John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up!
Record Label: GOOD Music and Sony Music Entertainment
Release Date: September 21st, 2010
Nothing quite compares to the soul and funk movement of the 60s and 70s. Our nation was caught in the midst of extreme upheaval. The civil rights movement was finally gaining momentum, providing a voice to those who struggled under the oppressive nature of racism. The Vietnam War was still smoldering in Asia and a new flame had begun to burn in the beginning stages of the Cold War. These events helped shape the world as a whole, but also left their mark on music being produced at the time. Artists like Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers used music as a way to engage the populace, urging them to take a good look around and get involved in something they believed in.
Those ideas are just as important almost half a century later, albeit inspired by much different circumstances. John Legend and The Roots initially settled on this project as a way to support the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. While intended to be a smaller project, the collaboration eventually became something much bigger, evolving into its eventual state as Wake Up! Almost entirely composed of cover songs, John Legend and The Roots take a look back at the artists that came before them, putting a new spin on the soulful classics that defined those decades.
That being said, Wake Up! is still a covers album. But when they're performed by two incredible musical acts like John Legend and The Roots, it's hard to call them just covers. Four songs in particular offer a few unique twists to the old standards with features from hip-hop artists. The intro track “Hard Times” as well as “Little Ghetto Boy” feature verses from The Roots' frontman Black Thought. His socially conscious lyrical content fits perfectly with the themes explored in the original songs, and neither of his showcases feel forced in any way. Common makes a fantastic appearance on the track “Wake Up Everybody” over a soft melody of piano keys and backed by a choir. The only feature that feels a bit out of place is CL Smooth in the track “Our Generation.” It's an unwelcome interruption from the politically charged lyrics and takes a bit away from John Legend as he begins to hit his stride.
Again, these aren't just covers. The original songs were held back by recording procedures that would seem inadequate, almost archaic in today's technologically savvy world. John Legend and The Roots have followed the most important rules when covering material from other artists: you need to keep that signature sound that made the original important, while also adding that something special to make it your own. Every song is, without a doubt, true to the originals. Legend's voice melds and shapes to each instrumentation with surprising alacrity. The Roots expand the song's significantly through the use of additional percussion without becoming too heavy or complex. Unfortunately, this reins in many members of the band, but their undeniable talent still finds a way to shine through.
No song on the album showcases this mix of vintage and modern day quite like “I Can't Write Left-Handed.” Legend intros the song with a comparison to the times the song and its cover were performed. Bill Withers wrote the song towards the end of the Vietnam War about a young drafted man he met while performing at Carnegie Hall. Withers tried to place himself in the boy's shoes while writing the song's lyrics, and that feeling definitely shone through. In the cover, Legend conveys those same feelings of sorrow perfectly through his own voice, and the somber muted tones of the original are recreated by The Roots in their own unique style. The track is an eleven minute long monster that soon boils down to an extended jam session at the end. Filled with out of character guitar solos and impressive drum rolls, it seems a bit out of place at first. But, this short exhibition of skill is a great reminder of what John Legend and The Roots are capable of.
The final two songs are impressive as well, both for different reasons. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is a short, almost happy song despite the lyrics and is a great cooldown song after the intense “I Can't Write Left-Handed.” Upbeat piano and soulful vocals from Legend combine with ?uestlove's steady drum progression and a gospel choir to create an almost hymn-like song structure. “Shine” is the final and only original track on the album. It fits with the album's musical theme, but comes off a bit of a letdown. Legend's vocals and piano melodies are on point, but The Roots seem to be extremely restrained. The addition of horns and choir vocals make for a beautiful song, but nothing on the track is particularly head turning.
Coming off incredible albums like Evolver and How I Got Over, it seemed an almost lazy move by John Legend and The Roots to focus their efforts on a cover album. All doubts were diminished as soon as the first songs were released, and Wake Up! ended up being a breath of fresh air. Music like this has been out of the spotlight for way too long, but John Legend and The Roots did every song justice while creating something unique. From features of hip-hop artists like Black Thought and Common to extended instrumentation from all the talented musicians involved, Wake Up! is so much more than just a covers album. It's a time machine, transporting us to the past for a reminder on what used to be important. It's a soap box, detailing problems that still haven't been addressed after almost half a century. But, most importantly, it's a call for others to be more responsible and socially conscious about the world around them.