John Legend and the Roots: Wake Up!

RIYL: Bill Withers, The Roots, Raphael Saadiq

john-legend-roots-wake-up-cover-e1279246652953[1] Before he reached the presidency – and thus subjected himself to at least four years of being picked apart, second-guessed, and portrayed as a letdown by pollsters and pundits – Barack Obama was a signal of meaningful social change, and a source of profound inspiration, to millions of Americans. His roots as an urban community organizer served as a reminder of a time when community really meant something – particularly in the black community – and raised hopes for a return to outreach, investing in urban infrastructure, and a renewed focus on the common good.

People were hoping for a paradigm shift, in other words, and those never happen as quickly, simply, or clear-cut as we feel like they should (as a passing glance at any newspaper will tell you). But that’s the thing about major change: As slowly as things might seem to be moving on the surface, moments of inspiration have a way of paying unexpected dividends. Case in point: John Legend and the Roots’ Wake Up!

Conceived during the 2008 election, Wake Up! combines Legend’s political awakening with the Roots’ peerless soul scholarship to produce an album that functions on two levels: One, as a call to greater personal responsibility and communal awareness, and two, as a sort of gateway into the classic records Legend and the Roots chose to cover. As chief Roots ambassador ?uestlove points out in the liner notes, these songs will be appreciated by two generations – the folks who still remember Baby Huey, Bill Withers, Harold Melvin, and Donny Hathaway, and the younger listeners who have grown up hearing bits and pieces of the music repurposed for hip-hop beats. (In a nifty, knowing twist, Wake Up! includes a cover of Ernie Hines’ “Our Generation” that features a guest verse from CL Smooth, who sampled the song 18 years ago.)

There’s something a little off-putting about the fact that a call to attention this powerful has to rely so heavily on songs that have been around for decades, and listening to Wake Up! – as with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s similarly themed 2006 cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album, conceived in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – you may find yourself alternating between feelings of joy and disappointment. It’s hard not to wonder why today’s young soul artists aren’t making new music this marvelously aware – or why, if Legend was going to end the album with an original cut, he couldn’t have come up with something more deserving than the mawkish “Shine.”

On the other hand, great music is timeless, and there’s no denying that every one of these classic songs is every bit as resonant today as the day it was originally released – or that Legend and the Roots prove capable, empathic interpreters of the material. Wake Up! isn’t a new soul classic, but it reaffirms the undimmed relevance of the artists who helped shape the genre’s golden era. Here’s hoping the album expands the spirit of inspiration that brought it to life – and that other artists heed its title’s call. (Columbia/G.O.O.D.)

John Legend MySpace page


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