John Legend Shines on ‘Darkness and Light’
John Legend delivers another captivating solo album with Darkness and Light. While his sound is tweaked, fundamentally he remains the same artist.
R&B singer/songwriter John Legend seemed an unlikely candidate to earn a no. 1 hit. However, in 2014, Legend accomplished the feat with pop crossover single, “All of Me.” “All of Me” ultimately reignited the buzz for his exceptional 2013 album, Love in the Future. This, hence, elevated Legend from merely being an R&B musician to having a wider appeal. On his fifth solo album Darkness and Light, there are some slight adjustments made to his sound. Still, fundamentally, Legend remains true to himself.
“I Know Better”
Opener “I Know Better” plays to Legend’s strengths. A gospel-infused R&B record, “I Know Better” isn’t overproduced in the least, driven by a more stripped sound – organ and piano accompaniment. The record stays true to his roots, showcasing his singer/songwriter persona. As always, the vocal tone is marvelous, drenched in soulfulness and grit.
“Penthouse Floor” gives Darkness and Light its first taste of groove. A hard, soulful hip-hop beat initiates the record, giving it its biggest selling point. As always, Legend delivers clear vocals that are both soulful and accurate. In addition, his lead is amplified by the use of harmonized backing vocals throughout the course of the record. The harmonic scheme hails directly from the soul catalogue, retaining a pipeline to the past. A left-field appearance by Chance the Rapper invites the hip-hop generation in.
The title track “Darkness and Light” elevates the energy. Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard joins Legend for a retro-soul, rock thriller. The results are a sound that sounds nothing like anything he has released in the past. “Overload” trades Howard for Miguel, who blends seamlessly with Legend. The record itself, also co-written by Miguel, plays to both artists’ strong suits. It doesn’t supplant “I Know Better” or “Penthouse Floor,” but lays well.
“Love Me Now”
Legend strikes gold with the mid-tempo, chivalrous record, “Love Me Now.” Ultimately, it gives him another potential pop hit. It doesn’t supersede no. 1 hit “All of Me,” but possesses the cues to crossover beyond the R&B audience. If the pop-friendly production is somewhat surprising, Legend atones with his robust, soulful pipes, which aren’t compromised in the least. The chorus soars:
“I don’t know who’s gonna kiss you when I’m gone / So I’m gonna love you now, like it’s all I have / I know it’ll kill me when it’s over / I don’t wanna think about it, I want you to love me now.”
On “What You Do to Me,” Legend drops an uncharacteristic bomb: Don’t believe it when you say that you f*ckin’ hate me. The fiery line is characteristic of the modern R&B production, a stark contrast to the neo-, throwback sound associated with him. It also is in line with this woman driving him crazy – presumably NOT his wife, Chrissy Teigen. Legend takes a risk here that is surprisingly successful.
Legend once more flaunts his robust vocals on “Surefire.” Interestingly, while soul is part of the script, it’s implied as opposed to explicitly promoted. In one sense, this presents Legend as an artist who doesn’t necessarily want to be boxed in, even if soul music is where his “bread is buttered.”
“Right by You (for Luna)”
“Right by You (for Luna)” is ambitious, thanks to its unpredictable harmonic progression. Lyrically it’s thoughtful, matched by a sincere performance by Legend. The production work is radiant, incorporating organ (Larry Goldings), piano, bass, drums, and soaring, emotional strings. Additionally, saxophone standout Kamasi Washington appears (tenor sax). “Right by You” is a jazzy, quasi-left-field treat.
“Temporarily Painless” represents another tweak to the Legend sound. Still fundamentally soulful, extra production sheen with some electro and pop cues updates the sound. Like everything else gracing Darkness and Light, its sound through and through. The shimmering “How Can I Blame You” features one of the album’s best choruses, showcasing the sheer power of Legend’s pipes.
“How can I blame you / for showin’ up at the party? / Lookin’ through me in that way / saw something inside of me break / saw me wanna make a mistake…”
Robust vocals continue to bless the lush, percussion-less ballad “Same Old Story.” “Same Old Story” isn’t the least bit boring, thanks to unique synths and programming. Like “All of Me,” some vocal effects add extra polish. Notably, soaring strings enter the picture once again. The gospel-funk of “Marching into the Dark” concludes Darkness and Light in electrifying, enthusiastic fashion.
Once Again, John Legend delivers a well-rounded R&B album. What makes Darkness and Light captivating is the fact that Legend takes some risks without compromising the sanctity of R&B itself. Throughout the course of Darkness and Light, vocally, he remains beastly. Darkness and Light = #Winning.
Gems: “I Know Better,” “Penthouse Floor,” “Love Me Now,” “What You Do to Me” & “Right by You (for Luna)”
John Legend • Darkness and Light • Columbia • Release: 12.2.16
Photo Credit: Columbia