The unlikely partnership of hip-hop gods The Roots and romantic crooner John Legend begins to make sense when one thinks of their paths up to this point. As the night-in-night-out house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” The Roots have become a crisp, accomplished live band. John Legend, out to prove he is more than a cheesy hit-maker, hoped this partnership would stretch his chops. Indeed, the pair has created a powerful, if not at times simple, soul album.
“Wake Up!,” plainly put, is a cover album. Roots co-founder and drummer Amir “?uestlove” Thompson has said they wanted to find lesser-known soul songs from greats such as Marvin Gaye, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Bill Withers; so they did. And recorded them.
On the album, Legend does, as many other reviews of this record point out, get down and dirty with the songs. We hear Legend at his grittiest, especially in the psychedelic-soul throwback “Hang On in There.” He drops his voice an octave or two and belts out his words over harmonious strings and bells, reminiscent of a song we might have heard on the “Superfly” soundtrack. There are times where Legend’s vocal capabilities work to great effect like on “Hang on in There” and the opening track “Hard Times,” a Sly Stone-like track that gives listeners a feeling of building to something great, smartly leading us to the rest of the CD, while other times Legend falls short of the original songs. An example of the latter is the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” in which Legend seems to fail to reach the emotion needed to carry a song of this caliber (although, who can really live up to any Marvin Gaye song?).
The Roots have chosen to stick close instrumentally to the originals, with ?uestlove sounding particularly subdued throughout the album. For the hip-hop lovers out there, never fear; there is the occasional appearance by Roots emcee Black Thought, as well as guest appearances by CL Smooth on “Our Generation (The Hope of the World)” and Common on “Wake Up Everybody,” the stand-out track of the bunch. On “Wake Up Everybody,” Legend trades off vocal responsibilities with Canadian singer Melanie Fiona to beautiful payoff, reminding us that “the world won’t get no better/if we just let it be,” as per Harold Melvin’s original lyrics. Common caps the stellar song with a solid verse of his own.
Closing track “Shine” is the lone new song on the album, written by Legend. It is standard fare for Legend fans—a piano driven ballad of sorts that gives way to a chorus of voices and a logical denouement as a trickle of piano ends the record.
Don’t expect anything groundbreaking from this album, but do expect 12 solid soul songs with the occasional moment of brilliance. What started as a side project for The Roots and Legend has fleshed itself out to an LP worth your time and worth a few listens.