“My legacy is important to me… I didn’t accept the boundaries of childhood. You have to understand
that when you’re in the mode of a new artist you’re just trying to prove to people that you belong... I've proven that now...”
It’s time to face the ugly truth. Romance on the radio has, for the most part, been tossed aside for unmentionables in a box. “We may have all cracked up at Justin Timberlake’s hilarious music video parody on Saturday Night Live,” but it was more of a nervous laugh-to-keep-from-crying type of thing. Deep down we know that R&B is careening down a slippery slope paved with strippers, booty-smacking and questionable singing abilities. True soul singers are being overshadowed by thinly disguised rappers trying to hold notes over slick, over-produced tracks. And John Legend is pissed off about it.
“I’m so not feeling that general direction,” Legend says to explain his solo mission to save R&B from itself. “People rap-singing has led to the separation of melody from R&B, which is really unfortunate. I’m not in the same lane. I’m trying to create something transcendent, something that inspires people.” At the very least, Legend is hoping to bring a little beauty to your speakers with timeless love songs that won’t make your poor grandmother’s head explode.
Today, however, he is just hoping to stay awake. He’s on the last leg of his three-week European tour and is gearing up for a performance in Manchester, England. It’s a struggle to keep the sleepiness out of his voice. “I don’t get to see many sights on this tour,” Legend says. “It’s pretty much constant work and travel.” In a few days, though, he’ll be off to Springfield, Ohio, to spend time with his family. Then he’ll head to New York before going back on the road.
Legend takes me back to the freshness of, Get Lifted. “The album was young and fresh, but with an ancient spirit.” There’s no brash party track and no clever wordplay from Kanye. It’s simply an organic blend of live instrumentation, gospel, soul and heartfelt songwriting. And as good as it is, it’s hard to see where an album like this belongs in the current landscape. “It was a challenge trying to figure out where to market Once Again because it doesn’t fit neatly in different categories. You have to have eclectic tastes to appreciate it — not everyone gets it.” Whereas the multi-platinum Get Lifted was the album of 2004, earning the singer three Grammys and heavy rotation everywhere from top-market radio stations to your local hair salon — Once Again enjoyed a quieter (albeit loving) reception. “The trap I try not to get into is to write for a program director,” insists Legend. “I wasn’t worried about how it was received commercially. The only way I would be worried is if I didn’t believe in the music. And I really believe in this music.”
That type of resolve isn’t surprising considering the facts of Legend’s life so far. As a precocious little boy growing up in the Midwest, John Stephens had an innate gift for music and an insatiable need to learn. “I didn’t accept the boundaries of childhood,” he says. “I was reading biographies of civil rights leaders and presidents when I was really young. I think I always wanted to be grown.” Words like “prodigy” were thrown around when it came to young John, who started playing the piano at age four and was singing church solos by the time he was six. “He could really blow,” says his mother, Phyllis Stephens, who home schooled Legend until he entered the second grade. “There was nothing ordinary about Johnny. When he first started attending school, his test scores showed that he read at a sixth grade level. He was always surrounded by books and music.”
When he packed up and moved out at sixteen to attend The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, John already knew he wanted to be an entertainer. Knowing how to get there was another story. While in his junior year, a woman who sang in the choir he was directing introduced him to her childhood friend Lauryn Hill. That same night the English major was in the studio playing piano on Everything is Everything, a song from 1998’s otherworldly hit The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. “I definitely got a lot of shine on campus after that cause, hey, it was the biggest album out,” Legend remembers with a chuckle. “My claim to fame was that I played on track 13.”
Armed with a newfound swagger, John, along with his roommate Devon Harris and Harris’ cousin Kanye West, set out to build a house of their own. After five years as a session musician and collaborating with other singers (including Alicia Keys on You Don’t Know My Name,) John was signed by Kanye in 2003. And that’s when the Legend began. He knew he made it when, right after Get Lifted came out, “Magic Johnson and Oprah Winfrey both requested to speak to me on the phone,” he says. “That was a pretty surreal day.”
Everyone else was just as taken with Legend as Lady O and Magic. There was something irresistible about the album’s energy, attitude and sexiness. Legend took the ensuing fame in stride, although he admits that the “abnormal and unrealistic amounts of power and control can be intoxicating.” Detractors tried to write him off as pompous and too big for his britches, but Legend believes those people didn’t understand his position. “I’ve never had a rep of being arrogant among people who really know me,” he says. “But sometimes I would say things that were really confident, like, ‘I really think that album was good,’ or ‘I’m proud of this album.’ I’d say things championing my project. You have to understand that when you’re in the mode of a new artist you’re just trying to prove to people that you belong, that you should have a deal. You have to go in there with confidence saying, yes, I have music that’s important, music that’s relevant.”
The question on which Legend’s musical future hinges is determining who dictates what is relevant and what is not. Is it the gatekeepers of radio with their limited capacity to think beyond trends? Or is it closer to what would exist in an ideal world, where it all comes down to what the people want? It appears to be the latter, the proof being that regardless of race, gender or age, millions of folks can’t get enough of Legend. “I travel around the world. I sing in English, but people who don’t speak the same language are able to get it, understand it and love it. I believe that if you do music right it doesn’t have to have the boundaries that we place around it.” So he’ll continue to, as he says, “Dream it and let it happen,” with his new label, Home School Records. He’ll develop and release musicians who share his sense of artistic freedom and passion, remembering that at the end of the day what matters is the quality of the work he creates.
“My legacy is important to me,” Legend admits. “It’s not just in the back of my mind, it’s pretty forward. In the same way that I listen to a Stevie Wonder or Beatles album and it still sounds important and fresh, I want my music to feel like that in the future.” Perhaps that’s the best way to keep himself (and his unmentionables) out of a box.