The stuff of Legend

I suppose I could just as easily have called this one “John Legend shows his stuff.” In case you’re not already aware, today marks the release of Legend’s new, album-length collaboration with The Roots on a bunch of 60s and 70s protest classics, a wonderful and winsome album called Wake Up! that, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, immediately catapults Legend to the ranks of his generation’s greatest soul singers, and proves him to be no mere R&B showman, but an artist of real ambition and, er, roots.

Evidently, though, my opinion is hardly a universal one. The album is getting lackluster reviews, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. I’m not normally bothered when albums that I love don’t do well with the broader community of music critics, but in this particular case I find it to be both baffling and a bit troubling: It’s as if these people are listening to an entirely different record. I’ve seen the music here described as “toothless” and “declawed,” and even accusations that The Roots are “phoning it in.” How these critics can miss the passion that drips from every note of this thing– all the grit, the soul, the fire and the humanity– is beyond me. Few records in 2010 are as teeming with life as this one. And as for The Roots: They lock into soul-fired R&B grooves to kill for, they turn on a dime between funk and reggae, gospel and jazz, and they stir up one hell of a ruckus when the song calls for it. I would go as far as to say that no other band working today is capable of making music like this, on this level.

I’ve also seen it written that Legend is “self-important,” one assumes because he is taking on songs that deal with justice, poverty, inequality, war, education reform, and social change. In other words, some critics think that giving a shit about what’s going on in the world makes one “self-important.” Who knew?

For the record, I think this is much more than just a good throwback R&B album. I’d just about call it a masterpiece, easily one of the year’s best albums, and a new high watermark for Legend, possibly for The Roots themselves. Here’s just one of the reasons why:

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