John Legend is known for making music that goes straight to your heart — or the heart of the one you love. It's got a sense of passion in it that makes you drop what you're doing and want to start making out like time's standing still. He hasn't lost that feeling, but he's expanding his horizons on his latest release, Evolver.
The title tells the story -- Legend is evolving the sound of his music to create something broader, something to round out a live setlist and pack arenas. That's not to say he's lost the sex-appeal -- "Before you get into the shower/ Before you worry about your hair/ Baby give me one more hour/ I want you to stay right there" he sings on "Good Morning."
Outside of those ballads, Evolver introduces another side of Legend that includes a bit of reggae -- "No Other Love" -- and funk -- "Green Light." He says the ballads are usually the easy part when he's writing. "It's pretty easy for me to go in that direction, so I don't have to force myself to do that," Legend says by phone during a day off in Detroit. "It happens pretty naturally when the time is right. We definitely have some beautiful ballads on this album, so people won't miss that side of me."
Legend says he always puts pressure on himself to create the best album that he can, but the success of previous albums doesn't add to that. His debut CD, Get Lifted, earned him three Grammys -- Best New Artist, Best R&B Album and Best R&B Vocal Performance. His sophomore effort, Once Again, earned him a second Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
"You want to rise to the challenge every album," Legend says. "I felt pressure on the first album. I felt it on the second one. I feel it on this one. It's a matter of me having higher expectations for myself and wanting to make the best music I can possibly make. Each album, I approach it as a challenge. No album is any easier to make."
While he explores new sounds on Evolver, Legend acknowledges that sometimes it doesn't quite go as planned. "Sometimes it doesn't work, but if it doesn't work, it doesn't make the album," he says. "It doesn't hurt to try."
Legend's plan on the album was to make something that wasn't quite as intimate as those previous discs. The diversity of sounds gives his live show a more rounded-out feeling. "Even though each album has a different sound, you'd be surprised at how well the whole show comes together," he says. "We've remixed some things and on this tour we've done that to make them fit in with the sound of the current tour. It also brings new life into it because your fans have heard it and you want them to hear an exciting rendition that might sound different from what they've heard before."
Outside of his musical accomplishments, Legend has also been the driving force behind the anti-poverty Show Me Campaign. The organization is currently supporting Mbola, Tanzania, an area he has traveled to twice. "It's a five-year program and the idea is that you want to bring about sustainable change so that when the five years are up, they won't need as much hands on assistance because we'll have taught them how to fish rather than just giving them a fish," he says.
Legend got involved after the events of Hurricane Katrina got him thinking about the issue of poverty. His hope with the organization is to bring more awareness to his fans.
"When I went this year, we saw that instances of malaria had gone down dramatically, the school attendance has gone up dramatically, the crop yield had gone up dramatically because we taught them better farming methods and helped them obtain fertilizer," he says.
His work with the Show Me Campaign also led to the writing of "If You're Out There," an anthemic call to action. "It started out with the beat and the beat drove me to those lyrics and that theme," Legend says. "I wanted to write a call to action beyond my spoken words and into an actual song."
When not touring or on a humanitarian journey, he's also worked to help out rising stars of the music industry. His own label, HomeSchool Records, recently brought out R&B singer Estelle to the masses and Legend is currently working with his brother, Vaughn Anthony.
With all of those vocal talents, you'd think Legend would be more critical of the recent wave of AutoTune use on the musical landscape. However, Kanye West appears on the new album's "It's Over" using the famed vocal enhancement. "I always say that if a record sounds great, then it sounds great," he says. "If it doesn't, it doesn't. I don't hold it against an artist if they use AutoTune, I just hold it against them if they make a bad record."
Legend says his current tour is the biggest production he's ever done. The setlist has been changing on a nightly basis, until they can figure out the perfect one. Though only 30 years old, he says he continues to improve with age. "I'm definitely a better performer now and I know how to work a crowd better and deliver a show better," he says. "Part of that comes from experience and part of that comes from having three albums of material to work with, giving you the ability to pace the show with more flexibility."
John Legend will perform at 8 p.m. at Ovens Auditorium on Dec. 12 with Raphael Saadiq. Tickets are $62.