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John Legend C’99 has come a long way since his days with the Penn a cappella group Counterparts (when he was John Stephens). As his first solo album hits the stores, lots of people are betting he can go much farther.

By Nate Chinen | Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

The MTV building casts a formidable presence even by the unsubtle standards of Times Square. Boxlike and glass-faced, 1515 Broadway serves as a monument to the transparency of celebrity—a myth fueled tirelessly by the network, which shoots its Total Request Live in a second-floor studio visible from the sidewalk below. TRL has drawn a reliable cluster of curbside fans nearly every weekday since its 1998 debut. And so this shopworn stretch of pavement has achieved a sort of iconic status—a teenage version of what Rockefeller Center long ago derived from NBC’s Today.

The glint of the MTV storefront is visible from 47th Street, where I stood one October morning waiting for John Legend C’99 to emerge from the W Hotel. The singer had arrived in the city late the night before, after playing an arena concert in Albany with rapper and producer Kanye West. Both artists were scheduled for a morning taping of MTV2’s Hip-Hop Countdown, where they would promote Get Lifted—Legend’s forthcoming solo album on West’s newly minted label. The album’s first advance single, “Used to Love U,” had gone into radio rotation a couple of weeks earlier.

It was a bright and beautiful day. On the sidewalk, I killed time with Legend’s tour manager, a bulky figure in baggy denim who attended to his cell phone with the routine obsessiveness one might apply to a rosary. After several tries, he finally got in touch with Legend—who, it turned out, had sensibly spent the night not at the W but in his East Village apartment. The tour manager and I climbed into a black SUV for a ride to the MTV stage entrance, which was two short blocks away.

Legend appeared in a lime-green Lacoste dress shirt, garment bag slung over one shoulder. His gait was casual, almost loose-limbed. “I’d rather stay at my home than in a hotel room,” he chuckled as we walked to a service elevator. “I washed my clothes last night. It’s been a few weeks.” He was wrapping up a nearly month-long run with the Truth Tour, featuring West and the R&B heartthrob Usher, whose album Confessionshad at that point sold nearly seven million copies. West’s album The College Dropout was somewhere in the range of three million.

Get Lifted, originally scheduled for an October release, had just been pushed back to December 28, Legend’s 26th birthday. While on tour, the singer had been busy sowing the seeds for his debut. “I’m doing 15,000-seat venues with Kanye,” he explained, “and then I’m able to do my own shows with no extra travel costs, and schedule my own promotional spots on radio. And it’s tied to the biggest event in the city that night, which makes it easier to get attention. It’s all kind of preparing the world for me to come out on my own. It’s been a cool buildup. We’re getting ready to make it real big.”

A week earlier, Legend had returned to Penn for a solo concert. Houston Hall’s Class of 1949 Auditorium was filled to its 250-person capacity; balloons and refreshments were in ample supply. The show began with a set by Counterparts, the coed a cappella group that served as Legend’s primary musical outlet on campus. They were followed by United Soul, a group from West Philly that played crowd-pleasing cover tunes. Then a woman identified as Miss Ruth took the microphone to represent Legend’s hometown of Springfield, Ohio, “a little town people said nothing good would come out of.” And with that, the evening’s star emerged. “I spent four years at this school,” he said, sitting at an upright piano, “and in this building I had many a rehearsal.”

In fact, it was in one of the adjoining rooms that Legend had auditioned for Counterparts, nine years earlier. At the time, he was a 16-year-old freshman named John Stephens, and he entered the room with quiet self-assurance, so reticent as to seem aloof. But something happened when he began singing his tryout piece, “My Funny Valentine,” by Rodgers and Hart. His voice was subtle but powerful, rich with expression, silk-smooth but unaffectedly so. Even in the cold light of an audition, without a cushion of accompaniment, he clearly possessed a remarkable talent. I was then a sophomore, and president of the group. I escorted John out of the room with a handshake and an exhortation that must have sounded excessively sincere.

I spent the next year or so in Counterparts with Stephens, getting to know him well enough to recognize a few characteristic traits: unwavering loyalty, driving perfectionism, and probing introspection. He was an offhandedly good student—majoring in English, with an emphasis in African-American literature and culture—and he somehow balanced his coursework with his extracurricular activities. On top of everything, he directed the choir at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania, driving over an hour and a half to get there every Sunday, and often returning to campus just in time for a Counterparts rehearsal. This was the extent of his musical activity during the time that I was in the group. There were many late nights when I heard him at the Houston Hall piano tossing off impromptu soul medleys, with the same spark that would later ignite a career. But he hadn’t yet begun forging his own identity as an artist.

The catalyst was an encounter with soul/hip-hop star Lauryn Hill during his junior year. A friend from Bethel A.M.E. brought Stephens to the New Jersey recording studio where Hill was working on her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. He ended up playing a piano part for the song “Everything Is Everything,” which was later released as a single and certified gold. Miseducation ultimately garnered five GRAMMY Awards and sold more than eight million copies. Not surprisingly, the experience led Stephens to focus more than ever on the goal of a life in music.

But his first leap after Penn was much more conventional: the Boston Consulting Group in New York City. “It’s kind of crazy,” he admitted, laughingly. “But in retrospect, it was the right move at the right time. It gave me the opportunity to pay for all the demos I was doing without relying on anyone else’s money. It made me take on all the risk but a lot of the reward as well. And I learned some more about the world. Who knows what I’ll do long-term—if I’ll run any kind of businesses, musically or otherwise—but that experience is going to be a benefit.”

In addition to his demos, Stephens made up for his corporate daylight hours with a series of late-night sessions and club gigs. He grew his hair out into a fashionably nappy style. He moved into a slightly seedy walkup on Second Avenue, along with college roommate Devon Harris W’99. It so happened that Harris had a cousin who was an up-and-coming hip-hop producer, and in the spring of 2001,  he brought him to one of Stephens’ gigs. “I didn’t feel particularly compelled to work with him,” the singer would later recall. “There wasn’t anything exciting about it to me.” But in time his artistry would be inextricably linked to that of Harris’ cousin, Kanye West.  

At MTV, Legend sat in a tiny dressing room while a crew readied the studio for his shoot. He proudly showed me a production mock-up of Get Lifted; the sepia cover image depicted his head in heroic profile, not unlike the Egyptian sphinx. “On this whole album you’ll hear a lot of references to my musical past,” he said, as I turned the CD over in my hands. “Gospel music is definitely very prevalent, even more so than hip-hop and classic soul. Specifically, I have a family song on there, ‘It Don’t Have to Change.’ In the album packaging, we have pictures of me performing in church. I’ve been doing this for a long time; this is not the beginning for me.”

In the studio, Legend and West sat side by side in director’s chairs, the latter sporting his trademark polo shirt with collar upturned. They were joined by the “VJ” for Hip-Hop Countdown, an effervescent character named Amanda Diva. They shot roughly a dozen interstitial segments for the show, each anchored by a question about Legend or his music. The resulting quasi-interview parsed the singer’s back story into efficient soundbites, and unearthed a few choice tales. Among them was the tale of how Stephens became Legend:  Listening to the playback of a vocal track he had recorded, someone in the engineer’s booth said he sounded like an old-school soul legend, and started riffing on it: “John Legend! John Legend, y’all!” The others in the studio joined in, and before long it was his calling card.  When he decided to adopt the moniker formally, he discovered that there was already a Johnny Legend, a director of campy, vaguely pornographic films. “We had to pay him for a coexistence agreement,” Legend explained.

Both artists comported themselves breezily in the studio, whether or not cameras were rolling. Between takes they joked with Diva and riffed on the videos they were introducing. At one point, West enumerated the singles he’d produced featuring Legend, and it sounded quite literally like a countdown of its own: “Encore,” by Jay-Z; “You Don’t Know My Name,” by Alicia Keys; “I Want You,” by Janet Jackson; “Selfish,” by Slum Village; “Overnight,” by Twista; “This Way,” by Dilated Peoples; “I Try,” by Talib Kweli. Each of these was a hit song in the past year. And that’s to say nothing of West’s smash album, on which Legend played a defining role.

It actually took a while for West and Legend to join forces after their first meeting. “But we worked [well] together right off the bat,” West attested in the MTV green room, “because both of us are efficient. When I lay down a drum track, for the most part, it’s good. And when he lays down a singing part, there’s no ‘Oh, let me record that three more times’ bullshit.” As two aspiring artists, they developed a sort of musical exchange. Legend sang many of the melodic hooks on West’s demo, which would eventually become The College Dropout; and West provided rhythm tracks for Legend’s demo, which would evolve into Get Lifted. When the former album broke first, the rapper brought the singer along for the ride.

West’s meteoric ascendancy can hardly be overstated. Beyond the fact of his multi-platinum sales, there’s a prevailing notion in the music industry that he has, in some ways, changed the game. The College Dropout inhabits a demilitarized zone between hip-hop’s flashy mainstream and its politically engaged underground. But what ultimately propels the album is the sheer force of West’s personality, a contradictory entity that finds equal exaltation in witty riposte and righteous indignation, in playful braggadocio and confessional self-scrutiny. And West’s keen musical instincts have won over an audience well beyond hip-hop’s usual reach. 

West’s golden touch made it that much easier for him to start a label—G.O.O.D. Music, short for Getting Out Our Dreams. As a joint venture with SonyBMG, the startup label was guaranteed the broadest distribution and biggest exposure possible. Legend had been selected as the label’s first artist, West explained, “because he was ready. He had the confidence. And he’s a blatant talent. He’s the type of person you would have seen at seven years old and said, ‘Oh, that dude’s talented.’”

Legend’s musical roots helped determine the setting for his first video. “Used to Love U” depicts the interior of a gospel church, shot in stylized, bluish hues. In it, Legend upbraids an indifferent lover sitting in the pews while West energetically goads the choir. Coolly conceptual and a shade sardonic, the video is a perfect amalgam of the two artists’ sensibilities—and it highlights their common origins. “I think music is supposed to show where you came from,” affirmed West in the green room. “And for so many years, people were always saying they were coming from the streets. But I think both of us probably spent more time in the church than actually on the streets.”

I first heard Get Lifted from start to finish while sitting in the back seat of the black SUV. It was just after the MTV taping, and I was riding with Legend and his tour manager out to WBLI, a Top 40 radio station in Huntington, Long Island. Time was of the essence: MTV had taken longer than anyone expected, and the singer had a late-afternoon meeting back in the city with Donnie Ienner, Sony Music’s president and CEO. That night he had a date with West at Madison Square Garden, one of the final stops on the Truth Tour.

As the album played, Legend caught up on voicemails and emails, but with one ear open to the music. He bobbed his head and sang along softly, occasionally pointing out choice moments, of which there were more than a few. Produced expertly by West and others (including Legend’s roommate Harris), the album conjoins the club-ready rhythms of hip-hop with the uplift of gospel and the melodic substance of classic soul. And starting with an invocatory title track, it conceptually charts the life of a relationship—from transgression to reconciliation to renewal.

“I wanted it to really flow well together,” Legend explained, after the last track finished, “and then explore a certain thematic arc as well. The first half of the album directly addresses some of the rough things that people go through in relationships. Then it kind of lifts, metaphorically, and talks about the spiritual high that you can get on in a relationship.” I asked about Legend’s romantic history, and he admitted that he’d never had a truly serious long-term partner. Still, he claimed that his songs were more rooted in reality than fantasy. “Every song has some autobiographical element. It may not be my autobiography, but it’s very much my perspective. My parents got divorced and they were apart for 12 years, and then they got remarried three years ago. It basically makes you know that love takes a lot of work, takes a lot of struggle, if you’re going to stick with it for the long haul.”

The song on the album that best illustrates this idea is called “Ordinary People.” It’s a track without the slightest hint of production—just Legend at an acoustic piano, the way he played at Houston Hall. And where most of the other songs on the album are lacquered with a contemporary sheen, this one is timeless and luminous, lit from within. In essence, it’s a ballad that draws out a universal subject—the ups and downs of love—through a plainspoken yet poetical lyric. At MTV, Legend had opined on camera that it was the best song on the album. Then he’d added: “It might be the best thing I ever do.”

Legend told me how he had hit upon the song’s initial melody while writing for The Black Eyed Peas, a soulful hip-hop group with whom he’d collaborated in the past. “I’m a real student of songwriting,” he said. “I think you just learn by working at it. Certain things feel right to you and certain things don’t. You just keep doing it and doing it. Now I feel like I know how to do it, but there’s still a lightning-in-the-bottle magic that ‘Ordinary People’ has that I can’t do every time I write a song. I just can’t; I don’t know how. If I could do it, I would make a lot of money writing songs.”

In fact, that may happen soon. “Ordinary People” was one of several songs that circulated on a Get Lifted sampler in the fall, and the response was overwhelming. “Radio stations started playing it with no promotion,” Legend marveled. “Fans started requesting it wherever I went. All these people heard it and loved it; it just resonated with everybody. So we figured, why wait? Let’s put it out next.” Despite the total incongruity of an acoustic piano ballad as an urban-music single, “Ordinary People” became Legend’s second shot across the bow, complete with a video on MTV.

WBLI turned out to be a nondescript building just off the highway. We pulled up alongside a van emblazoned with Legend’s image. Inside the studio, a dozen cheerful programmers and sales reps were tightly squeezed around a conference table, on which someone had arranged a cheese platter and several bottles of wine. “I hope y’all have permission to be drinking in the afternoon,” Legend quipped as he sat down at an electric keyboard in the corner. He proceeded to perform his two singles, answer questions, and pose for photographs. The procedure lasted a perfunctory 20 minutes.

“I do this every day,” Legend explained as we drove out. “It’s a very retail-oriented process. On some of the urban stations I’ll do interviews on the air, but for Top 40 they want to get to know me first. In some ways it’s like being a politician—you have to win one state at a time.” 

Our driver, who had gotten mildly lost on the way to WBLI, now took the idea to its illogical extreme. The trip back to Manhattan took over three hours—twice what it should have—and had us, at one point, driving around the salt marshes of Jones Beach. Although forgiving at first, Legend grew increasingly peeved, especially when it became clear that his meeting at Sony was a bust.

Legend has a nickname among his managerial team: Artist Executive. “I’m always calling my managers,” he explained, “talking about strategy and wanting to do the best thing business-wise. One of the biggest things I learned at [Boston Consulting Group], and at Penn, was how to work efficiently and effectively, and just achieve what you want to do. Whenever we had a project to do musically, success was the only option for me, because I was used to being around really successful, ambitious, talented people that got things done and got them done right.” During the ride back, the Artist Executive made a handful of calls, including several concerning his new band, which was scheduled to start rehearsing that weekend. He talked briefly to a rapper named B-Lo about a potential collaboration. He called Sony to try to reschedule the meeting with Ienner. And he called a real-estate broker about seeing some apartments. “I’m going to look at doorman buildings this weekend,” he told me. “I need to start thinking about security.” 

On the surface, this seemed a presumptuous statement. But then I thought about Legend’s experience on the Truth Tour, taking the stage nightly before tens of thousands of fans. The smash success of Get Lifted was hardly assured, but there was no question that Legend was about make the leap in public perception from backup singer to solo artist. Several days before the MTV taping, he’d performed on a BET tribute to Smokey Robinson, where he met Robinson and Stevie Wonder, both actual legends in their time.

I thought about those auspicious introductions as our car inched into Midtown, in the direction of Madison Square Garden. Legend had come a long way since Penn, but he was ultimately the same person I’d known there. Wherever his career leads him, I suspect he’ll always be that person.

Nate Chinen C’98 is a JazzTimes columnist and regular contributor to the Village Voice and public radio’s Weekend America. He co-authored Myself Among Others (Da Capo), the award-winning autobiography by jazz impresario George Wein.

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