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HomeArts & CultureAlbum review: John Legend takes it easy this time around with Darkness and Light

Album review: John Legend takes it easy this time around with Darkness and Light

John Legend

Darkness and Light

(Columbia)

Three stars

You could write an essay about the opening track – and latest single from – John Legend’s fifth album. “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”, begins I Know Better.

So, this is Legend taking a long, hard look in the mirror, after the stratospheric success of global phenomenon of the 2013 single All of Me – destined to play at every wedding and Valentine’s Day party until eternity.

If Darkness and Light is the raw and real Legend coming out to play, you might wonder why it took a cast of eight producers to bring its 12 tracks to life. Take note: 2013’s Love in the Future featured a cast three times that size. This time, by contemporary R&B standards, Legend is going grunge.

The analogy works – the newer album is less ambitious and far-raging than its arc-soaring predecessor. But it also zeros in on particular styles and themes closer to the author’s heart. Turns out, what Legend wanted to be doing all along was not crooning soppy piano ballads, but strutting charged, carnally-inspired R&B.

There’s “no need to justify looking for a little bit of love tonight,” insists Legend, with all the force of an overexcited student in Temporarily Painless.

Complete with seedy, squelching guitar and a Chance the Rapper guest turn, Penthouse Floor’s invitation to “ride the elevator” seems to have just one destination in mind.

The mellow piano chords of Love Me Now most recall an All of Me, but rather than promising marital bliss, this time Legend is pleading for instant satisfaction, because “who’s gonna kiss you when I’m gone?”

Meatier, moodier moments see Legend look up from the gratification towards the musical heyday he pines for – the earthy blues vamp Right By You, complete with whining harmonica, sounds most like a singer left to his own devices.

But there’s evidence here Legend truly is more at ease with all the pressure and prodding.

Darkness and Light is tight, assured and largely satisfying stuff. But after the promise of this album’s self-aggrandising introduction – and its author’s previous triumphs – it can’t quite shake the feeling of a great talent treading water.

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