Five albums into a career peppered with syrupy love songs, Darkness and Light opens with a statement of intent. “They say sing what you know, but I’ve sung what they want,” John Legend reflects on the sparse gospel of I Know Better, setting the tone for an album that interweaves the personal with 2016’s general aura of despondency (the closing song is called Marching into the Dark). Even when he’s in his comfort zone of singing about love, the production, most of which was handled by Alabama Shakes collaborator Blake Mills, pushes the songs slightly off-kilter, surrounding the excellent Surefire with jagged strings, while the glistening Temporarily Painless blossoms around Legend’s emotionally rich vocal.
Unlike John Legend's first four proper studio albums, this one, his fifth, was produced almost entirely by one person. Floored by Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color, Legend -- coming off his first number one pop hit and an Academy Award -- recruited Blake Mills, that album's chief collaborator. Mills, who also plays several instruments and co-writes almost every song, responds in kind here with a similarly vivid touch.
John Legend’s sixth studio album opens with a burst of impassioned singing that sounds remarkably like a statement of intent. “They say sing what you know, but I’ve sung what they want,” he offers on a track called I Know Better, over a sparse piano backdrop. “Some folks do what they’re told, but this time, baby, I won’t.” You do find yourself wondering if this isn’t a reference to Darkness and Light’s predecessor, 2013’s Love in the Future, the album that spawned Legend’s biggest hit to date, All of Me.
Now that he's on his fifth solo album, John Stephens, aka John Legend, has nailed down who he wants to be. After starting out as a promising G.O.O.D. Music-era Kanye West affiliate — hip-hop-forged and all that on 2004 debut Get Lifted — he subsequently veered perilously close to lounge lizard/dinner theatre status on sophomore efforts. Overly earnest sanguinity was and is not a good look, but thankfully, Legend's gotten his style down pat: piano-driven soul that's not above appealing to pop sensibilities.Lead single "Love Me Know" features strong pop songwriting and construction.
For some reason, John Legend’s rise still seems improbable. It’s been almost 13 years since Get Lifted dropped and even though he’s won 10 Grammys and an Oscar, his superstar status just doesn’t feel real. Which is odd, of course, considering how he’s married to one of the most sought-after supermodels in the universe and his lucky break came attached to one of the most iconic albums of the last two decades, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, when he played keys on “Everything Is Everything”.
John Legend doesn’t waste time getting to the point of Darkness and Light, his fifth solo album. On “I Know Better,” the record’s gospel-infused opener, the singer refutes the celebrity he’s acquired to date: “Legend is just a name, I know better than to be so proud/I won’t drink in all this fame/Or take more love than I’m allowed.” At this stage of his career—which includes 10 Grammy awards, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award for Best Original Song—Legend could’ve continued to play it safe; his mix of secular and spiritual soul has taken him far over the years. But on Darkness and Light, Legend pushes beyond his comfort zone for something a bit more ambitious.
At this point in his career, John Legend has surely amassed his legion of devoted fans. His initial albums stuck to an R&B groove, namely with songs like “Stay With You”, “Save Room”, and the ever-beloved “Ordinary People”, but he’s since shifted and adapted his musical style as he’s grown his artistry. He collaborated with The Roots on Wake Up! for a soulful, political album; he covered old-school ballads such as “Open Your Eyes”; and collaborated with Common to craft the show-stopping, endlessly heart-wrenching ballad, “Glory”.
A little darkness serves John Legend well. Without it, the love songs that regularly place him in the Top 10 — megahits like “All of Me” from 2013 — are anodyne enough to work as wedding songs; they’re a worthy and lucrative enterprise that can leave an unctuous, saccharine aftertaste. But “Darkness and Light,” his fifth studio album, treats love as something far more complex than a panacea and a fount of perpetual reassurance, with music to match.