Cover: John Legend - Stretching The Boundaries Of Contemporary Black Music

photo by Steed Media Service

Story by -Rodney Carmichael
Images by Cheryl A. Johnson

If you are what you eat, John Legend is blacker than his light-skinned, pretty boy looks might lead you to believe. As he swings open the door to suite 1100 to invite you inside his temporary abode, Legend is dressed casually cosmopolitan in his blue V-necked sweater, pricey-looking jeans and Gucci sneakers trimmed in brown suede. But even more noticeable than his dapper appearance is the conspicuous stack of dirty Tupperware dishes cluttering a corner table in his otherwise exquisite W Hotel suite.

“Excuse the mess,” he says. “I just got through eating some good ol’ soul food.”

As you might have guessed, ‘soul food’ is nowhere to be found on the room service menu at the swank W Hotel, not even here in Atlanta, gateway to the South. Apparently the three-time Grammy Award-winning, million CD selling celebrity wasn’t in the mood for Szechuan lobster rolls or Mandarin beef tenderloin this evening. Rather, he had a taste for some home-cookin’ — fried chicken, candied yams, collard greens, macaroni & cheese and potato salad. And it just so happens the mother of his Atlanta-based travel agent came to the rescue.

The only leftovers are the satisfied grin Legend is momentarily wearing on his face. Grubbing on soul food up in the W, it just doesn’t get any blacker than that.

“John is actually like ghetto as hell,” Kawan ‘KP’ Prather said, laughing, a few months prior, when asked to reveal something about Legend few people know. The VP of Sony Urban (the major label which distributes Legend’s releases), Prather is an authority on what is and ain’t ghetto. His subsidiary label, Ghet-O-Vision, was responsible for bringing a confident, charismatic kid named T.I. into the rap game when ATLiens were the only ones repping his city.

But in the case of Springfield, Ohio representative John Legend, ‘ghetto’ is only the beginning of his color palette. While this may not be a huge revelation on the surface, it’s well worth noting at this point in his burgeoning career. Following up a debut disc as successful as Get Lifted is always a challenge. But for an African American artist who has cultivated a sound equal parts urban (read: black) and mainstream (read: white), determining where to go next (and whom to take with you) can be critical. If he chooses growth and artistic integrity, he runs the risk of alienating many of the fans who made him famous in the first place. But to choose anything else would be less than Legend-ary.

How ‘Urban’ Is He? “We know I’m black,” Legend says point blank when asked whether he fits into the contemporary paradigm of urban artists.“‘Urban’ is such a silly word ‘cause a lotta people live in urban areas that are white and there’s a lot of black folks that live in the country ...So, yeah, I’m black. I make music that’s rooted in black music. I grew up in a church making gospel music. I grew up listening to soul music. But I listen to other music. What’s funny is rock [and] a lot of other styles that we call white music, now, came from black folks, too. So really, all of it is rooted in black music. So I feel like all music is open to me, and it’s something I can draw influence from and listen to.”

If Legend sounds slightly defensive, it’s probably because he’s already preparing himself for the criticism his sophomore album is sure to bring from certain circles. Once Again is anything but a u-turn, as Legend decides to drop the hiphop schtick in favor of a classic soul approach, hearkening back to the era of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Nina Simone. The classically-trained, church-bred pianist isn’t stepping outside his territory, but it’s a move likely to garner him a broader fan base than he would have gained by catering to the Hot 97s and V-103s scattered throughout the country. “I think the success of the first album made me confident that I could just trust my gut. And the thing is, the first album was my gut at the time. I was just going with what I was feeling at the time and [with] the second album I’m doing the same thing,” he explains. “I’m just feeling different
things this time.”

Part 2 continued @ RollingOut.com