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John Legend, born John Roger Stephens, has borne that as his stage name for nearly two decades now. It was given to him by Chicago poet J. Ivy who felt that Legend’s music reminds him of “that music from the old school” and that his voice sounded “like one of the legends.” Legend was reluctant to accept that name, but once it caught on, it was only right that he at least try to live to that new last name.
Twelve Grammy awards, four Platinum-selling albums, and countless TV show and movie appearances later, it’s beyond safe to say that Legend has lived up to his namesake. However, in a continued moment of humility, it wasn’t until now that he was truly ready to bring a sharp spotlight to the name that he once was a bit hesitant to bear.
Less than two years away from the 20th anniversary of his classic debut album Get Lifted, Legend returns with his ninth album, Legend — a double album that he believes captures everything that makes him the artist we’ve come to love.
Together with its release, John Legend sat with Uproxx to speak about Legend, why he is finally comfortable with its title, and a coincidental run-in with Saweetie.
Before we get into any music, I want to congratulate you on your new baby on the way. How are feeling as time progress, as well as, about having a third child around the house?
I’m excited! I feel like we’re pretty experienced parents now. We’re very comfortable and confident in inviting a new life into our world. I think we’ve got a sense of how we want to raise our kids and we just feel more comfortable than we’ve ever been, as far as being parents and our rhythm as a family. I feel like they can handle a new baby. Of course, you know, we’ve dealt with pregnancy loss before. So it’s always a bit of cautious optimism whenever you’re pregnant and you’ve lost one before because you just never know what could happen. But we’re excited to be parents and feel like we can do a good job of parenting together when we do bring the new baby into the world.
We’re officially in a new John Legend era, but I want you to tell it: how you would define this era in terms of the type of music and overall aesthetic at hand?
When I think about the music, I don’t know if it’s like a clean break from any era because I’m always growing and evolving as a musician. Each album has had its own character and its own personality, but it’s all me, it’s all who I am and where I am in my life at that time. I worked with different people on this album, to some extent, and I worked with some of the same people too. There are some songs that will sound very familiar and that will remind people of other things that I’ve done before and then other songs that we found a bit more new and different than what I’ve done before. This is the first time we’ve ever made an album that is self-titled, the first time we’ve ever done a double album, so that’s kind of a big and new thing for me with this project.
What gave you the confidence to go with a title like Legend?
I think the fresh start with Republic. I think also writing the audiobook that I’m doing with Audible that’s coming out in September. I was talking a lot about all that went into me changing my stage name and how I wasn’t sure whether or not I was ready to change my name back then because I was like, “How can I call myself ‘John Legend’ when I haven’t even gotten a record deal yet?” So, I told that whole story, and that’ll come out around the same time as the album, and it just made me really reflect on this whole journey was my name and how I finally felt like I was ready to not only to feel like I’m living up to this aspirational name that I gave myself when I was nowhere near being a legend, but also that I was ready to embrace it as an album title.
What would you say is the overall theme or main message you aim to deliver on Legend?
I think it’s a celebration of love, sensuality, intimacy, and connection. In that way, it’s a continuation of what I’ve been all about my entire career. I think musically, we did some fun and adventurous things that are a bit different from anything I’ve done in the past, and then some things that are more familiar. I think in general, I felt comfortable calling it Legend as well because it felt really representative of who I am as a musician. All the influences that made me who I am and all of it coming together on this really robust, double album that represents all the different parts of who I am.
This project is more collaborative than Bigger Love. What pushed you to reach out to more artists to work with this time around?
I think it’s important for me to stay connected to what’s new. I’ve been in business for a long time, but it’s really inspiring for me to connect with newer artists who inspire me and keep me fresh. I think collaborating with new people keeps you out of creative ruts I think, it pushes you and inspires you.
Is there a truly unique story with any of the collaborations on the album?
Saweetie was probably the most [unique]. It was almost random that she’s on the album because I literally ran into her and her manager at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I worked with her manager many years ago; he booked me and Kanye to do an event together way back — like before Get Lifted even came out, or right around when it came out, so it was literally the beginning of my career. He came up and said what’s up to me and was telling the story of how we worked together over 15 years ago. He’s standing there with Saweetie and I was just talking about Saweetie the day before because one of her songs came on the radio and was telling my wife how much I liked the song. I was telling Saweetie this and I was like, “We should do something together!” Then her manager sat with my A&R a couple of days later. We played them “All She Wanna Do” and they were like, “This is the one.” It all came from me running into her at the Beverly Hills Hotel Restaurant. I love her part on the album. I think it just adds extra flavor and it’s kind of unexpected, but it works really well with the song.
The current landscape of R&B is often criticized by some while others praise it. How do you perceive it?
People are always saying it’s dead or it’s this or that, but I feel like there have been so many talented R&B artists to come out in the last few years. I feel like there’s been some great music. and then there’s been some not-so-great music, but I feel like that’s always the case. I think it is a challenge thinking about this era of heavy auto-tune and where there’s a little less of a premium on really good singing. I think a lot of old-school cats are probably disappointed by that development in R&B and you know, I think it does hinder people’s live shows and hinders certain aspects of what it takes to be a great all-around artist. I still think there’s a lot of great R&B being made and a lot of great young artists that I listen to and enjoy. I love Leon Bridges, I love HER, I love Jazmine [Sullivan], I love Muni [Long], I love Daniel Caesar. There are a lot of just really talented people making R&B music these days. I think there’s always gonna be stuff that we don’t love and there’s always gonna be stuff we love. I just try to focus on the stuff that I love and listen to that and not worry about the rest.
At this point in your career, eight albums in with plenty of awards to your name, what’s your driving force nowadays?
The key is that I can never assume that people are gonna love the next thing I do. So I have to prove myself worthy of their attention and worthy of their love. For any new project I do, I feel like I have to hold myself to the highest of standards and that was the approach I had with this album. That’s the approach I have with every album and every show that I do. Nothing I did before is enough to make you love something new if it’s not good on its own, you know? So I have to prove myself to my fans and to everybody else every single time I make a new album.
What do you hope Legend contributes toward your overall artistry and career?
Well, I like that it’s a double album because it’s showing the different sides of who I am and both where I am now in my life, but also looking back to some extent at where I’ve come from. I think it’s as thorough of a representation of my influences and my artistry as any other project that I’ve done. So I think that’s why I felt like this was the one to call Legend. So I’m really confident making it a double album and that’s why I’m so excited for people to hear it.
Legend is out now via Republic Records. You can stream it here.
Saweetie is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.