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 t0 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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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05

FEATURE :
Making a Legend
By Nate Chinen
Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

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