Things haven’t been going too badly for John Legend since he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999.
For three years, the singer and pianist from Springfield, Ohio - whose real name is John Stephens - worked as a management consultant in New York and Boston while eyeing a music career by playing gigs in such Philadelphia clubs as North by Northwest and the Five Spot.
With the help of another ambitious young man named Kanye West, Legend put out his gospel- and hip-hop-inflected debut, “Get Lifted,” in 2004. That earned him a best new artist Grammy in 2006, and he followed it up that year with the vintage soul platter “Once Again.”
This year, Legend’s “Live From Philadelphia” came out as a Target-only release. And he also headlined Philadelphia’s 4th of July celebration on a sweaty summer night on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
In October, the R&B love man, who splits time between New York and new house in Los Angeles, released his third studio album, “Evolver.” With appearances by rapper Andre 3000 of OutKast on the sleek “Green Light” and by Legend’s British protege, Estelle, on the reggae groove “No Other Love,” the album subtly moves Legend in new directions.
Talking from a tour bus headed to Boston last week, Legend, 29, spoke about “Evolver,” Barack Obama, the state of the music business and getting silly with Stephen Colbert.
Q: “Evolver” is more of a club record than anything you’ve done before.
A: It is. I’ve never felt that anything should-be off limits to me that feels good, musically. When I went in, it wasn’t like, “Man, I want to write a club record.” We did “Green Light,” and that was a good song, and then we did “It’s Over” (with West) and a couple more like that, and it worked.
I go to clubs a lot, but I don’t get played in clubs a lot. So it’s kind of cool to go to clubs and know that they’re playing you not just because you showed up, but they would have played you anyway.
Q: The hip-hop element on “Evolver” isn’t brand new. People think of you as a retro-soul kind of guy, but Snoop Dogg was on “Get Lifted.”
A: In some ways, “Evolver” is a return to the production style of “Get Lifted,” updated. You could use the Rhodes (electric piano) or a more electronic, synthesized sound ... And the sound of hip-hop right now is more electronic, so when I collaborated with hip-hop producers like Pharrell or will.i.am, it just made sense to go with those sounds, because that was the milieu we were working in.
Q: You’re in a hurry to get into bed on this record.
A: Yeah, “Quickly.” (Laughs) The other albums have been romantic and sensual, but this one is more overtly sexual. It’s not crass, though. It’s still consistent with my own approach to writing about sex and love.
Q: “Evolver” also includes “If You’re Out There,” the inspirational song you sang at the Democratic National Convention in Denver the night of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. What was that like?
A: That was incredible, being there. I felt the history as it was happening.
Q: The time frame of making this record coincided with the presidential campaign. Plus, you were on the “Yes We Can” YouTube video. I assume you were keeping up on a day-to day basis.
A: More like minute to minute. And I did some campaigning for Barack as well.
Q: It’s been a month now since the election. What’s your perspective on its significance?
A: My overriding feeling right now is optimism, and a bit of relief. I’m just happy to have somebody who I think is going to be a really good president. Because I don’t think we’ve had a really good president for a really long time. We have a truly exceptional mind running the country, who has brought on a great team of people ... Add to that the fact that I’m proud we elected our first black president, and it’s all good. The first couple of days, I was really emotional about it, beyond moved and inspired.
Q: Everybody on R&B radio sounds like a robot these days. What do you think of Auto-Tune?
A: I’m fine with it. I love good music. My main measure is: Do I love the song, and the feeling that went into the record? And Auto-Tune does make voices sound better, more on key ...
The drawback is people are sounding the same, because they’re all running through the same machine. How long will the fans tolerate all their singers sounding the same, and how will artists that use Auto-Tune distinguish themselves? T-Pain makes really hooky songs and he has a distinct persona as an artist, so he still makes music that’s stands out. And Kanye’s record is really unique in the landscape of records that are out right now.
Q: It eliminates human imperfection.
A: Yeah. To me, I think I’m a pretty good singer. I also think the imperfections, the cracks in my voice, the little raspiness, are part of my appeal. I think the people like that about me. So I’m choosing to leave my voice unaltered.
Q: How is Kanye? Listening to “808s & Heartbreak,” it doesn’t sound like he’s doing too well.
A: I haven’t seen that side of him very much. When I see him he’s having fun and making jokes. But coming from the hip-hop genre, which is certainly not known for introspection and vulnerability, it’s bold of him to make an album that isn’t full of bravado. It’s impressive in that way.
Hip-hop is a macho genre. What’s impressive about Kanye is his ability to go against the grain.
Q: You boldly run the risk of looking silly on “The Colbert Report.” On “A Colbert Christmas,” you dress up like a park ranger and sing “Nutmeg,” with lines like “Girl, don’t make me beg, I’m going to nog your egg.”
A: I’m a big fan. That’s my favorite show, so whenever they call me I say yes. (Colbert) is truly a comic genius. ... I wish I could take credit for writing “Nutmeg.” I loved it.
Q: How do you feel about the state of the music business?
A: I think the state of music is good. I feel like I’m enjoying pop music more than I have in a while, whether it’s Lil Wayne, or M.I.A., or Rihanna.
Q: Jazmine Sullivan points to you as an artist who opened doors for artists who want to make music of substance and still reach a wide audience. You’re a role model.
A: I love Jazmine. I remember her when she used to sing at Black Lily at the Five Spot when she was a teenager. Musically, we come from a similar place. I particularly thought her first single (“Need U Bad”) was beautiful.
Q: OK, the state of music is good. What about the music business?
A: The music business is still in the state of they don’t know what the hell is going on. Obviously, we’re not selling the kind of units we used to sell. There are so many ways to listen now ... that it’s exciting on the one hand. It’s kind of a wild west, an open frontier. But even the biggest albums, like Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III,” years ago it would have sold 15 million records. Now it’s selling 3, or 4.
Q: With CD sales down, touring is more important. But in a recession, people are reticent to shell out for expensive concert tickets. Do you need to be more cautious?
A: Yeah, in certain markets. Like, we were just in Michigan, and the economy is really bad in Michigan. So we sold fewer tickets. We’re selling out major population centers quickly, but in the smaller market and medium-sized markets, it’s harder.
Q: Before “Evolver” went on sale in October, it was streaming for free on MySpace. And today, I can still go to your MySpace page and hear half the album. How does that sit with you, having your music out there, for free?
A: It’s realistic. Because people can download it for free anyway. And you want to sell them on you as an artist. You want them to hear a few songs so that they’ll believe you’re worth following as an artist, and (it’s) worth buying a concert ticket to see you. You want them to buy into you completely as an artist, so you have to sacrifice the fact that you’re not going to sell as many albums, and chalk it up. It isn’t going to be that way.
Q: And because you’re not putting it up there in its entirety, do you also have to sacrifice the integrity of the album as a cohesive work of art?
A: You do. Because people are buying singles now. I still listen to albums as albums, and I still made the album to listen to as an album, but most people don’t. So you have to bow to the realities of the business. And when I say the business, it’s not really the business. It’s the fans. It’s what they want.
"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…READ the article