On his latest album, John Legend urges people to Wake Up! and fight for the issues they believe in. For him, that’s education — a cause he’s championing in part through the buzzed-about documentary Waiting for Superman.John Legend knows what you probably think about him.
“People see me as the nice guy,” he says. “I’m the positive person who makes really optimistic music about love and relationships and hanging out.” Talking over breakfast at a chic Lower Manhattan bistro near his apartment, Legend — who has indeed made his name over the last few years with sunny, soul-infused hits like “Ordinary People” and “Green Light” — looks up from his bowl of oatmeal. “And that’s fine. I mean, the public’s caricature of you is never completely accurate; they’ll pick the main characteristic they see and blow that up into a persona. Clearly, that’s not all of who I am. But it’s enough of me that it became the caricature.” Chomp chomp chomp. “It is what it is.”
“In my mind and in how I think about the way the world works, I have plenty of frustration and anger and passion around a multitude of things,” he says. “And I feel like this album helps fill in that picture.”
Tellingly titled Wake Up!, the 12-track disc finds Legend and the Roots — the latter of whom have backed up everyone from Paul Simon to Public Enemy as the house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — reaching back to the 1960s and ’70s for both inspiration and source material. Among the songs they cover are Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” originally popularized by the late, great Nina Simone. Rolling Stone called the album “brilliantly conceived and executed,” adding that Legend and the Roots “capture the old feeling of protest and uplift while updating the sound.”
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer and musical mastermind behind the Roots, saw the album as a chance to help humanize Legend. “I told John, ‘I want you to get a little bit of dirt on your clean white linen suit,’ ” he says. “I wanted to give him three dimensions.” But Thompson also saw a place in the musical landscape for an album like Wake Up! “It’s expected these days of urban artists to just sing about the banal minutiae of endless love songs,” he notes. “It’s been a really long time since someone above the radar had something to say. That job kind of went to the hip-hoppers, and maybe most singers felt like they were off the hook from being the messenger.”
The impetus for the record arrived during the 2008 election. “My manager and I thought it would be interesting to do something more topical than Evolver,” the singer says, referring to his 2008 solo disc. That idea brought to mind the Roots, with whom Legend had been itching to work since his late-’90s undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania. (“I was hoping they’d discover me and get me a record deal,” he remembers with a laugh. “I even gave Questlove my demo, but he never listened to it.”) The new project began as an EP but grew into a full-length disc after the initial recordings surpassed the musicians’ expectations.
Thompson says song selection was crucial, and he gave Legend a list of tunes he “absolutely should not do,” including “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “What’s Going On” and anything by Stevie Wonder. “It would’ve been very, very easy to do a typical R&B covers album,” Thompson says. “But John would’ve gotten railroaded. People don’t look favorably at covering sacred territory, and I wanted him to turn these songs into his songs. And he did. I’d say 80 percent of the people I’ve played it for didn’t even know it was a covers album.”