John Legend & the Roots: Wake Up!

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Posted September 30, 2010 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

Even for a covers’ album, the timing and craftsmanship of Legend and the Roots’ collaborative effort on Wake Up! proves to be one of the year’s finest 

Cover albums are usually met with a squinted eye and a hint of opposition. That insecurity in the public eye makes sense when they run across generation definers in rock and soul (with an excellent background in song composition) making permanent leaps into covers’-only formats; slowly waking away from their rock roots into the canals of adult contemporary boredom. For the neo-soul versatile band The Roots and singer-songwriter soulman John Legend, who team-up to produce a nostalgic set of ‘60’s and ‘70’s message songs with a tweaked-up update on its arrangement, the gimmick to record old standards for the sake of it isn’t the cause at all. With the scary economy and the disturbing aura of dirty politics now clouding up the airwaves and barbershop chatter, the collective pair demonstrate a now-generation fervency to approach the issues of modern times with the answers of yesterdays’ blues and spirituals. Rather than chasing after common and repetitive radio favorites, they dig deep into the forgotten mosaic treasures of social-conscious soul of and awaken them to

Like The Roots’ 2010 release How I Got Over, the combo addresses the ills of war and poverty, reexamines our present-day civil rights while offering the much-needed salve using the poetic inspiration from soul hymnologists. The latter mentioned helps balance the album out from being having a morbid forecast full of grim news. That, along with the careful and colorful expansions of the extended epic ballads, gives Wake Up! the tailored-made design and the freshness it boldly inhabits.

The Curtis Mayfield-penned “Hard Times” kicks off the album with an opening teaser, in campmeeting style with Kirk Douglas’s brimming guitar and James Poyser’s burning piano warming up the selected Baby Huey gem. Although hip-hop archivists have celebrated the short career of Baby Huey and his posthumous national release for being notoriously sampled, his work – along with much of Wake Up’s celebrants – haven’t received their just due of exposure in the mass media. “Hard Times” is dusted off once again and awakened with Black Thought’s rapping prose, ?uestlove’s percussion and with Legend’s charmed-up crooning. Its follow up – “Compared To What,” lifted from Eugene McDaniels’ Vietnam protest and borrowing more from Roberta Flack’s take than Les McCann’s jazzed-up version, gets more of a James Brown mid-tempo shakedown with its “good foot” funk and Chris Farr’s chilling solo sax.

Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy,” possibly Legend’s closest to a revered vintage untouchable, is mildly updated with an eye-opening rap prelude from Malik Yuself and with Black Thought’s intellectual setup. A jazzy, organ-induced, bass-loaded arrangement refines Hathaway’s slum song in such a way that it justifies its own inclusion. As the song parades onward, particularly on the uplifting tag (“Everything has got to get better”), Legend’s piano compares well with Donny’s timing and snugly fits in with the soul piano masters of Ahmet Erugten’s soul kingdom. ?uestlove’s punch on the drum, resembling the intensities of a raw Stax performance, also gives the song a delicious update. The album’s boldest message song surrounds the remake of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” Legend’s take copies the exact framework of Withers’ Carnegie Hall take, but expands it from its original 6-minute performance into an Isaac Hayes “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” mammoth epic; working its opening story on a simple warm-up, stretching the verses some and later exploding into a war zone full of guitar-frenzy dramatics and powerful groaning. All of the strength packaged in the final five minutes poignantly edifies the grit of the final lyric even the more (“He done shot me in my shoulder”).

As the album wraps through a collection of escapist soul with its euphoric, psychedelic presence and preachy rhetoric, it magnificently encounters those “breaking of day” events that allows the album to breath some and walk away from much of its anger. “Wholy Holy” tries its hardest to blend Marvin Gaye’s version and Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace interpretation. The end result is mixed as Legend settles for Gaye’s warmth instead of Aretha’s soulful wails, but Larry Gold’s strings and the sweet serene background vocals add a nice glimmer to the worshipful hymn. “Hang On In There,” as obscure to the ear as obscure can be, is just as rewarding with Legend providing dutiful falsetto magic on his own background vocals and a backdrop using both Curtis Mayfield soul and the Philly touch. “Shine,” the only original composition in the bunch, is Legend’s comforting assail into Stevie Wonder territory. – Inspired by the bio-pic ‘Waiting For Superman’, Legend pens a song that soars on its melancholy melody and call-to-action pleas to save helpless children repair the brokenness in America’s public school system (“Ordinary people/Can be a hero/Don’t put out the light/Let ‘em shine”). The supple harmonies and Legend’s soaring leads add to the song’s golden teary-eyed texture. Even with it being the only original track on board and stuck on the back end of the program, “Shine” is a brimming starlet of inspiration and charity.

Probably the most familiar of all the postings is the Philly soul favorite “Wake Up Everybody.” The band stays consistent with the classic framework, but makes a few amends by adding special guests on the session – turning it into a miniature unity rally. Common adds a few rap lines and Melanie Fiona sings alongside Legend in Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell fashion. The song stands out for its power of prominence with soul fans, but it misses the mark in eclipsing the original due to its unusual brevity and the failure to ad-lib the ending.

Choosing obscure tracks benefits the album a great deal. There’s barely a burden to be compared with originals. Their deepest excursion, especially in the case of The Roots, is their journey into reggae on “Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be).” While the song was penned and performed by Prince Lincoln Thompson & the Royal Rasses in 1979, it clearly puts you in mind of Bob Marley’s universal appeals for peace, love and harmony. It’s a respectable inclusion to the set, despite its high levels of unfamiliarity.

Vocally, Legend seems to be a respectable, decent fit for the aged material. His smokey, gritty vocals rub on the lyrics like a sweet marinade on soul food. Although his appearance is probably a bit too clean, even metro-nerdy, for some of the harder material, his strength resides in his timing. He poises as a sharing superstar who allows the songs to marinate in its own groove, steps back into the spotlight when needed and nails the vocal with the resistance of a trained pop student and with the grace of soul music’s majesty.

It is probably a wise assertion to label The Roots, even with all of their hip-hop wonder, as the quintessential rhythm band of the new millennium. Whatever the hat or musical style is, The Roots – after choosing to taken the responsibility to get in costume – have proven to be masters in camouflage. On these tunes, The Roots are careful in executing new, respectable vibes to their archaeological findings.

Wake Up! revives the nostalgic spirit of ‘60’s and early-‘70’s protest in a way that feels both like a portal into history books and a present-day discourse for accountability. Certainly Legend and The Roots believe, with this record, that those back-in-the-day solutions will work now. With just a little arrangement tweaking and some cantankerous studying, this super-team has taken an almost burned-out idea of covers’ experiments and virtually made it fulfilling.

J MATTHEW COBB

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HIFI DETAILS

  • Release Date: September 21, 2010
  • Label: Columbia
  • Producers: Ahmir “?ueslove” Thompson, The Roots, John Legend
  • Track Favs: Hard Times, I Can’t Write Left Handed, Shine, Little Ghetto Boy, Compared to What

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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