By Daniel Garrett
John Legend and The Roots, Wake Up!
Produced by Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, James Poyser
and John Legend
Columbia Records/Sony, 2010
I am getting used to John Legend’s vibrato. Starting to hear it with affection, as well as quick recognition. I was not sure about him when he first emerged with the albums Get Lifted and Once Again, but he has worked with artists I like very much—Cassandra Wilson, Angelique Kidjo, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Al Green—and made comments that demonstrate an awareness of both artistic tradition and political issues. I regret my doubt, though it is understandable that in a compulsively commercial environment I would be suspicious of the attractive image he presented: it is easy to think that one is encountering, simply, one more salesman. John Stephens, known to the world as John Legend, is a young man trying to do real work, trying to do his own work; and he is also reaching back to ideals and idols that can support that endeavor. He has collaborated with the musical group The Roots for an album of songs, most of them old songs, that cannot help but be a critique of much else that is being produced today: Wake Up!
I like John Legend’s phrasing, and his willingness to give the songs he sings what they need; and there is a lively, free sound in a collection of songs by respected writers such as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Bill Withers that might have made the album Wake Up! a solemn museum piece. Curtis Mayfield is a writer whose work—whether addressing the sacred or the social, the philosophical or the profane—remains worth listening to, and that is true with Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” which opens the album and could have been written this morning. The narrator of the song “Hard Times” is alienated, and isolated, from the larger world and even in his own neighborhood, a plight that could be read in Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Baldwin’s Another Country, and the comprehension and compromise is expressed thusly in the lyrics: “Although I’m filled with love, I’m afraid they’ll hurt my pride, so I’ll play the part I feel they want of me.” It is stirring soul music, and the rap interlude—by someone who calls himself Black Thought—reinforces the danger and desperation described in the song. The composition “Compared to What” is a piece of rhetoric tied to a roiling groove, about a social situation in which “No one gives us rhyme or reason. You have one doubt, they call it treason,” but it has a great saxophone solo by Chris Farr. It is good to have both a male and female voice, that of John Legend and Melanie Fiona, a symbolic unity, in “Wake Up Everybody,” a call to doctors, builders, everyone, in a community to participate (and there is a spiritual invocation by the rapper Common, who asserts “we’re more than consumers,” more than shooters and computer users).
I do not know John Legend, but I am proud of him: he is filling a need, and knows it. During the last presidential election, an historic election, he was surprised by what young people did not know about public issues of the past or the present. I understand the inclination to return to work of established value, but I do wonder about what it might have meant to gather together some of the rare new works by different composers that address civic and social matters—or for John Legend to write more new songs doing that. I think his urgency was too great, and his standards exacting. I have few complaints with what he has done, as the absence that John Legend perceived is part of a greater problem: our shared culture does not share much. Much of it is gossip, titillation, voyeurism. Romance that is far from anyone’s real attitudes or experience.
Listening to the song “Our Generation,” it is obvious that passion and purpose become the singer, John Legend. In the song, the rapper CL Smooth is a witness, an adviser, stating, “Work hard to be anything you want in life” and “they can cage your body but not your mind.” John Legend calls out to people in different cities in the United States and around the world. I do not object to the content of any of the participating rappers’ comments, and I appreciate that Legend is using them for the credibility and currency they represent, though the songs and his singing are enough. The two-part “Little Ghetto Boy” consists of a prelude featuring Malik Yusef describing the arrested development of a young male, with few opportunities and false pride; and the second, longer part has the return of Black Thought with a story of personal progress, before John Legend sings. The song offers an immersion in a difficult, entrapping experience, an attempt to see with compassion and logic an experience that is easily condemned. John Legend asks, What are you going to do when you grow up, and have to face responsibility?
John Legend is asking music to be real; asking music to be a bridge to reality; asking music to interrogate reality. I respect that. I admire work that expresses, preserves, and celebrates experience; and work that articulates values and virtues: work that embodies complete thoughts and uses poetic resources, whether the work is domestic or international. I know something about country and city life, of how children recreate the cruelty and ignorance they see in their parents, and the difficulty of professors and employers seeing themselves in a young African-American man. I know something of men with no interest in art and women without the courage to insist on their own ambition and seriousness, of friends who sup on one’s energies and do not return phone calls, of erotic fascination and disappointing love, of old debts and frustrated hopes, of worn shoes and smelly socks, of self-betrayal and personal shame; and, while I am inclined to loathe confession and memoir, I would welcome hearing and seeing more of the creative transformation of those facts, of that truth, in music, film, and literature.
I appreciate different kinds of music, especially jazz and world music, and I can understand the appeal of music categorized as independent (“indie”) rock, and hip-hop (of which rap is a principal part), two forms of music that now get more critical attention than the classical music of any country, and more attention than jazz and much else: the first, indie rock, often gives voice to personal experience, producing work in which desire, despair, and disillusion are allowed, though despair is more favored than desire; and the second, hip-hop (as does the first sometimes), allows individual and social appetites and attitudes that have been considered abrasive and anti-establishment, even anti-social. Indie rock and hip-hop once may have offered alternative visions, but now are part of the musical score for the status quo, work that is accepted without rigorous questioning (take a look at Newsweek, Paste, RollingStone, Spin, Time, and TheVillageVoice, and notice the lack of genuine criticality and diversity). It is unusual when either musical form has anything radical to say.
I respect work that is personal, that offers some insight into psychology and the maneuvers and moods of the human spirit; however, what is sometimes revealed in indie rock is so idiosyncratic and small that it has no relevance to others, no real meaning—and I begin to suspect that what is appreciated is the resistance to meaning; and that the assertion of meaning, especially regarding communal or public purpose, is distrusted, suspect. As well, the articulation of anti-society attitudes in hip-hop can go—and often does go—beyond affirming individuality or a minority group perspective: it can deny decent feelings and values, and make civil discourse impossible and personal relationships hateful and hazardous. To object to the denial of civility and meaning, to critique the embrace of nihilism, can bring accusations that one is old and old-fashion, so hot and bothered and tired that one is forever exiled from the land of cool. Of course, some of us never wanted to be cool: we wanted to be intelligent, sensitive, good at our chosen work, and of use to the friends and family that we love—we wanted to be useful adults, leading a rewarding and significant life.
John Legend asks, What are you going to do when you grow up, and have to face responsibility? The very young or immature may grin and smirk at such concerns; of course, they cannot imagine that they will not be young or irresponsible forever—or know that while ignorance may be rewarded now, a price is to be paid for stupidity eventually. The maintenance of the world can be dreary work, but it must be done—or one suffers the world’s dissolution. Pleasure and popularity alone do not connote relevance. I recall the names of many music groups that won critical acclaim and popularity in decades past; and no one celebrates them now (the memory of the flavor of a forgotten month is long gone for most people). It would be great if we could stop pretending that just because someone is young and cute, plays guitar, and drops some of the magic names—say, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, The Clash, Fugazi, and Nirvana—that they have anything important to say. Does the work made address any of the ideas and issues we consider important in our own lives, and in the world? It would be great if we could move beyond pretending as if the bragging, the sexual exploits and shopping sprees, and the violence and vulgarity in much of rap are interesting, when they really lack imagination. Sensation is not significance. It is easy to laugh at sincerity, and cool poses frequently preclude both sincerity and vulnerability—but it is always easy to laugh at real things, and the cruel and stupid have always laughed at them, but real things, though ignored or mocked, go on mattering.
On Wake Up! in “Hang On In There,” a song of both encouragement and criticality, John Legend’s voice becomes larger than I have heard it before (he has acknowledged the influential appeal of Sam Cooke and Jeff Buckley; and somehow I can listen to John Legend and hear Johnny Mathis, Marvin Gaye, and Barry White, singers who do not sound at all alike); and the strings—violins, violas, and cello—are nice. In the song “Hang On In There,” John Legend asks, “What have you added to this world so far?” No one can be asked a more serious question. He states that he and his family and friends have invested in the land; and “you can’t make me leave.”
There is a reggae beat in “Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be),” and Legend uses a higher part of his voice. “We should believe in each other’s dreams,” he croons in Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” a song that Aretha Franklin once performed; adding, “We need the strength, the power, and all the feeling.” The anti-war song by Bill Withers, “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” inspired by the Vietnam war, and revived for the Afghan and Iraq wars, has (Legend impersonating) a narrator who sees and fights a little man he has no personal argument with, a little man who shoots him in the shoulder, a narrator compelled to cry, “I can’t write left handed” and John Legend goes to church in the song, singing freely and passionately, and the rock guitar conjures the chaos and shock of war. The album closes with “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and “Shine,” and “I Wish” is a song by Billy Taylor that Nina Simone adopted, and “Shine” is a new song by John Legend: they “can’t read if we don’t teach ‘em,” he sings.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.