Ever since his smash hit All Of Me, John Legend has been considered to be a romantic teddy bear, but is his music really as sweet as it sounds? Or is there a hidden edge to the lyrics?
Since the living legend (nicknamed by friends; he was born as John Stephens!) is performing in the Ziggo Dome this Friday, we decided that this was a good excuse to look a bit deeper than his feel good sound and to discover what he’s actually singing about.
The meaning of John Legend’s repertoire based on 5 hits from 5 different albums:
5. Used To Love U – John Legend (Get Lifted, 2004)
After catching a lot of attention for playing the piano part on Lauryn Hill’s Everything Is Everything, his contribution to music by artists such as Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson and the vocal hooks he sang for Jay-Z and Kanye West, his debut album Get Lifted was finally released in 2004.
The first single that he released in The Netherlands was Used To Love U, a song about a bygone romance:
Baby, when I used to love you
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
I went through the fire for you
Anything you asked me to
But I’m tired of livin’ this lie
It’s getting harder to justify
I realized that I just don’t love you
Not like I used to
Used To Love U – John Legend
This song represents the rest of the album. It’s an honest mix about life which covers all kinds of topics: love (Ordinary People, So High and Stay With You), sex (Let’s Get Lifted and Let’s Get Lifted Again), nostalgic family memories (I Don’t Have To Change) and celebrating victory (Live It Up). Lastly- and I find this pretty surprising- three songs are about cheating; She Don’t Have To Know, Number One, and I Can Change. If you look at the other albums in this list, this might be John’s wild side…
Anyway, Get Lifted was nominated for an impressive 8 Grammys and won 3. A great start to his career!
4. P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care) – John Legend (Once Again, 2006)
The final breakthrough in The Netherlands came in 2006 with the album Once Again. With songs like Save Room, Heaven and Stereo, Legend took over the radio waves. Just like his debut, this album covers everyday topics. The most notable song in my opinion is P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care).
P.D.A. stands for ‘Public Display of Affection’ and John is pushing it to the limit:
Let’s go to the park
I wanna kiss you underneath the stars
Maybe we’ll go too far, we just don’t care
We just don’t care, we just don’t care
You know I love it when you’re loving me
Sometimes it’s better when it’s publicly
I’m not ashamed, I don’t care who sees
Just hugging and kissing our love exhibition
Yep, he really wants it and doesn’t only want to take his sweetheart to the fire escape:
We rendezvous up on the fire escape
I like to set off an alarm today
The love emergency don’t make me wait
Just follow I’ll lead you, I urgently need you
But also to the restaurant where she works:
I see you closing down the restaurant
Let’s sneak and do it when your boss is gone
Everybody’s leaving we’ll have some fun
Or maybe it’s wrong but you’re turnin’ me on
And to his mother in law’s house (!):
Ooh, we’ll take a visit to your mama’s house
Creep to the bedroom while your mama’s out
Maybe she’ll hear it when we scream and shout
But we’ll keep it rocking until she comes knocking
P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care) – John Legend
How many times have you sung along to these cheeky lyrics by Mr. Legend?
3. Wake Up Everybody – John Legend & The Roots, feat. Common & Melanie Fiona (Wake Up!, 2010)
John Legend supported Barack Obama during the 2008 American election campaign and was inspired to shake up the country with a new album. He released Wake Up! with The Roots; a collection of covers of protest songs from the 60’s and 70’s by artists like Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway. The title track Wake Up Everybody is also not written by John Legend, but by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. Even though these are borrowed lyrics, they are too beautiful to ignore:
Wake up everybody
No more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’
Time for thinkin’ ahead
The world has changed
So very much
From what it used to be
There is so much hatred
War and poverty
What can be done?
Wake up, all the teachers
Time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen
To what’cha have to say
There’s also a task for the doctors:
Wake up, all the doctors
Make the old people well
They’re the ones who suffer
And who catch all the hell
And for the builders:
Wake up, all the builders
Have to build a new land
This is actually for everybody…
The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it,
Just you and me
Wake Up Everybody – John Legend & The Roots, feat. Common & Melanie Fiona
These lyrics were written during Nixon’s presidency and are an interpretation of society at that time. Legend thought that they were relevant again in 2008 and seeing as even today improvements in (American) education, environment and healthcare are still hot topics, the song still fits. Maybe it’s time to stop snoozing and turn these words into action?
2. All Of Me – John Legend (Love In The Future, 2013)
Legend released the album Love In The Future in 2013. As you can guess from the title, this album is a true tribute to love.
The Beginning is about young love, in Hold On Longer Legend asks his love to push through at a time when the relationship isn’t going well, in Tomorrow he seizes the day; haven’t they already waited long enough?, Wanna Be Loved is about loneliness and Open Your Eyes is about feeling down about a love that you don’t have, that turns out to be there after all if you open your eyes. Something for everyone!
The big hit off this album is of course All Of Me. Legend wrote this song for the model (then still his fiancé) Chrissy Teigen and they played the lead roles in the music video that was filmed a couple days before their wedding at Lake Como in Italy. This wasn’t the first (or last) time that Chrissy appeared in one of John’s music videos; they met each other in 2007 on the set of Stereo’s music video.
What a workplace romance can turn into show the following lyrics:
What’s going on in that beautiful mind?
I’m on your magical mystery ride
And I’m so dizzy, don’t know what hit me
But I’ll be alright
This love is overwhelming. In John’s words:
My head’s under water
But I’m breathing fine
You’re crazy, and I’m out of my mind
And then comes this (super sweet) verse:
‘Cause all of me loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections
Give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you
You’re my end and my beginning
Even when I lose, I’m winning
‘Cause I give you all of me
And you give me all of you, oh
All Of Me – John Legend
This perfect representation of the perfect love didn’t go unnoticed; the clip has been viewed more than 1.1 billion (!) times on YouTube and the song has sold no fewer than 12.3 million copies. DJ Tiësto even won a Grammy for the remix of All Of Me that he made as a birthday present for Legend.
1. Love Me Now – John Legend (Darkness And Light, 2016)
At the end of 2014, Legend wrote the song Glory for the film Selma, together with rapper Common. Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King’s life and the huge protest march which eventually resulted in African Americans being allowed to vote. Legend won an Oscar for this song and said during his acceptance speech:
“Nina Simone said it’s an artists duty to reflect the times in which we live” en “Selma is now, the struggle for justice is right now. (…) When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you and march on.”
It’s not surprising then that the album Darkness And Light which was released not long afterwards has a more serious disposition than its romantic predecessor. It’s a manifesto about social justice, the pros and cons of life in the spotlights, and talks about challenges and rewards in love.
Legend wrote the hit Love Me Now once again for Chrissy and this time also for his daughter Luna. Even though it’s a love song (again), but when you watch the music video you can tell that his most recent work has not only a light side, but also a dark side.
Universal love in all forms is the central theme. We see images of family love, but also images of a plane crash in the Dominican Puerto Plata. And what does love have to do with a refugee camp in Iraq? Or the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota? Or with the aftermath of the shooting in the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando?
You can also interpret these lyrics with a double meaning:
Pulling me further
Further than I’ve been before
Making me stronger
Shaking me right to the core, oh
I don’t know what’s in the stars
Never heard it from above, the world isn’t ours
But I know what’s in my heart
If you ain’t mine I’ll be torn apart
This isn’t the soundtrack to some idealized fairy tale, but an encouragement to live your life in the now:
I don’t know who’s gonna kiss you when I’m gone
So I’m gonna love you now, like it’s all I have
I know it’ll kill me when it’s over
I don’t wanna think about it, I want you to love me now
Love Me Now – John Legend
I think producer Blake Mills summed up the message of Darkness and Light beautifully:
“This record goes against the grain, boldly reminding us that though darkness is abound, it is the light that will ultimately push us forward.”
Can you say that John Legend’s music is edgy… not really. But he definitely is more than (just) a romantic teddy bear!
His first two albums about everyday topics are a lot less sweet than they sound, with several lyrics about cheating and the song about John’s desire for an (exhibitionist) adventure. And when you listen carefully to Wake Up!, Glory and Darkness and Light, you might even call Legend an activist for social justice.
The level of his impact became indisputable when he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in May: the leading magazine named John Legend as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The fact that he adopted his legendary surname at the beginning of his career can be seen as arrogant, but maybe it wasn’t misplaced, but prophetic… time will tell!
P.S. And for anyone who still isn’t convinced that it’s worthwhile listening to John Legend’s lyrics… After watching this music video you really won’t be able to deny that this man can really make anything sound romantic 😂😂😂
So… beware if you start singing along (phonetically)!
Want to read more articles like this?
John Legend seems to become more of an activist by the years! Curious? Check: This is what John Legend wants to change with ‘Preach’ We’ve written many more Top 5-portraits of artists. You can find them here.
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So… be warned before you start singing along (phonetically)! 😉