John Legend & The Roots John Legend & The RootsWake Up!
One of best things about “How I Got Over”, the latest album from The Roots (who we keep mentioning around here as the days pass since its release), is the panoramic, integrating, and ragingly contemporary vision of its sound, applied to an idea with strong ideological and political roots. It’s an outburst of rage, fury, sadness, and complaint done in the old style of 70’s soul and funk albums –there’s a lot of Black Panther in their discourse– but changing the call to violence to a call to common sense, and a melancholy optimism. They replace the low voices and melodic choruses with concise raps and collaborations from a musical spectrum that is 100% Caucasian. And that’s the magic of the invention: in spite of white indie interference and the way it comes closer to darker, more dubious positions, can anyone find a more soulful album anywhere in this season’s crop? It would be hard. And it’s still going strong.
A few months after going on sale, “How I Got Over” now receives a visit from a younger brother who, although he has the same combative spirit and the same intentions and goals, manifests himself in notably different musical and creative terms. Inferior ones—why beat around the bush? John Legend, one of the pillars of more melodic, accessible neo-soul, backed in the beginning by Kanye West , and author of a couple of notable albums where he blended sensual R&B with metrosexual hip hop, also wanted to put out his own album on the recession and his personal manifesto on the mandate of Barack Obama. But this time, he has opted to turn the master hand of The Roots as the accompanying band and to apply his own expressive varnish to a collection of classics from the feistier, tougher black music of the 60’s and 70’s. The idea is clear and makes sense—to bring those cries of protest and vindication to our days, to show that in forty years little has changed, and that the discourse prevails, and at the same time to show the world that it is possible to perform those songs in 2010 with the same feeling as then.
“Wake Up!” lacks the strength, freshness, originality, and emotion of “How I Got Over”, and of course it pales in comparison with the original material that he covers. But I doubt very much that Legend and company intended to try to surpass Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Ernie Hines, Baby Huey & The Babysitters, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes or Mike James Kirkland, some of the artists covered, because that would always be a losing battle. I think that his aim is more modest in that sense. He aspires, and manages, to become a vintage, organic flip-side of current R&B, which is more caught up in Autotune, production, and almost-house beats than in putting together a proposal that is solid, lasting, and substantial. The presence of The Roots isn’t a whim, but rather it is logical and makes a lot of sense in an effort to forget prefab beats and studio effects, trusting everything to a real band, like in the old days, with a retro flavour and essence. Legend could have recreated all those classics with a modern production in line with the trends of the moment, but the project wouldn’t be as good, interesting, or credible. And the public that might be interested in that concept of soul in the 21st century wouldn’t have understood or appreciated it either.
The album not only loses every round to the original material, which was already a part of its plan. There are also other moments – “Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be)” , a reggae flash that bores and confuses; “I Can’t Write Left-handed” by Bill Withers, less profound and absorbing, with a more derivative line; or “Wholy Holy”, too far from Marvin Gaye’s—which take away more than they add, emotionally giving the whole ups and downs and instability. The potholes are made up for by the album’s main highlights: “Hard Times”, the muscular, intense opening that is rounded out by Black Thought’s contribution; “Little Ghetto Boy”, again with the MC and holding its own with passion and firmness in the vocal section, which is complex; “Wake Up Everybody”, with Common and Melanie Fiona, especially because it dares to try a more commercial, almost AOR version, without ever going off-course or losing its soulful balance—it’s the clearest, most evident hit on the whole album; and “Shine”, the only original song written by Legend, which, with the help of the Philadelphia band, catches its urban melancholy air, giving him his best song in a couple of years.
An album with more ingenuous and honest aims than it might seem at first, seeking only to vindicate struggle, protest, and black consciousness, reclaiming, in turn, a musical legacy that today is lost or unknown among new generations, “Wake Up!” gets a bare B grade not because it is (logically) unable to successfully approach the original songs that it covers, but rather because the coming together of John Legend and The Roots in a joint venture seemed to augur a more complete, profound, personal project. Especially with the precedent and sort of notice given, still too fresh in our minds, too monumental, by the thrilling “How I Got Over”; months later, it continues to be a candidate for an outstanding position in the end-of-the-year lists.
John Legend & The Roots (ft. Common, Melanie Fiona) - Wakeup Everbody