John Legend and the Roots: “Wake Up!”

There’s a wonderful moment in the video for “Wake Up, Everybody,” stylish and real and pregnant with meaning, that summarizes rather nicely the spirit of Wake Up!, an album-length collaboration between John Legend and the Roots crew. The time is the early 1970s, and guest performer Common– in period attire, washed-out camera effects signaling a bygone era– steps through a doorway, rapping a short verse about the necessity of love to enact social change. When he emerges on the other side of the door frame, though, the scene changes: The color reverts back to present-day clarity, and Common is now dressed in the the style of 2010. Crucially, though, the song remains the same, uninterrupted.

Wake Up! is an album steeped in the music of the late 60s and early 70s; ?uestlove, an outspoken champion of vintage soul and R&B music, produces this thing in a way that suggests not just a passing interest in the fashions of the era, but a real devotion to its aesthetics and its ideals. But this is not a throwback, an exercise in nostalgia, or a monument to ages past. The concern here is for the present. This is, if you’ll pardon the pun, music with roots, and it does what any rooted thing ought to do: It draws strength and inspiration from the past as it confronts the challenges of its own time with a sense of perspective, of continuity with our heritage, of an understanding of what’s changed and what’s timeless.

I hate to think of it as a covers-record, so nuanced and distinct is its own identity, but that’s technically what it is. Legend contributes one original– the album-ending ballad “Shine”– but the rest of the songs here are protest songs from the 60s and 70s. Most of them will be unfamiliar to you; aside from Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” none of them are particularly well-known. They come from blaxploitation flicks that most of us have never seen, from obscure one-hit wonders long lost to the passage of time, from reggae journeymen who were never even close to hitting the mainstream. At the end of the album, ?uestlove picks cuts from names we know, but the titles remain elusive– as though he’s flaunting just how vast his internal musical encyclopedia really is. Surely “Wholly Holy” is not one of Marvin Gaye’s more well-known songs, and “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is a rather amazingly deep cut from the Bill Withers canon.

These are songs that resonate, chosen not for their obscurity but for their relevance; that they are so obscure suggests only that they deserved another turn at the pass. Wake Up! is a strong-enough collection that they just might become the protest standards in 2010 that they never quite became back in their own day. Legend has noted that most of these compositions didn’t even need to be revised; there are songs about war, about the environment, about social inequality, about educational reform. Some of them speak explicitly to issues within the black community, but the implicit message of the album is that there aren’t any issues that are meant just for a particular group of people. We’re all in this together.

?uestlove– the album’s chief architect, one gathers from interviews and such– achieves an uncommon timelessness here that comes through an unorthodox means, by putting the vintage material on a collision course with the present day. The performers are more than capable of pulling off a note-perfect homage to 60s funk– see “Our Generation”– but a streetwise rhyme or two injects hip-hop energy, and what’s amazing is how thrillingly modern and engaged the song seems despite the retro-leanings of its production. At the same time, ?uest doesn’t feel the need to pile on hip-hop references on everything here; “Wake Up, Everybody” is a more perfect and pure invocation of the 60s, its orchestral flourishes signifying a very specific time but a very universal emotion.

That said, string and slickness don’t figure much into Wake Up!, an album that almost amounts to willing character assassination on Legend’s part. Those who know him as a smooth R&B ladies’ man will be shaken and thrown completely off balance by opener “Hard Times,” a greasy funk burner with a killer Black Thought cameo (one of two on the album, both of them scene-stealers) and a vocal from Legend that’s out-of-this-world in its grit and its sheer ache. He practically screams himself hoarse and never fully recovers even as the album progresses; ?uestlove forces the most raw, cracked performances possible from him, and it makes a convincing case for Legend as one of the great soul singers of his generation. But that’s nothing compared to the follow-up, a jam called “Compared to What” that’s so dark and greasy it could pass for a Sly Stone outtake from the There’s a Riot Goin’ On era, coupled with rhythms from Miles’ electric period. A sax solo in the song’s middle section is pure blues– the truth-tellin’-est sound to be heard on record all year, I suspect.

There are big risks here, both for Legend– who is not traditionally wont to participating in six-, seven-, even eleven-minute funk and rock work-outs, as he does here, nor to peppering his albums with jazzy piano improvisations or spoken-word segments– and also for The Roots, who one-up the instrumental virtuosity and musical eclecticism of their live shows and their Jimmy Fallon segments by focusing neither on sheer length or breadth but depth, making convincing and committed excursions into reggae and jazz that don’t pander with surface-deep genre signifiers but reveal full immersion in the music. And really, there is no other way to describe the eleven-minute outpouring of “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”– the most astonishing and epic material on record, either for Legend or The Roots.

What the album demonstrates, on the whole, is the commitment of the artists to making a protest album that’s honest, brave, and on the balance– something that can, will, and must reach people. There is real anger here, as there must be for something like this to work; calls to social change take on urgency after the opening one-two of bitterness and frustration in “Hard Times” and “Compared to What.” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” meanwhile, begins with compassion but turns purely to rage– not blind anger, but honest-to-God, real-as-shit moral indignation over the continued loss of lives in foreign wars. The full-on worth of this record is made on this song, less a protest song than an ethical imperative. That being said, a protest album simply doesn’t work without love songs: “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” is as necessary to making this thing work as anything else here, a paean to brotherly love that contextualizes the concerns of this record not as hippy-dippy histrionics but simple and inarguable truths.

Legend’s turn on all this material is outstanding, and he’s fortunate to have The Roots backing him; the legendary hip-hop crew is having an inspired year, this project coming on the heels of their own How I Got Over, which is, among many other things, an album-length argument for perseverance– in and of itself– as a good and noble thing. Wake Up! works on a similar tack; the thesis of this one is of positivity as a good, necessary, and imperative thing regardless of circumstance– that really trying to make things better, to love our neighbor a little more and a little better with each passing day, is not an optional thing; to call this album vague, to accuse its hopeful spirit of lacking content, would be to miss the point entirely. It’s an album of real action that is every bit as important and profound as it ought to be– a by-turn harrowing and inspiring and ultimately rousing call-to-engagement that absolutely earns its album title.

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5 responses to “John Legend and the Roots: “Wake Up!””

  1. 3 Piece says :

    I wait with baited breath for this release, How I Got Over is consistently in my top 25 since it’s release.

  2. Josh Hurst says :

    How I Got Over is probably still my favorite record of the year, but Wake Up! is not at all far behind it– and in some ways might actually be a more ambitious and varied album. Regardless, what’s clear is that both Legend and especially The Roots are ON FIRE these days.

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