During the hype of the Obama election, John Legend and hip-hop favourites, The Roots, collaborated to raise community awareness with a compilation of ‘60s and ‘70s covers. What could have been a fairly passable album, with modern-soul crooner Legend playing the solo-preacher, became a bluesed-up, funk-fest courtesy of The Roots’ incredible backing instrumentals.
Here, Wake Up! offers a modern-take on classic soul hits from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Nina Simone. The opening two tracks, Hard Times and Les McCann’s Compared To What?, are well-constructed, and capture the upbeat, street-party vibe that should have carried on through the entire album.
However, Roots’ MC Black Thought, isn’t utilised nearly enough. His rap-verse on Hard Times is what gives the track modern relevance, and yet he only features once more when introducing Little Ghetto Boy.
Wake Up Everybody features rapper Common and the talented Melanie Fiona. Common’s inclusion is essential, and breaks up what could have sounded like another cheesy ‘Live Aid awareness’ ballad.
At this point, the album loses momentum and becomes a vehicle for Legend’s dominating vocals, and The Roots become nothing more than backing musicians. Hang On In There is nice but slow and drawn-out, Humanity offers some catchy-reggae beats and Legend’s rendition of Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy adds nothing spectacular to the soul-classic.
I Can’t Write Left Handed is near-perfect, apart from the staggering 12 minute run-time. Legend introduces the story behind Bill Withers’ original version over blues-instrumentals and smooth gospel backing. Around six minutes in, The Roots are finally given freedom to jam and guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas offers an epic electric solo.
Wake Up! would be phenomenal live, with Legend pouring himself emotionally into each song and The Roots bringing the noise… literally.
Luckily for Legend and the gents of The Roots, there are a handful of solid tracks that warrant additional listening, giving you time to appreciate the entire album’s concept for what it really is – a refreshing sound with honourable intentions.