You probably know more about John Legend than you think. Check the notes of many of the biggest soul and R&B albums of the past decade, and there’s his name. As pianist and vocalist on Lauren Hill’s 1998 track ‘Everything is Everything’, vocalist and co-writer on Alicia Key’s multi-platinum ‘You Don’t Know my Name’, co-writer, pianist and vocalist on Talib Kweli’s prolific The Beautiful Struggle and vocalist, pianist and co-writer on the Kanye West’s smash hit of last year, College Dropout.
Get Lifted, Legend’s first major label album, takes full advantage of contemporary R&B production techniques but is firmly rooted in the authentic spirit of the soul and gospel music that are his major influences.
Like all the greatest soul tracks, the songs chart the relationship rites of passage, from the hip-hopesque swaggery of ‘She Don’t Have to Know’ (sampling Sly and the Family Stone, performed with a choir), through the plea for forgiveness ‘Number One’ to what might just be the love song of the decade – ‘Stay With You’, the perfect showcase for Legend’s prolific vocal dexterity.
Being in Philadelphia in the late 1990s allowed Legend exposure to some of the emerging new artists like Jill Scott and The Roots who were at the centre of the neo-soul movement and the influence is clear. His performance last month at La Scala in London proved his mettle as one of the great live performers. A 13-minute version of ‘Ordinary People’ (‘It’s about love, not as a fantasy or fairytale, but as it really goes down between two people’) can only be described as mindblowing. If you have a chance to see him live, go.
The church has obviously been highly influential on Legend’s style. As he explains, ‘It was… a bunch of music in church that inspired me’. Indeed, what is so refreshing about Get Lifted is that Legend is updating a gospel/soul crossover tradition that dates back to the greats like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.
For many of these artists the church was about the only place where black people could gather in large numbers to express themselves but many found they had to ‘mask’ the meaning of their songs behind religious imagery. By contrast Legend speaks explicitly about carnal love and infidelity. As a boy Legend was banned from listening to secular music, and he has admitted to a certain ‘tension’ between his music and upbringing. Yet he doesn’t think they are incompatible and certainly musically the tension makes for an intoxicating mix of spirituality, sexiness, irreverency and soulful beauty.
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