2010 Rerun: Wake Up! - John Legend & The Roots

Here it is, the first of the Record Rerun series.  Beginning with 2010, I'll be moving backwards, picking an album from every year.

It could be a little tricky to predict that an album less than 2 years old will be one I listen to for years to come.  2010 was a decent year for music, but I have to admit, this decision wasn’t so difficult for me.  Although there were a fair amount of stand-out albums - Sufjan, Kanye, Janelle Monae, Erykah BaduBeyonce, Cee-Lo, Arcade Fire and The Black Keys, to name a few – still, Wake Up! was a relatively quick pick.  It did help that I’ve written about a few of the albums above already.  But ultimately, this gospel-saturated collaboration between John Legend and The Roots (and a few other guests) gives off the sense that it intends not only to be a great album of its year, but an all-time classic.

In 2010, I so anticipated this record.  I love John Legend's voice and style, but am often let down by his actual song choices, so I was stoked for him to work with The Roots on some soul covers.  I picked it up immediately, and was not disappointed.  The animated cover art is beautiful, and the music is even better.  I suggest a relatively high volume for your ideal listening experiece.  Speaking of, if you want to listen along, here's the soundcloud link: http://soundcloud.com/billboard/sets/wake-up-john-legend-and-the-roots

“Hard Times” kicks off the album with some brief reflection time, as ?uestlove gives us some cymbal love, and John Legend freestyles a bit before the beat drops.  And when it does, it drops hard.  Nearly every beat is accented by something, whether it’s the drums, horns, or bass.  It's a full song, with a lot of anger-release potential, showing off just how tight The Roots can be.

“Compared to What” settles into a groove, without ever letting go of the drive already established.  As it fades out, piano runs and tambourines give us a decidedly philly-style introduction to the title track, “Wake Up Everybody”.  The duet features Melanie Fiona, who sounds best when harmonizing with Legend, but I am probably biased.  Common also makes an appearance, which is also just fine with me.  I feel like it would be a good idea for him to collaborate with John Legend more in the future.  The call to “Wake Up” continues into “Our Generation”, with the punchy response of, “let’s straighten it out”.  The invitation to accept responsibility and make things better is refreshing, and the baritone saxophone doesn't hurt either.

“Little Ghetto Boy” – first the prelude, which comes across more as a spoken word over piano and drums, and then the song – begin Side B of the record.  The song flows seamlessly, and kicks in with Black Thought rapping over a progression led by an organ.  These two related tracks represent what this album is all about: optimism in the face of pain and suffering.  Never does “Little Ghetto Boy” excuse the kid to spiral – he's expected to grow up and change his situation – but neither does it minimize the difficulty that his situation presents.  Like in “Our Generation”, a the choral response is repeated, but instead of an imperative, a different kind of hope is offered: “everything has got to get better”.

I somehow always miss the next song on

Wake Up! 

Even when I intentionally listen to it, by the time “Humanity” drops its reggae feel, and talking “about love the way it should be…” and I forget all about “Hang In There”.  Both songs offer optimistic hope and encouragement, and feel laid-back, which you should enjoy before you're taken to church on Side C & D of the vinyls.  

“Wholly Holy” is a song I would legitimately love to hear in a church.  On this record that calls us to not only believe, but act towards making our world more live-able, it makes sense that the spiritual overtones would be given some explicit reference.

I have a sneaky suspicion that “I Can’t Write Left Handed” was The Roots' favourite song to record.  Legend opens it up with some preamble, recognizing that, “war is always hell.  It always will and it always has been”, before launching into to this beautiful soul-folk song, telling the story of a man shot in the arm.  This song is long, builds slowly, and is performed in every imaginable collection of dynamics.  John Legend shows what he’s made of, as he repeats a lot of the story several times, yet every time brings the lyrics alongside a deep-seated emotion and soul.

One last time, I flip the vinyl over for the shortest Side of the record.  “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free”, and “Shine” complete the song cycle, by moving the focus not just to ourselves, but letting stifled voices heard.  You should probably listen to Nina Simone doing “I Wish I Knew…” as well, because she is the bomb.  "Shine" works almost as a benediction, or a modern day version of "This Little Light of Mine".  While we move out to Wake Up the world around us, and make it better, "Shine" reminds us not to write anyone off, and let them shine on.

It is so easy to complain about everything and anything, but this album inspires hope in a way that few have the confidence to do.  Happy listening, and I'll try to be quick with posting my 2009 rerun.  Peace out.