Sep 14, 2010

Review: John Legend + The Roots - Wake Up


Most cover albums are failures from the jump. It's not really the artists' faults, it's more a problem with the fact that most of us consumers just can't let go. We love those classic songs that we grew up with, so we just naturally figure "Hey, there's a new version of My Funny Valentine out there, I'm there!"

Instead what we tend to get is meaningless and pointless versions of songs that have none of what made us treasure them. Whether it's the artist's voice or tempo of the remake, or perhaps it's just a matter of that original song hitting you at the right moment, and becoming embedded in your timeline, it's just not the same. Often it can make you angry to hear a remake of a beloved song and have it just destroy all your positive thoughts.

In my entire life, I've only heard three albums that involved covers that I willingly would listen to regularly. UB40's "Labour of Love Volume 1", The Jeff Healey Band's "Cover to Cover" and the Bob Marley tribute album called "Chant Down Babylon"

And that's it. When I see an album of covers I tend to steer clear, because the odds are just not in your favor if you're wanting to be entertained.

So that's why I was curious when I first heard about the new John Legend album that he did with The Roots called "Wake Up!". While I've never really been what you'd call a "fan" of Legend, I've absolutely loved some of his songs.

Also, Philly band The Roots are, in my opinion, one of the top 10 bands of all time. OF ALL TIME! They're that good. I'd stack them up against anyone in any genre, and particularly hip hop they're heads and shoulders above everyone else. They're lapping the competition something serious.

Their newest album "How I Got Over" is their best album in years, and easily dominates 99.9% of anything that's come out this year. (I left the .1% because I haven't heard everything, but that's about the percentage chance I give anything of being better).  At this point in their career, you see a release with The Roots on the cover, and you just put your credit card on the counter, and just say "Run it."

So the two teaming up for a set of classic soul music is a great idea, and the fact that the songs are all socially conscious tracks just makes it even better. That is why I have been geeked out for several months after hearing about "Wake Up", the newest release by Legend, and his first collaborating with The Roots.

When it comes to cover songs though, especially ones like these which are evoking specific memories and social commentary from back in the civil rights era, and the war in Vietnam, you have to have a voice that can carry these tales. Your voice has to not just hit the right notes, but has to be able to invoke the very essence of the song. You're not just singing a song from 40 years ago, for many people you will be attempting to recreate a moment in time. An important moment in our history in which the soul singers of the past stood up, put their name out there and decided to fight for what they believed in, the one way they knew how: with their voice.

And in that respects, John Legend does a hell of a job. While I've always liked his singing, on this album I think he truly steps into the spotlight as an artist. His voice is perfect for these songs, and Legend has the proper amount of inflection and balance to his voice, if that makes sense.

Listening to this album with your eyes closed, you can almost imagine that Legend was actually back in the 60's singing these for the first time. With the highly accomplished band The Roots backing him up, and with Legend's more than capable vocals, there's virtually nothing to find fault with this. In fact, the only area that I can imagine someone really taking issue, is the additions of Black Thought or Common's rapping on some of the songs. I can imagine there will be the purists who will find that just atrocious that there would be added rap lyrics ontop of what truly are classic songs.

And to that, I would suggest that most of those who would not like the rap lyrics on here are also ones who would take offense at their favorite songs being covered in the first place. Meaning, that nothing is going to satisfy them, and that if it wasn't the rap, it'd be something else. However the rap actually adds to these songs, and does not detract. They're not there just for the hell of it, or a "Buy the Roots get Black Thought free" or some shit. Black Thought is a top 10 MC, folks. Much like Edward Francis Hutton, when he speaks, you should listen. He's often got a lot to say, and this release is no different.

The songs being covered on here are pretty impressive, and while I don't think any of them will replace the original in my heart or mind, they are by far better than most covers out there. I don't think anyone could touch Donny Hathaway's original "Little Ghetto Boy" or Marvin's "Wholy Holy", however there are many that Legend is just in a groove. Many of these songs have heavy heavy subject matter, and are songs that you don't simply hear. You listen to it, you close your eyes, you soak it in and absorb it.

I find myself listening to him singing "I Can't Write Left Handed" and try in vain to understand what it would be like, as the song's protagonist sings, to be in a war that I didn't understand. To desperately find someone to write home to my mother and beg her to get a deferment for my brother so he didn't get sent off to war as well. To be at that point that I felt that I would never get home alive, and wanting with all my heart and soul to somehow try to save my brother from a similar fate.

It's a heartbreaking situation that Bill Withers just perfectly laid out in his original. While Legend doesn't surpass the original, he is just flat out on fire on this song, and there's really nothing to criticize.

If you're a fan of Legend or The Roots, you need to buy this. You need to just not even think about it and just get it. But I really don't need to tell you that, if you are. If you're a fan of those two, you really didn't need any provocation, and you've probably already pre-ordered it, and just wanting to see what someone else thought about it, and whether it was as good as you imagined it would be.

It is. For those who perhaps never heard either Legend or The Roots, well my friend, you're in for a treat. This is a perfect introduction to the two, and I guarantee you that once you've heard this, you'll want to find more albums by The Legendary Roots Crew, and the fantastic Mr. Legend. A man who shows signs of absolutely living up to that heavy last name.

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