John Legend doesn’t waste time getting to the point of Darkness and Light, his fifth solo album. On “I Know Better,” the record’s gospel-infused opener, the singer refutes the celebrity he’s acquired to date: “Legend is just a name, I know better than to be so proud/I won’t drink in all this fame/Or take more love than I’m allowed.” At this stage of his career—which includes 10 Grammy awards, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award for Best Original Song—Legend could’ve continued to play it safe; his mix of secular and spiritual soul has taken him far over the years. But on Darkness and Light, Legend pushes beyond his comfort zone for something a bit more ambitious.
With its meditative and ingratiating songwriting, this is unmistakably a John Legend album, yet there’s a renewed sense of peace and even a sad wisdom that distinguishes it. He sings lovingly of his infant daughter, Luna, wondering who she will become as she grows older. He ponders the different sides of love, and the raw emotions they evoke. He's made a love record about navigating the bleak world and finding happiness in dark times.
For Darkness and Light, Legend reached out to Blake Mills after hearing what the producer did for Alabama Shakes’ breakout LP, Sound & Color. In turn, Mills wanted to push Legend to the limits of his emotional range. “There was this hole in John’s material that I felt like a huge part of his personality could come through,” Mills recently told Billboard. “We’re still talking about ‘What’s Going On’ some 40 years later. Yes, ‘Sexual Healing’ is a great track. But when we think of Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’ is the song that comes up.” The implicit criticism there rings true: Legend has calling-card songs like “Ordinary People” and “All of Me,” yet by and large, he makes safe R&B that doesn’t resonate long-term or hit hard politically (he released a collaborative LP with the Roots in 2010, but those were covers of Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, and Bill Withers.)