By JOSHUA LAWSON
What happens when the singer at the forefront of modern soul music becomes the front man of the hardest working band in hip-hop? A groovy, funky album of songs that conjure up the best of Vietnam-era Motown.
John Legend and the Roots’ new collaborative album “Wake Up!” is a collection of a dozen reinterpreted soul jams from the ‘70s that are unearthed and revitalized through terrific production value and performances.
It’s clear from listening to this album that John Legend and the Roots are very passionate about and harbor great respect for the songs they are covering, largely unheard gems that neither of the acts’ fan bases are likely to recognize.
The album kicks off with a great rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” and right off the bat it’s clear that, while the purpose of the album seems to be repurposing Vietnam-era tunes to be relevant now, these songs bring the listener back to a time before many of them were even born.
While one can compare the political messages the group is trying to get across, listeners would do themselves a favor in, at least initially, taking the music at face value.
These are solid, well played tunes performed by a singer who knows how to front a band and a band who knows how to bring down the house.
Yet even within a group of performers as well rounded as the Roots, there are members who truly shine.
The Roots’ legendary rhythm section, drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and bassist Owen Biddle lay down impeccable grooves, mirroring those that defined the era they find themselves covering.
“Our Generation (The Hope of the World)” features inspiring performances from both members, as do “Hang on in There” and “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be).”
But, as previously mentioned, the entire ensemble has given this album their all. “Wake Up Everybody” features terrific guitar work; the piano playing in “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” is incredibly catchy; and throughout the album, John Legend channels the soulful swagger of his predecessors.
With so many stand-out musicians it’s a wonder that they all managed to know their places within the overall ensemble; no one is overshadowed and even when a particular member has the spotlight, it’s done tastefully.
This isn’t a John Legend record with the Roots enlisted as studio musicians, nor is it a Roots record featuring vocals by John Legend.
The two entities have come together to create something reminiscent of both acts but, at the same time, transcending the preconceived conventions of either.
In doing so they’ve created a great record for fans of either act as well as those with a taste for the classic Motown vibe.
4.5 out of 5 stars