Hypnotic keyboard work, richly organic production, and a sexy though at times plaintive voice put John Legend squarely in residence in the house Stevie Wonder built. Songs such as "Ordinary People," "Refugee (When It's Cold Outside)," and "It Don't Have to Change" are among the most addictive and satisfying R&B songs of the past decade. Throughout his platinum-selling debut album, Get Lifted, Legend manages to blend into the hip-hop production of frequent collaborator Kanye West without being overwhelmed by it.
But there's something else very much on the mind of Get Lifted: Legend's wandering eye. "She Don't Have to Know" is addressed to a hesitant coconspirator, "Number One" is an earnest attempt to justify the singer's philandering to his girl, and several other songs hint at episodes of infidelity. Apollo Kid recently caught up with one of R&B's brightest new stars to get the inside scoop on his irrepressible libido, how he feels about all of those Wonder comparisons, and his recent comments about Hurricane Katrina.
Did your girl get mad at you when she first heard the album?
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[Laughs] I've been through a few different girls in the past few years, and I don't think any one of them knows who I'm talking about on any individual song. But I get confronted about it all the time from exes to new girls who I talk with now. Girls that I'm just meeting for the first time are always telling me, "You seem like a nice guy, but on your album you talk about cheating all the time." They are a little bit wary. They're especially wary of song "Number One," where I say that you can't say that I don't love you just because I cheated on you. They hate that.
My girl looks at me kind of cross-eyed whenever I play that song in front of her.
Yeah, but the thing is that when I play that song at my shows, the girls are all singing along to every lyric. It's funny.
Who's your ideal auxiliary girlfriend?
She has to be discreet of course. Sometimes people cheat because they're looking for something else that they don't have in a relationship. Other times you cheat because it's hard to just limit yourself to one person. You're attracted to other girls, naturally. A lot of times girls think that it's their fault and they messed up, but it's not. Two is better than one for a lot of guys ... but really, it's not a situation that's meant to last long. One of them is going to fall off eventually. And it could be that you end up leaving your girlfriend because you figure out you can't be faithful, or you figure out that you want to be faithful and you cut the other off. But it doesn't last.
Do you have any hints for those who aren't as sly about how to sneak around without getting caught?
Man, my life is much more conducive for that kind of activity. I'm in a different city every night. There's plenty opportunity to do it and not get caught. I have an unfair advantage, you might say.
All right, on a more serious note, I realize it's maybe a little unfair to throw artists such as you and Alicia Keys in the same category, but I think you are in the same ballpark.
Yeah, I'd agree with that. That's fine.
There seems to be a lot of renewed interest in classic, roots soul music.
I wouldn't argue that there is any sort of resurrection really. There's a couple of us that are making it work, but in general the radio is dominated by other sounds such as crunk.
On a recent Star and Buckwild radio show with Stevie Wonder, Star made some comments about how you sound a little too much like Stevie. How do you respond to critics who say you merely recycle retro sounds?
I would take it as a compliment if someone said that I sound like Stevie. I am influenced by him, and you clearly hear his music in mine. And if someone's worst criticism of me is that I sound too much like Stevie, then I think I'm in pretty good shape.
There's been a lot of noise about the essay you posted on your Website concerning Hurricane Katrina. You said that "Bush governs like he cares only about the interests of the rich and powerful. His strategy has clearly been to keep his fervent base (the rich and the cultural conservatives) motivated." Why did you feel it necessary to step up and speak out?
So many people kept on asking me if I had something to say, especially knowing that Kanye and I were friends. And I decided that I'd put it on my site and let everyone know what I thought. And it gave me a chance to crystallize my thought process. As you know, Katrina has been on everybody's mind. And I was in Europe at the time, and even there everybody was talking about it.
A lot of people from the urban music world really stepped up. Of course Kanye did his thing, David Banner started the Heal the Hood foundation, and you even saw people like The Game make significant contributions.
Yeah, we saw so many of our people suffering. It was devastating. It was heartbreaking. And it was horrible to see the ineptitude of our government at this time. They should have done much better.
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Do you think this charity and heightened social consciousness is something that's going to continue, or is this just a one-off thing?
Who knows? A lot of times people's attention spans are short. For instance, the issue of poverty has faded off people's radar pretty quickly. People are back to business as usual. They're not holding our legislature accountable, and I'm concerned that it's going to fall by the wayside. It won't for me. I think about it a lot these days, and I'm going to continue to put my charitable resources towards that.
Do you think you'll address any of these issues in your next album?
I do not know. When I write, I don't have a program. It's more whatever comes to me. I can't predict. I have started writing the next album, and I'm feeling good about it. I'm a stronger songwriter and a better musician than I was [when I recorded Get Lifted].