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John Legend Can Help Us

Don’t underestimate his new album — or the value of a widely respected celebrity activist

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we ask that you all please rise, remove your caps, and direct your attention to the American flag for the playing of our national anthem.

Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” 1970. Nearly eight astounding minutes of anger, fear, paranoia, fatalism, fire, brimstone, and howled pleas for reunion and redemption and rebirth. A bandaged fist coated in the shattered glass of Mayfield’s heavenly falsetto and the filthiest, raddest bassline imaginable. The times were dire; the appeal to our better natures was desperate. Richard Nixon makes a cameo.

Calls for it to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” have been made before. But things are more fractured and apocalyptic now; Nixon suddenly looks like Lincoln. So we’re not asking this time. This is our song. It’s just a fact. Either that, or we need a new version, right now, from someone who can triangulate respectability and disrespectability, who can evoke the classics but push them forward, who’s beloved by the establishment but quietly boasts enough wingspan to reach into the gutter. A suave rogue. Someone willing to get his or her tux dirty. Someone who can swear with conviction, those expletives infrequent enough that they can still shock, provoke, energize.

Here’s a suggestion.

That’s my favorite celebrity political tweet of 2016, fired off in the midst of the initial Colin Kaepernick debate by one John Legend. Soft-soul superstar. Loverman balladeer nonpareil. Double-digit Grammy winner, plus he scored the 2015 Best Original Song Oscar, alongside Common, for the Selma anthem “Glory.” Power-couple heartthrob, whose supermodel cooking-mogul wife, Chrissy Teigen, is even better on Twitter than he is. (Her tea rant is legendary.) New father. Philanthropist and activist, particularly active on the topic of mass incarceration. Hell, he’s even in La La Land.

Most importantly, your parents probably like him, though that probably means you think he’s mad corny. You both have a point. His biggest hits, from 2004’s solo-career-launching “Ordinary People” to 2013’s Teigen-inspired no. 1 smash “All of Me,” tend to be melodramatic, ivory-caressing power ballads, stirring but a little treacly, sure. Legend makes sturdy, successful records that neither disappoint nor surprise. He’s a paragon of modest excellence and impeccable taste (see Wake Up!, his 2010 classic-soul jam session with the Roots). The world did not need another version of “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” But he’s the guy you’d pick to do it, if someone had to. He’s shrewd, he’s classy, he’s oatmeal. But high-quality, nourishing oatmeal, with steel-cut oats or whatever you oatmeal people are into. There is no shame in this. There is, in fact, significant upside.

Here’s our guy on Real Time With Bill Maher a few days after the election, dropping in at the 36-minute mark to give David Axelrod the business, not standing for any give-Trump-a-chance equivocations. Roll your eyes at that lineup if you like, but right now we need cultural mouthpieces enshrined and respected enough to get invited to go on TV, look guys like that in the eye, and tell them to stuff it.

Listen. John Legend’s not gonna go dead prez or Chuck D or even Gil-Scott Heron on us. He is not performatively dangerous. But he triangulates Famous and Woke to a degree rare in his field. You won’t catch him brawling in the streets, but we’ll need black-tie allies in the penthouse, too. There’s a song on Watch the Throne about that idea, actually. John Legend sings the hook.

This one’s not bad, either.

“I Know Better” kicks off his fifth solo album, Darkness and Light, out today. The song is cowritten, incredibly, by Will Oldham — yeah, that Will Oldham, the weirdo-folkie totem. Oh, to have been the pizza delivery guy. And for a few delirious minutes there, it sure seems like Legend’s about to flip a car with his bare hands.

Gentle piano backed by gospel organ. His voice five degrees more strident and impassioned than usual.

He might be talking here about the song he did with Meghan Trainor, but everybody’s gotta eat. Later:

This is a stately, elegant song with a distinct “I’m Through Fucking Around” overtone. Darkness and Light was, in all likelihood, entirely wrapped pre-election, and it’s thus in that weird, awful “too early to predict, too late to react” dead zone where you wonder what Legend would’ve changed if he’d known what the national mood would be on the day of its release. A Tribe Called Quest’s bracing and prescient We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service proved that such a dead zone is not necessarily the worst place to be. “I Know Better” likewise hints that things are about to get lit, though what follows is not, to be clear, a disruptor remotely on the order of There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But it’s not quite business as usual, either. At its best, it portends a riot about to start.

That’s Track 2, “Penthouse Floor,” with a jaunty bassline and a TV-news-lambasting agenda (“They see us reaching for the sky / Just in order to survive”) and a Chance the Rapper verse that starts with a knock-knock joke. Legend’s conclusion, smoothly crooned, as always: “Let’s ride the elevator / It’s what we’ve been waiting for / We’ll tear down the penthouse doors.” It’s a pretty good song that’s not gonna scare anybody, but it starts to articulate a calmer, statelier, more ingratiating form of radicalism. Think of it as The Anarchist Coffee-table Book.

From there, we mostly pivot to love songs, which is not surprising and only slightly disappointing. Your producer is Blake Mills, who also helmed Sound & Color, last year’s weird and great sophomore effort from Alabama Shakes, another Grammy-bait entity that delivered the expected barroom-R&B red meat but loaded up on sharp edges, weird UFO ambiance, and a pronounced volatile unease. Lead singer Brittany Howard even shows up on Darkness and Light’s title track for continuity, pushing Legend to do a little more unhinged braying.

He likewise gets a little unruly on the dusky lovers’ quarrel “What You Do to Me,” if only for a solitary word: “Don’t believe it you when you say that you fuckin’ hate me.” (Early iTunes reviews suggest that some of his fans take the mere presence of an explicit-language tag personally.) Miguel shows up, too, swaying amid jazzy horns on “Life on Overload.” The first single, “Love Me Now,” is propulsive and catchy and, if not quite “dark,” then at least suggestive of a certain urgency. The video, notably, is partially set in Iraq, the Dominican Republic, outside Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. He’s intimate, but he’s not insular.

By the time you get to “Right by You,” the tender and sleepy song about his kid, your eyes have likely glazed over a bit. Which is to be expected, too: Legend’s albums eventually lose their drive, but rarely their appeal. Darkness and Light isn’t a bomb-thrower, even in the context of his other records. But don’t discount his range, sonic and emotional. In other words, don’t forget “Blame Game.”

We can argue over whether or not My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye West’s best album, but unless Nicki Minaj is glaring over your shoulder right now, don’t bother arguing that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s best song isn’t “Blame Game,” which is in turn fully stolen by Legend, putting in his darkest, toughest, most nuanced work yet as Kanye’s conscience, his voice of reason, his paragon of stability. Kanye signed Legend to G.O.O.D. Music way back at the beginning, and the logic was obvious: He needed a good cop, a white hat, a straight man to set off all the depravity. But now that depravity might be all we know, it’s tempting to root for Legend to unravel, to turn heel, to roll up his sleeves and let the mask slip. He knows there’s a hell below. He knows we might be heading there. He might know how to pull us through.