Earlier this week, nine-time Grammy award winning artist John Legend took to the stage at the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania to deliver the annual, memorial Martin Luther King address. Returning to Penn for the second time in a year, I was drawn to the event more by the star power of Legend’s name then by the prospect of him saying anything of worth. Only a year ago, I’d witnessed James Franco play smarmy heartthrob in the same auditorium to an audience of swooning girls and say nothing I couldn’t have learned from a quick perusal of Wikipedia. Leaving the talk two hours later (I’d stayed for question time too just to hear the mellifluous Legend riff on his time at the university, coming up with Kanye West and playing piano on ‘The Miseducation of Lauren Hill’) I was pleasantly surprised by the buzz I got from seeing the neo-soul singer deliver a performance that was as polished and confident as those musical performances for which he has won acclaim. More exciting than hearing the night’s master of ceremonies awkwardly pronounce Legend’s latest Grammy nomination ['Tonight (Best You Ever Had)' featuring Ludacris] was confirming that a social consciousness in music still counts for something.
What was most impressive about Legend’s talk was not necessarily the way he evaded his interviewer’s questions to go on long, rambling tales about working in Philadelphia as The Roots, Jill Scott and Common were passing through the City of Brotherly Love. Nor was it the heretofore unknown fact that he worked at management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group out of college (where he was a 16 year-old freshman) and then chose music over Harvard Business School aged 20-something. Instead, it was the way he spoke about issues like education and poverty that really struck a chord. Every celebrity is a philanthropist and every celebrity tackles the serious ‘issues’ through foundations and associations and alliances but not every celebrity can speak so candidly, so fervently and so eruditely about such topics. The curse of fame is that it tends to delegitimize the sincerity of anything ‘serious’ you have to say about fundamental human concerns. Legend, as easily as he would slide between octaves on one of his tracks, has eluded the inevitable to present a powerful image of a celebrity in the know. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by famous people talking eloquently but John Legend, two hours of Presidential-level talk later, was the real deal.
‘Ordinary People’ is quintessential John Legend. But as much as the song, second single from 2004 debut ‘Get Lifted’, has come to define Legend’s career – as close to a modern classic as most will get – he revealed that it was one of the only tracks on ‘Get Lifted’ that wasn’t written in the years he was kicking around as Kanye’s offsider trying to get signed. Instead, the song was penned at soundchecks across Europe in support of his label boss’s tour of the continent for his own debut ‘College Dropout’. Before each show, Legend suggested, he would sit down at a piano and write a few more lines of this song. The keys at the heart of ‘Ordinary People’ belie the stop-start nature of its creation. As John moved across social justice topics with ease, so too does his voice glide across the bars of this song so that even when it strains, you know the emotion contributes to what is ultimately an extraordinary setpiece. The dynamic is never jarring but feels fluid and natural throughout and the sentiment at the core of the song resonates with John Legend the man. Grammy award winner he might be but Legend is more than a cultural hero, he’s a people’s person too. Knowing that there is some real thought, serious intelligence behind a track like this makes it all the more beautiful.
John Legend – Ordinary People