Under Review: John Legend & The Roots – Wake Up!

This had better be it, 2010; no more covers albums!  That said, good on you for saving the best for last.  After seeing them earlier this year, the collaborative release from John Legend and The Roots, Wake Up!, has finally arrived.  The album is almost entirely made up of takes on soul and R&B classics originally from the likes of Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone.  Though Legend and the Roots crew are the driving forces behind each cut, they managed to wrangle a number of guests to sing and rap throughout Wake Up!Common and Melanie Fiona appear on “Wake Up Everybody,” the Harold Melvin number that serves as the album’s manifesto.  The song, like the album, contains strong political overtones, though the truly heavy material is found elsewhere.  “Hard Times” and “Compared To What” kick the album off to a righteous, urgent start.  Black Thought rhymes over the Curtis Mayfield-penned opener, while “Compared To What” features some of Legend’s finest vocal work on the whole disc.

Guest MC Malik Yusef pontificates on the strange behavior of urban youth in the intro to Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy.”  Describing the ways in which these kids cope with the pressures of the aforementioned hard times also serves as a powerful introduction to the disc’s second half.  Most of side B is taken up by “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” the heartbreaking Bill Withers tune that gets expanded into a 12-minute meditation.  The reggae-tinged “Humanity” and the closing original, “Shine,” give the set some sonic and aesthetic variety.  This album presents a pretty great snapshot of how tremendously entertaining this collaboration materializes in concert.  There’s a lot of greatness in these songs, too, and given that these aren’t songs that are covered too regularly, the set remains fresh.  When compared to the numerous unnecessary covers records that have come out this year, Wake Up! stands out as having something to say.  Its titular call to attention may be a simple one, but sometimes those are the only two words you need.

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~ by E. on September 27, 2010.

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