(4 out of 5)
While it’s not surprising that this highly-anticipated collaboration between John Legend and the Roots is something of an extended homage to prime-era ‘70s soul and R&B, what’s notable is how it manages to be such an effortless and explicit homage. There’s precious little attempt on WAKE UP! to make the album sound contemporary, and references to classic albums (Marvin Gaye’s WHAT’S GOING ON) and songs (Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy”) go a long way to asserting the exact opposite. However, this is a 2010 album we’re talking about, and although Legend and the Roots are clear in their love and respect for the soul music of four decades ago, they also make it clear that WAKE UP! is intended to be taken as a divergent track of contemporary R&B, rather than a revisiting of what came before. As Legend sings on Les McCann’s “Compared To What”: “Try to make it real? Compared to what?” And there really isn’t anything else – current, classic, or otherwise – to which WAKE UP! can easily be compared. There’s a slinky, relaxed groove that permeates the album, but it’s also infused with a forcefulness and solidity that comes both from the Roots’ whip-smart live instrumentation and Legend’s gruff, expressive, and deeply soulful voice; in other words, don’t go mistaking WAKE UP! for some smooth-jazz outing into “real music.” This is a transposition of ethics and approach into a modern context, resulting in something that would be as beautifully and wonderfully out of place in 1973 as it is in 2010.
First appeared Sept. 21, 2010 at Shockhound.com.