Until Wake Up!, this solid covers album produced by the Roots, John Legend’s two sides have never really connected. For many people, he’s the guy who lends welcomed buttery soul touches to songs by rappers like Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Andre 3000. But to a bigger majority, he’s the living persona of Starbucks soul, a thoroughly inoffensive singer recording songs that go well with Ugg boots, loose ponytails and a tall vanilla chai latte. Singing the hook of a Rick Ross song, he could seem like the coolest R&B singer this side of R. Kelly, but when singing his solo material, he could seem like a guy who took extensive notes on the John Denver discography.
That’s not so on Wake Up! an album that positions Legend as the only logical successor to Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass and Donny Hathaway. (Which of course basically makes him Raheem DeVaughn 2.0, but that’s for another day.) Legend’s voice has never sounded more tender, confident, or thrilling as it does here, as he runs through takes of soul classics like “Wake Up Everybody,” “Little Ghetto Boy,” “I Wish I Knew What It Was Like To Be Free,” and an epic-length (11 minutes!) and excellent take of “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” Rote covers of “Wholy Moly” and “Humanity (Love The Way It Should Be)” and the only original here, “Shine,” won’t shake Legend’s status as the only male challenger to Norah Jones’ stranglehold on the coffeehouses, but it at least is an improvement over anything off his tepid 2008 album, Evolver.
It’s pretty hard to tell, all told, how much of the improvement in Legend is due to the fact that he’s not charged with lyrical duties and is covering great songs, or the Roots’ (and you have to figure, largely ?uestlove’s) production and stamp of approval. And it’s not just like when ?uesto produced Al Green’s comeback album; Black Thought, Captain Kirk and Tuba Gooding are all on this, singing back up, ripping guitar solos, dropping stellar verses in front of Legend’s covers (Black Thought’s turn on “Little Ghetto Boy” is an origin story in the “C.R.E.A.M.” mold) and generally serving as the best house band money can buy. And that’s the biggest thing you learn from Wake Up!: The Roots are about to get flooded with production offers, since if they can lend John “Ordinary People” Legend serious street cred and make him more thrilling than he has ever been, they ought to be able to do this for everyone.