John Legend & The Roots Wake Up!

John Legend & The Roots Wake Up!
Teaming up to revive a slew of protest soul songs from for a new generation as an album project is a daunting task in and of itself. When it's being performed by the unexpected pairing of the Roots and John Legend, the scepticism before hearing the end result isn't allayed. After all, while the Roots have cemented the fact that they can pretty much play anything, the pressure to deliver on Wake Up! falls squarely on Legend's shoulders. His solo albums have tended to be unadventurous and too polished, and the premise of him righteously channelling the hopes and fears of post-Civil Rights America could have easily been out of his range. However, once Legend lets loose a guttural wail at the beginning of opening track "Hard Times," it's clear he wisely went along with the rough-hewn approach Questlove and company were going for. Acting as a mediator between eras, Legend does a fine job of not being too earnest, yet conveys how the lyrics of these songs still resonate today, particularly on the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes cover, "Wake Up Everybody!," accompanied by Common and Toronto, ON R&B singer Melanie Fiona. The reason the Roots share top billing on this project is evident from their obvious creative input, like pulling in CL Smooth to rhyme over the cover of Ernie Hines's "Our Generation," something he'd done over a sample of the song with Pete Rock in 1992 for their "Straighten It Out" single. While it's a stretch to say they've made superior versions of songs made famous by Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack and Marvin Gaye, the recontextualizing for the present day via stellar musicianship is a success, and may even open up the door for John Legend to further widen his artistic approach in the future. (Sony)