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John Legend and the Roots - Wake Up!


Josh Hurst
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We've mentioned this one-- briefly-- in our Roots thread, but, as it turns out, it's an album that deserves a thread of its own. It's completely knocked my socks off.

The basics: It's an album-length collaboration between John Legend and The Roots; Legend handles most of the vocal duties, though there are a couple of rap breaks from Black Thought, as well as guest spots for Common, Melanie Fiona, and others. The material is culled almost exclusively from protest/political songs from the 60s and 70s. Most of the selections are little-known; with the exception of "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free," nothing here qualifies as a standard, in my mind.

And the whole thing is just incredible from top to bottom. This is NOT the polished, ready-for-radio John Legend you've heard before. This is Legend making a case for himself as a soul singer of the highest caliber. He screams himself hoarse in the opening song and never quite recovers; the performances are similarly gritty, steeped in greasy funk, soul, rock, and reggae. ?uestlove cleans things up every now and then, with a sunny string arrangement here and there, and his touches are perfect balances to the dirt and grime found elsewhere.

What's remarkable is how well the album captures the sound of a bygone era without ever feeling nostalgic; just when ?uesto conjures a perfect 60s throwback in "Our Generation" or "Wake Up, Everybody," the band injects a hearty dose of streetwise, hip-hop attitude.

The highlights are many. "Hard Times" opens the album with an astonishingly funky workout, an electrifying vocal from Legend, and a killer Black Thought rhyme. That song dissolves into "Compared to What," a grimy Sly Stone (from the There's a Riot... era) funk tune with a rhythm section straight out of one of Miles' electric jazz albums. "Humanity" is an abslutely gorgeous reggae number that could have fit on the Harder They Come soundtrack. And there's an eleven-minute outpouring of Bill Withers' anti-war anthem "I Can't Write Left Handed" that simply must be heard to be believed. It's stunning and epic.

Can't recommend this one highly enough. It's out September 21st, and it's well worth pre-ordering. :)

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  • 2 weeks later...

For the life of me I can't figure out why this one is getting such lackluster (in some cases downright dismal) reviews. Nearly every critic I've read has called the album "toothless," "declawed," or "phoned in." Is there some alternate version floating around out there? Because the album I'm hearing-- and have been listening to regularly for weeks now-- is nothing like that.

But what I'm really sick of is reading that the album is "self-important." Self-important because Legend takes things like social inequality, war, poverty, and political change seriously, and sees the pop song as a suitable format for exploring them? In that case, I guess I'm self-important, too.

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For the life of me I can't figure out why this one is getting such lackluster (in some cases downright dismal) reviews. Nearly every critic I've read has called the album "toothless," "declawed," or "phoned in." Is there some alternate version floating around out there? Because the album I'm hearing-- and have been listening to regularly for weeks now-- is nothing like that.

But what I'm really sick of is reading that the album is "self-important." Self-important because Legend takes things like social inequality, war, poverty, and political change seriously, and sees the pop song as a suitable format for exploring them? In that case, I guess I'm self-important, too.

Yeah, I don't really get it either. It's a throwback album -- and a good one -- to those early '70s soul/funk albums with a political conscience from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, etc. Nothing wrong with that, and quite a bit right, as far as I'm concerned. And although I don't think John Legend stacks up particularly well in the Mayfield/Gaye comparisons, The Roots are one great band. I think it's a good, not great, album, and most of the reviews I've read are far too harsh.

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I hadn't picked up on the Arcade Fire connection:

"Wake Up!" could have been a very different thing. Initially inspired to remake the Arcade Fire song of the same name, John Legend and the Roots ended up with a covers project. Only "Wake Up" didn't make the cut, and the implication of what an Arcade Fire reimagining could have meant -- a return of the favor indie rock has been paying R&B for the past few years, maybe -- transformed into a set of classic R&B remakes.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I am, on the one hand, glad "Wake Up" didn't make the cut; it would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Then again... I'd really love to hear it in a different context some time. The Roots doing Arcade Fire? Hoooo yeah!

You asked for it, you got it:

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

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Ha! Thanks, Jeffrey.

I'm not a big fan of how The Roots sometimes overdo things for live performances-- cf. the huge orchestra and choir they used when they did "Dear God" on Fallon, or the Afrobeat horn troupe that joined them for "How I Got Over"-- and I generally have the same opinion of these harmony singers they've been employing for the Legend performances, but they couldn't have pulled this song off without those added voices. I also love how much fun ?uesto looks like he's having, but the song really seems to belong to Captain Kirk on guitar.

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FWIW, I was underwhelmed by the cover. It was too close to the original, I think, and it didn't have nearly the oomph of the original. It felt rather "by the numbers" to me.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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For fans of this album, I recommend checking out the "track by track" video series that ?uestlove and Legend have been doing on YouTube; there's a video for each song on the album, wherein the two of them explain why they chose it, and the thoughtfulness that went into the song selection here is really something. They also go into some of the history of each song, etc. I won't post the links to all of them here, but

for "Compared to What," which is up there with "Hard Times" and "Humanity" as one of my favorites on the album. You can find the others just by poking around YouTube, or hitting up ?uesto's twitter.

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