John Legend & The Roots
Perhaps it’s the feeling that this album came about two years too late. Perhaps it’s the fact that The Roots already made an album this summer that encapsulated the political, social and economic unrest felt across our nation in How I Got Over. Either way, there’s simply something off about the consciously enlightening album from John Legend & The Roots, Wake Up!
The idea behind Wake Up! is pretty simple – and rather admirable to boot. Cover a handful of emotionally charged soul and funk tracks from the ‘60s and ‘70s on an album that is intended to inspire listeners to wake up in the aftermath of the historic Obama election. Musically, it doesn’t get much better than The Roots. Everyone, even heads outside of the hip-hop world, knows that The Roots as a band simply lay it down like few artists can. Furthermore, John Legend has two near-brilliant neo-soul albums to his credit. So what could possibly go wrong?
For one, albums such as Wake Up! – best intentions aside – run the risk of coming across as entirely cheesy and contrived. Unfortunately, John Legend and The Roots are no exception to the rule. “Wake Up Everybody” conjures images of the dreadful remake of “We Are The World” minus the auto-tune; even a stellar verse from Common (about time!) can’t save the track. It also doesn’t help that despite this being a collaborative album, John Legend attempts to steal the spotlight on nearly every track by killing his vocal chords to let out the loudest notes possible. His cries and wails only detract from the great musicianship from The Roots. In fact, the instrumentals to Wake Up! would probably make for a tremendous album in their own right.
Another problem comes in the song selection and arrangement. Nevermind the fact that John Legend is a six-time Grammy winner, he simply cannot do justice to timeless classics such as Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy”. The arrangement is choppy as well. The uber-funky “Our Generation” (featuring an out-of-place verse from CL Smooth) simply does not belong after the far smoother and aforementioned “Wake Up Everybody”.
This is not to say that the album is devoid of its high notes. The opening track “Hard Times” is a complex and aggressive introduction that finds Legend and The Roots ideally in tune with one another. The Malik Yusef feature on the prelude to the cover of Donnie Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” is superb, and certainly a shining moment on Wake Up! Speaking of shining, the closing track – and the one original track – on the album, “Shine” is another winner, and a pleasant note on which to close out the album.
Ultimately, Wake Up! suffers from the affliction of great vision, poor execution. Although it may not be a popular opinion, John Legend was not the right man for this job. For fans of The Roots, this album is likely still worthwhile solely for its musical components, but structurally, Wake Up! doesn’t stand up to other contemporary soul and funk albums, and misses the authenticity of the retro soul albums from which it draws.