John Legend knows there are two ways people think about him.
To many, he’s the smooth-talking pop star famous for his big voice and polished love songs, the dapper family man who peppers Instagram with photos of his wife, model Chrissy Teigen, and their 7-month-old daughter.
“And then there’s the guy out here talking about mass incarceration on ‘Bill Maher,’ ” he said recently with a laugh.
These differing John Legends have tended not to show up in the same place at the same time. You certainly got little sense of the fight for social justice from “All of Me,” the syrupy piano ballad that became Legend’s biggest hit when it went to No.1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2014.
Nor were you glimpsing a harmless heartthrob when he appeared on Maher’s HBO talk show days after the presidential election and said of Donald Trump, “We have a racist running the country.”
Yet the singer’s two sides begin to come together on his tellingly titled new album, “Darkness and Light.” Due Friday, it takes up some of Legend’s familiar themes but puts them in the context of what he referred to as America’s “political unrest.” The album also retools his sound, moving away from the slick pop-soul arrangements for which he’s known toward a moodier, more organic vibe he developed with producer Blake Mills and a diverse cast of top-flight musicians.
“They say, ‘Sing what you know’/ But I’ve sung what they want,” Legend declares to open the 12-song set. “Some folks do what they’re told/ But, baby, this time I won’t.”
Sitting in a small green room before an invite-only performance recently at a Los Angeles art gallery, the 37-year-old born John Stephens said his goal with the album was “just to be honest and talk about the things I’ve been thinking about.”
“If you follow me on Twitter, you know I have a point of view,” he added. “I want to do the same with my art. I want to contribute to the conversation.”
Longtime fans of Legend, who got his start as a sideman to the likes of Lauryn Hill and Kanye West, realize he’s touched on politics before. In 2010, he teamed with the Roots for a collaborative disc, “Wake Up!,” on which they covered protest songs from the ’60s and ’70s.
And he and rapper Common won an Academy Award last year for “Glory,” their anthem about the civil rights movement from Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma.”
But “Darkness and Light” represents Legend’s first time integrating his social and cultural views into the kind of personal stories favored in pop and R&B. In “Penthouse Floor,” he describes how wealth can dull one’s sensitivity to others’ hardship – and does so with clear knowledge of life at the top. “Right by You” imagines what the world might look like once his daughter has grown up.
It’s not that Legend didn’t want to try this earlier. “But the things I think about when it comes to policy, they don’t sound good in a song,” he said. “It was a struggle to figure out how to do it without seeming corny or pedantic.”
He also worried about merely echoing the work of others, such as Marvin Gaye, whose landmark “What’s Going On” from 1971 is “the perfect album that was sensual but also political at the same time,” Legend said.
“Where do you go from there?”
One path opened up thanks to “Between the World and Me,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book about the state of race in America. Mills said he and Legend were drawn to the way Coates “doesn’t purport to have all the answers” to the problems he lays out, which inspired them to write about those issues in an “emotional” way.
As an example, Legend pointed to the album’s closer, “Marching Into the Dark.” It’s about “the idea of struggle and the idea of putting your life on the line for an important cause,” as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. had, he said. “The metaphor we use is that they’re chasing a fading star into the dark. They’re struggling for an end they may never see.”
Legend said he was familiar with that uncertainty. “Everything I talk about – improving our schools, prison reform, making sure everyone has an equal opportunity – I don’t know if we’ll ever get there,” he said. “Frankly, I’m pessimistic. But I’m optimistic enough to know that even the little wins count. So the struggle is worth it.”
Along with its powerful lyric – “What good is a dream when the dreamer dies?” Legend sings – “Marching Into the Dark” shows off the album’s distinctive sound, with Mills’ guitar playing over a lurching funk groove.