"Wake Up!" by John Legend and The Roots

John Legend and The Roots
Wake Up!

G.O.O.D. Music
2010

Review

It's exhilarating to hear Soul music that is about something. Taking old Soul songs with socially conscious lyrics and updating the arrangements to include modern elements courtesy of some real musical titans in John Legend and The Roots is brilliant. I was excited about this project from the moment I heard about it - even before I had heard one note of music off of this. How in the world could such a potent combination disappoint? Well, it didn't. If you love Soul - even if you aren't a Hip-Hop-head - you are going to really dig you some of this.

Wow. What a great year for Soul music! Aloe Blacc's album was amazing. Easily one of the best Soul records of the year. And yet "Wake Up!" is like, Amazing + 1. Even more amazing is how the album manages this - it's essentially updated arrangements of long forgotten Soul music from the 70's. "Updated" is really just a way to say that The Roots and John Legend perform them and occasionally incorporate some Hip-Hop MC's. It's a strange case of circular inferences as well since many of these songs have been sampled by very recognizable Hip-Hop songs.

Take for example "Our Generation". How brilliant is this song? This a song that most old-school Hip-Hop fanatics would instantly recognize from the classic Straighten It Out by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. And here John and The Roots are savvy enough to feature C.L. on the track! Equally recognizable are "Hard Times" and "Little Ghetto Boy" (which is so far removed from what Dr. Dre did to it on "The Chronic" and yet knowing of a Hip-Hop song that samples it makes me appreciate this arrangement so much more than I would have without that contemporary link).

"Compared To What" is as funky as if it came off the mother ship. John Legend and The Roots really sell this material well. It just feels so natural coming from them. The fact that The Roots are an actual live band really helps sell that Soul feel...and of course John Legend is a great singer. The bass and the horns really make this one standout. When it comes to the lyrics that John sings here, I'm pretty sure that nothing was changed and yet the lyrics are as relevant today as they were back when the songs were originally written:

The president
He's got his war
The folks don't know just what it's for
No one gives us a rhyme or reason
They had one doubt
They called it treason

To me, that speaks to the strength of the format. I'm a big fan of music that is about something and that still can be entertaining. Just as with Aloe Blacc's last album, "Wake Up!" really stands out as an example of the best of the Soul music genre.

This album is so close to perfection that I can't bring myself to even discuss the songs that were not perfect. Suffice it to say that the songs that I thought were just "good" and not "amazing" on the album were those that seemed as if they had not been updated at all. It is the view into classic, socially relevant Soul music filtered through the modern perspective of The Roots and John Legend that makes the album great. Legendary indeed.

4.455 out of 5

Track Ratings

1. Hard Times (feat. Black Thought) (05:16) 5
2. Compared to What (06:26) 5
3. Wake Up Everybody (feat. Common & Melanie Fiona) (04:24) 5
4. Our Generation (The Hope of the World) (feat. CL Smooth) (03:15) 5
5. Little Ghetto Boy (Prelude) (feat. Malik Yusef) (01:58)
6. Little Ghetto Boy (feat. Black Thought) (05:26) 5
7. Hang On in There (07:15) 5
8. Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be) (03:49) 3
9. Wholy Holy (05:50) 5
10. I Can't Write Left Handed (11:44) 3
11. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (02:42) 3
12. Shine (04:43) 5