John Legend - With the Roots - Wake Up Everybody (2010)

John Legend
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Unemployment, economic turmoil, and polarized political groups that seem to be more about  self-serving agendas than societal change. It may seem incongruent (especially during  an election year) for an elegant, urban performer to join creative forces with a no-holds-barred hip-hop band from the Illadeph, but those notions should be dispelled with just one listen to the CD Wake Up! by John Legend and the Roots.

What could have been a politically-correct, yet pedestrian, collection of re-interpreted 60s and 70s-created soul classics is instead done with verve, thanks to Mr. Legend's grittier vocal turns and The Roots' electrifying instrumentation: there's the bare-bones, yet brassy take on Les McCann's "Compared to What" and the funkdafied fringes threaded throughout Baby Huey's "Hard Times," which adds backbone and bravado to the otherwise despair-filled, them-versus-me lyrics ("Cold, cold eyes upon me they stare/people all around me and they're all unfair").

Unemployment, economic turmoil, and polarized political groups that seem to be more about  self-serving agendas than societal change. It may seem incongruent (especially during  an election year) for an elegant, urban performer to join creative forces with a no-holds-barred hip-hop band from the Illadeph, but those notions should be dispelled with just one listen to the CD Wake Up! by John Legend and the Roots.

What could have been a politically-correct, yet pedestrian, collection of re-interpreted 60s and 70s-created soul classics is instead done with verve, thanks to Mr. Legend's grittier vocal turns and The Roots' electrifying instrumentation: there's the bare-bones, yet brassy take on Les McCann's "Compared to What" and the funkdafied fringes threaded throughout Baby Huey's "Hard Times," which adds backbone and bravado to the otherwise despair-filled, them-versus-me lyrics ("Cold, cold eyes upon me they stare/people all around me and they're all unfair"). Their cover of Donny Hathaway's "Ghetto Boy" retains the same urgent, yet plaintive feel as the original, invigorated with verses by the acclaimed poet Malik Yusef and Black Thought, who drives the point home with a harrowing glimpse into his early years: "I got to see how Philly played it from an early age, what my father was into sent him to an early grave/then Mom started chasing that base like Willie Mays, my childhood was all of 40 nights and 40 days."

Luckily, the entire CD isn't all about evil and oppression. Mr. Legend's tenor glides effortlessly into a warm re-imagining of the reggae classic, Prince Lincoln's "Humanity," and the remake of Ernie Hines' "Our Generation," featuring Pete Rock, is both inspired and invigorating, with its bottom-heavy beats and the sinewy vocals sneering about the Powers That Be -- the ones quick to give out the orders, but the last to get into the trenches themselves:  "Our leaders make us fight, we don't know what for/if they want people killed, let them fight the war." Another gem is Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left-Handed," a gospel-edged tour-de-force that clocks in at nearly twelve (!) minutes, but is worth the listen thanks to its ragged edges caused by the pain and loss of a man who first glamorized the war, but is now wounded in his body and in his soul and can't go on ("I can't write left-handed, would you please write a letter to my mother/ tell the family lawyer....to get a deferment for my younger brother/tell the Reverend Harris to pray for me, Lord Lord Lord").

There are some moments that fall short of the glory: "Hang on in There" becomes too unwieldy and overblown for its own good, and the often-covered "Wake Up Everybody," despite the additions of Common and Melanie Fiona, is interpreted too safely to bring new flavor to the mix, which is a shame given the talents of the players involved. However, those flaws cannot detract from the worthiness of the project, which will delight fans of both artists, bring awareness to political and societal unrest (hint hint, the November election) and introduces the new school to some true masterpieces in the process, all of which are accomplishment in themselves. In other words, don't miss out by sleeping on Wake Up!  Highly Recommended

By Melody Charles

 
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