The last nine years have been dark times for America. A terrorist attack devastated the nation, wars are being waged in two countries, the economy has crumbled and flood waters killed more people than will ever be counted in New Orleans, but, aside from some token gestures and a retroactively censored line from Biggie’s Juicy, the music we hear on our radios remained unchanged. And then, incredibly, historically, a black man was carried to the presidency on a wave of hope that signaled, at least in one way, America had truly changed, but, aside from … ...Read the full album review
DJBooth Album Review
The last nine years have been dark times for America. A terrorist attack devastated the nation, wars are being waged in two countries, the economy has crumbled and flood waters killed more people than will ever be counted in New Orleans, but, aside from some token gestures and a retroactively censored line from Biggie’s Juicy, the music we hear on our radios remained unchanged. And then, incredibly, historically, a black man was carried to the presidency on a wave of hope that signaled, at least in one way, America had truly changed, but, aside from some token gestures and the occasional “Michelle’s husband” reference, the music we hear on our radios remained (ironically) unchanged. Artists have either been asleep during one of the most turbulent and fascinating times in our nation’s complex history, or willfully shut their eyes….except for a small handful of artists like The Roots…and John Legend.
As times have grown harder over the last few years so have the legendary Roots crew’s albums (see Rising Down), and while John Legend has certainly been no stranger to good times (see Green Light), his work has always conveyed a desire to truly make an impact. So when the two musical forces began making music together in the summer of ’08, while the election was in full swing, it was only fitting that the work that would emerge from those sessions, records like The Fire and a fully collaborative album titled Wake Up!, would harken back to the last time America experienced such radical change and optimism activism; the late ‘60s and ‘70s. You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.
A cover album would have been far too easy for musicians of this magnitude, so it’d be more apt to say that the Roots and John Legend, who I’ll be collectively referring to from now on as John Roots, re-imagined the music, expertly balancing modern hip-hop sensibilities with classic soul quality. Everything you really need to know about that balance can be found on Hard Times, which finds John Roots taking Baby Huey’s original record of the same name and making it even grittier and harder, up-ing the tempo and emphasizing the marching bass and horn section. And, of course, throwing in a typically dope verse from Roots emcee and frontman Black Thought (who’s relatively absent from Wake Up!), helps bridge the gap between today and yesterday. The inspirational Our Generation follows a similar template, taking Ernie Hines’ sonic call to action and amps up the volume and sense of immediacy, adding in a verse from CL Smooth on the back end for good measure, as does Wake Up Everybody, which brings in vocals from Melanie Fiona and a Common verse to remind listeners just how relevant the original Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes record remains today. They’re called classics for a reason.
It’s an unfortunate truth that bands rarely receive the attention they deserves as focus is shifted to the man holding the microphone. The Roots, as expected, are stellar throughout Wake Up!, and someday we’ll all stop taking them for granted, but today is not that day. Instead, let’s take a moment to talk about John Legend, who vocally delivers some of the best performances of his career. In sharp contrast to the Rick Ross hooks he’s been delivering primarily to, I assume, pay the bills, here he shows that his voice can convey real depth and even pain. On the funky Compared to What he pushes his voice almost to the point of breaking, giving the record a sense of tension, and while no one will ever do Little Ghetto Boy better than Donny Hathaway, or for that matter Wholy Holy better than Marvin Gaye, Legend proves he’s worthy of caring on the legacy of such r&b giants. I truly believe that Legend did this project for primarily altruistic reasons, but a happy benefit for him will be a continually rising level of respect among serious r&b fans, young and old.
John Roots may not change the world with Wake Up!, but if nothing else the album will introduce a younger generation of fans to some classic r&b and soul, which in turn might just lead to more demand for music that truly reflects our lives and the world around us, which in turn means we’d be hearing a lot more quality music like Wake Up! on our radios. Now that’s change we can all believe in.
Listen to More: John Legend Written by Nathan S.
First DJ Booth Appearance:
"Grammy Family" (2006)
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