"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
In advance of his first ever tour stop in Little Rock, I spoke with John Legend on the phone last month about his new album, the state of R&B and Ohio State football.
Q. Early in your career, you got pegged as a throwback. “Evolver” seems kind of like a rejoinder to that tag. Was it, as the title suggests, a natural evolution for you? Or was it more of a considered thing?
A. I think it was natural. It was influenced by other things I was hearing, but I think also just the restlessness of being an artist and wanting to do different things. I certainly haven't forgotten my soul roots — I'm going to go back to them on subsequent albums — but I'm really happy with the results of “Evolver.”
Q. You've said before that “Evolver” grew in part out of your frustration with the state of urban music today? What did you mean by that?
A. I don't find much of current R&B music stimulating. I think there's a lot of good music being made. I just think contemporary R&B isn't responsible for it.
Q. But what, specifically, don't you like about it?
A. With some notable exceptions, I don't think there's much respect for the craft of songwriting. I don't think there's a value based on quality. I think that right now there's a value placed on immediacy and catchiness, but not on making quality music. But there are clearly exceptions to that.
Q. You've collaborated with everyone from Al Green to Kanye to Q-Tip. If you had to pick, who's been your favorite to work with?
A. I love working with Kanye because he's a genius and we've made a lot of great records together and he's also been, more than any one person, responsible for where I am in my career today. I also like working with Will.I.Am. We wrote “American Boy” with Estelle. We wrote “Ordinary People” together. We've written a few songs on each of my albums.
Q. You grew up in Ohio, and you're on record as being an Ohio State fan. Do you think Terrell Pryor is going to lead the Buckeyes to the Promised Land?
A. I don't know about this year, but I think he's going to be very good. I think he had a decent year last year, for a freshman particularly. He has a lot of potential. I was looking as his stat line from last year, and he had some really good games, and some other good games when he didn't really pass that much. I think at this point, it's just a matter of how much he's going to grow and mature because he has the talent. Will Jim Tressell help him develop and give him the opportunity to do the right thing? I think he will. And I think we will win the Big 10.
Q. Then you'll play an SEC team and get beat.
A. [Laughs] Quite possibly. You never know. We'll see if the stars align this year.
Q. What's your stage show like? What should people coming to see you in Little Rock in a month expect?
A. It's grown since the tour started. We have a big LED screen behind me. We have a band of 11 pieces including myself with horns and background vocals and a rhythm section. It's a fairly big production for a soul music show — a good combination of that bigger and more energetic production and also soulfulness and intimacy.