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 studentmajoring in English, with an emphasis in African-American literature and cultureand 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-termif I’ll run any kind of businesses, musically or otherwisebut 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 labelG.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’ sensibilitiesand 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.”
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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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