Few recording artists have a body of work as consistent as John Legend’s. Since his launch in 2004 with the Grammy-winning Get Lifted, the singer-songwriter has earned a devoted following for his smooth, socially conscious R&B. Along the way, he’s collaborated with rappers such as Kanye West and Lil Wayne as well as DJs including MSTRKRFT and Tiesto. But while the landscape of popular music has shifted over the past decade, Legend’s buttery vocals, polished production and messages of uplift have remained constant.
His star has risen further in recent years, with 2014 seeing his first No. 1 single–the ubiquitous power ballad, remixed for radio, “All of Me,” and a music video starring his wife, the supermodel Chrissy Teigen. He also won his first Academy Award, with Common, for the anthemic “Glory,” from the soundtrack to the movie Selma. On Darkness and Light, his new album, out Dec. 2, Legend validates his prominence. In many respects, it’s more of the same; listeners who responded to his earlier work will find much to love here. But his songcraft has grown sharper, and changes in his life both specific and global–namely, the birth of his daughter Luna earlier this year, and the turbulent political landscape in contemporary America–are in the tissue of these songs.
Mostly what he’s doing, though, is doubling down on a formula that’s already won him 10 Grammys. Legend finds the sweet spot between the traditional sonic palettes of R&B and a few modern production tricks, which mostly come courtesy of a well-curated guest list. Sleek “Penthouse Floor” is slyly political, with of-the-moment M.C. Chance the Rapper lightening the mood. The title track is reminiscent of Prince, with a breathy falsetto vocal and guitars from Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard. Funk crooner Miguel helps make “Overload” the most baby-making song here, spare and fluttery.
Still, those songs are pretty subtle, and Legend is best when he bucks expectations. The tense lead single, “Love Me Now,” with its radio-friendly throb, showcases some of his sharpest hooks to date. Best of all is the lovely ballad “Right By You (For Luna),” in which he manages to avoid the obvious traps of sentimentality. “Will you work like me to lift the conversation higher?” he asks of his daughter. “Will you be cool like water putting out the fire?” Like all of Legend’s best work, it’s unflappably classy–and also unexpected.
This appears in the December 12, 2016 issue of TIME.
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