Album Review: Wake Up! John Legend and The Roots

Album cover Wake Up!

Many times, the bulk of a band’s success comes from the distinctive sound of the group’s vocalist. We all know Journey by Steven Perry’s unmistakable sound and AC/DC without Brian Johnson is just inconceivable. However, Philadelphia’s infamous hip-hop group, The Roots bucks this trend. The Roots crew is typically defined by the fluid rhymes of the group’s MC, Black Thought, but on their recent collaboration album with R&B superstar John Legend, they show they can retain their sound without him. This phenomenon is courtesy of drummer ?love’s (pronounced Quest-love) funky rhythms which, paradoxically, keep a consistent variety throughout the group’s brand new album, Wake Up!

Teaming up with John Legend on Wake Up!, The Roots substitute Black Thought’s gritty and direct lead vocals/lyrics for John Legend’s sometimes crooning, sometimes swinging sounds. Tracks like “Wake Up Everybody” offer wistful swaying melodies while gospel anthems like “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” feature backing vocals big enough to fill the largest worship halls. The mixture of gospel and R&B dominates the album but – being a pooling with The Roots – hip hop and rock influences appear as well. A personal favorite, “I Can’t Write Left Handed”, showcases the artists historical awareness as well as their versatility as they pay tribute (11 minutes and 44 seconds of it, to be exact) to recording legend, Bill Withers.

For die-hard John Legend fans and life-long Roots listeners, Wake Up! takes some getting used to. Those accustomed to Legend’s piano-centric ballads will be taken aback by ?love’s powerful beats while Roots-heads will have to acclimate to the soothing timbre of Legend’s vocals instead of Black Thought’s machine-gun paced verses. If the listener is as flexible as the artists, Wake Up! proves to be an enjoyable listen. By the same token, the divergence from either artists’ typical sound may be overwhelming.

While John Legend’s name is on the album cover, one needs only to flip over the case to see some of the all-stars appearing on other tracks. Black Thought leaves his lyrical stamp on “Hard Times” and “Little Ghetto Boy” and longtime Roots collaborator Common surfaces on “Wake Up Everybody”. Other guests include CL Smooth on the anthem “Our Generation”.

Wake Up!, for all its surprising variety, seems like the natural next step for artists as genuine as The Roots and John Legend. Fans of either will agree that their avoidance of a musical rut sets them on the path to team up with other, equally daring artists. In this case, the result is Wake Up! Whether it’s a step forward for the artists, or simply a step to the side, is up to the listener.