For an emerging artist, John Roger Stephens’ decision to don the moniker “John Legend” was an audacious move. But now, 15 years after his debut album, Get Lifted, hit the shelves, it’s apparent the name couldn’t be more fitting.
Released on December 28, 2004 — the artist’s 26th birthday — Get Lifted was Legend’s introduction to the world as well as a showcase for the singer’s deft versatility and star power. It peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart and was certified Platinum in February 2005.
The album kicks off with “Prelude,” a 44-second intro to “Let’s Get Lifted.” On the latter track, Legend employs his smooth baritone over a Kanye West-produced beat. Cleverly, the lyrics are constructed in a way that allows Legend to talk to a lover or his listeners; either way, he’s gearing you up for a journey into his world.
If “Let’s Get Lifted” didn’t prove the Legend/West combination was special, the subsequent “Used to Love U” sealed the deal. It served as the album’s first single and features Legend denouncing his former gold-digging lover over gliding keys and a snappy drum break lifted from “Doggone” by Love, the classic psychedelic rock band.
“Used to Love U” represented hip-hop soul at its finest. During that era, rappers and R&B artists flocked to West to attain his signature sound, bursting with soul-based samples. His celebrity had risen after he produced a handful of tracks on JAY-Z’s The Blueprint album from 2001, and he built on that sound with his own 2004 debut, The College Dropout.
Legend was in-house. He had signed to West’s G.O.O.D. Music label in 2004 — Get Lifted was the label’s first album release — and they’d been working with each other since meeting through Legend’s roommate, who was West’s cousin. Also during this time, the singer chose to drop his original surname and adopt the name “Legend.” The moniker was given to him by a friend who was impressed by his old-school sound. “I knew it sounded a little presumptuous,” Legend told the Independent in 2005. “But I figured it would grab people’s attention. By being ‘John Legend,’ I put some pressure on myself, but I’m gonna try to make my music live up to it.”
Prior to his debut, he already had an impressive résumé. The Springfield, Ohio native had been obsessed with music throughout his childhood, and his main source of inspiration was the church, where he sang and played the piano. He matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania in Philly at 16, and shortly thereafter got his big break playing piano for Lauryn Hill on her 1998 song “Everything Is Everything.” Through his working relationship with West, he also collaborated with JAY-Z, Janet Jackson and Alicia Keys.
Legend switched things up a bit when it came to releasing his second single, “Ordinary People,” trading upbeat vibes for a stirring ballad of raw emotion. Over lyrical piano, Legend tells the tale of a love “past the infatuation phase.” In lieu of forcing things, he urges his lover to just “take it slow.”
While his first single was a solid introduction, it was “Ordinary People” that allowed him to cross over. At the 48th Grammys, the song earned Legend an award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, in addition to his awards for Best New Artist and Best R&B Album. The single also peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In later years, Legend would build on this crossover success and demonstrate his ability to traverse many different genres. On one hand, he can deliver a slick R&B ballad like “Tonight (Best You Ever Had),” while on the other hand, he can craft pop anthems like “Green Light.”
Get Lifted was a teaser for this talent. Cuts like “Alright,” “Number One” and “Live It Up,” all co-produced with West, play up the hip-hop-soul angle, while tracks like “Ordinary People” and “So High” underscore Legend’s more direct R&B gifts. He also reaches back to his gospel roots on “It Don’t Have to Change.”
Fifteen years later, Legend is a superstar — a mainstay of popular culture with an impressive, dynamic catalog. And it was this debut that set the stage for him to get there.
Gregory Dale is a Delaware-based writer who has contributed to Genius, CBS Radio, Philadelphia Weekly and the Washington City Paper.
Image: Kanye West and John Legend (from left) in May 2004. Credit: Johnny Nunez/WireImage.