The Best New Artist Is Already a Legend
Thursday, February 9, 2006
LOS ANGELES John Legend appears as if he's wandered into the wrong place on the University of Southern California campus.
The chandeliered Town and Gown dining room is packed with swaggering young pop stars sporting shades, bling and sprawling entourages. And then there's Legend: inconspicuous, even anonymous in his bookish spectacles, green cashmere sweater, bluejeans and white sneakers. He's wearing none of the usual celebrity accessories, and he has no lackeys buzzing about. If you didn't know better, you might think he was a graduate assistant.
But the confirmation comes quickly that Legend really does belong here, alongside all these hitmakers. After all, he's just finished near the top of his class in his first full year as a major-label recording artist.
And so important-looking people make sure to stop by and congratulate him on the success of his Columbia Records debut, "Get Lifted," which went platinum. "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson wanders over to praise Legend's performance during the previous day's Super Bowl pregame telecast. (Jackson's verdict: "You won that Super Bowl, dawg!") The diminutive R&B singer and actor Omarion, shadowed by a hulking bodyguard, gives Legend a man-hug. So, too, does the outspoken media magnet Kanye West, who wants to know what videos and movies Legend has on his iPod. (None, as it turns out.) The summit, which occurs shortly before the start of Grammy Career Day at USC, prompts the photographers crawling around the room to click away at the pop stars.
West, of course, is the Very Famous One, the straw-stirring, chart-topping rapper who was nominated for eight Grammy Awards and who just appeared as the hip-hop Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone. Legend is West's quietly confident protege, a sanctified soul singer who also received eight Grammy nominations; he won three, including best new artist. Mariah Carey is the only other artist who was up for eight Grammys this year.
Kanye and Mariah have achieved single-name stardom; John Legend, not so much, despite that ambitious nom de stage. (Friends started calling him "Legend" for his stylistic similarities to some of the old soul greats. His given name is John Stephens.) "They've sold a lot more records and their names are already out there," Legend says of West and Carey. "So the nominations are more valuable to me because they elevate my profile. People who didn't know about me before are starting to know now."
The kids already knew, of course. Hundreds of high schoolers have descended on USC to learn about careers in the music industry while celebrity-gawking at close range, and when Legend is introduced a short while later, in an auditorium across the campus, they cheer wildly, and at VERY HIGH VOLUME. Never mind that Legend is something of a classicist. Although he uses programmed beats, slips hip-hop vernacular into his lyrics and invited Snoop Dogg and West to make cameos on "Get Lifted," Legend comes across as a traditional R&B singer trapped in a hip-hop world.
Just consider his breakthrough hit, "Ordinary People." It's an anachronistic piano ballad that features no bells, whistles or, most significantly, drums. An elegiac song about the complexities and challenges of relationships, it basically consists of Legend's gritty voice and his graceful piano work, making it one of 2005's most surprising commercial hits. Written with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, "Ordinary People" was also celebrated by Legend's peers with a nomination for song of the year.
"It's so refreshing," the former longtime Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier says of "Ordinary People." The first time Dozier heard the track, "I said, 'Thank you, Lord!' . . . That song is a blessed event."
Legend had appeared on other people's hits before his own star began to rise: While attending the University of Pennsylvania, where he'd enrolled at 16 and majored in English with an emphasis on African American literature, he was invited to play piano on Lauryn Hill's acclaimed solo debut. A preternaturally talented musician who grew up performing in church in Springfield, Ohio, Legend eventually met West through his college roommate, who happened to be West's cousin.
More studio work followed with the likes of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, to whom Legend is frequently compared. He was also featured on West's debut, 2004's "The College Dropout." (It's a particularly funny title, given that Legend graduated magna cum laude from Penn. The son of a factory worker and a seamstress, he parlayed his Ivy League diploma into a position at the elite Boston Consulting Group in Manhattan, where he moonlighted as a musician. "I needed money," he says of his old day job. "I lived in New York and had to pay my rent.")
With the buzz building, Legend -- after his demo had been rejected by multiple labels -- was signed to Columbia in May 2004, in the midst of a tour with West. "Get Lifted" was released on Dec. 28 of that year (Legend's 26th birthday) and has since been praised by everybody from Stevie Wonder and Prince to the guy who played Stifler in "American Pie." The pop press has offered its collective seal of approval, as well: "Lifted" was named one of the 30 best albums of the year in a Village Voice survey of nearly 800 music critics.