There isn’t much left to say about The Roots. Possibly the most influential hip-hop act to emerge this decade, they seem incapable of producing a bad album, or even a mediocre track. John Legend on the other hand is something of an enigma. While possessing an unusually soulful voice, compared to other contemporary R’n’B artists, his usual output ranges from easy listening to bland.
Maybe the creativity and style of The Roots is exactly what his career needs. Their two previous offerings (‘The Fire’ and ‘Doin’ It Again’ from this year’s album How I Got Over) were certainly enough to whet the appetite for this album, a selection of sometimes obscure 1960s soul tracks, covered and updated by The Roots and John Legend.
Inspired by the 2008 presidential election, this is a socially conscious, political album, utilising soul music’s Nixon era protest songs. Inspired by a mood of optimism and hope for change, the album also manages to sound angry and many of its themes, chiefly an unpopular war and inner-city poverty, are as relevant today as they were then. The story-telling songs such as Donna Hathaway’s ‘Little Ghetto Boy’ and Bill Wither’s ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed’, are great examples of how soul managed to achieve lyrical depth while remaining simplistic and blunt.
Musically the album is difficult to fault. Blending reggae, gospel and soul with The Roots’ typical tight, fast rhythm, creates a refreshingly organic and original sound. Legend’s voice, more gravelly and natural than on his regular output, comes into its own from the very first track, Hard Times. The power and versatility he displays in switching from one style to another, particularly on songs like ‘Compared to What’ and the upbeat ‘Our Generation’, show the kind of music he could have made with this kind of creative freedom throughout his whole career.
The Roots deliberately play with a loose, jamming style, and while this certainly adds to the album, it also creates the feeling that perhaps the best way to experience it is live. Some of the longer tracks, such as the otherwise brilliant ‘I Can’t Write Left-Handed’ and ‘Hang On In There’, would work in front of a live audience, but sound self-indulgent when included at their full ten minute length on a studio album.
This aside however, Wake Up! remains one of the most original and fresh sounding albums of the year. While on the one hand a wake-up call to social activism, it is also a wake-up call to modern music, to live up to the depth and quality of what has gone before.