In 2003, John Legend became one of the first people to sign to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label. At the time, it seemed like John was just Kanye's go-to hook guy. And then, Legend quickly established himself as a premiere soul artist, with hits like "Ordinary People" and "Used To Love U." Since then, he's worked with 'Ye on several great records (including 2010's "Blame Game") and done a gang of features for everyone from Jay-Z to Rick Ross to Talib Kweli—all while maintaining a thriving solo career.
When G.O.O.D. Music finally dropped its first compilation in September, Cruel Summer, you knew John was going to be involved, even if it was more in the role of a veteran down to score a few points in the all-star game than go for the highlights. Legend was down to talk about one of the year's most talked-about albums, reminisce about the early days with Ye, and recall one of the few instances where Kanye West was actually wrong about something.
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
What does the G.O.O.D. Music brand mean to you?
It starts with the name itself. We wanted to be known for quality. We wanna be successful and commercial, but we all really care about art and about putting out great art. It’s that creativity, that attention to detail, that quality control. That distinguishes us from other folks that might just be chasing a hit, but not be caring about quality in the way that we do. [Kanye] picks artists that really care about making great art.
So Kanye's kind of been able to live the best of both worlds?
Yeah, that's been his genius, as an artist and as a producer. He’s known for being on the cutting edge of what’s fresh, exciting, and interesting, but also knowing how to capture the zeitgeist of what's going on.
How has G.O.O.D. Music changed from its original incarnation to now?
It's hard to even take my mind back there because it's been quite a while. I signed with Kanye back in 2003, and at that time The College Dropout hadn’t even come out, so he was still relatively unknown compared to where he is now. He wasn't a household name, people were still calling him "Kane."
I'd met him in the summer of 2001, when he had moved to Newark. He was living there and working with Roc-A-Fella, producing tracks on Jay-Z's and Beanie Sigel’s album. When I first met him, it wasn’t really like: This dude is going to be a huge producer. It was like, this is my friend’s cousin and I heard he's pretty good. So we started working together.
At that moment, it wasn’t my plan to sign a production company or anything. I was trying to get a record deal, but I didn’t expect that I would need to go through a producer or go through another artist. I was just working with him. And I started to see: This dude is onto something.
What'd was that moment like, before College Dropout came out?
I remember saying to him I felt like it was going to be really important. It made me think of the The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in a way—not that it was sonically the same, but the level of creativity and importance that it was going to carry for the culture. When he asked if I would sign to him as I was seeing where the album was going, I was like, “Yeah. This is going to be a good look.”
I thought to myself, This guy is really doing great work. The songs we were doing together for my project and for his, so I was doing songs like “Used to Love You,” “Number One,” and this other track “Do What I Got To Do” that didn't actually make my album. But the tracks that were forming, like “The Heart” and “Get Lifted.” I was working with him and I felt like we were doing something special. His star was rising and everything was coming together at the right time so I was like, “Yeah, I should sign with him.”
Did anyone tell you not to sign with him?
My manager and my lawyer were like, “Nah, John, you’d have to give up too much money, you'd have to do this, you'd have to do that.”
Did you envision he would be the artist he is today?
When I first met him, I didn't. It’s crazy, because when I first met him, he really wasn't even known as someone who was trying to be an artist. He had to fight and claw his way into record label offices to play his own music. They'd be like, “Man—we want to hear some beats for our artists.” And he was like, “No, I rap.” They were like, “Who's this producer trying to make records for himself? Why is he keeping the good beats? He should be giving them to Jay.” So at that time people weren't really taking him seriously.
It’s crazy to see how big he is now, knowing that back then, cats weren’t really checking for him. I think him being an underdog, he’s always had that kind of chip on his shoulder and that desire to prove himself to everybody because no one believed he could do it. But I started to see it. It felt like, this is not just good hip-hop, this is important hip-hop.
Your albums came out the same year.
Kanye came out in February ‘04, and I came out in December of ‘04.
But you were able to establish yourself as your own artist.
A lot of that was set up by the success of College Dropout. I wouldn’t have gotten a bidding war going on for me if it wasn't for the success of College Dropout. I got signed two months after his album came out, and I put an album out in December, so it was a pretty quick turnaround. But I don't think I would’ve had all the labels clamoring to sign me if College Dropout didn’t succeed in the way it did.
I had met with the same people like six months before, with the same demo basically, and all of them turned me down. I was going around with what was Get Lifted essentially, except for a very notable exception: “Ordinary People.” [It] was really the only new song that was done after I got my deal. Everything else was pretty much intact, my sound was already intact and no one was signing me yet. As soon as Kanye’s album came out it was like, “Okay, what else does Kanye have coming out of his camp?” It's so funny how the same song sounds a lot better when there's some heat around it. Even more so now.
Why do you think that is?
The record business is slower, everything is scarier for these execs—people are scared, a lot of people are getting fired. So they feel like they need a lot of validation before they'll sign you. But that strategy only works so far, because there have been plenty of artists signed to artists' labels that haven’t had nearly the kind of success that the artist they signed with did. Even with G.O.O.D. Music, we have artists that have done very well, and we've had artists that haven't. Being attached to Kanye is only going to get you so far. You've still got to have the records and the talent and the artistry on your own to carry it.
Right, I think Big Sean is a good example of that.
Yeah, he's a star now. He's like, a legitimate star. It's exciting to see it happen. I remember just hearing that song he had with Chris Brown in the studio. It was crazy seeing it blow up the way it did because it felt like it had the possibility of doing that a few months before it came out. When it came out, it did its thing and it really put him on the map. And he just followed it up with quality, fun records. He's really established his own persona. I think that’s really what you have to do. You have to use that push you’ve gotten from working with someone like Kanye, and use it to establish your own persona and have your own space in the game.
When you look at some of the other artists in G.O.O.D., what does it mean to have Kanye involved in the production of your album? Because it seems like a double-edged sword.
You have to learn how to work with people. I’ve worked with him for such a long time, so I understand how to interact with him and get the most out of him.
What do you go into working with Kanye West thinking? What's the mentality?
I know I’m not gonna get a lot of time out of him because I know he’s busy. But I like hearing his feedback. I don’t agree with everything he tells me, but he’s clearly got a great track record. So if you’re gonna get advice from anybody, he’s one of the main people on earth that you would want to get advice from.
That doesn’t mean he’s always gonna have it exactly right.
He always tells a story where he wasn’t sure “Ordinary People” was a good chorus. He’s like, “I don’t really like ‘ordinary.’ I think you should change it to some other word.” Not to say, “Oh, Kanye was wrong,” but to say, you know: Everybody’s got an opinion, and sometimes we’re not gonna agree. But if you go with your gut and listen to the good people around you, then hopefully you make a good decision.
I forgot who said that, maybe Cudi, but they’ll have these discussions with Kanye about stuff and he’d be like, “You should change this.” They kinda went against Kanye, and Kanye was wrong in the end, and Kanye called them up and said, “Yo, man, I was wrong about that, I’m man enough to admit you guys made the right move.”
The thing is, it’s all out of a place of honesty and desire to make the best art. You get opinions from people. I have artists from my label as well. I know how it is. I listen to all their stuff, and be like “Nah, you shouldn’t put this song on the album. Nah, you should change this.” Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t.
How do you get something out of Kanye, even if your time is limited?
It’s just a matter of getting him to focus a little bit on what you’re trying to do. He’s got so much going on—that’s the challenge—but if the timing’s right, and you do the right things, you get that focus. You just gotta manage his focus.
How do you get his focus?
My thing is: If he has to take a phone call while I’m playing a song, I just play it again when he gets off the phone. You just gotta make sure he’s paying attention, and it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is or if they aren’t. He’s always 100 percent honest, but he’s very demanding of himself and demanding of others too.
Do you feel pressure when playing a song?
I’m trying to impress him, and I know he’s not easy to impress. But if I know he loves it, I know most people would probably love it. His bar is higher than most people’s bar. That doesn’t mean everything he loves I love and vice versa. Like I say: Sometimes we agree, and sometimes ultimately it’s my album, and I’m gonna do what I want. Honestly, I’d prefer that he loved every song on it because if he did it’s gonna be pretty dope because he has good taste.
Your first two albums had a lot of Kanye, but your last album didn’t.
It’s funny because Get Lifted only had, like, four Kanye songs, but in the marketing and the way we talked about it, it was definitely more influential on that album. But he was just as influential in Once Again. The only one he wasn’t as influential in was Evolver, where he just raps on one song. For this new album it’s back in the mode of Get Lifted and Once Again.
What’s the difference between working with Kanye West and working with all the other producers you’ve worked with?
I work with a bunch of producers on every album, but the difference for Evolver was that I couldn’t get any time with Kanye. I forget what he was doing at the time, but he was all over the place. We were never at the same city at the same time. Everything about making the album was the same except I didn’t get any joints with him, really. I definitely missed that, and I wanted to work with him more on this album, and I have been able to.
Has working with him has changed your process?
His attention to detail, craft, and making videos and everything else just sets a high standard. It makes me want to reach that as well.
Yeah and he’s changed a lot over the years.
His core hasn’t changed. Part of his core is that he’s always pushing himself. That’s always been part of his core. The fact that that’s at his core is what makes him try new things with each album.
When I look at the G.O.O.D. music roster right now. There’s a very eclectic mix of artists. What do you think is a common thread between all of them?
The attention to quality, creativity, and how each of them have their own lane.
There are some new additions to the roster. I don’t know if you’ve gotten a chance to work with them.
I’ve worked with Pusha, Big Sean, Cudi, and I’ve worked with Q-Tip.
Real interesting is 2 Chainz. He’s such a wildcard in that mix.
Yeah, he definitely is. [Laughs.]
If you did a song with 2 Chainz, that would be some other shit.
You never know. Hip-hop is one of the most free art forms there is. There’s so many sounds you can use, so many things you can bring in. You never know, man. I bet years ago people would’ve never said they would hear me with Rick Ross, and we did four classic songs together.
You’ve been there from the beginning. Is it weird for a G.O.O.D. Music album where you’re not all over it?
If I was new, I might’ve because I needed promotion. If cats hadn’t heard me on another hip-hop joint already. But I’m on so many. It’s not gonna affect my career.
So what’s up with your album?
I don’t want to talk too much about it, because it’s not done, and I don’t want to over-preview it, because things might change. But I know the sound. I know what my mission was when I came into it. My mission was: How do I make a definitive 21st century soul album? We’ll see if I accomplish it, but that’s what the mission is.
I think last year some interesting things happened in R&B, especially with acts like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. But I wouldn’t call them soul artists.
I look at Frank, and I think he’s a soul artist. But it’s modern soul, and that’s part of what it means to define what 21st Century Soul is. It should be fresh, and it should be different. I haven’t heard The Weeknd that much. I’ve listened to a little bit of it, and I liked what I heard. I know Frank’s music very well and I love Frank. I think he’s phenomenal. I love his sound. He has an interesting mind and interesting lyrics. He really makes some cool music. That’s an example of—he doesn’t like to be categorized this way—but I think it’s modern soul music. Because if you just want your soul music to sound like your grandmother’s or your mother’s soul music, then that’s not really answering the question that I had earlier.
I look forward to hearing the album. I hope it’s not like my grandmother’s music.
It won’t be.
We'll hold you to that.