John Legend knows that “Evolver” isn’t a real word — the guy graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, after all. But he still felt it was an apt title for his third album.
“The album having a new sound and everything, (‘Evolver’) just felt like the mood and the tone of it represented something about the tone of the album,” says Legend, 29, who was born John Stephens in Springfield, Ohio. “It’s a bolder kind of word, and we wanted to represent (the album) that way.
“Sonically, I wanted to try new sounds. There were some (different) choices of sounds and instruments that we used. And we wanted to reflect that with the (title).”
Change, of course, is a risky prospect for an artist like Legend, a protege of Kanye West who’s had considerable success with his first two albums. Following guest work with West Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z and Detroit’s Slum Village, his 2004 debut “Get Lifted” sold three million copies worldwide and earned three of his five Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist for Legend. His follow-up, 2006’s “Once Again,” debuted at No. 3 and went platinum.
Those accomplishments can be an argument to stay the course, but “Evolver” has been well received, too. It debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart earlier this month and topped the magazine’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums list; it’s still No. 12. Legend also hit the Top 40 with the first single, “Green Light,” while the socially conscious second single, “If You’re Out There” — which he performed at the Democratic National Convention in August — is making its way up the charts now.
The music — whether it’s the electronic overtones of “Green Light” and Satisfaction” or the reggae flavor of “No Other Love” — is only part of the change on “Evolver,” however. The album also marks the first time Legend has recorded songs he himself did not write, in this case “Take Me Away” by Ne-Yo and “It’s Over” by Pharrell Williams and West.
“I’m always very in control, but I’m also very collaborative at the same time,” explains Legend, who also has a role in the new film “Soul Men.”
“You can let your pride get in the way and say, ‘No, I want to write everything I sing,’ but what’s the point in that? If it’s a great song for the album and it fits your voice, then you let it happen.
“So it was just a matter of trusting and respecting the talent of those two guys who obviously have proven themselves 10, 20 fold — 100 fold in Pharrell’s case — and then just liking the songs and feeling like they fit my style and fit what I was trying to do for the album.”
Legend knows all about being on the other side of that mix, too; since he started his solo career he’s collaborated with Common, Alicia Keys and the Linkin Park spin-off Fort Minor. And he’s started his own label, Home School Records, which this year introduced the British singer Estelle and is readying an album by Legend’s brother, Vaughn Anthony.
“To me, I’m still a musician and I just love making music,” Legend says of his business enterprise. “But I feel like I can give good advice to new art- ists. I understand the business. I understand how it works. I understand how to make good records, and I just want to hear some good music.
“I want to be part of the crew that are making (good music), not just me but other artists I can work with, too. So for me as a fan, it’s about just wanting to help make more music that I would want to listen to.”
Legend acknowledges, however, that his own career leaves him “limited” time to spend with these other endeavors. He plans to be on the road supporting “Evolver” deep into 2009, and of all the roles he has in the music business he says that playing live is his favorite.
“I love doing the shows the most, the performing aspect of it,” Legend says. “I love being on stage. I love looking at the crowd and interacting with them and just putting the show together and coming up with the set and the transitions and all those things.
“Just planning it out is real exciting and fun to me. If I could only do one thing with (music), the shows would be it.”
Legend's A Soul Man On The Big Screen
In “Soul Men,” John Legend plays Marcus Hooks, the lead singer of the fictitious R&B vocal group the Real Deal whose death reunites his two estranged bandmates, played by Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac, on a cross-country trip to a reunion concert in his honor.
“It’s a small role, but it was a lot of fun,” says Legend, who was nevertheless crushed when Mac passed away unexpectedly in August.
“It was really jarring when I heard he passed,” Legend notes, “because he was so vibrant and so fun and so cool to have around on the set. You couldn’t imagine somebody that young and energetic passing away so soon after that.
“I’m just so glad I got to work with him.”
Legend has contributed songs to films such as “August Rush,” “City of God” and “Pride,” but he says his acting turn in “Soul Men” is not a harbinger of a move towards Hollywood.
“I might do more when the time is right and the situation is right,” Legend explains. “But I didn’t really get into music so I could be an actor. I really got into music ‘cause I love doing music, and so my main focus right now is still doing that.”
John Legend and Raphael Saadiq perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 26) at Masonic Temple Theatre, 500 Temple Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $66 and $46. Call (313) 471-6611 or visit www.olmpiaentertainment.com.
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