The little boy in John Legend doesn't come out until his album comes on. He's an animated person normally, sure, but play a little of his album and an excited smile begins to light up across his face. Play a little more and all of a sudden he's dancing around, singing as innocently and earnestly as a child in front of the mirror imagining himself a star. It's almost as if the biggest, most important event of his 25 years isn't happening in three weeks.
Lauryn Hill's "Everything is Everything." He was on that when he was just 19, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania.
He's all over Kanye West's debut album, The College Dropout.
He's on "Encore" and "Lucifer," from Jay-Z's Black Album.
Dilated Peoples' "This Way."
Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name."
Slum Village's "Selfish."
Janet Jackson's "I Want You."
Twista's "Overnight Celebrity."
Talib Kweli's "I Try."
Hell, if it was a hit on the charts in the past two years, there's a decent chance that John Legend had a hand in it, singing, playing keyboards or co-writing.
It's a dramatic reality, to know that you make more than your father when you're 20," Legend says now. "I had just graduated -- I couldn't even drink yet."
Legend, then John Stephens, graduated from Penn in 1999, an English major with a concentration in African-American Literature and Culture. He moved to Boston, where he had taken a job with Boston Consulting Group.
"I was broke and I could get a good job," he says. "I didn't need a good job, necessarily, but I was offered a good job ... I couldn't turn that down. I just interviewed, really, because all my friends were interviewing for the same stuff .... I knew it was just going to be a day job anyway, I knew I wanted to do music, and I figured why not have a good day job that pays well and not be waiting tables every night."
Legend's father is retired now, spending his days drawing and painting. He used to work on the assembly line in a truck factory. His mother works from home as a tailor and seamstress. When he was offered the job with BCG, making more money than his father ever had, he felt he had to take it, though he never saw it as anything more than temporary.
Legend says that, "the BCG job ... in hindsight was probably a good idea. But I always thought I was almost done. Even though I ended up working there for three years, I always thought oh, I'll only be here for a year, I'll get a record deal by then. I'll only be here for two years, I'll get a record deal by then. I'll only be here for three years, I'll get a record deal by then. I finally left after three years and I still didn't have a record deal."
But ever since his first real experience, in a New Jersey studio with Lauryn Hill, Legend knew, for sure, that music was what he wanted to do.
Legend grew up in a musical family. "I've been involved in music since I was born, really," he says. "I've just been immersed in it from day one. I was probably singing in the womb. It was that, you know, that much of an important part of our lives. Music's always playing at our house. My dad's always singing and dancing in front of the mirror... [it's] not just my immediate family, either. All my dad's brothers and sisters sing, his mother sings. My mother's mother was an organist at my church. She taught me really how to play gospel piano and keyboard and it was a cool thing to grow up in that kind of situation where art and music was so important to us."
So by the time he was three or four, he was already playing music. When he was eight or nine, he was in the choir at the Pentecostal church where he grew up. And even as a little kid, he began to write songs of his own -- mostly, he says, about "longing and desire. I was a horny little kid."
Legend's father, Ronald Stephens, says that the love of music that his son has, the desire to do it, was something that just evolved.
"I don't know that he really came out and told us that he wanted to [play music] as much as he just did it. When his grandmother passed away, he became the lead piano player [in his church choir] at a very young age, it was just kind of put on him, and he had the passion and the talent, so it just kind of started taking off in that direction without him really saying, 'You know, I really like this, I want to do music when I grow up.'"
When he came to Penn, music was still a priority. "It was funny, because academics weren't a priority to me. I did well, but it was never the main thing I was worried about," he says. "I had all the other things I was worried about, and then, oh shit, I gotta do some schoolwork too. So even now occasionally I'll have nightmares about missing a deadline or missing class. It still kind of haunts me."
While academics took a backseat, Legend focused on Counterparts, a Penn a capella group, where he was president and then musical director, and on a Bethel AME church in Scranton, an hour and forty-five minute drive away, where he directed the choir.
"One of the women who helped raise me, this woman named Cheryl Steptoe, she was a big part of the AME church .... She knew a pastor there in Scranton that really needed a musician, and she was friends with him, and she was like, 'Well, Johnny's coming to Philadelphia, is that far from Scranton?' And he's like, 'Yeah, it's an hour and forty five minutes, but 'Oh, he has a car, he can get up there. Can you guys pay him?' So they hired me. They needed a musician really bad, and I needed money."
The people at the AME church in Scranton became a second family to Legend. He was there every weekend, sometimes staying over Saturday nights, and he became close to many of the people he met there. When his car broke down, they bought him a new one. It was there, too, that he made his first real professional contact.
"There was a girl named Tara Watkins who was a friend of Lauryn Hill's. They grew up together in New Jersey .... She was living in Scranton at the time, with her husband, and she was in my choir. And we were friends, she was telling me she was going back and forth working with Lauryn on the album, she's like, 'You know what, can you drive me over? I want you to meet Lauryn anyway, and I need a ride.' So we drove over from Scranton to Jersey one Saturday afternoon and they were working on 'Everything is Everything.' Tara's really proud of me, and she's always bragging about me to everyone, including Lauryn, and so she had me play some songs for Lauryn, a couple songs, original songs I had written earlier that year. Lauryn really liked them, and she was like, 'Why don't you play on this song we're working on right now.'"
Legend had been thinking of striking out on his own, looking for a solo career in the music industry, and playing keyboard on that song was a moment that helped to cement the decision.
When John Legend arrived at Penn on Tuesday, October 5, to speak to Professor Michael Eric Dyson's class and perform in Houston Hall, there were just three weeks before the release date of his major label debut album, Get Lifted.
For John Stephens, the breaks came slowly. Concert after concert, year after year, trying to build a buzz and work toward a recording contract. For John Legend, success has come relatively quickly.
"This guy named J. Ivy was the first guy that started calling me that, but he started calling me that among a bunch of other people," Legend explains. "We were in the studio with Kanye ... and he came in and heard me for the first time, and everyone who hears me thinks I have an old soul and my music kind of evokes old soul, and he tried to voice it as the legend, John Legend. And everyone around me was kind of like, yeah, John Legend, that's hot. And I was like, yeah, whatever ... [but] before I knew it I had kind of like a nickname that had serious legs to it."
It was a fitting stage name, though, for someone like Legend, a man with great expectations on his shoulders, partially because of his association with another artist, one known for his confident statements about himself -- Kanye West, one of the industry's hottest producers and rappers.
"My college roommate, Devon Harris, who's also class of '99, Wharton, is Kanye's cousin. Devon's also a producer on the album, he produced three songs on the album, he's a very talented guy himself. But when Kanye moved out to New York in 2001, we had been there for a year as roommates in New York as well, and Devon introduced me and Kanye and he was like, 'Well, yeah, you guys should work together. Kanye, John's a great singer, songwriter, Kanye's a great producer, you guys should get together and do something.' This is before Kanye blew up as a producer, even, let alone as an artist."
The pair started working together, West providing the beats and Legend quickly writing songs to them. "I think it was just meant to be," Legend says. "We complement each other very well and we also have a lot in common .... We both have a great appreciation for the greats of all the genres we work in, and we measure against those things, and accept nothing less than that."
It's a collaboration that has turned out to benefit both artists. Last year, Legend signed to G.O.O.D. Music, West's production company. Under the deal, Legend's de facto record company is G.O.O.D. Music, while Sony Urban Music is the distributor -- G.O.O.D. Music handles the creative side, and throws whatever weight they can muster in to promoting Legend, as well. And with West in charge, that's quite a bit. "It gives him incentive," Legend says, "to give me all the promotion he can, which gave him an incentive to put me on Jay-Z's album, it gave him an incentive to put me on Alicia Keys' album, all these other artists I've worked with. Because I'm signed to his company, not just artistically, it's good business sense for him to promote me, and so that's why I did the deal. Because one, I thought we worked together really well, and two, I knew he would be in a position to utilize me in a way that would make my project more successful."
Still, it took time for Legend to begin receiving attention as a solo artist, rather than a session musician. He labored for two years in relative obscurity, singing hooks on songs anonymously, without the "featuring" credit that other, more established artists would rate, unable to get a record deal of his own. To Legend, though, it was always just a stepping-stone, and he believes that attitude is what kept him going. "I never saw myself as a session musician, that's what it was," he says. "I always thought of myself as a solo artist who happened to be doing some session work on the side. And so I never even thought of that as a career that I was doing, I thought of it as a temporary way of getting some money."
Now, though, as his name begins to be more known, his album release date approaches and his video starts to receive airplay, things are changing. "For a long time I wasn't famous, but I was next to someone who was, so I got to see all the things he was going through," he says. "I saw him go from being anonymous to famous, too. I got a preview of all of this stuff. I'm still kind of in-between, I walk through the airport now and people know who I am, I'm checking into a hotel, 'Hey, what's up, Mr. Legend?' I'm somewhat famous now, on a small level, but I've seen what happened to Kanye and seen how that affected him ... so I think it makes it easier for me. It won't be as surprising now."
"I think he has the absolute potential to be considered one of the all-time greats," Penn Professor Michael Eric Dyson -- who has taught classes on luminaries in the history of African-American music such as Tupac Shakur and Marvin Gaye -- says. "I absolutely do ... I think John Legend has the real potential to create a niche in his own generation that will allow him to be afforded the respect for his craft and the seriousness of his art that any other artist at his pinnacle has been at in his generation."
On Get Lifted you can feel that niche being carved. It's something in between R&B and hip hop, old-school soul with a breakbeat, between well-known artists and the underground musicians of the world. It's a young man still trying to find himself and his music, trying to combine a Pentecostal upbringing with a desire for sinning.
"I think it's gonna be one of those ... classics, like a Marvin Gaye record, What's Going On or Innervisions," says Dave Tozer, a collaborator with Legend since his days at Penn and the producer of four songs on Get Lifted. "It's one of those records that's not just a collection of singles. It takes you somewhere. It's a whole."
There's a narrative arc to the album. We watch as Legend deals with the issues of a 25-year-old, raised in a religious household, out on his own and suddenly famous. In some songs, he's going out, cheating on his girlfriend, partying. In others, he is asking forgiveness, going back to his girlfriend and his God and his family.
"If you listen to the music, it's pretty true and it rings true," says Harris. "There's a human side to it, sometimes you just can't resist. That's really true of any man, I think. I think it's consistent with his upbringing. It's wholesome, it's positive, but yet sometimes we're tempted."
More than that, though, Get Lifted is a carefully crafted piece of art, an homage to all the greats who have come before, from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to Snoop Dogg -- the kind of piece that makes you think that this kid might just make it after all.