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Album review: John Legend and the Roots' 'Wake Up!'

J_legend_240Conceived during and inspired by the 2008 presidential campaign, “Wake Up!” is a snapshot of R&B’s activist past. The suave crooner John Legend and impassioned hip-hop band the Roots resurrect 11 soulful protest songs of the ’60s and ’70s, aiming to conjure and capture a socially conscious fervor. Digging up cuts such as Les McCann’s “Compared to What” and Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy,” Legend and the Roots illustrate that these wartime, working-class narratives haven’t gone out of style.

Pleasures abound, even if the Roots don’t get too adventurous with the arrangements. The tone here is more revelatory than riotous, and the livelier moments are the stronger ones. A reworking of Baby Huey’s vivid “Hard Times” is punched up with a tension-filled bass, disarming horns and an assertive verse from the Roots’ Black Thought, while Ernie Hines’ “Our Generation” presents a funkier, dirtier Legend.

The Roots are no doubt in their comfort zone, and takes on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” and Mike James Kirkland’s “Hang on in There” are waiting-room coolness. Legend, however, is stretching out of his, and he packs far more spark here than he did on 2008’s “Evolver.” He cops a near spoken-word grit on Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and gets swept up in the reggae sway of Prince Lincoln’s “Humanity.” Credit Legend and the Roots for looking beyond the hits, and it’s a respectable love letter, if not quite an urgent one, to artists who shouldn’t be overlooked.

— Todd Martens

John Legend and the Roots
“Wake Up!”
Two and a half stars (Out of four)

Comments () | Archives (5)

Deserves more stars...for the instrumentation alone...then add in the great vocal work and the timelessness of the concept....I'm thinking 4 out of 4 stars!...Seriously

This album deserves 4 out of 4 stars and possibly even another star for its relevancy!

My music mentor taught me that if you're going to do somebody's tune, you'd better do it better. In order to show them respect. These covers , do they compete w/ the originals?? Now Les McCann is a HEAVYWEIGHT!

Jody Rosen from RS wrote "They're not imitators — they're heirs." I think when people listen to this album they will understand how this will become the album of the year and it is one that people will listen to years from now.

this album is flat all around. The Roots are not what they were. They paint by numbers now, all the time on TV, learn the song, blare it. Black Thought has talent, but this band has no edge and no attitude anymore.


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