John Legend - He Is Legend
Despite suffering a sophomore album slump, John Legend is back turning heads with his third LP Evolver, taking his sound to a decidedly more upbeat place. 3D’s Cyclone talked to the man who despite his assumed surname, remains humble in the face of success.
With D'Angelo battling his obsessive perfectionism, and Lauryn Hill retreating into eccentricity, John Legend is carrying the neo-soul torch.
The singer/songwriter, aligned with Kanye West's GOOD Music, is back with his third album, Evolver. Legend's debut, Get Lifted, was granted a huge push in Australia when even West was yet to breakthrough. But, inexplicably, the Grammy winner's follow-up, Once Again, was neglected. Fortunately, the powers that be at his Australian label have deemed Evolver worthy of promotion.
Legend isn't so much of an artiste as to ignore the practicalities of the music biz. This time the muso recorded more by way of radio-friendly up-tempos, although he maintains that it wasn't necessarily conscious. Still, the snazzy single Green Light, featuring OutKast's Andre 3000, sounds like nothing else. Green Light is also atypical lyrically for the romantic and socially conscious Legend, the supposed anti-playa delivering the immortal lines, “Do I have a girlfriend- Technically, no.”
Legend's songwriting isn't always a firsthand account of his life and times. “I think it's a myth that you have to write every song from personal experience,” he says. “All it takes is some creativity and a sense of empathy and also just an understanding of human nature.”
At any rate, Evolver is Legend's most varied LP. He felt more “relaxed” in approaching it than he did Once Again. “Each album has a different feel. The first album was a hip hop soul album, the second album was more like a classic soul or classic pop album, with a little bit of hip hop, but not as much, and this album is combining elements of both, but putting a new twist on it - making it a little more electronic, a little more upbeat.”
Born John Stephens, Legend may have assumed a presumptuous handle, but he's gracious, modest and, in person, shy. While exhausted from back-to-back interviews in Hong Kong, he doesn't complain.
Coming from Ohio, Legend was playing piano in childhood. His musicality found an outlet in church as he joined the choir. He'd fantasise about stardom.
Ironically, Legend worked as a sessionist on Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation Of... Years on, he impressed West with his own retro-nuevo soul. Legend assisted the Chi-towner on The College Dropout. They remain tight. “Kanye's very helpful to me, because he critiques me honestly,” Legend says.
West styles himself as the scholastic underachiever, but Legend is Ivy League-educated. He majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania, developing a love of Irish modernist James Joyce. However, Legend's interests today lie not in literature, but politics. He's reading Chalmers Johnson's Blowback: The Costs And Consequences Of American Empire. In August Legend performed at the Democratic National Convention and he openly admires Barack Obama. “I feel like my major would have been history or politics if I had chosen now.”
And, in 2008, Legend, like West, is building up a label - HomeSchool Records. He's already resurrected Estelle's career. Legend is thrilled to hear that American Boy is ubiquitous Down Under. “Good, I helped write it!” he laughs. And the American praises his British protégé. “Estelle is her own best ambassador. She's a great performer, [she] has a lot of charisma, and she's a great writer. She has such a unique singing voice that really stands out on the radio.”
WHO: John Legend
WHAT: Evolver through Sony BMG
WHEN: Out now