Living Legend

The couple seated opposite John Legend are playing footsie under the table. All that's missing from this scene inside a cozy New York café is a little intimate music. That's where Legend should come in: love, romance and heartbreak lit up the singer's stellar debut, "Get Lifted." But right now the 28-year-old looks more queasy than inspired. "Wow, they're playing footsie in Birkenstocks," he says, stirring his tea distractedly. "Now that's true love."

There are some scenes that not even John Legend can render poetic. Still, he's managed to reinvigorate urban music with graceful, soul-filled ballads and simple but transfixing pop. Despite minimal airplay, Legend won best new artist at the 2006 Grammys and, along with his mentor Kanye West, raised the creative bar for a generation of MTV hopefuls. "I think we made something really cool and enjoyable, but I don't think we changed pop music," says Legend, a pianist who writes all his own songs. "Maybe it did push record labels to go with more artistic, less obvious choices. But they soon forgot. Have you listened to the radio lately?"

We have, and that's why Legend's second CD, "Once Again," can't come out fast enough. The album, due in October, is full of songs so perfect and pure they could have been sung a cappella. His voice is stunning whether he's singing about infidelity (a favorite from his last CD) and commitment--or having an existential conversation with God on the overwhelmingly beautiful track "Show Me." Legend just may be one of those rare talents who get better with each record

It's the songs, not the image, that make the man. Legend shows up for breakfast in a white, long-sleeved dress shirt, creased khaki shorts and a pair of deck shoes. "I've always thought of myself as a nerd," he says. "And I've always been fine with it. Why not? I am. OK, maybe when I was at Penn State I was the cool musician, but in the bigger music world I'm the nerdy guy. Growing up, I was also the nerdy guy. I guess that's where I'm most comfortable."

Legend's geekdom blossomed in southwest Ohio, where he lived with his dad, a factory worker and aspiring painter; his mother, a homemaker and seamstress, and his three siblings. His love for music was honed in church. Every Sunday his mom directed the choir, his father played drums and his grandma played the organ. His grandfather? He was the pastor. "It's such a great training ground for young black musicians," says Legend. "You have an audience, it's an important part of service and it makes you wanna be a better musician. If you're good in the church, people know you all around your area. By the time I was out of high school I was pretty well known in southwest Ohio."

Legend was driven. He played talent shows and school musicals, had two R&B groups and was a high-school salutatorian who graduated at 16 to attend Penn State. He landed his first professional gig playing piano on Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything," then met up with aspiring producer Kanye West. When West blew up, he made Legend's "Get Lifted" the first release on his GOOD Music label. It has since sold 1.7 million copies.

Regardless of Legend's success, there's still some question as to just where the piano-bar-playing soul crooner with a wry sense of humor fits in. There really isn't a radio station for Bill Withers-Tony Bennett hybrids. "My music doesn't sound like what urban or pop radio sounds like right now," says Legend. "I'm lucky to have an album that got a lot of press and a lot of acclaim. It gives me freedom to be different. But it's still a risk. I still don't have ready-made records to throw on Hot 97. I can't do that very well--you know, chase trends. Or at least I can't do it credibly."

CORRECTION: In "Living Legend" ("Music," Arts Preview, Sept. 4), we reported that John Legend went to Penn State, when in fact, he attended the University of Pennsylvania. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.