John Stephens of Springfi eld, Ohio, threw down quite a gauntlet when he adopted his stage surname and became John Legend.
Fortunately, he lived up to it.
After years of guesting for Lauryn Hill, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Britney Spears and mentor Kanye West, among others, the R&B performer, songwriter and producer crafted his own legend with his 2004 debut “Get Lifted,” which sold more than 3 million copies worldwide and won three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist.
And he’s perpetuating the legend with his just-released sophomore set, “Once Again,” which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart with fi rstweek sales of 230,000 copies.
But Legend, 28, says his primary concern was not how the album sells but how it sounds.
“My goal when I did (‘Once Again’) was, first of all, just to try to make something great,” says Legend, who attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia before moving to New York City. “I didn’t write in response to Grammys or to selling a lot of albums.
“My goal, as an artist, was to do something better than I did the last time — better songwriting, better singing, better production. I needed to make sure I’m proud of every song.”
To accomplish that, Legend decided to “make more than I needed.” Hunkering down in February, “just being in the studio, focused every day and writing and recording,” he came up with 30 songs, ultimately choosing 13 for the album — ranging from the first single, “Save Room,” which is built on the jazzy organ riff from the Classic IV hit “Stormy” to the gospel-fl avored “Heaven” and the political overtones of the soldier’s tale “Coming Home.”
“I didn’t have to come out with the album when I did,” says Legend, whose collaborators on the new album include West, Raphael Saadiq and Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am. “My label was probably happy that I wanted to, but I could’ve waited till next year if I wanted to.
“But I was excited to get back to the studio. I wanted to come out again and make sure people knew I was here to stay.”
In fact, Legend hopes that “Once Again” will show fans once and for all that he’s an artist in his own right fi rst and not just the go-to guy who made indelible contributions to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and West’s “The College Dropout.” He still takes the odd session call — most recently for Black Eyed Peas’ singer Fergie’s solo album and rapper Jay-Z’s upcoming release — and says that success has made his participation “a lot more expensive.”
But, Legend adds, what he does under his own name remains the priority.
“I never thought of myself as the behind-the-scenes guy,” he says. “I always thought of myself as ... a solo artist, the front person. But just because the record industry wasn’t ready to sign me, I had to spend a few years doing other things.
“But there was never a transition to be made, ’cause the side artist stuff was truly just on the side to me. Hopefully that’s clear to everybody else now.”
John Legend and Robin Thicke perform at 7:30 Wednesday (November 8th) at the State Theatre, 2150 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $35. Call (313) 961-5450 or visit www.livenation.com.
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