The Roots have been busy these past few months doing things that we would least expect. Aside from this year's release of their slept-on album, How I Got Over, how many of us really expected their successful turn as the house band on Jimmy Fallon's late-night talk show? I certainly wasn't. I was even more surprised that they would drop another album this year, this time with soul singer John Legend with this week's release of Wake Up! But I shouldn't have been too surprised given the socially conscious nature of most of their music. Coupling that with the direction in which Legend has been going as an entertainer and entrepreneur since the election of President Barack Obama and this new album made perfect sense.
While The Roots have always infused strong political and social themes in their music, Legend has seemingly only now begun to use his celebrity brand as a platform to bring political and social issues to the fore. On Wake Up! they team up on an album of cover songs from the 1960s and '70s and is marked strongly with a tone of protest, conviction and melancholy. I would go so far as to say that it is a collector's item for soul music aficionados, because Wake Up! features songs--some familiar and some a little lesser known--from an era that fundamentally changed US history. Think the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, boycotts and riots. This period in history was one when war, racial tension and class struggles were at a tipping point and shifts in societal norms were jolting. Back then, music was both a salve and an outlet.
From the Bill Withers cover "I Can't Write Left-Handed," which Legend sings with wretched intensity, to the spritely optimistic reggae cover "Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be)," originally performed by Jamaica's Prince Lincoln, John Legend and The Roots pay homage to some of soul music's greatest acts while reiterating the message that each song captured and convey it to a new audience. The stand-out for me is the cover of Donny Hathaway's "Little Ghetto Boy," which Black Thought opens with verse while John Legend slides in with charismatic easy soul vocals that are wryly sung in almost storytelling form. No, John Legend is not Donny Hathaway, but his voice and style is entirely appropriate and engaging in this new twist on the classic.
While the title track from the album features the talented Melanie Fiona as co-lead with Legend on vocals, I would have loved to have heard her harmonize with him on the cut "Shine," which is the only original song in the collection. The song, while lyrically beautiful with its sumptuous musical arrangement, lacked a vocal texture that would benefit from either adding vocals from someone like Fiona or by Legend himself doubling his vocals to harmonize on the chorus, which seemed a bit empty at times when compared to "Wake Up." I think the title song works well, accented by a verse from Common, yet Teddy Pendergrass' voice on this song will always be my preference.
I'm personally a fan of music with a message, and I commend John Legend and The Roots on releasing this album. I hope that it inspires a movement toward using music more often as a tool for healing, awareness-building and revolution. Hopefully, more original work will be created that utilizes these themes and be embraced by the mainstream.