Established artists run amuck with cover albums. Few do justice to the original work, and even fewer attempt to re-imagine it. However, when word leaked that The Roots and John Legend were teaming up for a cover album, no one questioned the integrity of the project. Wake Up! welcomes John Legend back into the organic world of music and away from the synths and Popish sound that Evolver featured. The project doesn’t disappoint and even more importantly it reintroduces classic protest songs to a generation that needs them more than ever.
The Roots are quite simply the premier band of the present day. There may not be another established act that can not only play but bring to life any genre that is put in front of them. So it comes as little surprise that this cover album is clean, soulful and an absolute tribute to the original writers. The extended instrumental portions of the album are unquestionably phenomenal. The Roots open the record with over a minute of instrumental music on “Hard Times” setting the tone for the level of musicianship that is to come. When John Legend’s voice finally arrives, it’s clear that ?uestlove is able to capture an element of John Legend that fans have only heard live. His voice explodes on record, and The Roots don’t miss a beat.
What makes this album great is the careful selection of songs. While politically minded songs like “What’s going on?” are the sexy choices to be covered, Legend and The Roots, pick more obscure cuts like Baby Huey & The Babysitters’ “Hard Times.” The hand picked selections are eerily relevant, and the John Legend pours himself into each track. The musicianship is tasteful and the guest spots are always dead on. CL Smooth’s verse on “Our Generation” feels like it has been there for decades, and Black Thought’s opening on “Little Ghetto Boy” makes a great track better. The carefully incorporated Rap verses are always well placed and never seem to take away from the original value of the track. Equally as impressive is Legend’s ability to infuse a Gospel feel into songs that weren’t originally remembered for that vibe, such as “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and “Our Generation.” John Legend and The Roots don’t ever reinvent the wheel, but they are clearly rolling it in the direction of their own interpretation.
When creating Wake Up!, ?uestlove discussed that he wanted to push Legend’s voice to the limit. The result is pure magic. It can be heard on “Little Ghetto Boy” where the singer’s historically clean vocals are raspy and his voice is pushing his vocals chords limits. The result is possibly the most soulful studio cut of Legend’s career; the same can be said about a majority of the album. The addition of John Legend’s piano abilities and The Roots’ band, the album top to bottom, sets the bar for cover albums.
The highlight of Wake Up! and one of the most brilliant moments of John Legend’s career comes on the Bill Withers’ slept-on gem, “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” John Legend doesn’t merely just do justice to an absolute classic, he enhances its value. The Roots infuse the electric guitar and the last few minutes of the track, sees Legend and the band breaking the song down until you feel like you’re going to cry, or the track is going to explode. Legend’s voice is raspy but as soulful as ever and when he sings, “Please, please, call up Reverend Harris / Tell him to ask the Lord do to some good things for me / Tell him, I ain’t going to live to get much older,” the listener gets the chills. It’s the first cover of the record that does the Bill Withers Live version justice. Legend captures the unbelievably heartbreaking story with class, control, and with enough emotion to make it his own. The recording clocks in at over 11 minutes, but there is a second of the cut that should, or needs to be eliminated. It’s a moment where if you had any doubts about John Legend’s reputation as the next, Curtis, Marvin or Bill, it is erased with his imaginative cover of the song.
In an R&B genre where covers are common, John Legend and The Roots take them to a complete different level. They don’t merely just sing the songs, they spend time bringing out their meanings, emotions and distinct qualities that time all too often forgets. Even the lone original composition on the album feels like it was written in the midst of an anti-war march or the Civil Rights movement, and in many ways, it probably was. It’s a remarkable album that takes John Legend from a soulful crooner and turns him into the past, present and future of Soul.