Saturday, September 25, 2010

John Legend & The Roots: Wake Up!

I have to say that the new album by John Legend and the Roots, “Wake Up!” took me in a different direction than I was expecting, and in part I have Oprah to thank for it. Back up: if John Legend had put out a new album on which he was singing nursery rhymes, I would still be reviewing it today. I absolutely love him and was thrilled that we were able to catch him at Ravinia last summer. Without knowing anything about this album, I was a bit curious as to why he teamed up with The Roots; I like them but am not a diehard fan. What luck that the online version of the album comes with a 25 minute interview. Research done!

John Legend was pretty involved in the Obama campaign. During the summer of 2008 as the excitement about potential change captivated our country, he approached The Roots about making an album that captured that hopeful feeling of change. What they settled on was covering some of the music from the sixties and seventies that were of the “social activist” genre (if there is such a genre) that had kind of the funky sound that suited them. They chose songs that may be recognizable to people who remember the music from those time periods first-hand, but none of the songs were familiar to me. I do not believe they were coming through my beloved transistor radio on WLS AM89 back then. The songs have a great sound to them and a lot of the issues they sing about are unfortunately still quite relevant today, such as healthcare and race. If you don’t know anything about The Roots, they’re considered hip-hop/rap. I’m not sure “funky” is John Legend’s most natural sound; some of the songs seem like he’s kind of forcing the funk, but his voice with The Roots is a nice mix, and they kept the music pretty “pure” without crazy synthesizers or special effects. My favorites on this album are the title track (“Wake Up”), which is a really pretty song with Common (rapper) and someone named Melanie Fiona, who is from a group I’ve never heard of, and “Hard Times”. Sit tight, I’m getting to the Oprah connection.

There is one exception to the cover songs on this album. The song “Shine” was written for the upcoming movie called “Waiting For ‘Superman’”, which I obviously assumed was some sort of superhero movie I would never see. I did love the song, however, particularly the version (there are two) that is actually for the movie because it is just John and the piano- so pretty. The other version sounds more radio-ready, but still a great song. The lyrics follow the theme of the rest of the album in believing in our young people (“let ‘em shine”). When I was talking to my sister the other night, she mentioned that John Legend had been on Oprah earlier in the week, which was exciting, to talk about educational reform, which was very disappointing. Nonetheless, I watched the episode since my oldest daughter is devoted to Oprah and has a season pass on the DVR for her show. It was then that I learned that “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is actually a documentary about the state of our country’s education system, and the clips I saw were quite compelling. I have therefore changed my tune, so to speak, and do plan to see the movie. It’s due to be released in Chicago sometime in October and is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed “An Inconvenient Truth.” There, I’m stepping off my soapbox, which I never intended to be on when I started listening to this album a few days ago.

To recap, this isn’t your typical John Legend album, but if you like the R&B vibe and if you happened to have been a social activist in the sixties and seventies, you will like this album. To try: “Hard Times”, “Wake Up Everybody”, and “Shine” (either version). Enjoy the groovy video for "Wake Up Everybody" below.

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