Wait, what’s that sound coming aural beige-paint John Legend? Could it be the sound of rebellion? Within moments of Darkness and Light he’s more self-aware and honest than ever before. “I’ve sung what they want,” he sings on I Know Better, later adding: “Legend is just a name, I know better than to be so proud.”
Well, then. Down goes that fourth wall and up goes our respect for John Legend. It gives way to his most enjoyable and accomplished album to date, a fire lit under that talent that propels it in the way we’ve wanted for so long. Penthouse Floor mixes a funk beat with soul melody (and a solid Chance the Rapper feature) to add a bit of spike to his usual come-hither style. It’s unpredictable, and very un-Legend in the best way.
Like Alicia Keys this year, this feels like the sound of someone deconstructing their perceived identity (read: mass acceptance from a predominantly white mainstream audience) in an attempt to reclaim something for themselves. And it’s a huge success, with the title track once again taking gospel tropes and using them as the hook for Legend to push his tones in ways we haven’t heard for a long time.
Of course, Legend can’t resist the odd bad habit, including a descent into schmaltz with a disappointing Miguel collaboration. But he claws it back with unapologetic force on What You Do To Me, an adult slow-jam whose spiky bass acts like the thrilling jagged edge that Legend’s career needed. The second half does descend into some forgettable territory, but by that point we’re already on side – Darkness and Light may seem a bit black and white, but in those extremes John Legend rescues himself from being middle-of-the-road.