In 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 for me."
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."
John 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."
Relationship 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."
"Show Me," 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.'"
John Legend (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.
In 1998, John got his first taste of success, playing piano on "Everything is Everything," off Lauryn 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
, 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.
Three years 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."
Listen to John Legend's new single, "Save Room":
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