John Legend has become synonymous with soulful songs that explore and celebrate the twists and turns of love, but with Darkness and Light, Legend’s love is moodier, oftentimes unsure, and mixed with politics. The crooner’s fifth studio album marks the changes in his life and the world around him.
There are songs listeners will be familiar with like “Same Old Story” and “Surefire.” “Love Me Now,” the lead single from Darkness and Light baits longtime fans, but if Legend’s looking to grab new listeners this isn’t the song to do it. Where Legend really shines in the familiar is “How Can I Blame You?” It’s quintessential John; soaring and swelling and filling every corner much like the album’s opener “I Know Better,” which kicks off with “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.”
And, John does sing about what he knows and then some. Politics mix with a new sound that shows the singer is looking to move past his wedding-friendly image. “Penthouse Floor,” which includes an appearance from Chance the Rapper, is a funk and R&B driven look at wealth; who has it, who doesn’t, and what happens to those who earn it, but were never meant to have it. The lyrics “Let's ride the elevator, it's what we've been waiting for, We'll tear down those penthouse doors,” call for a revolution.
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“Right By You,” written for daughter Luna, explores the apprehension parents feel about the world their children grow up, the ups and downs they’ll face, and the hope that, as parents, you’ve done the best to prepare them for what’s to come. There’s fear and hope in the song, which perfectly reflects the feelings of many parents in our post election world.
The albums final track “March Into the Dark,” while a little underwhelming, gets political without being cheesy. We’ll fight, we’ll march, and despite not knowing what the future holds we’ll do whatever it takes to move forward.
The real star of Darkness and Light is the album’s titular track featuring Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Howard and Legend’s voice play well together, there’s no pushing or pulling, just a balanced back and forth. And, if we were ranking them, “What You Do to Me,” a track about a torturous love, would be a close second.
Overall the album is a great push in a new direction for Legend. He’s leaving his comfort zone and veering into a new lane. There are a few misses – an under utilized Miguel – but Darkness and Light is a perfect summation of post Love in the Future John Legend; aware of the world, sometimes weary of it, but ready to fight in the name of love.