John Legend's latest proves the adage that in soul music, darkness is always better than light.
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”.
And yet he feels like an underdog, someone who still has to prove his place within the R&B pantheon. You can’t quite list many male soul artists who have a more recognizable name in the modern day, but what you can do is list male soul artists whose albums inspire excitement and anticipation and intrigue far more than Legend’s seem to do (Frank Ocean and D’Angelo are the first that come to mind). Even when the singer attempted to grind some edges into his reputation by collaborating with the Roots on an album of protest songs, 2010’s fantastic Wake Up!, he still only seemed to elicit mildly satisfied shoulder shrugs.
Still, it’s Legend’s desire to keep evolving that makes Darkness and Light as good as it is. Because now, five albums in, the 37-year-old is ready to go darker than he’s ever been before, and when he does, the results are both compelling and irresistible. That’s why the two best songs here are also the set’s most hazy. Single “Penthouse Floor” is grimy electro funk that immediately confronts social injustice by swinging for the fences with opening lines like, “All this trouble in this here town / All this shit going down / When will they focus / On this.” Musically, it has the same brooding ethos as Get Lifted’s “I Can Change”, and much like Snoop did more than a decade ago, Chance the Rapper shows up to add some light to a pitch-black room with a playful guest spot highlighted by a knock knock joke.
The other most memorable moment unfolds with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, which makes all the sense in the world, considering how Legend sought out Blake Mills to work on this album after hearing his work on Sound & Color. It comes in the form of the title track, which features some killer ghost notes on both the live hi-hats and snare drum. Surprisingly, Howard’s voice meshes well with Legend’s, the two trading off verses with delicacy and confidence before the chorus blows up into a rage of power and emotion that allows them to go back and forth with delicious intensity.
In addition to fog and atmosphere, Legend succeeds by embracing the periphery of other genres. “Right By You (For Luna)”, written for his daughter, churns slow with a subliminal percussive undercurrent and eventually expands from strings to horns, giving the production a jazz texture that isn’t something you necessarily expect to hear on a John Legend record. It’s a welcome surprise that also creeps in during the latter parts of the Miguel collab “Overload”, which features a smokey trumpet playing the groove out.
That said, pop songs are still the singer’s expertise, and that portion of the proceedings, in the case of this album at least, can be both spotty and fruitful. Singles “Love Me Now” and “I Know Better” claim victory for different reasons. The former is a direct response to the current worldly ethos found within a plethora of Hot 100 chart-toppers, complete with an anthemic chant of the track’s namesake. The latter, meanwhile, is an earnest piano ballad that falls in the same vein as Legend’s most famous moment, “Ordinary People”. Except this one’s actually better, be it due to the gospel organ that hides behind his prominent keys or the ardent lyrics his impassioned vocals embody.
Not as impressive is something like “Surefire”, which amounts to just another John Legend plea for love that’s flanked by a mid-tempo the singer uses far too much. Yeah, the choral backing harmonies add girth and sure the “Oh my, oh my, oh my, oh my God / I’m so, I’m so, I’m so tired of fighting” provides a hooky distraction, but in truth, you could replace this with any of the numerous filler heartache songs for which this guy is known. And “Same Old Story” sadly doesn’t realize exactly how appropriate that title is as dramatic strings make way for some auto-tuned madness that is needless.
But, hey: this is a John Legend record after all, and if you don’t know what you’re getting by now, you haven’t been paying attention. Where Darkness And Light exceeds expectations, however, is where you encounter the moments during which you might not be all that sure of what’s next. Much moodier than he’s ever been, it feels as though John Legend has musically turned a corner with these 12 songs, if for no other reason than the supposed reality that in an artistic setting, feeling bad is infinitely more interesting than feeling good.
So, perhaps this set signifies the man’s acceptance of a truth that just might be standing in the space between John Legend and superstardom: when it comes to soul music, a little darkness never hurt anyone.