Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Harkening back to a bygone period where social activism and musical creativity met at a cultural crossroads, the new album by two creative forces is a warming addition to today’s lukewarm climate. John Legend And The Roots---Wake Up! serves notice for those needing substance with their music. It’s a welcome change compared to the majority of music that is made more for entertainment than thinking. Think Curtis Mayfield, consider Marvin Gaye, recall Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes, reference Stevie Wonder when thinking of this album’s overall tone and tenor. A collection of twelve, succinct songs, John Legend And The Roots---Wake Up! pays homage as much as it opens eyes.

Immediately, you get the sense that the chemistry is present with John Legend, The Roots, and extended family members involved in the production of this gem. Starting off with “Hard Times” featuring Black Thought, you get the sense that the societal woes of today are as much material for the album as the original songs being represented. On this song, the powerful, expressive drumming of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson matches the vocal prowess of the one John Stephens, known to the musical world as John Legend. Of course, your favorite emcee’s favorite emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter supplies the lyrical intensity that he exhibited on The Roots most recent album How I Got Over. “Compared To What”, the second offering on the disc, has Legend waxing poetic over the subdued, yet dope, soundbed provided by James Poyser, “Captain“ Kirk, Owen Biddle, and ?uestlove. The lead single, “Wake Up Everbody” is a fitting tribute to the Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes song from the mid-70’s, with Melanie Fiona and Common adding flavor to the already tasty concoction. Fiona sounds at home with The Roots crew, and of course Chi-town’s finest (sorry Kanye) laces the song as only he can. I’m hoping this is the Common we hear when he releases his next musical endeavor.

As soon as I hear the keys and horns on “Our Generation (The Hope Of The World), I recall Pete Rock and CL Smooth with “Straighten It Out” from Mecca And The Soul Brother, and sure enough you have CL Smooth spitting like it’s 1993 all over again, which is a good thing when you’ve been considered one of hip hop’s most underrated emcees. He fits perfectly within the context of the song, asking for our generation to wise up before it’s too late. One of my spoken word influences, Malik Yusef, is the voice of reason on “Little Ghetto Boy (The Prelude), which leads into “Little Ghetto Boy”. On the former, Yusef uses his poetic brush to paint a vivid picture of a young male urban dweller, while the latter has Black Thought continuing the theme to great effect. This extended song, so to speak, is both moving and driving from a musical standpoint because The Roots are the consummate band, able to adapt to any sonic styling. John Legend is again on point because his voice is a throwback to a more soulful time and space.

The seventh song on the album, “Hang On In There”, is a cruising song if there is ever one. I picture a drive down Interstate 95 South to North Carolina with this song, a cut pleading for everyone to not give up or throw in the towel. This is vintage soul music, down to the haunting background vocals. This is definitely one of my favorites on the album. A different feel was sought with “Humanity (Love The Way It Should Be). More of a reggae-tinged song, Legend has no problem channeling his “inner Gong”. Listening to this song highlights how much of a humanitarian Robert Nesta Marley was during his shortened lifetime. The words are as important now as they were decades ago, even if for differing reasons. “Wholy Holy” slows the pace with a more gospel-tinged vocal and musical performance. It’s a mesmerizing cover of that puts the listener in a spiritual state of mind. John Legend shows time and time again why he is a needed presence in today’s music.

Next on the menu is the food for thought “I Can’t Write Left Handed”, with Legend singing as well as commentating on the political climate. Sounding like a song the President Obama contingent could have utilized a few years ago on the campaign trail, “I Can’t Write Left Handed” is a methodical, brooding cut, chiming in at 11:44 as the album’s longest song. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” is at the opposite end of the time spectrum (only 2:43 long). Thematically, this song is self-explanatory, as John Legend croons about ideals of freedom. “Shine” concludes the album on a bright note, blending his mellifluous voice with the lush instrumentation provided by the Philly musical collective.

Listening to John Legend And The Roots---Wake Up! is proof positive that musical substance still has a place in today’s world. The album is concise, uplifting, thought-provoking, all while maintaining a sense of historic value. Because each song reflects on a predecessor, it is easy to dismiss this as strictly a tribute anthology, but that would do John Legend, The Roots, and company a disservice. I sense that the value in John Legend And The Roots---Wake Up! will be continued listenings. Social commentary as art, and vice versa, is making its presence felt during this pivotal time in history, especially from the much-maligned “Hip Hop Generation” the media seems to denigrate with pleasure. Looking back on 2010, this album fits in nicely (along with Distant Relatives from Damien Marley and Nas) on the socio-political front. If you are revolutionary, militant, forward-thinking, progressive, or socially conscious, purchase this album. If you are docile, meek, passive, conservative, or not involved in the neo-struggle, purchase this album with a disclaimer: you won’t be any of those monikers after digesting John Legend And The Roots---Wake Up!  As Larry Fishburne so eloquently put it in “School Daze”, “WAKE UP”!
Review written by:  WISDOM
Album cover picture courtesy of

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