*With an arresting title, John Legend & The Roots have finally come together to bring meaning back to music. Predominantly, the album presents covers of politicized songs from the sixties and seventies such as the Gospel tinged Wholy Holy by Marvin Gaye. Bill Withers’ I Can’t write Left Handed with its rock riffs stirs up the pain of war. Their version of Donny Hathaway’s Little Ghetto Boy is both haunting and introspective.
The upbeat Our Generation mixes up the flow of the album with a rap break from CL Smooth, emphasising the power and responsibility standing on our shoulders.
Legend’s husky vocals are the perfect vessel for a gritty delivery of more obscure selections such as Baby Huey and the Babysitters’ Hard Times and Compared to What (best known as a hit for Les McCann and Eddie Harris), with its long and funky intro, which was the first song they recorded.
The epic, fractured string driven Hang on in There by Mike James Kirkland, allow Legend’s vocals, chameleon like, to adopt the status of his assumed surname. With Legend recently featured on a cover of Ebony magazine dressed as Duke Ellington, it is timely that at this point in his career, he is embodying the zeitgeist of his predecessors.
The expressions of angst, which Legend delivers so well could not be more relevant at a time when the world is recovering from recession and there is an impoverishment of minds.
One of my favourite cuts is the inspirational lead single Wake Up Everybody featuring Melanie Fiona and Common, originally done by Philly Soul masters Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, which gives lyrical testimony to how to cure social ills.
I am equally enamoured with the reggae infused Humanity (Love the Way it should be) originally done by Prince Lincoln Thompson and The Royal Passes, which sees Legend’s vocals soar and bounce amid the tropical rhythms.
The album features one original composition, Legend’s song Shine, which fits in seamlessly and is featured in Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim’s upcoming documentary Waiting for Superman.
All eleven songs have a message, though the super pairing, whose paths have crossed many times, avoid being preachy by immersing said messages in Soul. Inspired by being on the 2008 Presidential campaign trail for Barack Obama, the music emerged at a time of hope for change. Naturally they reflect this, capturing a moment in time, becoming its soundtrack.
Paying homage to the political activism from the eras of civil rights and Blaxploitation, which led to an historic Presidency, the album deals with issues of awareness, engagement and consciousness that while nostalgic, are still relevant today.
The Roots, with their unique marriage of live instrumentation and hip-hop, play with passion, funk and intensity, creating a mood and an atmosphere that evokes a range of emotions. The record leaves you feeling reflective and inspired to dream. It is one, which no conscious music lover should sleep on.
Wake up! Is out now on Columbia Records
Visit http://www.johnlegend.com/ to see John Legend & The Roots’ live, studio performance of “Hard Times” and for additional information about Wake Up!
The UK Corner covers urban entertainment from a British perspective and is written by Fiona McKinson. She is a freelance journalist and creative writer based in London. Contact her at [email protected].