Imagine a world in which contemporary R&B/Soul music wasn’t funneled through an Auto-Tune machine while chanting the same contrived messages of causing alcohol-induced mayhem in a godforsaken club.
Thankfully, John Legend & The Roots have brought this blissful reality back with their collaborative album “Wake Up!”
The 2008 Obama campaign inspired album is a set of ‘60s and ‘70s soul covers that create a soundscape of smooth, creeping funk with hints of hard-driving hip-hop, gospel and meltingly relaxing reggae.
The album starts off with Baby Huey and the Babysitters’ “Hard Times,” which sets a sorrowful tone and gets the listener to realize the desperation of the current era as MC Black Thought roughly raps: “I probably do whatever that would better my outcome / This city is like the Audubon ballroom waiting on Malcolm / ‘Cause people wanna see my blood flow like fountains / I got nowhere to go and still feel like bouncing.”
The music quickly shifts to Eugene McDaniels’ Vietnam protest song “Compared to What,” easily a standout on the album. The song is a great example of how relevant these songs can be in America today with two major wars and an economic crisis.
The song collection could have easily been a cover of past Motown hits and would have been a tremendous listen. Instead, the tracks covered are more important because their messages inspire a sense of hope and advocacy among listeners.
The best song covered is Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” The song is uncompromisingly long at 12 minutes, almost double the running time of the original, but Legend & The Roots don’t care as they use every second to revitalize their audience.
Legend’s voice is a desperate cry for help, while guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas’ heart-tearing solo reflects this plea in a reminder of how passionate listeners should be about the current social climate.
Legend’s current effort is a welcomed contrast to his previous album “Evolver,” in which the crooner abandoned his intoxicating piano for a more pop-oriented, synthesized sound. Legend’s piano and, most importantly, his rich, bellowing voice takes front stage with an attitude that is necessary to inspire the change that “Wake Up!” advocates.
Legend never sings better than the musicians he is covering, but the music is better this way, inserting his own style that updates these songs and makes them more relevant and powerful than they have been in decades.
The Roots only strengthen the sophistication and musical integrity of these songs. The band is able to cover every style of music, and perhaps the main fault on the album is limiting MC Black Thought’s appearances to two tracks. The Philadelphia based hip-hop crew’s diversity allows “Wake Up!” to shine in its own perfectly unique way.
Even with the many stirring moments from both acts, the collaboration isn’t perfect. By the time the lone original song “Shine” looms around, the album’s message has overstayed its welcome. Although the song is soulful and heartfelt, one can’t help but want to reject the amount of preaching Legend has inflicted on the listener for the last hour of music. A trimmed running time (62:48 being the full album length) would make the album more accessible.
The album’s insert includes a quote from legendary artist Nina Simone, whose “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” is covered.
“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times … I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself,” Simone said. “That to me is my duty.”
Legend & The Roots reflect their time by looking back and have brought back songs that have been lost in the bottom of record crates and hip-hop samples. So, just for a second, put down the club R&B jams about buying a girl a drink and watching her hips swing. It’s literally time to wake up and spin a record that will help reflect and change our times.
Songs to check out:
- “I Can’t Write Left Handed”
- “Compared To What”
- “Little Ghetto Boy”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Ben Macaluso Ben.email@example.com.