The Sixties: big hair, free love, and protests – those were the good old days. Even if you didn’t live through them, there have been enough movies, music, and your parents’ stories; you get the idea by now.
Wake Up!, a collaborative album from John Legend and The Roots, attempts to channel the “Sixties” spirit of social activism through 10 soul covers. Legend reports that the presidential campaign of 2008 inspired him to create something reflecting the climate of the time. Black Thought is featured on several tracks, but it is possible to miss him. Hip hop-soul synergy sounds awesome in theory, as both genres draw from similar lyrical themes and African American blues tradition. However the collaboration is not completely realized. The MC’s lyrics and delivery don’t have enough spit to resonate over the melodies that pull you from song to song.
Thus, the instrumentals of The Roots carry you onward through your dream journey. But after several songs in this vein, you get to “Wholy Moly,” making you actually want to fall asleep. Legend’s vocals simply aren’t passionate enough to give the song any crescendo, so it just patters out, prompting you to just press the skip button. The same goes for “Shine”, the only original track recorded for Wake Up!.
Legend’s vocals remain problematic throughout the album, especially on “Ghetto Boy”, when Legend sings that he’s seen “such misery and pain.” Yet, the emotion is not believable. Though he has the technical ability to hit some very difficult notes, Legend’s voice lacks the rough edge necessary to give the lyrics any dimension. Original Recording of “Ghetto Boy.”
Ultimately, the lead singer doesn’t give enough to produce actual affect in the listener, so “Wake Up!” will fail to induce in listeners the change to which it aspires. That being said, greats like Marvin Gaye and Baby Huey are difficult acts to follow, so much so that perhaps this project was doomed to fail. The album leaves one question: why must we be so insistent on using the standards of the past to motivate change in the present?