In the past lie the seeds for the present. In the present linger visions of the future. Sometimes. To build tomorrow, we need to look to yesterday. John Legend & The Roots’ new collaboration Wake Up! is perfect example of this.
Sadly, a lot of music today is flimsy, shallow, lacking an understanding of where we are spiritually, politically, intellectually, etc. Much of it (or at least the stuff that is pushed out at us by mass media) seems to have become a derivative of mediocre, watered-down pop music, without creativity or commitment. It is hard to differentiate between artists (and I use that term loosely) because many sound the same, say the same things and are all nauseating caricatures of the cool singer, rapper.
Fortunately, we don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find a true commitment to musicianship. The Roots, for one, changed how rap music was viewed, establishing themselves as a complete band and staying true to their musical aesthetics. Each member is at the forefront of his craft while, drummer and leader Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson has influenced rap, soul and RnB over the last decade in ways that we still don’t fully grasp, and co-founder Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter is one of hip hop’s nicest but most under-rated emcees.
Their latest album, How I Got Over, is soulful, funky, warm and inspiring. You don’t just listen to it, you feel it.
And John Legend. I fell in love with his first album and have been fortunate to see him perform live twice and was moved absolutely each time. He writes beautiful, fun, emotional, passionate songs and performs them as well. He is one of those artists I can see still creating, performing and entertaining in decades to come because of the strong musical foundation he seems to have.
Together. They have made a stand by consciously looking to the music of the past to create a vision of the future. They have drawn from an era when music stood for something and artists viewed themselves as part of a greater society. A time when artists were concerned and engaged, and spoke their truth.
Wake Up! is 11 songs from the 60s and 70s that speak of war and pain, consciousness and engagement. With musical direction from ?uestlove, each interpretation is spot on and everything from reggae, gospel and rock delicately fused with the soul origins. The album features artists who enhance the songs, never taking away attention from the essence, which is the message. These include CL Smooth and Malik Yusef.
The first single Wake Up Everybody, featuring Melanie Fiona and Common, is the perfect intro to what this album is. Masters at work, drawing from their past, their inspiration, to make sense of the present and the future. They have drawn from Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Mike James Kirkland and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, amongst others. My personal favourites have to be the Bill Withers song, I Can’t Write Left-Handed, Baby Huey and the Babysitters’ Hard Times and Shine, the only original John Legend composition on the album. I will be listening to this album for a long time.
“The first thing I did was compile a list of songs that I didn’t want John to sing. I wanted to go under the radar, yet effectively kill a few birds with one stone. I wanted to catch the ear of the hip-hop generation that would’ve been familiar with the songs from their sample usage, just like I wanted to catch older fans that were fans of the original songs that got sampled.”
“These songs sound so relevant now. On most of them, you wouldn’t change a lyric. ‘Wake Up Everybody’ (the album’s first single, featuring contributions from Melanie Fiona and Common) has four verses—the first one is a general statement, the second is about education, third is about health care, and the fourth is about making a better environment. No editing needed.”
“The intense brew of possibility and persistent poverty, optimism and despair, activism and unrest, global connectedness and intractable global conflicts, is the reason Wake Up! exists.”