R&B/Soul singer John Legend’s fifth studio album is significantly stripped down from his previous efforts, choosing to focus more on his impressive voice as he sings about some rather heavy concepts. Featuring some interesting and unexpected collaborations, the album of slowed down and introspective ballads has some very high points, showing off Legend’s musical ability that has kept him as a force in the industry for so long, but the lack of variation between tracks and general sluggish pace to the album can detract from the experience as a whole.
The album’s production is mainly handled by Blake Mills, who recently contributed heavily to blues rock band Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, which garnered an Album of the Year Grammy nomination. The best song on the album, its title track, features the band’s lead singer Brittany Howard, suggesting that despite Mills’ best intentions he is much better at what he knows. He offers some rather basic contributions mirroring the structure of a typical R&B song in his leap across genres. Speaking of Howard, Legend’s collaborators frequently overshadow him on the project. While Legend is very good, his very humble demeanor that he even celebrates in his lyrics here – “Legend is just a name”, he says on the opening track – prevents him from doing anything too showy. He lets duet partners Howard and Miguel attack the big notes and go further than him vocally, while Chance the Rapper delivers a standout verse as always. These are all some of the best tracks on the album, but mostly because of the featured artists.
Miguel’s track, “Overload”, was also produced by the singer and stands as a clear highlight as the two men consider the implications of relationships in the public eye. The quicker beat on the song alone makes it stand out from the pack while the two R&B virtuosos harmonize in falsetto and trade lines — “Must we make a spectacle of love?”. Coming of his biggest hit yet in “All of Me”, of course there are a few plays at pop radio here too that are more dance-oriented and far from where Legend should be. “All of Me” was a hit without the production bells and whistles after all, so the necessity to rely on them is disappointing.
“Darkness and Light”, the song, rises miles above the other tracks on the album with its bluesier feel accommodating Brittany Howard’s vocals well – Legend adopting a sensual falsetto to complement her full-voiced reaches into the stratosphere. A drumbeat clearly played live and an impressive blues guitar solo while both singers wail in the background adds even more, expressing the combination of all the organic talent in the room where it was created.
The overall musicality across the full album is a strength – Legend’s harmonies with himself and his guests are to be commended, while the instrumentals are often riskier than a typical song you might hear on the radio, featuring soulful guitar loops and even a saxophone solo from up-and-comer Kamasi Washington. Legend’s voice really can be spectacular, and a very stripped-down song like “I Know Better” shows off his traditional R&B abilities. The lyricism is also a strong point, as Legend dives deep on many of these songs to discuss some complicated topics. He appears disenchanted with his celebrity status and the attention that comes with it, while also addressing the political climate of the world. His perspectives are pretty grim at times and rather pessimistic – but with the tiniest glow of hope.
As the album continues, however, the similar-sounding minimalistic and introspective ballads begin to pile up and the 2nd half of the album becomes boring. The songs are not necessarily bad, but they are very safe. It’s almost as if Legend is satisfied to deliver something good rather than spectacular or innovative — a lead single, “Penthouse Floor”, which supposedly had intentions of emulating Stevie Wonder and features a huge talent like Chance the Rapper, should be much more interesting than it ended up being. A more energetic performance from Legend and more lyrical variation would have helped here – the song doesn’t have as much kick as it needs to.
On my first listen to “Temporarily Painless”, a rather paint-by-numbers chorus had me lamenting more of the same as the album began to draw closer to its end – until Legend hits a great falsetto note out of nowhere to end the main melody line. Taking risks such as these really works out for him sometimes, and there are not nearly enough on this album. Still, the album is am effective showcase of Legend’s talent and contains some brief moments of greatness. To maintain this level of success for over a decade, he must be doing something right.
Favourite Tracks: Darkness and Light, Overload, How Can I Blame You, Temporarily Painless
Least Favourite Track: What You Do To Me