By Jacob Katel
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What can you learn about John Legend in fifteen minutes?
In a short interview with the R&B star, not much. But there's a lot to be gleaned from the first fifteen minutes of Legend's Get Lifted, which is currently lodged in the BillboardTop 10 albums chart.
In classic soul tradition, Get Liftedposits love as the undertow of life, and, concurrently, explores Legend's emotional and thematic range. There is the opening "Prelude," on which he beckons you to "Just relax"; the hit single "Used to Love U"; "Alright," a drawling ragtime number that conveys his lust for a woman "in skin tights"; "She Don't Have to Know," where he induces his mistress to "Go to D.C. and hold hands publicly/All through the streets"; and "Number One," where he and guest MC/producer Kanye West strain to save their relationships. Legend lyrically conveys a postmillennial soul man informed by hip-hop ethics. "Now you can't say I don't love you/Just because I cheat on you," he sings in a light yet ragged voice reminiscent of Bobby Womack as West chops up the Staple Singers' "Let's Do It Again." The storyline, which thematically winds throughout Get Lifted, tracks the peaks and valleys of modern romance.
Legend doesn't discuss what inspired Get Lifted. Instead, he explains his process for writing songs. He cites "Ordinary People" and "She Don't Have to Know" as his particular favorites: "I don't know, but something clicks lyrically in a way that's really special. Like, I was really in a zone writing those songs. The way the story resonates with people, the way people feel it, is just on a slightly higher level than the rest of the songs. But some of my fans will tell you something completely different."
A relative newcomer to much of his audience, John Stephens (who was nicknamed Legend by his friends) has been toiling in the neosoul underground for years. Coming up in Philadelphia in the Nineties, the 24-year-old hustled alongside other artists such as Jill Scott and Musiq, balancing his nighttime sojourns with a nine-year tenure as music and choir director at Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Several independently released CDs, including 2000's John Stephens and a trio of live discs, document the era. "The live albums were very easy to make, because we just did the show, recorded it, mastered it, and put it out," he remembers. "Two of the live albums just captured one night of me performing with my band, and then one of them is me acoustic on the piano, very intimate, at the Knitting Factory in New York. They were just a snapshot of what I was doing that one night, and the energy of the night. It's kind of a cool thing if you want to tap in to where I've been before.
"A lot of my fans are people that would have gone to see me in those places," he says of the steamy cafés and nightclubs he used to perform in. "But I have always wanted my music to reach the underground and mainstream scene."
Legend eventually worked his way into the recording industry through a series of fortuitous contacts. In 2001, he met Kanye West through Devon Harris, a producer and old college friend from the University of Pennsylvania. West had just made his name by landing a few tracks on Jay-Z's Roc La Familia. "He was working on his demo, and I was working on mine. We just helped each other out," he says. As West began getting more and more production assignments, Legend became part of West's crack team of background musicians, playing keyboards on Twista's playful "Overnight Celebrity," delivering background vocals on Alicia Keys's sumptuous "You Don't Know My Name" and Jay-Z's "Encore," and singing the chorus on Slum Village's "Selfish." He acknowledges that his alliance with West was just "professional at first. We just respected each other's work. Then, eventually, we just became friends because we were together so much."
Before their cumulative release last December 28, several of the Get Liftedtracks buzzed through the recording industry via West's mixtapes. In hip-hop culture (and, increasingly, in popular culture as well), the heat a project generates before it even hits the record stores is a decisive factor in its success. Legend's key role in West's The College Dropout(most memorably on the track "Spaceship") and the fact that Get Lifted's release was pushed back throughout the fall of 2004 (even as people who had advance copies leaked them on the Internet) contributed to a fierce word-of-mouth campaign that all but guaranteed Legend's success. "It wouldn't have been possible if I wasn't making good music, if I wasn't talented, and if I wasn't a good artist on my own. But everybody needs connections, and everybody needs to know the right people to make something happen," says Legend.
Legend also says he's taking everything in stride. His busking days are over, but he's still paying dues; on his current tour, Alicia Keys, not he, is the headlining star. "We'll probably do 35, 40 minutes, and try our best to keep the people entertained while they're waiting for Alicia," he says, chuckling. It's not much different from the shows he used to do back in Philly: "Part of it is a 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' kind of thing."