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

September 22, 2010 |  3:47 pm

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!”
Columbia
Two and a half stars (Out of four)

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