ALBUM REVIEW: John Legend and The Roots - Wake Up!

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STREET DATE: 09.21.10 | EMUSIC | AMAZON| INSOUND | ITUNES

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RATE WAKE UP!
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There aren't many hip hop artists out there willing to tackle socially and politically conscious music stemming from a tumultuous era in black history. Sure, conscious rap has gradually emerged into the mainstream with the rise of artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, heck even Kanye throws down some profound social commentary when he's not apologizing to Taylor Swift. But covering 70's soul, funk and r&b classics ranging from the likes of Nina Simone to Marvin Gaye? Only The Roots and John Legend have that much dedication. I mean, it takes a lot of gusto to fashion a covers album of politically charged artistry and not fuck it up. And though it's tough to say whether any of these covers are impressively better than the originals, that isn't the objective here. The message Legend and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson are trying to convey: acknowledging change, awareness, and social consciousness, this is the foundation of Wake Up!, their first collaborative effort.

Named after the Arcade Fire masterpiece, Wake Up! explores the fundamentals of the music Legend and Questlove grew up on; rather than covering famous songs from the seventies, they chose lesser known harmonious sermons that revolve around war, government, racism, and prejudice. Legend had the idea for the album in 2008 during the Presidential election: “I was in the middle of campaigning for Barack Obama and feeling inspired by the atmosphere in the country at the time, so I wanted to do something musically that reflected that moment.” No joke. Wake Up! is most assuredly an ode to all the activists and peace enthusiasts who fought for human rights and equality, whether preaching through song or speech.

Take “I Can't Write Left-Handed,” Bill Withers' poignant tale of a soldier who lost his arm in the Vietnam War. Its premise, like most hippy jams from that era, is to stop sending our youth to fight in wars they don't believe in, let alone understand. Legend sounds equally concerned on the Wake Up! rendition, paying homage to Withers and the soldier in his sententious introduction. There are moments where his voice bleeds with emotion, sustained by the balance of electric and grand pianos, gospel choirs, and electric guitar solos. Retrospectively, prior John Legend or Roots records have never been as in your face as they are on this collaboration, which is what makes it all so refreshing.

There is a vast range of moods on Wake Up!, fabricated by the myriad of instruments used, the spirited choirs, backup singers and guest appearances. Questlove has the rare opportunity to showcase his drumming expertise on funkier jams like “Compared To What” and “Hang In There.” Black Thought spits a verse on the blues heavy album opener “Hard Times,” yet it still feels relevant to Baby Huey. On Marvin Gaye's “Holy Wholy,” Legend is so passionate, yet delicate, meticulously capturing each note. Legend, who's never done soca before, comes close to expressing the intense vocalization Lincoln Thompson communicates on reggae ditty “Humanity.” The album closer, Nina Simone's dreamy “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free,” expresses her pine for justice and an end to racial profiling. Legend's interpretation, rather than distraught, is ambitious, positive that now during the time of Obama we are within grasp of “freedom.”

What is most meaningful about Wake Up! is that it is a means for Questlove and Legend to perform conscious seventies music without having to reconstruct them to accommodate modern society. Their roots have always been deep in soul, gospel, funk, r&b, all of which are existent on Wake Up!, but they have never entirely returned to it. These aren't a collection of songs to succeed How I Got Over or Evolver; they are politically charged anthems to remind us that while we might have advanced in some ways, most of these key issues (war, corrupt government, racism) are still prevalent today. The presumption here is to wake up, smell the coffee, and actually do something about it.

73 — [Rating Scale]

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