While Hip Hop purists can lay claim to Black Thought being a criminally underrated emcee, a hefty amount of casual rap fans recognize The Roots as the quintessential Hip Hop jam band. Comprised of the legendary ?uestlove and F. Knuckles on percussions, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, Kamal Gray on keyboards, bassist Owen Biddle, and Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.,” Bryson, The Roots crew can be seen five nights a week performing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Anyone who has seen the group perform live can attest that their Late Night appearances do not do the band justice. In a move that will certainly solidify their reputation as instrumentally gifted, The Roots linked up with pianist and crooner, John Legend, to revisit timeless jazz works, which are most likely unrecognizable to certain fans of The Roots’ said genre.
The chemistry between The Roots and John Legend is unfathomable. Based on their sound you would think that they’ve been collaborating for years. However, the first time the crew officially linked up for a record was this year for the track “The Fire” off How I Got Over (Legend also lends his voice for backup vocals on “Doin It Again“). Wake Up! opens with a blues inspired guitar riff before turning into the body-moving funk jam, “Hard Times.” The Baby Huey cover is perfected by Legend and company and features a familiar voice as Black Thought enthusiastically goes in with a sixteen bar verse catered to the song’s theme. The band’s cover of the Eugene McDaniel protest song, “Compared to What” is another funk guitar anthem with a vintage touch. The infusion of bass guitar and the horn section are added gems, which fans of any genre could certainly appreciate. That’s not to mention the tremendous saxophone solo on the track. John Legend does not phone-in any of his vocals and consistently puts all his emotion into every measure. Common and singer Melanie Fiona join the crew for the slower paced Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes classic, “Wake Up Everybody.” Everything works here as Legend and Fiona’s vocals synergize to form a harmonic masterpiece. Common shows that he hasn’t lost a step with some cleverly placed rhymes as well such as “even in this generation living through computers/only love, love, love can reboot us.” The reprise of Ernie Hines’ “Our Generation” topples the original musically and sonically. Peculiarly enough, CL Smooth has a guest appearance on this track. This is quite interesting because he spit over Pete Rock’s sample of the Hines version on “Straighten It Out.”
Malik Yusef provides spoken word for the prelude to “Little Ghetto Boy” which feels like a song in its own right. The interlude flows seamlessly into Black Thought’s verse which is also immaculate, as he narrates the transition from life on Philly’s streets to rocking the mic on stage (“the mom started chasing that base like Willie Mays“). The song’s jazzy breakdown allows John Legend’s vocals to shine through as he croons, “little ghetto boy your daddy was blown away/he robbed that grocery store, do you know that was a sad, sad day?” Once again changing the pace, Legend and The Roots slow it down for an eight minute jam version of Mike James Kirkland’s 1972 optimistic song, “Hang on in There.” The song shifts around between Legend’s singing and talking whilst the full band and added strings chime in.
The Roots show their obscure music influences on the cover of Prince Lincoln’s “Humanity.” While this isn’t the best reggae attempt, it’s still notable for how well the artists of different musical styles manage to pull it off. The one slight miss of the album is the reinterpretation of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” which the crew managed to stretch into nearly six minutes. In hindsight this isn’t exactly a low point and it’s far beyond decent, but doesn’t stack up to some other songs on Wake Up! “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is an epic Bill Withers remake which serves as a war protest song. “Left-Handed” features one of Legend’s best performances to date which is nearly overshadowed by a magnificent five minute guitar solo. The album’s closing track, “Shine” once again drifts into slow territory, but it’s for the best. The old-school jazz ensemble approach is fitting for the final track and was most likely made with that intention in mind.
Wake Up! is easily one of the most creative albums of the year even though every track is a take on a previously existing song. The John Legend/Roots’ collaboration manages to transcend genres and close the gap between soul and jazz, funk and Hip Hop. Without a doubt listeners from all walks of life and age groups can find something to appreciate within Wake Up! and it is a welcome addition to John Legend and The Roots’ catalogue.
John Legend x The Roots – “Hard Times” (In Studio)