John Legend & The Roots Wake Up! Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

A masterclass in how to respectfully update and enhance classic music.

Lloyd Bradley 2010

A welcome return, given these troubled times, for the singer who has become the beacon of modern, intelligent, inspirational soul music, and with a collection of smouldering, socially aware songs that manage to sound both angry and optimistic at the same time. That they are is hardly surprising, given that, with the exception of the final track, Shine, every song is a leftfield soul protest classic from the 60s or 70s, from a stellar selection of artists including Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, McFadden & Whitehead and Bill Withers. And Legend has been shrewd enough to go for songs that might not be their best known but are surely among their most interesting, hence a series of often-neglected gems, of the calibre of Hang On in There, Compared to What and Wake Up Everybody, are given the sort of prominence they always deserved.

It’s in the treatment of these tunes that particular credit goes to Legend’s backing band, The Roots, who, while their approach is obviously post-hip hop, are never less than aware the material they’re working with isn’t. Thus the plaintive jazz/funk of Marvin’s Wholy Holy becomes an intricately-layered RnB smooch, and is possibly even more seductive; without Curtis’ falsetto, Hard Times takes a tougher approach to become a contemporary blues shouter; Roberta Flack’s Compared to What is beefed up into powerful, beat-heavy funk; and Little Ghetto Boy’s rap and subtly nervous piano gives this an urgency beyond Hathaway’s reading of it.

The surprise is Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be), as jaunty a piece of roots reggae as you can shake a skank at, remaining pretty much true to Prince Lincoln’s original. In every case – even the reggae – Legend’s versatile tones stay passionate and truly soulful. The vocal standout is the 12 minutes of Withers’ I Can’t Write Left Handed, gospel so rootsy it’s more like a spiritual, as Legend’s tones build over gently swirling Hammond and guitar to a howl of rage at the injustices of the world.

The set is a masterclass in how to respectfully update and enhance classic music, and proves how vital and relevant 30-year-old music remains today. Indeed it’s such a superbly executed package you don’t really mind the fact that this talented songwriter only penned one contribution himself.

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