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Album Review

John Legend and the Roots, 'Wake Up!'

September 20, 2010

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The compelling part about “WAKE UP!’’ the Roots and John Legend’s out-of-nowhere play date in soul, is seeing two solidly established acts so completely out of context. For the Roots, it was an inevitable progression. They’ve matured into a versatile and refined live band of late. For all his success, Legend’s best work was framed in the creative processes of Kanye West, and he admittedly searched to stretch himself as an artist on his last project. The connection here is natural. Legend’s voice is worthy as he drifts through a range of sounds, darkening in faint traces on Mike James Kirkland’s “Hang on in There,’’ belting out Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy’’ and letting the words lead him through Bill Withers’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.’’ The Roots band practically makes sonic photocopies of the originals, though they transform Nina Simone’s keys-strings-and-horn fueled civil rights song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’’ into a mega-church gospel choir show. Black Thought, Common, and J. Period make cameos throughout, but the rap doesn’t necessarily compromise the soul. In the end, even if it’s only a brief aside, both the Roots and Legend expand through experimentation.

JULIAN BENBOW

ESSENTIAL “Compared to What’’