Before Wake Up!, I wasn’t quite sure where I stood with John Legend. His debut found him miscast as a unique type of badboy, gospel-drenched vocals jumping from one girl to the next in an attempt to blur the lines between the then-sputtering neo soul movement and the direction of more mainstream R&B artists like Usher. It left an awfully confused taste in my mouth, as does the arc of his career. Evolver, his most recent album, was another cluster of half-baked attempts at crossover and experimentation. While it sounded remarkably different from Get Lifted, over four years it seemed little had changed with Legend as an artist.
But then I heard the sample of “Again”—appearing on Legend’s Once Again LP that I’d skipped over—on the Roots’ offering earlier this year (How I Got Over) and after listening to that album, I was thrown for a loop. Here, Legend’s voice had risen far beyond merely good to occasionally fantastic, and all but one or two tracks were not just tolerable, they were superb. This discovery occurred just a few weeks ago, around the same time I got my first glimpse at what Legend and the Roots have been collaborating on since Evolver limped into the masses: Wake Up!.
Originally intended as a one off charity benefit type project, the combination quickly grew into an LP that, besides a few minor hiccups, makes a strong case for the collaboration continuing into the future. While all but two tracks here are covers, ?uestlove and James Poyser has done such an excellent job of arranging both the tracklist and the songs themselves that only the most well-versed poli-soul listeners will pick out the originals. The opening one-two punch of “Hard Times” and “Compared to What?” are particularly incendiary, and that hard Stax kind of funk appears once again on “Our Generation”. But the band explores a variety of styles throughout the album, such as Donny Hathaway’s meditative “Little Ghetto Boy” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”. They even dig in Jamaica’s vaults, emerging with a fantastic cover of Lincoln Thompson’s “Humanity”.
The common thread throughout the entire project is revolution and political activism, something the extensive liner notes make blatantly clear. But the song selection is superb enough that the LP works perfectly fine as a straight up funk and soul record. In less capable hands things could get a bit awry, but not only does this band play tight as hell, they each find their moments to showcase individual talents. Legend goes from channeling Eugene McDaniel’s raging, deep soul on “Compared to What?” to harnessing a heretofore seldom heard higher register for the aforementioned reggae jam. Captain Kirk delivers a righteously funky guitar riff for “Hard Times” that adds an extra hundred degrees to the song, and each time Black Thought appears will stir familiar feelings from the Roots’ last few LPs that there is simply not enough of him here.
Owen Biddle, ?uestlove and James Poyser play more complimentary roles on the album, though all three are the spine around which the longer jams—12-minute protest song “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and seven-minute self-empowerment jam “Hang on in There”—unwaveringly cling. The way the band flits between these different motifs and feature players is entertaining, but it’s honestly John Legend that takes the most away from this release. He not only delivers his most focused effort yet, but his most diverse. The way he sings on “Hang on in There” and “Humanity” is just a joy to listen to, while the way he riles audiences up with those opening tracks and “I Can’t Write Left Handed” is pure spectacle. The band closes the album with “Shine”, the one Legend-penned original song on the album (Malik Yusef also provides an original spoken word intro to Little Ghetto Boy), and passes their final test by cranking out a song much less mundane than Legend’s previous attempt at world-unifying, “If You’re Out There”.
While it’s simplicity is greatly noticeable alongside these masterworks of soul, “Shine” also feels as fitting a finale to Wake Up! as anything else could be. Again, this is a testament not only to the quality of the musicians or the songs they play, but the way they’ve strung them together like something of a live, in studio performance. This spirit is, above all else, what makes Wake Up! such a success. There is no pretense that this band will equal the songs they’re reviving, though through seemingly unlimited talent they often come as close as possible. Wake Up! is an album explicitly from the heart, worn on its sleeve in a way few artists with such mainstream attention seem willing to match. What could have come off as a mediocre-to-good novelty project has, perhaps predictably, instead reaches the public coming just short of being a genuine contender for album of the year.