Sitting on a fluffy blue couch in the New York offices of Columbia Records, John Legend is surrounded by walls displaying framed portraits of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday.Sitting on a fluffy blue couch in the New York offices of Columbia Records, John Legend is surrounded by walls displaying framed portraits of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. It's seemingly an appropriate setting for Legend, whose 2004 debut, "Get Lifted," was a collection of urban-tinged midtempo songs, and whose "Once Again" in 2006 featured '60s-inspired tracks with lush instrumentation.
But as he spoons out Celestial Seasonings tea from a small white cup, Legend, sporting a V-neck T-shirt, dark jeans and high-top sneakers, looks anything but retro. And the music on "Evolver," his album slated to drop Oct. 28, is anything but nostalgic.
"This album doesn't sound like me," he says. "The tempo is faster than I've done before. It will be different for people, because 'Evolver' has a bit more instrumentation than I've used before. But it's not like you won't recognize the artist—it's still me."
From its bouncy introduction, it's clear that Legend's first single, "Green Light," which features André 3000, isn't his traditional style. The track boasts a galactic spin with electronic keys and shooting-star-like sound effects over a quick two-step drum beat. It was co-written with Rick Nowels and produced by Malay and former Sony urban executive VP of A&R Kawan "KP" Prather. After the song leaked online in June, the video premiered on MTV's "FNMTV" in August—causing Legend to question the monthlong lapse between the leak and the push to mainstream TV.
"Why'd it take so long?" Legend asks, smiling. "Ask my label."
Legend and his manager, Gary Gersh of the Artists Organization, say that the pop direction of "Green Light" made some in Columbia's halls nervous that the single might alienate his core urban AC audience. (When asked directly about the label's apprehension, Columbia VP of strategic and product marketing Quincy Jackson says that "it was important that the first single be a song that was released worldwide [simultaneously]. 'Green Light' impacted urban and rhythm radio formats on Aug. 19 and the video premiered on 'FNMTV' on Aug. 22, which worked out well.")
But Gersh says resistance from a label is par for the course when an artist takes a new direction.
"It never fazed us that we got that reaction," Gersh says. "When you hear something new that sounds outside of an artist's zone, you can have two reactions. One: 'Oh, my God, this'll scare everyone off,' or two: 'This is a natural evolution of where this artist is going.' Some believed in "Green Light" wholeheartedly; some took a while. We decided to believe it in, Sony believes in us, and I think it will bear out for them in a big way."
The track is Nos. 44 and 39 on Billboard's Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts, respectively. New York's WQHT (Hot 97) began playing "Green Light" in July. "It's dope with a great melody and it's very catchy," WQHT PD Ebro Darden says. "Both John and André 3000 are core for our listeners. Why would anyone wait?"
Other "Evolver" tracks include "No Other Love," featuring Legend's Homeschool Records' artist Estelle, in which Legend tries his hand at a midtempo reggae track about loyalty. "Cross the Line" opens with ticks from an 808 under Legend's smooth tenor just before a booming bass and squashed, fuzzy keys conclude the song. On the Pharrell Williams-produced "It's Over Now," featuring Kanye West, synthy keys run as Legend asks a woman to leave. On "This Time," Legend sings a cappella for a portion of the song and then utilizes only an acoustic piano and strings.
"Good Morning" is Legend's favorite "Evolver" cut—an instrumental of the track opens the album and the full cut closes the CD—and has Legend begging a lover for one last roll in the hay before starting her morning commute. The singer is toying with releasing "Good Morning" to urban AC radio while "Green Light" grows in the crossover and urban arenas. "My songs are always about love and devotion," Legend says. " 'Good Morning' is about sex more explicitly than I've written about before. Sooner or later I had to go R. Kelly on my fans . . . without going all the way."
For his part, Legend is taking his transition in stride. Go ahead, call his new smooth sounds electronic or pop—just don't call it adult contemporary.
"I hate that term," Legend says. "That's likening my music to the Kenny G's of the world—just because it's mellow and adult-friendly doesn't mean it's like that. 'Once Again' was romantic and nostalgic. I feel like I'm having more fun on 'Evolver.' "