If you appreciate 1960s and '70s Soul music, live instrumentation, socio-political songs, or just plain old great music, then Wake Up!
, an album teaming R&B crooner John Legend
with legendary hip-hop band The Roots
, is a must-hear. The album's concept, which resulted from Legend becoming more politically minded during and after the events that led up to Barack Obama's election as the 44th President of the United States, manages to somehow pull off the incredibly difficult task of being both message-minded and inviting. Wake Up!
, released on Sept. 21, 2010, is clearly one of the best albums of the year.
Crisp, Clean, Clear
is a collection of remakes of mostly little-known social and political songs that were recorded in the 1960s and '70s. And right from the album's opening track, "Hard Times," it's clear that John Legend
and The Roots
have created something special. "Hard Times," which was originally on the first and only album by Baby Huey & the Babysitters, The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend
, is a funky rock-Soul track that finds both Legend and The Roots at the top of their games. Despite the topic, which is about how it can seem like the whole world is against you and is conspiring to keep you down, Legend manages to sound strong and even defiant, while The Roots' instrumentation is crisp, clean, clear and direct.
And the album's full of songs that are about bad situations, and manages to make you live through each of them and come through the other side feeling stronger and perhaps even energized. Another outstanding track is the Legend/Roots cover of Bill Withers' anti-Vietnam War "I Can't Write Left Handed." The song, which tells the story of a combat veteran who needs help writing a letter to his mother because he's been wounded in action, is an almost 12-minute tale of woe, sorrow and depression. But it's also an inspiring, moving and uplifting tale that's filled strength and dignity.
Also deserving special mention is the remake of Ernie Hines' funky "Our Generation (the Hope of the World)," a song about making the world a better place to live. "Our generation, it's all left up to us/Our generation, let's do just what we must, we gotta straighten it out," Legend sings.
The Perfect Antidote
© Sony/Columbia Records.
Although the main attraction on the album is Legend, The Roots do an outstanding job as the backing band and various other vocalists put in some very nice guest appearances. Canadian singer Melanie Fiona is a welcome female voice on the album's first single, "Wake Up Everybody," and rappers Common and CL Smooth give a shot in the arm to "Wake Up Everybody" and "Our Generation
," respectively. Although Roots fans would probably prefer that the group's primary rapper, Black Thought, have a larger presence throughout the album, his few appearances make sense, because his streetwise Philly style of rhyme probably wouldn't have worked well on the more uplifting tracks, like "Hang On in There," it fits in perfectly on the grittier material, such as the remake of Donny Hathaway's "Little Ghetto Boy." This isn't a perfect album, but the few flaws are barely worth mentioning. If you're a hip-hop head or devoted Roots fan though, be advised that this is definitely an R&B/Soul album, with only traces of the group's innovative style of hip-hop apparent in the music.
Overall, this is a very moving, extremely well-performed and well-produced album that's the perfect antidote to the soulless, increasingly computerized music that defines contemporary R&B music. Even the album's one original song, the Gospel-influenced "Shine," is a breath of fresh air compared to typical modern-day music, where the producer is the star and the singer is sometimes an afterthought. This is easily one of the best albums of the year. And not just one of best R&B/Soul albums, one of the best albums, period.
Disclosure: Review samples were provided by Sony Music. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy