It’s nice to hear Legend experimenting with darker, more ambiguous sounds these days.
John Legend adds a little hitch into his decade-long formula of soft pop piano tunes on Darkness and Light and it’s a welcome departure. By tapping the ever talented Blake Mills of the Alabama Shakes, the Grammy and Academy award-winning musician sprinkles a moderate dose of weird on his latest album that ultimately prove pivotal in weaving Legend’s political bend within his larger more traditional soul aesthetic. As a result Darkness and Light is charming and resolute, a mix of Legend’s vintage, loving modesty and a pressing concern for the current state of the world.
Legend’s church vibes open up the album appropriately. A ringing organ lifts the opening track, “I Know Better,” on which Legend immediately dispels the gloss of his celebrity: “Legend is just a name / I know better than to be so proud.” It’s a disarming line, equalizing audience and artist in fair dialogue—no pretenses involved. That bare honesty flows throughout the project, reaching its height on a beautiful if uneasy ode to his daughter, “Right By You,” where he questions the world that his daughter will walk through when she’s older. Like any parent, Legend is worried about how his young child “will be free of all this sorrow” that’s seemingly subsumed the globe. Regardless, the song is a patient reassurance (“Oh, I will be there”) from a father who only wishes that his music and teachings could guide his daughter’s steps when he isn’t present.
Thematically, John Legend is a lot more urgent on Darkness and Light than on previous work. Even on funky hits like “Penthouse Floor” (which features a hokey verse from fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper), in which Legend notes how opulence can stave off feelings of uncertainty, “Once you’re above the city lights / Won’t want to spend another night, down there on your own.” But the song isn’t elitist; Legend never forgets the danger that persists in the midst of the climb. The ascendance is perilous but we must continue on, “the altitude is dangerous, but we ain’t going home.” Legend’s songwriting is airtight. With the perfect balance of pop universality and pointed soul politic, Legend seems to speak to the state of fear we’re living in by centering the many manifestations of love he’s experienced in his own life. The artist’s dexterity spans from articulating the specific problems of love in the limelight on the Miguel-assisted “Overload” to affirming his instinctual passion on “Surefire.” While the record has Legend’s pop leaning vocals, complete with the light and sequel to “All of Me” in the form of “Love Me Now,” it never crosses the threshold of pop for pop’s sake.
Of course, there’s room for fun on Darkness and Light as well and it often takes the shape of some one-off coital session. Legend doubles up on the fleeting intercourse on “Temporarily Painless” where he tries to convince a stranger to let go of her inhibitions while he struggles to do the very same thing on the following track, “How Can I Blame You?” It’s a quirky, quick change of perspective on the backend of the album that adds some needed depth to the one-night stand motif. These tracks put on a front of frivolous adventure but feature an undergirding darkness that signal the difficult internal conflict of infidelity. Blake Mills is adept at turning outwardly light sounds into messier compositions—the string accompaniment on tracks like “Same Old Story” whine and lie in the wake of Kamasi Washington’s wailing soprano saxophone.
It’s nice to hear Legend experimenting with darker, more ambiguous sounds these days. As the R&b world continues to morph under the influence of a multiplicity of genres finding their way into the mix, Legend’s ostensibly old school presence doesn’t dissuade the artist from taking on a more youthful embrace of electronic soul. Darkness and Light is a solid entry in Legend’s portfolio—and the first that really sees the artist stretching himself into the new cosmos. Where he goes from here will be an even more fascinating journey for his fans.