Unlike John Legend's first four proper studio albums, this one, his fifth, was produced almost entirely by one person. Floored by Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color, Legend -- coming off his first number one pop hit and an Academy Award -- recruited Blake Mills, that album's chief collaborator. Mills, who also plays several instruments and co-writes almost every song, responds in kind here with a similarly vivid touch. Even at its most processed, the album sounds handwrought, a fully evolved synthesis of gospel, folk, rhythm & blues, and adult pop. Legend's supporting cast of songwriters, an unconventional mix of commercial pop and underground figures that widely ranges from John Ryan to Will Oldham, is completely different to that of 2013's Love in the Future. The bulk of the songs are thematically similar nonetheless, with the embrace of an intense and long-term partnership -- up against "all that shit from the outside" -- at the center. A little more personal and societal context is drawn here. It starts with "I Know Better," a ballad led by Larry Goldings' Hammond organ and piano, where Legend enters in almost startling fashion with "They say sing what you know, but I've sung what they want." He renounces vanity, then beams "My history has brought me to this place/There's power in the color of my face." After the elegant funk-soul number "Penthouse Floor," a triumphantly escapist number enhanced by Chance the Rapper, the content switches to more personal matters. A one-night stand ("Temporary Painless"), the rejection of anxieties to seize commitment ("Surefire"), love after war ("What You Do to Me"), and life under a microscope ("Overload") are among the subjects. There's also a moving ballad, featuring tenor sax from Kamasi Washington, addressed to Legend's daughter. In addition to Legend's laser focus and Mills' presence, the album is tied together by the supreme rhythm section of Pino Palladino and Chris "Daddy" Dave. Each track has its own kind of burning intensity. The album's front, back, and inner photos are in black-and-white, but the music evokes rich shades of yellow, orange, and red.
Darkness and Light Review
by Andy Kellman