By Carina Truyts
I can’t listen to more than three John Legend tracks without squirming in my seat at the sound of the background female chorus- whom I visualise as the characters from the film Dreamgirls, swaying from side to side like members of gospel choir; swinging their hips and clicking to a 1- 2 beat.
Legend’s latest offering- an album titled Wake Up; has (thankfully) moved away from the kind of music that little girls use as a backtrack for making up sequenced dances in their backyards, complete with microphone hairbrushes.
Wake up is the result of a collaboration with The Roots; an American hip- hop band with a jazzy influence. The album is almost entirely made up of covers. The theme is revolution and activism, with Legend and The roots overhauling protest songs from the 70’s and 80’s. Learn more about the album at its homepage.
The concept of a socially conscious R & B album seems like a tacky selling tactic- but it actually works. The fact that the lyrics from old protest songs are still applicable in many cases today helps to soften the idea that the product might embody the selfish abuse of black consciousness for the purpose of selling albums.
Because of the moral baggage attached to the album, Legend cleverly reaches a larger fan base, and even had me (Who has an ingrained resentment against any kind of music that includes the letters R & B), singing along and feeling slightly nostalgic. See the official press release for more about the original artists and songs.
The album explores a variety of styles, dappling in the blues, pop, funk, hip- hop and Legends’ staple: that gospel- style, throaty melody that has been prepped up with a retro vibe.
The Roots’ retro instrumental sound pairs well with Legend’s characteristic voice that carries through powerfully and gives an ‘earthy body’ feeling to the re- made tracks. However, at times, Legend gets carried away in his attempts to change songs that originally have their own flair. He seems to forget that you can’t get more original than an original.
The fact that this album is the only one of the John Legend’s that I have ever not wanted to break in half, may be due to the fact that only one song on the album is original- the track I can’t write left handed. Unfortunately the songs winds on an on with no real direction and a hapless beat; but the sober moaning is saved by the sound of eclectic guitar riffs by The Roots star guitarist, Captain Kirk Douglas.
Wake up everybody is the album centrepiece, and rightly so. It has catchy beat, soulful lyrics and strong vocal performances by both Legend, guest singer Melanie Fiona and rapper Common. Humanity stands out as a completely different sound, that comes across as jarring when one listens to the album as a whole. In the second half of the album- the beat slows down to a more relaxed tempo that some may argue causes the album to lose momentum.
Legend and The Roots may have pushed the limit when they tried to re- do Billy Taylor’s classic I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. Although the song is energetic and ‘vibey’, the percussion sounds like a referee blowing on a whistle and its incessantly annoying, as noted by listeners on Youtube.
To buy or not to buy? Most R & B fans, and those who enjoyed Legend’s previous album Revolver, will probably find a niche for this one in their CD collection; as long as they aren’t expecting it to be quite in tune with Legend’s previous work, and don’t mind the busy instrumentals added by The Roots. Music lover’s who are interested in the R & B genre might find Wake up to be a smooth introduction, due to its fusion of sounds and overall well- produced finish.
For those who just want to keep their daughters supplied with sing-along back tracks, downloading ‘wake up everybody’ of iTunes should suffice.