As the backlash against the violent misogyny pervading gangsta rap and hip-hop culture spreads — Al Sharpton and Essence magazine have recently added their voices to those of Bill Cosby, Spike Lee and others — John Legend just might be emerging as a credible positive alternative.
A good thing too, because you can’t fight something with nothing.
Released in late December, the 26-year-old singer-composer’s debut album “Get Lifted” — an introspective look at the complexities of love that’s steeped in old school soul — debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s album chart, selling nearly 500,000 copies in its first week. Within days, Mr. Legend’s name — along with the predictable headline puns it generates — was everywhere. In February “Ordinary People,” the album’s torchy ballad and crown jewel, was released as a single. The buzz built.
“John Legend has a great kind of gospel influence, much like that of Ray Charles,” said Michaela angela Davis, a District native and fashion and beauty editor at Essence magazine, which has organized Take Back the Music, a yearlong campaign against the degradation of women that has become endemic in hip-hop.
“His music and videos are decidedly positive,” Miss Davis continued. “He makes music that my 14-year old daughter and her friends can listen to, and he even found a way to play with Snoop [Dogg] — someone who at times has drawn criticism for his music — on his record. We need someone who offers an alternative that is positive and fresh. And John Legend is in that group, which also includes folks like Alicia [Keys], Jill Scott and India.arie.
“Plus, he not only respects women, he looks like someone who has self- respect. When you’re grounded in yourself, you respect others.”
Moreover, Miss Davis says, Mr. Legend has “street cred” because of his long association with Grammy winning rapper Kanye West, who has played a key role in Mr. Legend’s rise and the release of “Get Lifted.”
“We need more people like Kanye, who will help others make it through,” Miss Davis says. “And John has definitely made it through. His music is out there.”
Don’t misunderstand. Healthy, humane and positive Mr. Legend may be. Naive and sentimental he is not.
“Get Lifted’s” 14 songs are really two albums in one. Its first half is a hard-headed acknowledgement of the games both sexes play in affairs of the heart.
The hip-hop tinged “Used to Love U,” by Mr. Legend and Mr. West, is clearly aimed at a gold digger (“Maybe I should rob somebody/So we could live like Whitney and Bobby/It’s probably my fault, my bad, my loss/That you are above cost/And all I could do was love you”).
“She Don’t Have to Know” deals realistically with the passions of infidelity — and the price it inevitably exacts.
“I Can Change,” which features an appearance by Snoop Dogg, is a litany of promises — to “stay out of the club, stay home,” to “go to church, get baptized” — of personal renewal for the sake of a woman. It’s not clear just how seriously these vows to reform are to be taken in the context of the song. But it’s abundantly clear that the subject of personal moral growth is one on which Mr Legend — who appears with Miss Keys tomorrow and Saturday at DAR Constitution Hall — has meditated on seriously.
“‘Get Lifted’ is loosely a concept album, although it wasn’t intended to be,” says Mr. Legend, interviewed by phone recently from a tour stop in Memphis, Tenn. “I just had a bunch of songs that I hoped to use. Then I realized I had a catalog of songs that seemed to take on a progression about relationships. So I ordered them in a way to tell a story.”
Devoid of production gimmickry and powered simply by Mr. Legend’s flowing piano and majestic voice, “Ordinary People” (co-written by the singer with the Black Eyed Peas’ Will i. Am) strips away the mushy veneer of romantic ballads to mine love’s raw emotions: “I know I’ve misbehaved and you’ve made your mistakes/and we’ve both still got room left to grow/And though love sometimes hurts, I still put you first and we’ll make this thing work/But I think we should take it slow.”
“‘Ordinary People’ is a driving force both lyrically and musically,” says Mr. Legend, explaining that the song marks the album’s turning point. “If you listen, the album gets more spiritual, more melodic and more serious after that.”
According to Newsday, the song was inspired by the reconciliation of the singer’s mother, Phyllis, and father, Ronald, who divorced and later remarried. “I had a feeling it was going to do well,” says Mr. Legend, born John Stephens in Springfield, Ohio. “But what really surprises me about that song is how well it’s done on the urban music and urban adult contemporary charts, especially for a song that has no beat. So they have to be listening to the lyrics.”
A classically-trained pianist and former church choir director who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (which he entered at just 16), Mr. Legend is being hailed as the new prince of R&B, a throne vacant since the death of Marvin Gaye more than 20 years ago. Comparisons, in fact, have been made to Mr. Gaye and to Stevie Wonder — both of whom, Mr. Legend says, were among his major musical influences.
“I don’t know whether I’m the next Marvin or Stevie, but if people think that all I can do is say ‘Thanks,’ ” he says. “I can’t say, though, whether as an individual I’ve been a catalyst for change. That’s for others to decide. Besides, it’s not just me. There’s Kanye [West]. There’s Common. There’s a whole group of us on our label [Sony] who have positive messages in their music.”
WHAT: Alicia Keys’ “The Diary” tour with John Legend
WHEN: 8 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday
WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall, 18th & D streets NW
TICKETS: $45.50 to $85