With Wake Up!, the Roots takes a break from their regular gig backing Jimmy Fallon and attaches themselves to John Legend, who, if not as dorky, is equally clean and facile. The partnership represents a further descent into cozy mediocrity for the Roots, a group that, while never exactly dangerous, once possessed an innate, menacing sharpness that is rapidly turning to mush.
Legend has proven himself a shiny vessel for this kind of chic, socially conscious neo-soul, but also a transparent one. His music is generally serviceable and bland, and his greatest use has come as a prestige guest for rappers, brought in for songs needing a smooth voice and a touch of class. Well-dressed and debonair, Legend is the kind of toothless throwback that appears after a musical style—in this case soul—has grown old enough for hazy nostalgia. He’s a bland but talented singer, elevated by his association with more interesting music.
Legend’s collaboration with the Roots is thus the stuff of second singles stretched out to fit an entire album. That the best moments on Wake Up! feature Black Thought or the band playing by themselves signals how hollow and brittle the album is. A covers collection, the album at least represents an astute level of soul scholarship, choosing lesser-known tracks from Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye. Many of these treatments are good, but barely justify what amounts to a good-time vanity project for both acts.
If the album were more about the loving resurrection of old songs and less serious about its attempts, it might be far more entertaining. Instead, it’s hopelessly road-blocked by things like a sanctimonious cover of Bill Withers’s “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” which achieves nothing but a scenery change from the original’s Vietnam story, but has a disproportionate sense of hubris, inflating the original six-minute song into an 11-minute mammoth.
Songs like the obscure “Our Generation” throb with a muscular brassiness and show the limits of this kind of project, as an archeological exploration into hip-hop prehistory. But attempts to bring political songs written in the ‘70s into present-day significance simply by dusting them off are pale. Pedantic spoken-word sections heighten the feeling of this-is-good-for-you laboriousness and make Wake Up! come off as heavier than it needs to.