John Legend and The Roots - Wake Up!
It never quite lifts enough of a fist to properly fire the spirit but Legend’s collaboration with the hip-hop stalwarts is a welcome step away from the slick soul grooves for which he's become known. Supporters argue that beneath the smoky vocals and sophisticated balladry beats a heart and soul that makes him this generation’s Marvin Gaye - I’ve never bought that. His last album Evolver promised much and was trailed as, finally, the ‘real’ John Legend, but the presence of Kanye West and Andre 3000 added little spice and countered Legend’s claims that it would show a side of him we’d never seen. Wake Up! benefits from the presence of thumping backing from The Roots and the rapping that punctuates several songs. Put together in response to Barack Obama’s presidency, Wake Up! is inspired by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On? and features his work alongside that of soul luminaries such as Donny Hathaway. With just one Legend original, this collection can’t help but feel comparatively earthy. A shame, then, that while opener ‘Hard Times’ storms the party, the next hour is hit and miss: Bill Withers’ ‘I Can’t Write Left-Handed’ is an epic treatise on the pointlessness of war and Gaye’s ‘Wholly Holy’ has real might but ‘Wake Up Everybody’, with its call to arms to teachers, doctors and the like is a confection of the ‘Heal the World’ variety. The intentions are the best but the execution is, at times, limp and drab.