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This is not The Roots working on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun or D’Angelo’s Voodoo; it’s more like the product of some inspired jamming sessions.
John Legend and The Roots‘ new project Wake Up! was inspired by Barack Obama’s triumphant election run in 2008. A skeptic could point out some similarities between the album and the campaign; both have sort of used up a monstrous promotional budget to produce something where the substance is a little unclear (we’ll get back to that). The Roots are to Legend what Obey was to Obama; they make him do a bunch of cool shit for independent cred, like releasing a mixtape aimed at the streets and choosing rustic vocal takes over velvet ones.
But after the release, and the election, the substance becomes the crux. Wake Up! contains trademark interpretations of more or less obscure soul classics that sprung from or caused social activism—a great idea for a side project, but does it warrant all this rampant promotion? After all, this is not The Roots working on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun or D’Angelo’s Voodoo; it’s more like the product of some inspired jamming sessions.
As such, the record hits home. How could it not, given the talent present at the recordings? Questlove and crew get it in with a looser, more improvisational and less calibrated sound we’d hear on a Roots-record, and Legend’s vocals, not known to fail, work.
The gritty groove on ‘Compared to What‘ turns into a swinging chorus that preserves all the power from Eugene McDaniels’ original. A better emcee than CL Smooth would have been all over ‘Our Generation,’ as Pete Rock proved on the remix. Black Thought stops short of singing next to Legend, but his 16’s sound at home over tracks like the vibrant ‘Hard Times‘. The 11-minute ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed,’ apparently the next single, does a great job of interpreting Bill Withers.
While its refreshing to hear Legend step away from the honeycombed soul he usually plays on his piano and replace it with some raspy, stripped music, this release would have proven more of a gem if put out as a mixtape or an EP. At the end of the day, we should probably be grateful that the likes of Obey and Questlove have infiltrated mainstream politics and music, even if it means we’ll have to tolerate major-label hype and watered-down legislation.
Words Sven Carlsson
Buy Wake Up!