By Amanda Wicks
John Legend’s fifth studio album Darkness & Light could have gone a very different way. Now a husband and father, it seemed a ripe moment to celebrate the domestic bliss he’s found with wife Chrissy Teigen and their infant daughter the way he knows best: soulful songs featuring his sandpaper vocals. But his latest effort instead feels closer to the 2010 politically-driven album he released with The Roots, Wake Up!
The struggle between darkness and light that exists at the album’s core results largely from the contemporary political climate and the seemingly regressive state of affairs. It’s a move that continues to signal just how much the late 2010s are hearkening back to the 1960s, when protest songs and socially conscious subject matter reigned supreme.
Legend hasn’t completely foregone the foundational core that made him such a popular artist—several songs deal with the difficulty of love and long-term relationships—but by and large this is an album that calls attention to the way things are and why they so desperately need to change. Here are the five best songs on Darkness & Light.
“I Know Better” – Fans looking for the same ol’ Legend had best keep looking. He sets the stage for what’s to come on Darkness & Light with this reflective first track, which features stark instrumentation and honest lyricism. “I’m singing what I know/ I know better,” he advises, shifting away from the subjects he’s covered in the past in order to touch upon the social injustices impacting black America. But it’s the line, “There’s power in the color of my face,” that strikes big. It’s a gut punch the way he sings it, and rightly so.
“Right By You (For Luna)” – New parents, especially when they happen to be artists, will inevitably ask questions about who their children will grow up to be and Legend is no exception. This sweet, thoughtful number featuring melodic brass and strings on top of Legend’s piano asks several questions of his baby daughter Luna: “Will you work like me to lift the conversation higher?/ Will you be cool like water putting out the fire?” But he also asks questions of her future. No matter what the question, his answer is always the same: “I will be there.”
“Surefire” – There’s a rawness throughout Darkness & Light, and it surfaces in a provocative way on “Surefire.” Legend pleads throughout the song for his lover to turn away from the nightmare of the world and concentrate on the one beautiful thing they share: their indestructible bond. Between the gospel choir, the flute-like synths and the echoing percussion, Legend has created a moving song about staying together. “I may not know a lot of things but I/ Know that we’re surefire,” he sings on the chorus.
“Penthouse Floor” – Combine the talents of Legend with arguably the hottest rapper at the moment, Chance the Rapper, and the result is pure gold. A roving bass line breathes fresh life into the steady beat, while both Legend and Chance sing about making it to the top and about making room for others. “My folks downstairs still waiting in line,” Chance raps in a delivery that sounds closer to a Def Jam poetry reading than any contemporary rap style, making the message land all the more powerfully.
“Darkness and Light” – What do you get when you combine the southern fire funk that lives in Brittany Howard’s soul with Legend’s soulful, meditative vocals? The album’s titular track, for starters, and something that feels like a cross between Alabama Shakes’ recent musical exploration on Sound and Color with Legend at his best. It’s part funk, part jam, part psychedelic rock, part soul and entirely magic. Legend and Howard dance around each other on the verses, but when the two come together they make intoxicating music. Play on.