Darkness and Light (released December 2, 2016)
Seconds into “I Know Better,” the first track from John Legend’s fifth studio album Darkness and Light, he lets you know the score from jump: “They say sing what you know/But I’ve sung what they want/Some folks do what they’re told/But baby this time I won’t.”
This time around, he’s doing things his way.
Despite an unquestionably successful career, opinions on Legend’s career trajectory tend to be mixed. Criticism has been especially loud from R&B fans, many of whom embraced Legend during his early days and have since soured on him since his inevitable turn toward pop songs made for Hallmark ads.
Fickle fans and record execs will just have to sit this one out – Legend’s got something to say, and he’s not holding back.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise, though. John Legend was an extremely vocal voice for social justice during this year’s presidential campaign, and those themes are ever-present here. He knows his celebrity comes with great responsibility – on “I Know Better,” he proudly states “My history has brought me to this place/This power and the color of my face … and I know better.”
On “Penthouse Floor” Legend chides the media for ignoring ailing communities until strife erupts (“Look Ma, we on the news/But they didn’t notice before this”). But overall, he stays hopeful and encourages upward mobility. “Right By You (For Luna)” is a weepy tribute to his daughter, where he encourages her to fight for empowerment (“Will you work like me to lift the conversation higher?”) and reminds her of the trials to come (“You see, love contains the meaning of despair”). It’s some of the best writing Legend has given us.
True to its name, this album shines best in the dark. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes steals the show on the title track but Legend holds his own too. The pair blend well over the track’s moody funk. He also teams with Miguel on “Overload” and while it’s a decent pairing, the track is a little too minimalistic. It almost sounds unfinished. The heavy bass of “Surefire” and the haunting thump of “What You Do to Me” more than make up for that misstep. Legend turns “What You Do to Me” into the sexiest haunted house ever.
Hearing Legend’s vocals over such foreboding tracks work a lot better than you’d expect, which is why it’s such a disappointment when he switches gears later in the album. Current single “Love Me Now” probably will be No. 1 on Billboard till May (or until Drake drops another overhyped single) but it’s the same sappy pop that we’ve heard many, many times before. The tribal chants on the hook try to add a different flavor but don’t diversify it enough. The second half of the album overall is pretty uneven, with more mediocre pop tracks (“How Can I Blame You,” “Temporarily Painless”) and drowsy cuts (“Same Old Story”) that sound like something Jamal Lyon would croon before “Empire” goes to commercial break.
I expect Darkness and Light to be just as divisive among fans as Legend’s most recent releases. No, there’s nothing here to lure back fans who fell in love with Legend when he sang hooks for Kanye West. But what’s here are a number of heartfelt, strongly written songs with poignant messages.
Just a little bit of light for the dark days ahead.
Best tracks: “Darkness and Light,” “What You do to Me,” “Penthouse Floor”
3.5 stars out of 5