I generally hate covers albums. As much as I love John Legend and The Roots individually, there was a little part of me that thought their album-length collaboration, “Wake Up!” was going to be a humongous bust. My heart sang even further when the album was previewed by their version of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody”. Covering anything on which Teddy Pendergrass originally sung is generally a crime in and of itself, but adding Melanie Fiona and Common (despite Lonnie’s tightest verse in a couple years) felt like a case of unnecessarily shoehorning as many artists as possible onto the song.
Well, while I’m still not terribly fond of “Wake Up Everybody”, I’ll admit to being quite pleasantly surprised by the remainder of “Wake Up!”. I think I’m pretty safe in my assumption that Legend and Roots drummer/king of all blerds Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson dug deep into their musical knowledge to come up with the songs on this album, most of which I was either only vaguely familiar or completely unfamiliar with. When it comes to covers albums, that’s honestly a good thing-it means that I don’t have an original version to compare the cover to. Additionally, all of the song selections are of a political bent (and despite all being written more than three decades ago, are painfully relevant today). This not only falls in line with a typical Roots album thematically, but results in some of Legend’s toughest singing, although it also (sadly) underscores how little music with this much thematic meat is made today.
One thing Legend doesn’t get enough credit for is his musical elasticity, and “Wake Up!” offers even more proof of the man’s versatile nature. He sings tough on songs like “Compared to What” and “Our Generation (the Hope of the World)”. Both songs have a muscularity to them that’s previously been foreign to his music, and they manage to dirty up his mannered vocals a little-good move. The latter song also brings rapper CL Smooth out of mothballs, and proves that he hasn’t lost a step in his delivery since he rhymed over a sample of the original version of “Our Generation” on “Straighten it Out” nearly two decades ago.
“Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” offers an interesting excursion away from the land of soul and into the land of reggae, an area Legend has dipped his toe in for his two most recent albums, and it’s one of the album’s tightest tracks. He and The Roots (with special attention paid to Capt. Kirk’s Eddie Hazel-esque guitar solo) take us to rock school on a lengthy cover of Bill Withers’ Vietnam epic “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and smartly bookend that selection with songs that are as close to pure gospel as Legend’s ever gotten (Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy” and “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free”, which was popularized by Nina Simone). These tracks provide “Wake Up!”‘s emotional high point, and Legend leads us out on a high note (spiritually and musically) with his original tune “Shine”. While it’s not exactly the equal of the songs that preceded it on the album, it’s still a strong piece that makes me wonder how Legend & the Roots would have fared with an album of original material in the same lyrical vein (something to think about for next time, fellas).
Give props to Legend for attempting an album like this. In today’s play-it-safe musical environment, I’m surprised that “Wake Up!” even got a green light from the record company higher-ups. While the album might not reach the blockbuster success that Legend’s three previous albums have obtained, you can safely attribute that to not much here fits in with the current commercial music environment, not to the music being anything less than high quality. Despite my initial misgivings, Legend and The Roots have joined forces to create one of this year’s best soul records. This is one album of remakes that actually DESERVES a sequel.