This album was conceived during Barack Obama’s election campaign – a period that offered hope and change for so many. We’re told that John Legend approached The Roots for a one off charity/benefit project and though the soulster and the Philly band had worked together before, as they reconvened all kinds of possibilities opened up. Between them they decided to create a whole album of music that would re-stir socio-political consciences and for their inspiration they went back to the more aware sounds of the 60s and 70s and specifically the artists and writers who had managed to ruffle feathers back in the day – amongst them Curtis Mayfield, Eugene McDaniels, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway – though the album’s title cut comes from the repertoire of a maybe a not so politically motivated group – Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Their ‘Wake Up Everybody’ sets the lyrical tone of the album and musically it’s possibly the smoothest cut in the collection. Legend shares vocal duties with Melanie Fiona and Common adds his succinct rhymes while famed string contractor Larry Gold builds a backdrop that neatly echoes the original.
Versions of Baby Huey’s, Curtis Mayfield-penned ‘Hard Times’ and Eugene McDaniels ‘Compared To What’ are punchier alltogether – almost throwbacks to the golden days of Stax, though they were recorded in Philadelphia and New York. Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholy Holy’ is ethereal (that man Larry Gold again) while Bill Withers’ ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed’ is transformed into an 11 minute plus blues epic with electrifying Hendrix-inspired guitar work from Cap’n Kirk Douglas. A cover of Lincoln Thompson’s reggae classic ‘Humanity’ offers a little lightness (musically at least) and Legend sounds relaxed and right at home on the gentle swaying rhythms though he proves he can do gritty too on his take on Donny Hathaway’s ‘Little Ghetto Boy’. The set’s big original tune is the Legend-written ‘Shine’ and it rates as one of his best with the Roots providing an edgier backing for him than Legend fans might expect. Indeed soul fans who’ve followed him from the start may well be surprised by the album’s lack of pretence – by its rough, organic feel… but that’s what Legend , ?uestlove, James Poyser, Owen Biddle and Kirk Douglas wanted to achieve. The extensive liner notes explain it all and go on to comprehensively describe how through music political activism can achieve results. Less politically aware listeners might just describe ‘Wake Up’ as a great, “real”, soul-funk album.