First Impressions: John Legend and The Roots Rise To The Occassion On 'Wake Up!'

Friday, September 24, 2010

I'm always yapping away and complaining that mainstream music nowadays doesn't have much of a message, depth, or something tangible of not going in my ear and then out the other like mindless musical liquid...and then I put on Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance". Talk about doing the hypocrite limbo. As we all can decipher with the brain cells we have, there is music to make you dance and then there is music to make you think. Some songs do the ultimate task of doing both, yet, the collaboration between John Legend and The Roots, Wake Up! is geared in the latter. It is music for thought, so sit down, shut up and listen, you might be surprised at what you find.

Wake Up! politically drives, and it's a feast for lovers of good old fashion soul. It's no What's Going On, but Wake Up! might be the closest you can get as it rides on it same wavelength. Legend and The Roots crew could have easily came up with a modern sound for this record, yet, they optioned to take it back...way back, back when political minded music was at its most definitive, back to the 60's and the 70's. Not to say the last thirty years didn't happen, but groups and acts like Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye, bought conscious during the times where racial tensions were high, wars were raging and songs and album projects of this accord were much more prominent. Yes, times have not changed, yet today, we don't get too many artists, especially two highly mainstream artists, that are vocal about it through their art and would consider releasing an album that fully executes those subjects, much less do a good job of doing so.   

Joint albums are tricky. Cover albums are tricky. Concept albums are tricky. Considered Wake Up! tackled from all sides. Only in the hands of The Roots and John Legend would this come off being convincing because they fully embody the spirit and breathe new life into the classic structure. Sure, you'd rather listen to the originals, I had that same feeling the first time I pushed play and the percussion swell of Questlove's drums on  "Hard Times" by Baby Huey came in. Yet, by the time I got past the tender Melanie Fiona and Common assisted "Wake Up Everybody" and into Hathaway's pensive gospel, "Little Ghetto Boy", I was convinced.

Legend is no Withers, but he plows effortlessly through the singers' notable and haunting track, "I Can't Write Left Handed", a song that at it's time was a reflective look at the Vietnam war, in today's mindset, it is applied to the wars that we continue battling in the Middle East, and guess what, it's just as relevant as ever. Consider this one of the best covers you'll hear on this set. 

Since Legend got flack for issuing out his electronic savvy, Evovler in 2008, and abandoning his homespun Southern gospel from his 2003 debut, Get Lifted, consider this the reason why you should keep riding with Legend. What I liked mostly was that he didn't contract what I like to call "Stevie Syndrome", where he tried to emulate the vocal stylings of whoever did the song originally, he just sang it the way he could, and I thank him for not succumbing to imitation. The Roots, who are always impeccable, are superb support, who, at times overshadow Legend with their instrumentation because they are so bold. Speaking of The Roots, if you want to be technical, the group's recent (and excellent) effort How I Got Over, which revolved around the subject of America under the Obama administration, is an pin-point complement to this. It's almost as if  they come full circle in their message due to the modern political cries of How I Got Over bounces off the protest revival on here.

If you didn't know, Legend and The Roots did a special live performance of selections from Wake Up! for the web special, UnStaged. The web concert, which was directed by Spike Lee, was truly riveting and makes for a great compliment to the album as well. So I implore you to check the link here for the full experience.

Surprisingly, Wake Up! isn't the easiest of albums to get into, as some songs go on longer than intended and some listeners who are looking for a quick fix or an introduction to these artists might find themselves knee deep in a well-constructed protest record. Still, there is something special here and it shouldn't be overlooked. Consider this your 'wake-up' call for the year.

Rating: 9.0/10
Release Date: September 21, 2010

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