Music Rise of phenom 

What becomes John Legend most? Meeting the high expectations that come with his lofty name

His label-written biography calls him, "The industry's latest 'legend.'" He has been forced to read, "Is he living up to his name?" so many times, he now recites the quote in a goofy voice to show his boredom with lazy journalism. But, the truth of the matter is, he always knew it would be like this: John Legend has got a cool name and there's no getting around that.

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John Legend: He's worked with Kanye West and earned raves from Stevie Wonder.

"I knew what was going to happen," Legend admits by phone from Detroit, where he's in the middle of a tour that's burning him out. His album, Get Lifted, a piano-driven mélange of neo-soul and hip-hop, is winning him fans and awards, and he's doing his best to keep up. "I knew it was one of those things that marketers and writers would have fun with. But I was fine with that, because I figured it was just more attention for my music and, if people liked my music, then it was all good."

Born John Stephens, Legend picked up his unique moniker while at the University of Pennsylvania, where his soulful performances earned him the nickname "John the Legend." Strange thing is, the guy has one of the best show names in the business and yet, as you speak with him, there's no doubt it's John Stephens from Springfield, Ohio, on the other end of the line. He's a musician who's always expected to be discovered, always expected to be where he is right now, and yet seems to take none of it for granted.

Legend began playing the piano at age 4, a near-inevitability considering his roots.
When his designation as one of People's Top 50 Hottest Bachelors is brought up, he shrugs off the attention rather than allowing himself to enjoy it. "I wasn't concerned by that. I always wanted to be on the Top 10 Albums of the Year in Rolling Stone," he says. "I understand that's part of the business. It's what people are attracted to. But for me, it's more about the music than anything else."

Legend began playing the piano at age 4, a near-inevitability considering his roots. When he begins to list which parent sings this and which grandparent plays that, it's impossible to keep up. The whole lot of them - his parents, siblings, grandmother, aunts, and uncles - even appear on "It Don't Have to Change (The Family Song)," contributing a harmony arrangement that harkens back to street-corner doo-wop.

By the time he turned 11, Legend had scored a gig as his hometown church's choir director. The experience landed him another director's position when he headed off to college at 16 (yes, a child prodigy). "It takes a while to win over the older crowd, 'cause you're some kid telling them how to sing," he says, "but they got it sooner or later."

"Kanye was probably the perfect producer for me to become close with because he has a soul sensibility and a hip-hop sensibility."

- John Legend
It didn't take long for word on John the Legend to spread. Even before he was out of his teens, Lauryn Hill took advantage of his piano skills on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything." This was just the beginning of a ride that, in June, saw him named BET's Best New Artist of 2005.

"After I finished college, I moved to New York and just kept making more connections, making more demos, meeting producers, and now it's starting to pay off," he says. "It's exciting being me right now. Things are going really well."

A lot of that has to do with Kanye West, who executive-produced Get Lifted as well as producing and co-writing several of its tracks - most notably, "Used To Love U." Thing is, while West did bring Legend to the forefront of the music scene, helping to lift him out of the neo-soul movement into the mainstream, West too often gets credited with being the driving force behind his protégé's success.

John Legend

Fri, Aug 12
$29.25 (advance); $32.25 (day of show)

Sunset Station (Lonestar Pavilion)
1174 E. Commerce

West is, without a doubt, one of the industry's brightest rising stars; his ability to craft lasting rhythms that fuse R&B's sensuality, rap's in-your-face sexuality, and an intangible artistic integrity is refreshing considering the glut of derivative crap out there at the moment. But it's Legend's soaring voice and emotive piano that marks him a "next big thing." "Kanye was probably the perfect producer for me to become close with because he has a soul sensibility and a hip-hop sensibility. As a team, it's a perfect combination," explains Legend. "We didn't know each other that well at first. We just worked with each other. But, after you tour with someone for a year, you become friends or you become enemies, one way or the other."

It worked out that they became friends, which is probably why they'll be collaborating on Legend's next album and a slew of other projects. It's a good thing, too, because the music world today, so enamored with the bump-n-grind of fuck-me crooners like R. Kelly, could use an infusion of a kind that all but died with Marvin Gaye.

"There's a sensual passion to it," says Legend of why he loves R&B so much. "You don't have to do it by saying, 'Baby, I want to see you naked.' You can sing it in a way and arrange it in a way that's sexy, regardless."

It's that sort of attitude that'll ultimately make John Legend a, you know... come on, does it have to be said? Fine, a legend. Happy?

By Cole Haddon

More by Cole Haddon



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