With his own brand of hip-hop soul, John Legend aims to make R&B cool again

By Russell Hall

ven as a child John Legend always knew exactly what he wanted. “I’d watch Star Search and imagine one day meeting Ed McMahon, and getting four stars,” he chuckles. “Shows like American Idol and The X Factor probably have the same effect on kids today—the belief that you can get discovered, and out of nowhere your talent can suddenly take you from being unknown to famous.”

Fame indeed came to Legend, though it was hardly sudden. Born John Roger Stephens, Legend grew up in Springfield, Ohio, playing piano by 4 and writing songs by 11. Gospel choirs and his working-class parents’ R&B records forged his earliest influences. “I had a pretty religious upbringing,” he says. “A lot of my life was centered on the church. My family upheld a lot of traditional values.”

An academic whiz, Legend graduated high school at 16 and was offered multiple scholarships to top-tier universities, including Harvard and Georgetown. He selected the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in English—but Legend also gained notice at the Ivy League school leading a campus a cappella group and playing shows in Philadelphia. An appearance on Lauryn Hill’s 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill marked a high point. After graduation the following year, Legend landed a position with a prestigious Boston-based management consulting firm—but he never let go of his dream to pursue music. “Every day I felt my big break was just around the corner,” he says. “I always figured my first year as a management consultant would be my last, but I ended up doing it for three years.”

Legend’s big break came in 2001, when a friend introduced him to Kanye West. A relative newcomer himself, West recognized Legend’s talent and signed him to his G.O.O.D. label, and quickly employed him on a range of studio projects. Singing, playing and occasionally writing for the likes of Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Slum Village, Legend proved a quick study. “I’m better because I work with Kanye,” he says. “We have different areas of strength and different sensibilities that overlap—we complement each other really, really well.”

Those combined talents propelled Legend’s debut 2004 release Get Lifted, and he soon took the R&B world by storm. Selling nearly
3 million copies worldwide, the album earned the artist multiple Grammys—including Best New Artist, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and Best R&B Album. Legend’s 2006 follow-up Once Again drew further acclaim, reaching platinum status and scoring another Grammy for the Top 40 single “Heaven.” Next came 2008’s Evolver followed by 2010’s Wake Up!, a collaboration with the Roots that featured covers of socially conscious soul nuggets from the 1960s and ’70s. The latter record netted Legend three more Grammys—including Best R&B Album.

Love in the Future, Legend’s latest, puts a modern spin on classic soul traditions. The album was inspired in part by Legend’s new wife, Chrissy Teigen. “When we settled on a theme for the album—being in love—it made sense,” he explains. “The record is about starting a new love and beginning something you feel optimistic about.”

A broader aim was to restore classic R&B to a preeminent place in popular music—albeit within a contemporary sonic context. “I wanted everything to be spacious, big and modern,” Legend notes, “but not too cluttered. We wanted the focus to be on my voice. My voice—and the way I write songs—is soulful, but we didn’t want to sound like we were trying to re-create a Marvin Gaye album from 30 years ago. We wanted to capture some of that essence, but for a new era.”

An array of producers, including 88-Keys, Q-Tip, Hit-Boy, Darhyl Camper and Malay, were assembled to help with the project. Still, says Legend, co-executive producers West and Dave Tozer—who were instrumental to his first three albums—were firmly at the helm. “I’m just comfortable working with those guys,” he says. “We understand each other—I trust their tastes and know their strengths and weaknesses. That said, there were also a variety of producers I hadn’t worked with before. It’s a good balance of the familiar and the new.” Legend spoke with us about his creative process, handling success, and the music that shaped his artistry.


What was your goal for the album?

To answer a question: What’s the place of soul music in the modern era, an era in which R&B music seems to be marginalized a bit? We wanted to reassert how important soul music can be and do something fresh with it. Once you have that as a mission statement, you evaluate your musical choices within that context.


How do you make those choices?

A lot has to do with whom you work and what instruments you decide to put on a song. Also, how you arrange songs. How do I make a new soul album that feels fresh but preserves that classic style of music we love so much?


How did you select the material? 

First, you want all the songs to be among your best. And then you focus on creating the right feel. Some good songs might not make the album simply because they don’t have the right feel. The focus is on quality but also on cohesiveness and preserving a certain overall tone. I made the final decisions about the song sequence, and Kanye gave me great advice on choosing the right songs.


What else does Kanye bring to the table?

He has great taste and a great sonic ear, particularly for drum sounds. He also works with a lot of amazing producers and collaborators, so he brings all those connections to bear. His input was crucial.

Has your creative relationship evolved?

It’s been pretty constant. Kanye was more involved than ever with this album. He’s grown as a curator of great talent—and he’s gotten better at drawing upon various producers, bringing together different collaborators. After we had rough drafts of the arrangements, Kanye brought in a bunch of producers to help finish them. In some instances the arrangements were completely rebooted, where they sounded totally different from how they sounded before.


Are you comfortable with that change?

I’m very open to it. It’s exciting to bring new ears into the process. Someone may take a song in a completely different direction. That happened with a few songs. “You and I” is a good example. I had Malay do that. I said, “Can you add some flavor to this? I don’t feel like it’s in the right place.” I was thinking mainly of the drum track, but he ended up redoing a lot of it, and I love where he went with it. I didn’t expect it, but it turned out magical.


Did the Wake Up! album have an impact?

One aspect that was influential was how I started singing in a way that was richer and more powerful. The style of the material we covered on Wake Up! inspired that approach. Once I unlocked that, it made me want to do more of it. I’ve continued to do that on this album. I think these two albums are my best, from a vocal standpoint.


What’s your songwriting process?

It usually starts with the music. Sometimes I write on piano, other times I might sit with a guitarist and we’ll come up with the music together. And sometimes I’ll work directly with a producer. In hip-hop and R&B, particularly, producers often make instrumental tracks that don’t yet have a melody or vocal part. They just think, “This sounds great—it could be a cool record if we get the right top line.” And then I’ll come in and write that.


Which method do you prefer?

They all work well. It’s good to have a variety of approaches, or at least it is for me. If it’s just me sitting at the piano, a lot of things tend to become ballads, and I don’t want a whole album of them. When I work with producers who have ready-made beats and instrumentals, it pushes me to get outside my ballad zone.

Which artists influence your songwriting?

No one else has influenced me nearly as much as Stevie Wonder. But I also think back to singers and songs I heard growing up—Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. I love classic songs from a time when the standards were pop. Those songs are melody-driven and have a certain classicism when it comes to lyrics. Though I do things that are more contemporary, I like to write lyrics that are timeless. Listening to those classics makes me mindful of what that means.


Did you start out emulating singers?

Earlier on I tried to sing like Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Nat King Cole. Marvin Gaye also had a big influence, as did Nina Simone. Jeff Buckley has since become one of my favorite singers.


What were your strengths coming up?

Everyone seemed to love my voice. They felt it was powerful and soulful. They also thought I was a good songwriter. Those are the things I think I do best. Also, that I played piano made me very useful to someone like Kanye, who’s a producer but doesn’t really play. He had me do all sorts of things—play piano on various tracks, add vocal harmonies, arrange background vocals. Meanwhile I was writing a lot of the songs that ended up on my first album. I was pursuing a solo career even as I was getting these side gigs, doing session work.


Ever become discouraged?

No. I was getting encouraging signs along the way, encountering people who believed in me and were excited to work with me. In 2001 I got my first lawyer, and he introduced me to my first big manager—David Sonenberg, who had managed the Fugees and Wyclef Jean. That was a big step. Not long after that I met Kanye and started working with him—another big step. Working with Kanye opened a lot more doors, getting me in the room with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and other artists. I always felt a record deal was just around the corner, although it took longer than I expected.

Did Get Lifted’s success surprise you?

What was interesting was that I had seen the same thing happen to Kanye the year before, so it didn’t surprise me in any way. His first album came out in February 2004. I was on the road with him during that time, and witnessed firsthand his ascension, so it didn’t feel that exotic when it happened to me. Actually it was liberating and empowering. Suddenly I had the power to control my destiny. I had the public’s attention and felt free to make music I believed in.


How did success affect your family dynamic?

First of all, they’re proud and excited for you. But it does make things a bit complicated. When you come from a family that doesn’t have much money—and most of my extended family doesn’t—it becomes a bit stressful. You get all sorts of requests, not just from close family but also from family you didn’t even know, and from friends of family. You have to learn how to say no without letting it take a huge psychic toll.


Which do you enjoy most—writing, recording or performing?

I love writing—few things are more satisfying than finishing a song. But I can’t divorce that from live performance, performing is the final payoff. There’s nothing better than singing something like “All of Me” onstage and hearing the crowd sing along. I also love putting together a set list. It’s fun rehearsing and coming up with ideas for transitions.


What’s next?

A stripped-down tour. We just finished a full-band tour with a big production, and in the middle of the show we stripped it down to four songs where I just played by myself. I want to do a full tour that way—not completely solo, but close to it and completely unplugged. I saw how much the fans enjoyed that.  M


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