The Number Ones

May 17, 2014

The Number Ones: John Legend’s “All Of Me”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Pop music moves quickly, and that’s how most of us like it. There’s so much music out there, and most of the stuff that cuts through the noise, at least enough to reign over its however-brief moment, has to be loud and brash and vulgar enough to grab people’s attention. Oftentimes, a song that reaches the top of the charts shoves its way past competitors by being sexier or meaner or more energetic or more obnoxiously catchy than its competitors. But there’s a vast audience out there that doesn’t turn to pop music to feel the shock of the new. That crowd has its own radio stations and its old favorites, and it wants to be soothed and flattered. Every once in a while, a song will soothe and flatter that silent majority so effectively that it goes all the way.

The Hot 100 goes through boom-and-bust periods. There are moments of frantic competition, where lots of exciting sounds fight it out for the top spot, and then there are lulls, where a soft-focus wedding ballad can slowly and quietly ascend to the top spot. 2014 was a year of deep lulls, and it gave us one of the softest, soothingest, most flattering #1 hits in recent memory. Wedding ballads like John Legend’s “All Of Me” are always lying in wait. Every so often, they get their moment of glory.

John Legend was just sitting there in plain sight for a decade. He came up as a supporting player in the story of one of the loudest, brashest pop stars of this century, and he carved out a place for himself as something like that guy’s opposite, while still working closely with that guy. He kept making quiet, unassuming background music and stacking up awards without really threatening the pop charts much. He was a genteel R&B traditionalist, and people knew who he was, but he never fought to control the zeitgeist. In 2014, Legend was 35 years old, and he seemed to exist mostly as a pliable and respectable old-school type who could come out at the Grammys and sing a song every year. But then, out of nowhere, he fucked around and made a gigantic hit. The conditions lined up just right, and John Legend landed at #1.

John Legend was a gifted kid, and he’s always carried himself with the smooth self-assurance of someone who never once considered the idea that he might fail at anything. John Roger Stephens, the son of two working-class people who made music in their spare time, comes from Springfield, Ohio. (When Legend was born, Chic’s “Le Freak” was the #1 song in America.) His mother homeschooled him when he was young, and he started playing piano at four and singing in church at seven. He won essay contests and spelling bees, and he skipped a couple of grades, starting high school when he was 12. At 16, he graduated and went off to study English at the University Of Pennsylvania — a Doogie Howser trajectory.

While he was in college, John Legend led an a cappella group and met former Number Ones artist Lauryn Hill while she was working on her landmark solo debut The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. After he auditioned for her, she asked him to play piano on her song “Everything Is Everything,” which eventually peaked at #35 — a hell of a credit for a young musician who wasn’t yet 20. But young John Stephens didn’t drop out of college to pursue show business. Instead, he graduated in 1999 and found a job as a management consultant, whatever that is. Like his parents before him, he worked on music in his spare time.

When he wasn’t working, John Legend played small live shows and recorded a couple of demo CDs. Eventually, he met the rising rap producer Kanye West, someone who’s been in this column a bunch of times and who, against all odds, will eventually return. West started using Legend as an uncredited backing singer and musician, a texture to help fill out his lush soul-sample beats. Legend sang on West-produced hits from people like Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, and he played keyboards on “Slow Jamz,” the track that finally turned West into a chart-conquering superstar.

John Legend was all over The College Dropout, Kanye West’s 2004 debut album, singing backups and playing keyboards. Legend got his pseudonym from J. Ivy, a spoken-word poet who appears on The College Dropout. Legend wasn’t really into the idea of using a stage name, but West took up the nickname, and it caught on. In 2004, West produced and rapped on “Selfish,” a single from Detroit underground rap legends Slum Village, and Legend sang the hook. That song made it to #55 on the Hot 100, giving Legend his first featured-artist credit on a chart hit.

When The College Dropout came out, Kanye West went on tour as the opening act on Usher’s gigantic Confessions tour, and his backing band was just John Legend and DJ A-Trak. That same year, Legend became the first artist signed to Kanye West’s sony imprint GOOD Music. Legend was still on the Usher tour when he released his debut single “Used To Love U,” which he co-produced with West. It peaked at #74.

Early on, Kanye West pitched himself as something of a rap traditionalist with a neo-soul streak, and John Legend served as his respectable R&B avatar. West produced or co-produced most of the tracks on Legend’s debut album Get Lifted, which came out at the tail end of 2004. But the album’s big breakout turned out to be the self-produced “Ordinary People,” a spare and elegant love song that’s mostly built on his voice and piano, at least until the strings burst in at the end. “Ordinary People” was a minor chart hit, peaking at #24 on the Hot 100 and #4 on the R&B charts. It also made John Legend an instant favorite among middlebrow types, especially Grammy voters.

At the 2006 Grammys, John Legend won three trophies, including Best New Artist, the big award that his benefactor Kanye West had failed to secure the previous year. With that win, Legend defeated Fall Out Boy, Keane, Sugarland, and former Number Ones artist Ciara. At the ceremony, Legend performed “Ordinary People,” and he also took part in an all-star Sly & The Family Stone tribute. That became a running theme in Legend’s career. The Grammys kept asking him to do stuff, and he kept showing up.

It took 16 years, but Get Lifted eventually went double platinum. In the years that followed, Legend kept making guest appearances on records from Kanye West and fellow Kanye collaborators like Common and Consequence. He also polished his old-school credentials, showing up on duets albums to sing with legends icons Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, and Aretha Franklin. Whenever possible, he did the kind of soft-liberal charity work and activism that doesn’t piss anyone off. He was a model citizen, and as far as I can tell, he still is.

Legend released his sophomore album Once Again in 2006, and it went platinum, but it didn’t have any big hits. Lead single “Save Room” was the only one that made the Hot 100, and it peaked at #61. “Stereo,” the album’s fourth single, didn’t chart, but it still played a major role in Legend’s life and career. While he was shooting the video, Legend first met his co-star Chrissy Teigen, who was working as one of the suitcase models on Deal Or No Deal at the time.

Over the next few years, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen became a very public couple, and Teigen evolved into a full-on supermodel, appearing on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover in 2010. I guess that was still a big deal then? It’s hard to keep track. Legend kept winning Grammys. (John Legend just opened his mouth. Someone go hand him a Grammy right now.) In 2008, Legend campaigned hard for Barack Obama, made his cinematic debut in the Samuel L. Jackson/Bernie Mac vehicle Soul Men, and released his album Evolver. He reached #24 — the same peak as “Ordinary People” — by teaming up with OutKast’s increasingly reclusive André 3000 on the smoothly synthy single “Green Light.” I like that song.

Evolver went platinum, but it took more than a decade. By this point, John Legend’s career settled into a pattern. He made records that did pretty well without setting the world on fire. He projected genial professionalism whenever he appeared anywhere, and he racked up goodwill. He was a prestige artist, the type who gets award nominations without leaving too much of a cultural dent. In the next few years, Legend made an album of soul covers with the Roots, toured with Sade, got an honorary degree from Howard, and served as a judge on the singing show Duets — all things that you would basically expect John Legend to do.

When Kanye West made his messy 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, John Legend sang on “Blame Game,” a song built on an Aphex Twin sample. The next year, I saw West headline a wild GOOD Music showcase at SXSW, playing what I believe was a converted power plant. The show climaxed with West and Jay-Z sharing the stage. West’s hungry young proteges — Kid Cudi, Big Sean, CyHi The Prince — showed out. Mos Def was up there in an opera mask for some reason. In the middle of all that, Legend came out to sing “Blame Game” and to play that Aphex “Avril 14th” sample on piano, and he seemed like an oasis of calm.

In 2013, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen got married at Lake Como in Italy. By that time, Teigen was all over TV, and she and Legend were a full-on relationship-goals Instagram couple, radiating aspirational happiness whenever anyone pointed a camera in their direction. Just before the wedding, Legend released his album Love In The Future. It’s a long, labored record with a whole lot of Kanye West production. Most of the songs have tons of credited songwriters and producers. There are guests, samples, covers, and allusions all over most of the tracks. West co-produced the first two singles, the Rick Ross collab “Who Do We Think We Are” and the house-inflected, vaguely bluesy “Made To Love.” Neither made a ripple.

In the context of the album, “All Of Me” was the exception. Once again, it was mostly just John Legend and a piano. It’s a simple, straight-faced declaration of love, and it builds on the image of Legend as one half of a famously blissed-out couple without going heavy on specifics. Legend co-wrote “All Of Me” with Toby Gad, a German-born pop professional who got his big break co-writing Milli Vanilli tracks with Frank Farian. Gad has already been in this column for co-writing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and he found a lane by working with Disney kids (Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Hilary Duff) and by writing on big ballads like Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy.” A manager paired Legend up with Gad, suggesting that they try to write a love ballad like Billy Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman,” which peaked at #17 in 1977.

“All Of Me” is pure love-song sentiment. John Legend wants you to know that all of him loves all of you — all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections. He says that you’re crazy, but so is he, and he thinks that you’re beautiful even when you cry. (Why is that a line that songwriters keep coming back to?) It’s all absolute cliché, but Legend sells it with a strong, simple central melody and with an arrangement that leaves him nowhere to hide.

John Legend co-produced “All Of Me” with Dave Tozer, a New Jersey native who’d been a friend and collaborator since his college days. Tozer worked on Legend’s early demos and on his debut album Get Lifted. Later on, Tozer also worked with people like Kanye West and Jay-Z, but he was mostly Legend’s guy. John Legend doesn’t actually play keyboards on “All Of Me”; it’s Dave Tozer and session guy Mark Williams. Most of what you hear on the song is just voice and piano, but there’s some subtle synth-bass in there adding shading, too. Near the end of the song, Tozer sings backup vocals through a robotic filter. (He’s said that he and Legend were inspired by Imogen Heap’s “Hide And Seek.”) You can only just hear the robo-voice in the mix, but it adds some nice little subliminal sad-computer flavoring.

Where “All Of Me” succeeds, it mostly comes down to John Legend’s vocal performance. His tone is soft and rich and direct, and the sparseness of the arrangement lends his performance a certain intimacy. It’s easy to imagine him singing it while holding eye contact with someone. He never oversings, and he stays right in the middle of his range for most of the song. When he finally reaches into his falsetto for the chorus, it makes a real emotional impact. The song is sturdily structured enough that Legend can occupy its center, radiating the nice-guy sincerity that made him so famous.

Here’s the big problem with “All Of Me”: It’s boring. That’s it. Nothing special. I’m not a ballad person, and John Legend isn’t a sufficiently bewitching vocal presence that I stay locked-in while he delivers Hallmark-card love poetry. Legend sings about being in crazy, whirling, disorienting love, but the song is too reserved and controlled to reflect that feeling. “All Of Me” isn’t bad. If I hear it when I’m in an emotionally vulnerable place, it might melt me a little. When I’m not in that place, I can respect the craft and even the sentiment, but I’m not going out of my way to hear it.

“All Of Me” had the good fortune to come out when voice-and-piano ballads were having something of a renaissance. This was the post-Adele era. In 2011, Adele became the first artist ever to top the Hot 100 with nothing but voice and piano when the monster ballad “Someone Like You” broke through. In 2013, Bruno Mars scored with the similarly restrained “When I Was Your Man.” Adele’s next album was still more than a year away from release when “All Of Me” hit, so John Legend filled a market demand for that kind of thing.

John Legend didn’t just sell the song; he also sold the image. Every bit of promotional material surrounding the song presented Legend and Chrissy Teigen as an ultimate fantastical power couple, the people who you wish you could be. The campaign behind the song was both romantic and escapist. They filmed the crisp black-and-white video on Lake Como, and they made it with Nabil Elderkin, the director who introduced them in the first place. It’s lucky that Elderkin was also one of that moment’s best video directors. In the black-and-white clip, the two of them ride speedboats and stare into each other’s eyes and generally look like they’re in an Antonioni film. It ends with a silent moment of footage from their real wedding.

“All Of Me” first made it onto the Hot 100 in September 2013. Just by achieving that, it outperformed the other singles from Love In The Future. But the song took a very, very long time to climb the chart. What ultimately supercharged the song was a performance at the Grammys in January 2014. That one really was just John Legend at a piano. To me, it just seemed like another John Legend Grammys performance. My in-the-moment reaction is preserved for posterity below. Apparently, though, it stuck out to a lot of people.

There were some other attempts to juice the chart fortunes of “All Of Me,” like a dance remix from Tiësto and a country version, with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, that came out after the song had already hit #1. In a 2022 Stereogum interview, though, Legend said that it was mostly the Grammy-night performance that made the song click with general audiences:

It was getting to the top of the urban adult contemporary chart, which is kind of my home chart ’cause that’s where most R&B gets played. But it’s still a pretty limited audience just because it’s not a huge portion of the country that listens to those stations. So it doing well on that format is good, but it’s not sufficient to make it a big hit. So when I played it at the Grammys, we had just started going to other formats with the song — so more pop stations, more Hot AC stations. And right when I performed it at the Grammys, it just opened it up to the whole country and the whole world. And it shot to the top of the iTunes chart and then immediately became a massive hit from there.

“All Of Me” did well on a few different radio formats, but it probably reached #1 mostly through iTunes downloads. The song was already double platinum before it reached #1, and those downloads just kept selling. At this point, “All Of Me” has gone platinum an astonishing 14 times. Some of that is streaming — “All Of Me” has nearly 10 times as many Spotify plays as any other John Legend song — but the single sure made a lot of money at iTunes. Eventually, that was enough to push it Pharrell’s juggernaut “Happy” out of the #1 spot.

“All Of Me” was stuck at #2 behind “Happy” for a month and a half, and the success of both songs really says something. Before “Happy” it had been more than a year since the last #1 hit from a Black artist. White rappers and R&B singers were topping the charts all that time, often with Black guests. This was the whitest stretch of #1 hits in chart history. Pharrell and John Legend were both well-known, fully media-trained show-business veterans who didn’t bring much messiness with them. Both of them made pop variations on nostalgic old-school soul sounds, and both of them reached #1 with songs that were sweet and wholesome and family-friendly. That’s what the pop charts wanted at the time. The charts became much more anarchic in the years ahead, and I think pop in general is in a healthier place when it’s messier. That doesn’t really reflect on John Legend. I’m just saying.

John Legend has never made another hit anywhere near as big as “All Of Me.” Follow-up single “You & I (Nobody In The World)” peaked at #66, so Legend didn’t suddenly become a hit machine. He did, however, guest on “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” a 2015 single from Meghan Trainor, an artist who will appear in this column soon, and that song made it to #8. (It’s a 4.) Unless you count pianos and backing vocals on Kanye West tracks, “All Of Me” and “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” are the only top-10 pop hits of Legend’s whole career. Other than those two songs, #24 seems to be John Legend’s ceiling. I wonder if it felt like a triumph when he made it to #23 with his dance-adjacent 2016 song “Love Me Now,” or whether someone thought that one might do “All Of Me” numbers.

Instead of making more hits, John Legend went on an absolute awards bender after “All Of Me.” Later in 2014, he and his GOOD Music labelmate Common recorded “Glory,” the end-credits song for the movie Selma. That song peaked at #49, and it won the Oscar for Best Original Song. When Legend and Common performed at the Oscars, they made Chris Pine cry on camera. In 2017, Legend won a Tony for being one of the producers of the August Wilson play Jitney. A year later, he played the lead in a live NBC production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and he won an Emmy for it. That made Legend the second-youngest person ever to lock down the full EGOT. He also served as People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2019, and that extra distinction practically demands a whole new acronym. The SMAEGOT, maybe?

After “All Of Me,” Legend finally broke with Kanye West in both the business and political senses. Legend and Teigen had a bunch of kids. Legend has been a coach on The Voice for a bunch of years now. He and Ariana Grande, an artist who will appear in this column a bunch of times, covered the main theme for Disney’s Beauty And The Beast remake. Speaking of movies, Legend played Ryan Gosling’s pop-careerist bandmate in La La Land, which is pretty funny, and then he and Teigen voiced an obnoxiously perfect couple in the animated banger The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, which is even funnier. Teigen got in a bunch of trouble for cyberbullying, which complicates her whole ultra-nice persona and lends some grim comedy to “All Of Me,” like if there’d been a chart-topping love song to Ellen DeGeneres. But, I mean, jerks need love, too.

John Legend continues to make music, and some of that music even lands on the Hot 100. Most recently, he and former Number Ones artist Carrie Underwood reached #54 with their 2020 Christmas duet “Hallelujah.” (I’m happy to report that it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover.) These days, we’ve got a whole new generation of Grammy prestige-artist types, people like H.E.R. and Jon Batiste. I don’t think any of them will ever make a #1 hit, but I didn’t really think that about John Legend, either.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: Before she became her generation’s leading movie star, Zendaya was a teenage singer. Here’s 17-year-old Zendaya and some guy named MAX covering “All Of Me” in 2014:

(Zendaya’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Replay,” peaked at #40. MAX’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Gnash collab “Lights Down Low,” peaked at #20.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s footage of Taylor Swift, an artist who’s been in this column once and who will be back soon, welcoming John Legend to the stage at a 2015 LA show and singing “All Of Me” with him:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Memphis legend DJ Paul rapping over an “All Of Me” sample on his 2017 track “Drown”:

(DJ Paul doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artist. As a member of Three 6 Mafia, however, he made it to #13 with the 2005 8Ball & MJG/Young Buck collab “Stay Fly.”)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Allllll of you should buy alllll the books.

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