- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

With a name like John Legend, you wouldn’t expect him to have to worry about anonymity — and if he keeps giving performances like the one he gave Saturday night at Kili’s Kafe & Lounge, he won’t.

Mr. Legend, the R&B; phenom signed to hip-hop golden boy Kanye West’s Good record label, breezed through the District to promote his major-label debut, “Get Lifted.” Selling more than 115,000 copies in its first week of release, the album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 7.

Mr. Legend is far from an overnight success, though, even if few had heard of him before this year. He has paid dues as a backup singer and session musician for big names including Mr. West, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.

“We’re not supposed to have an album that high on [the charts]” he told the crowd Saturday. “I don’t have any top 20 singles. But word-of-mouth is better than radio to me. Ya’ll keep telling your friends, and we’ll sell millions of records by the end of the year.”

Evidently, the word is spreading.

Thanks to the grapevine, and his Kanye West-produced debut single “Used to Love U,” Mr. Legend easily sold out Kili’s at 2009 Eighth St. NW. Formerly Kilimanjaro Restaurant and Nightclub, a popular dance venue in Adams Morgan, the spacious club reopened last year and has brought in performers such as Mr. West, Miss Keys, Ja Rule and Capleton.

Does Mr. Legend live up to expectations? Well, he’s good. Very good. There’s a slight raspiness to his church-honed falsetto that gives his music an old-school, soulful feel, like a young Al Green. His attack is two-pronged, though, as he also happens to be a classically trained virtuoso on the piano.

He didn’t merely hide behind his keyboard all night. His stage presence and crowd control were surprisingly solid for a rookie with only one CD under his belt.

Milking his short discography, Mr. Legend performed the crowd-pleasers from his LP, including the spacey, Marvin Gaye-inspired “Let’s Get Lifted Again.” The charmingly belligerent “Alright,” a tale of scheming to take another man’s lady at the club, evoked a little two-step from the singer. Of course, “Used to Love U” got the crowd moving.

To his credit, Mr. Legend also ventured beyond his familiar material. A standout performance was “Sun Come Out,” which he released independently last year on a live CD, “Solo Sessions Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory.” The audience, largely unfamiliar with the track, nodded along indifferently until the song found a groove and eventually elicited one of the biggest crowd responses of the night.

Another risky move that paid off was his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” during a brief encore set. Covering Stevie is a nearly blasphemous act of hubris with the potential to backfire badly, but rather than imitate the Motown great, Mr. Legend made the song his own.

The high point of the show was his performance of the album’s centerpiece “Ordinary People,” which is making its rounds on urban radio. Accompanied at first only by his own elegant piano playing, Mr. Legend eventually was joined by the band, which closed out the song with a flourish. It was enough to make you wish the studio version had been recorded like that.

Already a polished, captivating performer with an array of solid material, Mr. Legend is on the cusp of stardom, and if Saturday night is any indication, living up to his moniker.

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