John Legend and The Roots Issue Wake Up Call (series part 1): Hard Funky Times

Soul-man maestro John Legend at the piano. 

Soul-man maestro John Legend at the piano.

There is much to praise and little to criticize in WAKE UP!, the recent eleven-song album release from neosoul music master John Legend and legendary urban funksters band The Roots. In the world of music, genius plus genius often equals a beautiful thing, and this album is indeed a beautiful thing comprised of a sonic cluster of rhythm and blues, spoken word , hip hop, jazz, and uncut funk.

This brilliant partnership between the Springfield, Ohio, native known largely for his command of romantic ballads and the Philadelphia group known principally for their uncompromising allegiance to hardcore urban music traditions (no disrespect to their role as house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) presents listeners with a demonstration of why the word “legacy” is such a powerful one. It also illustrates how some of the most treasured legacies can be put to effective contemporary use. In this case, the legacy is that of music from some of the most socially and politically conscious African-American performers of the past employed to commemorate the historic presidential campaign of 2008 and to make a commanding statement regarding life as Americans are surviving it in 2010.

An Unsung Pioneer of Hip Hop

Legend and the Roots kick off their set with the psychedelic funk of Hard Times. A song that has been sampled in bits and pieces by numerous hip hop acts, here it gets the full treatment. The title of Hard Times might lead those unfamiliar with it to assume it’s all about economic difficulties but it’s actually more about the psychic disarray and violent actions that can result from such conditions. As the late great Curtis Mayfield wrote and as John Legend sings:

“From my party house I feel like meetin’ others
Familiar faces, creed and race, a brother
But to my surprise I find a man corrupt
Although he be my brother, he wants to hold me up…”

The song first appeared on the 1970 album, The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend, which was released after the death of the man who sang it, hip hop pioneer Baby Huey/James Ramey. Its inclusion on Wake Up! may be celebrated as both a tribute to Ramey and as a testament to Mayfield’s musical brilliance.  Ramey has been recognized as one of the pioneers of rhyming styles used in modern rap and likely would have appreciated the addition of Black Thought’s fierce delivery on the song.

Tryin’ to Make It Real

Legend and The Roots move from “Hard Times” with the uncompromising in-your-face fury of “Compared to What.”  A powerful song when first recorded by jazz greats Les McCann and Eddie Harris in 1968/69, “Compared to What” grew in both intensity and relevance when soul icon Roberta Flack included it on her 1969 album First Take. In terms of performance, Legend’s rendition booms with precision-nuanced passion and conviction. However, one section of this song in 1969 was aimed directly at the Viet Nam War and then incumbent President Richard Nixon:

“The President, he’s got his war,
Folks don’t know just what it’s for.
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason,
Have one doubt, they call it treason.”

Those lyrics sung in the post 9/11 era when the reasons for being at war are actually quite clear, and while the president commanding the war(s) is not the one who initiated it, might strike some as a bit inappropriate. More relevant to contemporary time are these lyrics from the same song:

“Possession is the motivation
that is hangin’ up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin’ to make it real – compared to what? C’mon baby!”

Most will likely overlook the lyric’s applicability or non-applicability and simply sing along because the song as a whole voices so well the frustration and absurdities of our times.  Even so, the album’s tenth track, “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” actually makes a stronger statement against the irrationality of humanity’s insistence on believing in war.

The Hell that War Is

Taken from the phenomenal Bill Withers’ 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall, “I Can’t Write Left Handed” was written after his encounter with a Vietnam veteran who said, “getting shot at didn’t bother him, it was getting shot that shook him up.” As Legend points out in his introduction to the song, “War is hell. It always has been, it always will be.”

The last minute of the track plays out like a battlefield opera with Legend wailing “Oh Lord, he done shot me in my shoulder” to the sound of Questlove’s exploding percussions and Captain Kirk Douglas’s screaming guitar. It’s the kind of gut-wrenching rendition that has words like “Grammy Award” and “instant classic” written all over it.

NEXT: John Legend and The Roots Issue Wake Up Call (special series part 2)

by Aberjhani

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