in her ear, like an intimate
whisper. That's how I did the vocal for this song."
Even more so
than he did on Get Lifted, John went boldly in his own creative
direction on Once Again, opting to write, not from a marketing standpoint,
but from his heart and soul and personal experience. "I listen
to a lot of music," he says about the preparation for the album.
"The producers I work with -- like Kanye, will & Craig
-- listen to a lot more and we just brainstorm and don't limit it
to what 's going on in urban music right now. I didn't wanna put
a box around it. You make music, try and make it as good as you
possibly can, trust the people around you and hope and pray that
what you really love is something a lot of other people will also
love. With Get Lifted, we managed to make a strong record that people
related to. We succeeded because it was distinctive and touched
a chord. So I figured, 'Let me just keep making music that's really
good and that touches people. Music that they can feel, which has
some beauty to it and that transcends what the marketers are gonna
tell you, and we'll figure out a way to get it to people.'"
(nee Stephens) grew up in Ohio, surrounded by every musical influence
from gospel to hip-hop. While attending the University of Pennsylvania
(where he majored in English), Legend found time to make his own
music, whether it was recording his own albums, performing at talent
shows and open mics, or directing the choir at a local church. In
fact just months before he began work on Get Lifted, Legend finally
ended a nine-year tenure as music and choir director at Bethel A.M.E.
Church in northeastern Pennsylvania.
1998, John got his first taste of success, playing piano on "Everything
is Everything," off Lauryn's Hill's multiple-Grammy winning
album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. He also honed his chops
touring throughout the East Coast, opening up for bigger R&B
acts, and recording and selling several live concert albums. In
2001, a college roommate introduced John to the then up-and-coming
producer/artist Kanye West. By 2002, Legend was part of West's creative
team, appearing on albums by Talib Kweli, Common, Mary J Blige and
on West's 2004 breakthrough The College Dropout. That same year
John lent his vocal talent to Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know
My Name" and appeared on Jay-Z's acclaimed Black Album.
In late 2003,
Legend became the first artist signed to Kanye's KonMan Entertainment
(later renamed Getting Out Our Dreams) with a deal with Columbia
Records followed in May 2004. Preloaded with pre-release buzz, Get
Lifted debuted at #7 on the Billboard Top 200 and #1 on the R&B
Album chart the week of its release three days after Christmas 2004.
ago, John Legend was a highly regarded session musician. Today he's
an artist who proves that, even in an age of expediency and crass
commercialism, real talent not only still matters but will be acknowledged.
When asked how success has affected him, John replies, "I think
I'm happier, not just because of winning Grammys and selling records,
but because it's really fulfilling to have all these things happen
with something you love to do. To have the chance to see your music
be elevated and to have almost universally positive response to
that music, makes me feel better every day. I feel more confident
and inspired, and that's fun. I'm feeling truly creative and I'm
hoping that feeling will stay around, because my hope and belief
is that most people are down to grow and explore with me."