John Legend On The Music Industry, His Career, Politics And Balancing It All John Legend seems to be one of the busiest people in the entertainment business. Apart from making music, in the past few years he has been all over TV, starring in NBC's live 'Jesus Christ Superstar' broadcast and producing multiple shows, including a new hip-hop competition show for Netflix. On top of it all, Legend remains engaged in political conversations and philanthropic causes. He sat down with Sam Sanders to talk about balancing it all and where his career has taken him. This episode includes language some listeners may find offensive.
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John Legend On The Music Industry, His Career, Politics And Balancing It All

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John Legend On The Music Industry, His Career, Politics And Balancing It All

John Legend On The Music Industry, His Career, Politics And Balancing It All

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. So we talk to a lot of actors and singers and performers on this show. Many of them have won awards, but very few of them have achieved the award status our next guest has. He is an EGOT, one of maybe 20 or so in the world ever. An EGOT is someone who has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. Today's guest has won all of those awards. You could call his career legendary. I am talking about John Legend. Please admire my pun.

OK. Besides winning all the awards, John Legend is also a very busy, very hard-working man. John is a co-host on the reality singing competition show "The Voice." He has an upcoming hip-hop competition show on Netflix called "Rhythm + Flow." He put out a Christmas R&B album last year and has a new album on the way soon. He even has a wine line.

In this chat, we talk about how John Legend gets it all done. We also discuss his extremely popular celebrity marriage to the one and only Chrissy Teigen. And, of course, we cannot discuss their relationship without discussing how the two of them recently got into a Twitter fight with the president.

Listeners, as a heads up, in that part of the conversation, there's some unbleeped offensive language. It may not be the best thing for kids to hear. With that, let's get to it. John joined me from his studio in Los Angeles. I was in New York. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVAN'S "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Hello.

JOHN LEGEND: Hello, Sam.

SANDERS: Hi, Mr. Legend. How are you?

LEGEND: How's everything?

SANDERS: Pretty good. Also I guess I should ask, what is your preferred title? I was like - do I want to call him Mr. Legend? Is he cool with that?

LEGEND: It's fine, but you can call me John.

SANDERS: OK. I'll call you John.

LEGEND: All right.

SANDERS: It is an honor and a pleasure to be talking with you today. I know you're very busy. You're in the midst of doing a lot of stuff today already. And, like, when I was researching this interview, I said to myself, like, you have to be one of the busiest people in the biz right now. You're still making music. You are producing and starring in live musicals. You're in a variety show on IFC. There's your work on "The Voice." There's "Songland" - this reality songwriting competition. You're extremely busy. And I don't even know if I was able to count up all the things you're doing right now.

LEGEND: Well, you know, it sounds like I'm really busy, but I don't feel like I am. I feel rested. I feel...

SANDERS: Oh.

LEGEND: ...Like I'm not overworking. I'm spending a lot of time at home with my family.

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: I'm getting a lot done, but a lot of it is because I have a lot of great people that work with me and for me. And I don't have to day-to-day be in the weeds of all the work that we do.

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: But I come in when it's important for me to add my creative voice and to appear in some of the productions that we put together. And I actually focus the most on just writing songs and recording songs...

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: ...And performing live...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...And doing what my core job is, which is to make music and make people feel good by the music that I make.

SANDERS: Yeah. So which of your projects, current or upcoming, are you most excited about?

LEGEND: Right now, timing-wise, we've got one thing that we produce that I'm very excited about, which is called "Rhythm + Flow." It's a new competition show that will be on Netflix, and it starts in October. It's a hip-hop reality competition show. So think of all the shows you watch where all the singers are competing but for hip-hop. And with hip-hop, it's different because they're not covering songs. They're creating their own raps and competing for the judges and for the audiences. And our judges are Cardi B, T.I. and Chance the Rapper. We've got some really great guest judges and producers and DJs and collaborators - people like Snoop Dogg, people like Jhene Aiko. And it's going to be a really fun season.

For me personally, as an artist, what I'm working on - I'm actually in the studio right now. And we just finished a deluxe version of the Christmas album that we put out last year. We added four more songs. And I'm working on a new original studio solo album...

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: ...That will come out early next year. I'm excited for people to hear that.

SANDERS: You know, going back to the hip-hop reality show that you're working on that launches soon...

LEGEND: "Rhythm + Flow."

SANDERS: "Rhythm + Flow." There are, at this point, a lot of reality singing or dance competition shows - "American Idol," "The Voice," which you've been part of...

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Other ones. Like, there's a lot. Do you wonder, worry or struggle with trying to make the next one feel fresh?

LEGEND: Well, I think the content is already fresh because it's hip-hop, and we haven't had that before. I think we've seen...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...So many variations of the singing shows, and I understand why they work. Part of the formula for the singing shows is that you're singing covers, so your singing songs that are already familiar but just unfamiliar voices. So the challenge of doing a hip-hop show is that it's a lot of original material that the audience has never heard before. And so they're being judged not only on their performance and their ability to perform in front of a crowd but also on their writing ability.

And I think it really works for Netflix because it's not network television. There, you know, aren't the same kind of restrictions around what can be said, and there's a lot more edginess that is allowed on Netflix. And I think it's going to be really a fresh addition to the reality competition landscape.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: Because no one can do it exactly like this...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...On network television.

SANDERS: Well, I mean, I'm just thinking now. It's like - you're going to want to be able to allow these performers to use profanity when needed, you know?

LEGEND: Exactly.

SANDERS: And it's like...

LEGEND: And our judges, (laughter) trust me, they use it, too.

SANDERS: (Laughter) When you see a thing like that, this reality where the TV landscape - no one has, like, malicious intent, but for years, reality singing doesn't have hip-hop, which means it's less black and brown than it should be. And now you're finally making space for that. Do you look at that and say, well, this industry - TV, all this stuff - it is systemically racist, or do you not think of it that way? Because there's all of these situations where hip-hop doesn't get as big of a platform. Black and brown voices don't either. And no one in TV is, like, saying, lock them out, but it ends up that way, right?

LEGEND: Yeah. And for a long time, the network system and kind of the traditional media outlets were afraid to touch certain things, afraid to be edgy in certain areas. And some of it has an overlay of racism and fear of kind of marginalized people having centrality in these systems.

But I think part of it was also just fear of whatever reaction they might get from the audience. And having to be mainstream, having to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, I think it psyched a lot of these networks out and made them afraid to take risks.

But now we're in a landscape where, I think, there are so many different outlets for marginalized voices that just didn't exist before. And because of that, we're being able to prove ourselves and show that our ideas are creatively exciting and also can sell really well.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: And all of these companies want to make money...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

LEGEND: All of these companies want to find audiences that weren't there before. And all of these creatives who have created this great work have shown the industry that this stuff can actually sell. And so I think everybody is on the bandwagon now, and you know, they're ready to create and allow these creatives to have their voices heard.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, I was going to get to this later on in the conversation, but now is a good moment to get there. Talking with you - like, I talk with a lot of singers and musicians. They don't have the kind of business savvy that you have that I hear coming out in this conversation. And that's in large part - and some folks might not know this - like, you had a former life as, like, a business consultant.

LEGEND: Yeah. I did that for three years. So I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I graduated in 1999. And, you know, I was going to class with all these other kids that were interviewing with, you know, the people that come and recruited our campus, which - a lot of management consulting firms and investment banks and, you know, big Wall Street firms. And so I was curious. A lot of my friends were doing these interviews, and I didn't study business. And in undergrad, I majored in English. I was just curious and I went to a couple of events. And one of the events had a few alumni that I was friends with. And it was put on by this company called Boston Consulting Group.

SANDERS: BCG, one of the biggest in the biz.

LEGEND: BCG, absolutely. And so I sat with a recent alumna of the school, and she was telling me all about her work at BCG. And it sounded interesting, and I decided to apply. I applied there and I applied to McKinsey. I got interviews with both of them. And I got hired with BCG. And I got this offer and it was, at the time, a lot of money for me. It was $50,000 a year (laughter).

SANDERS: That's good for a first job.

LEGEND: I remember, you know, being, like, thrilled, first of all, because that was pretty high for a first job and that was more than my dad ever made as a factory worker in Ohio...

SANDERS: Wow, wow.

LEGEND: ...So it was kind of like, how could I turn this down?

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: And so I knew that I wanted to make music for a living, but I knew, also, I had school loans to pay off and I had to pay my rent...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...And all these other things. And I didn't have any kind of...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...Nest egg for my parents. So I was like, I'm going to take this real corporate job. But during the meantime, you know, I was in the studio. At night, I would play local gigs around New York and Philadelphia. And I was meeting different creatives, people like Kanye, who I met in 2001.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: He was the cousin of my roommate at the time. And...

SANDERS: Really?

LEGEND: ...We were both - recently moved to New York. And he was trying to make it as a producer and, eventually, as a rapper. And I was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter. And we started working together in late 2001, early 2002.

SANDERS: Really?

LEGEND: And...

SANDERS: But you were active before that, right? Because if I recall correctly...

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...I first heard about you because you did the piano work for Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything," right?

LEGEND: Yes. Yeah, so that was my first major recording that I appeared on.

SANDERS: It's a pretty big first major recording.

LEGEND: Yeah. I was still in college at the time and that was my claim to fame in school (laughter). It was that...

SANDERS: How did they find you?

LEGEND: While I was in college, and even before I went to college, I was a choir director. So in high school, I was doing that at my home church in Ohio.

And then once I moved to Pennsylvania, I started driving up every weekend to this church in Scranton, Pa., which I connected with due to a family friend from Ohio. And I started directing the choir there and playing the piano. And one of the choir members was an artist and singer-songwriter named Tara Michel and we became friends. And she happened to have grown up with Lauryn Hill.

SANDERS: Wow.

LEGEND: And Lauryn invited her to come out to the studio in Jersey where she was recording...

SANDERS: Wow.

LEGEND: ..."The Miseducation" album. And one time, I was - I drove Tara to the studio. And, you know, obviously, she wanted me to drive her out there, but she also wanted me to meet Lauryn and possibly, you know, get a chance to show her what I could do. And during one of the breaks when they were writing "Everything Is Everything," Tara said, John, why don't you play a couple songs for Lauryn...

SANDERS: What?

LEGEND: ...I want her to see you sing and play. And so I sang one original song for her. And I sang a Stevie Wonder song.

SANDERS: Which one?

LEGEND: "Love's In Need."

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

LEGEND: (Vocalizing).

SANDERS: (Vocalizing).

LEGEND: Yeah. So I sang that and played it for her. And she was like, why don't you play on this song we're working on right now?

SANDERS: What?

LEGEND: And I played on "Everything Is Everything." And...

SANDERS: That's amazing.

LEGEND: ...I didn't know if that was going to make the album. I didn't know anything. But a few months later, I got a call from Columbia Records asking how to spell my name for the credits.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEGEND: And so that's when I knew - that's when I knew I was on the album. And I got a little $500 check. And I was on "Everything Is Everything," which was part of, you know, what was the most important album of that year and one of the most important albums in hip-hop history, really.

SANDERS: You're doing something right. I mean, like, I'm hanging out with the wrong black people...

LEGEND: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...Because you out here rooming with Kanye's cousin, casually...

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Up in Lauryn Hill's studio.

LEGEND: Well, you know, they say luck is when opportunity meets preparation. And I always tell people that because it's a combination of being in the right place at the right time but also being ready when that opportunity comes.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

LEGEND: And so I was trying to...

SANDERS: You were ready.

LEGEND: ...Make myself ready. I've been, you know, learning to play the piano since I was 4 years old. I've been singing and playing in church and in school and all these other places since I was a kid.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: And so by the time I was in that room with Lauryn Hill, I was ready for her to hear me. By the time I was in that room with Kanye, I was ready for him to hear me.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: Like I said, luck is opportunity meeting preparation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right, time for a break. We're talking with John Legend. After the break, we talk about that time President Trump got in a fight with him and his wife on Twitter. It sparked a hashtag that may not be the best thing for kids to hear. And there will not be bleeps around some of that discussion. OK? All right, we'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Flash-forward - you're doing this music, but you end up as a business consultant after college at Penn. Three years of consulting, you get in to the biz, like, officially, full time. But...

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...I'm wondering - what is the biggest lesson you took from your time as a business consultant that helps you in your career now? Because I'm guessing that you have approached your entire career differently than most performers because you have this training and this background that can...

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Probably allow you to walk into a meeting with execs and just feel confident in a way that they can't - other folks can't.

LEGEND: Yeah. I think the biggest thing I got was a certain comfort level...

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: ...That I could speak to executives, that I could hire the right people and that - I just had a kind of an elevated standard of the type of people I wanted to work with as well. And I think the biggest thing I got from working at BCG was just kind of an understanding of the standards that I was looking for when it came to the professionals that I surrounded myself with. But I don't think I think about my music as a consultant.

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: I really just go in and try to create something beautiful and special and something that inspires me and hopefully will inspire other people. And I'm intentional about not thinking about marketing that much when I'm in the studio just creating. I really try to divorce the marketing and the over analysis from that.

SANDERS: Yeah. I want to pivot now and talk about politics for a bit.

LEGEND: Sure.

SANDERS: Because on top of your work - TV, the productions, the music - you've become a fairly active voice in politics, particularly online. You have sparred openly on Twitter with the likes of Kanye West and Donald Trump. When that kind of stuff happens, is that more of a thing that you want to do or more of a thing that you feel that you have to do?

LEGEND: I think it's a combination. I think I've always thought of myself as a very political person. I've always read - even as a child when I would go to the library, I would choose to read about Dr. King. I would choose to read about the struggle. I would choose to read about people who fought for justice. And that's always been inspiring to me. I've always thought about my role as an artist and as someone with influence as something that is a special gift that gives me the opportunity to speak out about these things. And I wrote an essay when I was 15 years old. It was a McDonald's essay competition for Black History Month. It was called Future Black History Makers (laughter).

SANDERS: (Laughter) I love that.

LEGEND: And it basically - the prompt was - how will you make black history? And I said I was going do it by becoming a famous artist and using my success to fight for justice.

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: And I literally said that when I was 15. And I'm living that...

SANDERS: All right.

LEGEND: ...Twenty-five years later.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, when I think about getting involved in politics, I kind of want to ask you a little bit about, like, the best way to get at it. I mean, like, we see these Twitter spats happen. You know, there was an interlude with you and Kanye West when he came out and supported Donald Trump. There was an incident with you and your wife Chrissy and Trump a few weeks ago where the hashtag #p****a**b**** was trending.

LEGEND: Yes.

SANDERS: And like, did you ever say, yes, I want to be involved in politics, but putting my effort towards politics on Twitter will never go anywhere? Because, like, even you said after the whole Kanye West back-and-forth, that, like, that maybe didn't move the needle that much.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: And, like, seeing that weird hashtag trend with Trump, does that move the needle? Like, does sometimes - sometimes, for you, does the political voice on Twitter seem futile because it always ends up as just a fight that's just crazy and weird?

LEGEND: Well, I think those spats probably didn't advance anything one way or the other. I think they embarrassed the president, and I think he definitely took an L in the situation (laughter) kind of in the Twittersphere and in the eyes of public opinion. And I think it was probably entertaining for a lot of people, and it just further showed what a crappy human being he is on every level, but he shows that every day. But what it actually did - it highlighted the town hall, which was what got him (laughter) so riled up in the first place, that we didn't praise him specifically in the town hall. The town hall was about criminal justice reform.

SANDERS: This was the town hall that you did.

LEGEND: Yes, it was a town hall that I did with Lester Holt, highlighting the work that we do at my organization, FreeAmerica. And the real concrete work that we do at FreeAmerica is connecting with organizers in state and local areas, where a lot of these laws need to be changed, and we're actually mobilizing people, getting people out to vote. And the Twitter stuff got a lot of attention, and I think it did get positive attention for FreeAmerica and for the cause that we're fighting for, but that isn't core to what we do...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...Even though it gets a lot of eyeballs.

SANDERS: You know, we probably got to catch up listeners who didn't follow the whole thing. So y'all had the town hall.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: President Trump was mad because you didn't give him a shoutout. And then...

LEGEND: Yeah. We didn't - by the way, we didn't say anything bad about him.

SANDERS: You just didn't praise him.

LEGEND: We just didn't actively praise him. Just think how needy you have to be to watch MSNBC on a Sunday night. And so he was mad that we didn't talk about him and we didn't actively praise him because he thinks...

SANDERS: And then he - what? He called Chrissy something. What'd he call her?

LEGEND: He called her a filthy-mouthed wife. So he called me a boring singer. John Legend and his filthy-mouthed wife didn't praise him. By the way, my filthy-mouthed wife, she had nothing to do with the show. He just wanted to mention her because I think she's been a foil to him in the past. He's blocked her in the past, and I think he's always threatened by women that have their own voice and aren't submissive to him.

SANDERS: Yeah. And then from there, Chrissy makes - and I'm not going to say the word again.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: P a** B - she makes that trend.

LEGEND: Yeah, it's because she basically called him out for - because he atted (ph) me. You know, people that do Twitter a lot, you understand what atting means, which basically you mention their Twitter handle so that they see it in their mentions. He atted me. He atted Van Jones. He atted, you know, several other people. And the only person he did not actually at in that was filthy-mouthed wife (laughter). And so...

SANDERS: Oh. So she was like, if you're going to call me out, call me out.

LEGEND: Yeah. She was basically like, why didn't you at me? And you're a [expletive] (laughter). That's how that got trending.

SANDERS: Do you ever have days where you're just like, maybe no more Twitter - maybe just, like, the work on the ground? Do you ever get tired of it, that space?

LEGEND: I often will go through days where I don't look at my mentions, particularly when I know there's some story that brought me to the attention of the MAGAs out there. When they kind of mobilize around hating you, your Twitter mentions are just an utter mess. And so there's some days where I just won't look at it, and it's fine.

SANDERS: Chrissy, she seems extremely comfortable in that medium, and she makes it work for herself very well. She's just, like, really good at Twitter.

LEGEND: Yeah, she's very natural at it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: And she always has been.

SANDERS: Yeah. Does she get tired of it? She probably gets worse comments as a woman than you do.

LEGEND: Oh, yeah. She definitely gets worse comments as a woman. And I think she's gotten more savvy at it over the years because she understands, you know, if she wants to deal with those kinds of responses, she knows when they'll come and what kind of things she could say that would either make those responses more likely or make them less likely. And so I think she's able to kind of decide for herself how much she wants to stir things up and how much she wants to just leave it alone. She doesn't let it get to her too much.

SANDERS: OK. One more break. When we come back, John Legend tells me what he's listening to right now. We also share our gripes about the current state of the music industry. BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I was a sophomore in college when "Get Lifted" came out.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: And let me tell you, me and everybody I know played that album out.

LEGEND: Yeah, 15 years ago.

SANDERS: And there are at least three or four - Yeah. There's at least three or four little college talent shows...

LEGEND: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Where me and my friends were playing "Ordinary People."

LEGEND: Yes.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Over and over and over again. Like...

LEGEND: It's still a big hit at the talent shows.

SANDERS: It works.

LEGEND: And "So High," actually. I was talking to a writer that I was working with on my next album, and she was telling me how much friends of hers that sang at talent shows would sing "So High." And now "All Of Me," of course, gets that kind of coverage, too. I'm always honored when people want to sing my songs at these talent shows because, as a songwriter, that's part of what we want...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...Is making a song that other people are inspired by and want to sing.

SANDERS: Yeah. And, like, makes it last, you know.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: But thinking back to that first album, and you're about to put an album into the world soon - you know, 2019, 2020. Is it easier or harder now to put stuff out in the world? The entire industry has changed. The landscape has changed.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: The way we get people's music has changed. Do you like putting music out now more than you did back then?

LEGEND: Well, it's different. Everything's different. So I don't know if one's better than the other. Obviously, we sold more units back then.

SANDERS: Everyone did, yeah.

LEGEND: Because people still bought hard copies of albums. They went to Target.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

LEGEND: They went to Best Buy. They went to these places to...

SANDERS: I had a hard copy of your album, Mr. Legend.

LEGEND: Yes.

SANDERS: A hard copy.

LEGEND: Yeah. I mean, you didn't have a choice, really, at the time.

SANDERS: (Laughter) True.

LEGEND: Unless you were going on Napster, which was still not a huge thing at the time. And...

SANDERS: And I would never tell you if I did that (laughter).

LEGEND: Yeah. But that was really the only album of mine that was purely in that CD era. And we started getting into the piracy era not long after that and then into the legal streaming era, you know, more recently. But either way, it's never been the same when it comes to actually buying physical copies of music. I don't even buy physical copies of albums anymore.

SANDERS: Are you saddened by this reality?

LEGEND: I'm not really saddened by it because I love the fact that I can stream anything I want to listen to. I love, as a consumer of music, that the whole world is at my fingertips. When I'm in my car, when I'm at the gym, like, it's all there, and I can listen to anything I want. And I think that's great for music. I think it's great for listeners. I think more music gets listened to because of that.

But I think the downside is, you know, we still have to make sure everyone in the industry gets compensated well and writers can still survive and studio musicians can still survive and all these other people that kind of are part of the musical ecosystem can still make a living off of this streaming revenue.

SANDERS: Yeah. Do you think that the rise of streaming and the ways that we've changed how we listen to music - has it forced you to change your songwriting? Like, there's little things that we don't even notice. Like, because Spotify's algorithms look at whether or not people play the entire song all the way through, we now have artists making pop songs that are incredibly shorter than they were 10 years ago - things like that.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: Or, like, the album is kind of slowly dying, and now it's just single here, song there. Has the way the industry has just changed, has it affected the way you make a song?

LEGEND: It doesn't - it hasn't changed my songwriting at all.

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: Like, not even a little bit.

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: I think the only thing it really affects is probably how we think about releases. So sometimes we'll just put a song out and not connect it to an album, which is I think OK in this era, but we wouldn't have thought of doing that before. But I still like to do albums. I still like to think of them as bodies of work with a theme, with - you know, with connective tissue between the songs. And I still listen to the artists I love - I listen to their albums now. I am different from probably a teenager right now...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...Who may just go to a Spotify-curated list and - or curate their own list and listen to it that way. But I still think, for their favorite artist, they're probably still going to listen to the whole body of work and let it play. But when I do put an album out - which hopefully will be early next year - I'm going to be thinking, just like I did before, about great songs...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...And great flow between the songs and making sure it feels like a cohesive unit.

SANDERS: Yeah. What is the last album that you enjoyed in the current music landscape?

LEGEND: Oh, I love - James Blake's latest album I listen to a lot.

SANDERS: OK.

LEGEND: I like Rapsody's new album quite a lot. And Chance's album I really like as well...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...Which I'm a part of.

SANDERS: (Laughter) You are. You're, like, the first song on there.

LEGEND: Yeah. Rick Ross' album I'm a part of as well, and I've listened to that front to back quite a bit, too.

SANDERS: How do you feel about the state of hip-hop and R&B right now? You've said in other interviews recently that you're - that the state of affairs there could be better.

LEGEND: Yeah. You know, I think hip-hop's doing just fine. R&B (laughter)...

SANDERS: Wait - explain.

LEGEND: So there's just fewer - kind of a more narrow outlet for R&B, whereas I think when I first started out, I think R&B and hip-hop were more on closer to equal footing. And when I was growing up, in the '90s particularly, that was definitely the case. Now I feel like in the competition for kind of black music ears, hip-hop is more dominant. And so it kind of limits the opportunities for R&B to be as prominent and dominant in the zeitgeist.

SANDERS: I can hear it. Yeah, I mean, I can hear...

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: I mean, like, when you think back to the, like, classic R&B that Stevie Wonder was making, like, in the '70s, it was so musically lush, and, like, he was using chords that you just don't hear anymore.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: Like, they would just go more places musically. And, like, yeah, when R&B becomes more hip-hop, there's less space for all of that stuff. And you end up hearing songs with fewer chords, fewer movements, you know.

LEGEND: Yeah. But it's interesting because I feel like there's been kind of a resurgence of what we used to call neo soul with people like H.E.R. and other artists that I think are in that vein. And I think...

SANDERS: But you never hear them on top 40 radio, right?

LEGEND: That's correct. I think - it's interesting because, like, Khalid makes, I think, real R&B music, but he does it in a way that's pretty accessible to pop ears.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: And so he's broken through. I think Lizzo makes kind of a hybrid of pop, hip-hop and R&B. Things that are more kind of purely R&B, like a H.E.R. or something like that...

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: ...You don't hear on pop radio, and you don't really hear it on hip-hop radio that much, either.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

LEGEND: And so just I think it limits opportunities a little bit for R&B artists.

SANDERS: Yeah. It kind of bums me out. Like, my barometer for it is like - I want the industry to get back to the place where an artist like Anita Baker could just exist.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: She's not dancing. She's not fancy.

LEGEND: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDERS: It's not big, lush costumes. She just could sing, and the songs were good, and that could sell millions of albums.

LEGEND: Yeah. But I...

SANDERS: Like, what would Anita Baker do today?

LEGEND: I don't know. But I also feel like you just never know until that next artist comes around that captures everyone's imagination. Maybe someone can come along and do something like that again. You never know. And it's hard because I'm at a phase in my life where most artists tend to decline anyway. You know, 15 years into my career, and you know, I'm over 40. So the expectation is that, you know, my biggest hits are probably behind me anyway. And that's kind of...

SANDERS: Do you think that?

LEGEND: You know, I assume that that's the natural progression of things. That doesn't I mean I don't go out and try to make the best music I can. And you know, I still believe that I can make music that's relevant and important. But I do realize that, you know, if things go according to the way they've tended to go in the past, that eventually new artists come along that young listeners are more excited about. And they'll get more radio play. They'll get more, you know, pop coverage or whatever.

SANDERS: Whoa. John.

LEGEND: And that's just how things work.

SANDERS: John.

LEGEND: And I'm fine with that. It's OK.

SANDERS: It's - really? I don't ever hear musicians say that in interviews.

LEGEND: Well, I think no one wants to kind of cop to that.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEGEND: But that's just how things have always worked. And it's fine. But I'm going to still go out there and make music that's urgent and relevant and straight from my heart, and hopefully people will love it.

SANDERS: Wow. That is extremely candid of you because, you know, whenever I hear artist interviews or talk to artists, it doesn't matter how long they've been in the game or how relevant they are or not, they're always like, this is the newest, hottest thing and everyone's going to love it. And they're just - like, they have to sell in a way. And, like, hearing you be this honest...

LEGEND: Well, I - the thing is, I believe that about my music, too.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

LEGEND: But I also know that maybe it won't (laughter).

SANDERS: And you're OK with that.

LEGEND: But I believe that I'm making music that is going to be special and is going to be competitive, is going to be relevant, and I'm excited for people to hear what we're working on. But I also know that if I were 22 and putting it out and fresh on the scene, that same music would probably do better.

SANDERS: Hm. Do you get mad at that?

LEGEND: No, this is - it's part of life.

SANDERS: You're very Zen.

LEGEND: (Laughter).

SANDERS: John Legend, this was an honor and a treat.

LEGEND: Likewise.

SANDERS: Sophomore year of college Sam Sanders is just jumping up and down, screaming for joy.

LEGEND: (Laughter).

SANDERS: And I also forgot to thank you because you're one of those artists who, on top of having an incredible debut, the sophomore album, "Once Again," was even better.

LEGEND: That - I loved "Once Again." I preferred "Once Again" to "Get Lifted."

SANDERS: Listen.

LEGEND: And I still do (laughter).

SANDERS: It was on that Burt Bacharach tip.

LEGEND: Yeah.

SANDERS: And, like, songs like "Maxine" - I'm just like...

LEGEND: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Oh, this is canon. This is classic.

LEGEND: Yeah. "Maxine" is still one of my favorite songs I've written. "Again" is one of my favorite songs I've written.

SANDERS: Yeah.

LEGEND: That's on "Once Again." "Show Me" is one of my favorite songs I've written.

SANDERS: "Show Me" has layers.

LEGEND: Yeah. So many of the songs on "Once Again" are some of my favorites. I'm going to keep trying to top them. So hopefully we'll be saying that about my next album, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAXINE")

LEGEND: (Singing) I happened to notice a girl in a light shade of blue.

SANDERS: Thanks again to John Legend. You are hearing his song "Maxine," one of my favorite songs of his, off his second album, "Once Again," which I first heard way back in college, back in the day in San Antonio, Texas, at the University of the Incarnate Word. Ashley Abrams (ph), dear friend, if you are listening, do you remember dancing around to John Legend and Earth, Wind & Fire in the student government office way back in the day? Wasn't it fun?

All right, listeners, stay tuned for a new album from John Legend very soon. In the meantime, though, I want to hear from you. Drop us a line at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. You can tell us anything. Give us some story ideas, share the best parts of your week, share dog photos - whatever. OK, we're back in your feeds Friday. Till then, thank you for listening. We're going to go out with a bit more of John Legend's "Maxine." Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAXINE")

LEGEND: (Singing) ...Just as well because she had them, too. You should've seen her eyes, her lips, her face. She looked as sweet as honeydew. You should've seen the way she walked away, oh, she swayed her hips like you. I was only several steps from her, but she never noticed me. I took another sip of fine liqueur. It was quite a site to see. I happened to notice a girl in a light shade of blue. I happened to see her. The sight of her leaves me confused. She may not be you, but she looks just like you. She may not be you, but she looks just like you. Oh, you should have seen the way he stroked her hair and the smile that lit her face. You should've seen the way he kissed her lips. Did it have the same sweet taste?

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