As the resident R&B specialist and one of the longest-standing members of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, John legend has come a long way since his 2004 debut. Since then, he has gone on to release two more solo albums and a collaborative LP with The Roots, and has appeared on countless songs with some of hip-hop’s greats, including Rick Ross, Ludacris and Andre 3000.
Now, Legend is gearing up for two more major milestones. Next week (September 3) marks the release of his fourth LP Love In The Future, and later this fall he’ll marry his longtime girlfriend, supermodel Chrissy Teigen. As Legend put the finishing touches on his new album, XXL caught up with the crooner to discuss the extended effort that went into Love In The Future, his kinship with Frank Ocean and his secrets to expertly walking the line between hip-hop and R&B.
XXL: When you first came out, you put albums out pretty consistently, but it’s been five years since your last solo project. What’ve you been up to?
John Legend: Well I did the Wake Up! album with The Roots in 2010, so it’s really only been three years in my mind, because I put as much energy and time into that as I would my own album. Then I did some shows with them and I toured with Sade, so I spent a decent amount of time on the road, and then I spent the past couple of years on the album. It took a little longer on this album than on previous albums, but I’m really just a year off my pace.
Was it the writing process that took a bit longer?
I worked with Kanye more on this album than I had before, and I think part of it is just us connecting and getting together to create, given how busy he is and how busy I am. Just finding time for us to work together kind of added a little bit of extra time to the process. But I think it was worth it.
How do you feel about the final product?
I feel like it’s my best album yet, and I think creatively, we did some great things. The collaboration and the talent that we have on the album is better than we’ve ever had. As far as producers, co-writers and people just helping shape the sound. I feel like Kanye’s leadership was great in helping to do that. I really feel good about it.
You put out your debut in 2004, so you’re something of an elder statesmen of R&B by now. Do you feel like it’s important to educate younger artists in the genre or do you just let them do what they do?
I don’t feel like I’m trying to teach any other artist anything, I’m just being myself. I don’t feel like it’s my job to tell other people in the genre how to make their music. I’m just being myself and doing whatever feels right for me. I don’t need everybody in the industry to follow me to where I’m going. I don’t mind being unique and having my own thing.
You wrote about Frank Ocean for Time Magazine and you seem to be a big fan of his. Tell me about discovering Frank and how you felt about his significance early on.
The first time we worked together, I didn’t even know him at all. He wrote a song called “Quickly” that ended up on my last album Evolver. It was a duet between me and Brandy. When I recorded it, he was just the guy who sang the demo and wrote the song. But I loved the song and I thought it was dope, so I cut it. Since then, we ended up working together for the first time in 2009 and I was impressed by how creative he was, how interesting he was as a writer and it seemed like he had a lot to say and a unique way of saying it. So we’ve become friends since then, and we’ve collaborated on a few things.
In the past you’ve worked with Rick Ross, Ludacris, The Roots and obviously Kanye. Looking back, how do you think you’ve been able to walk the line between hip-hop and R&B so well?
It’s easy. We all work with the same producers, and we’re in the same crews. I’m working with Kanye, who’s working with Big Sean, who’s working with Rick Ross, who’s working with Jay Z. So we’re all part of the same circle, and even though I come at it from a different perspective, we definitely influence each other. I just want to make great music, and it comes different ways. Sometimes I’ll write the hook and come up with a lot of the music and help shape the whole record. Sometimes somebody else wrote the hook but I think it’s dope and I’ll come in and sing it. It just depends on the situation. But at the end of the day, I just want the record to sound great.