Someone recently asked me if there are any covers that shouldn’t be made and I thought about it for a moment and in careful reply suggested that I don’t necessarily believe any song is so sacred that you shouldn’t cover it out of respect. But there are some songs which, by virtue of their virtues…are very hard to cover well and therefore, shouldn’t be attempted simply because the odds of failure are so high. To wit:

John Legend and the Roots: Hang On In There (snippet)
From Wake Up! (Columbia, 2010)

I’ll have more to say about this entire album by the end of next week (short story: about as good as you’d guess…which is to say, not very) but this choice had to be one of my least favorite on the album (and there was a lot of competition). For one thing, Legend sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the vocals; it’s supposed to be laconic but not soporific. But more than that, this is a really hard song to cover if you try to do it loyally because the original was such a remarkable achievement that I just don’t think can ever be duplicated. Hear for yourself:

Mike James Kirkland: Hang On In There
From Hang On In There (Bryant, 1972). Also available on California Soul)

I’m sorry, but NO ONE is up to covering this. Can’t be done. It’s not even that Kirkland was that great a singer and if you were to just listen to he and Legend, acapella, side-by-side, it’s not wildly different (though Legend’s phrasing here is really terrible). But as a song that’s greater than its sum parts, “Hang On In There” is some magical creation, sprinkled in fairy dust and then handstamped by God. Or something like that. Straight up, this is one of the most sublime things I’ve ever heard in my life. It will haunt you, hunt you down, kill you, chase your spirit into the next life and do it all over again. If Marvin Gaye had recorded this on What’s Going On, it’d be an all-time classic. Instead, it’s merely just one of the greatest tunes of its era that most people haven’t heard because it wasn’t on a major label. Can’t. Be. Covered…unless you take it in a radically different direction that doesn’t sound like you’re trying to cover it. Alas, that’s not the route that Legend and the Roots go and hence: fail.




  1. Not to pick on The Roots or anything ( well, I guess I am actually ) but they have committed another grave cover sin. They covered Bobby Hutcherson’s Montara. Like the MJK cover they added nothing to it and only achieved to take away from it. Disappointing work from a great band ( renowned for their excellent use of covers in live shows even! )

  2. The whole Mike James Kirkland album “Hang on in there” is a fantastic journey from end to end. Well worth it

  3. I see your point.  I honestly thought this was the best cover out of all of ’em, which isn’t saying much.  Hands down they just sound forced and Legend is much more of a pop and sultry R&B singer instead of an honest soul singer.  Instrumentals maybe?

  4. Actually, I think the last third of the Legend/Roots album is decent. I thought he did a good, credible job with the Withers’ song and ‘Shine” is actually a pretty good song, maybe because it’s an original and not a cover. 

    But I didn’t think “Hang On In There” was strong at all – there’s at least 2-3 other covers that are better overall. 

  5. I do consider MJK a great singer, and one listen to how badly the cover version pales in comparison summarily demonstrates why. It’s not the technical power of the pipes but what you convey w/ them. 

  6. I know we are over calling out of samples, but that break at the beginning of Hang on in There used by Ugly Duckling just reminded me of how much I miss real hip hop. Great website…i keep coming back for these moments…

  7. Honestly i don’t think Wake Up! is that bad… but I am really disappointed.  What started out as a heavily Roots influenced affair got cleaned up for radio appeal.  The more the Roots as a band are allowed to room to groove is where the album succeeds the most.

    If you haven’t check out the “live studio” version of “Wake Up Everybody” which is offered as a iTunes bonus track, you should.  The bonus studio version crushes the glossy album version with Common.  The original is killer… THAT is what I was hoping the album would be: just Legend and the Roots playing it loose and free.

  8. After I listened to the album, I was dissapointed with how the final product resonated with me.  I thought the production was a little too slick, and, the more I listen to John Legend, the more dissapointed I am in him.  I swear, all those coos for the middle-aged ladies he is always wooing that he keeps using just didn’t belong in such an album. 

    Meanwhile, yeah, this is a shameless plug, but Aloe Blacc’s new album, Good Times, I think, is a much more personal, connecting, and thought-provoking album, even with its relative simplicity.  I think it is the perfect combination between personal lyrics, and etchability, in that, the sound and the themes stay with you.  I think the Roots and John Legend had an opportunity to do that, and they simply fell short.

  9. I’ll take the minority view (of course). I thought Wake Up was a winner. I hear folks’ complaints about John Legend and I thought he was certainly out of his depth with the album version on “Wake Up” (strongly co-sign Scott’s note) and “Little Ghetto Boy” (surprising to me because Donny is obviously his role model the way Bill Withers is for Aloe Blacc’s recent stuff). “Shine” is more Legend’s territory and works fine (the politics of “Waiting For Superman” are for another epic post). But I think “Our Generation”, “Humanity”, and esp. “I Can’t Write Left Handed” are each good performances. And I think “Compared To What” gets to exactly that Highline Ballroom/studio jam vibe Scott is talking about. 

    Here’s what I really don’t get–why is it a sin for anyone to try to cover a song? Folks can try and fail and we can throw peanuts but saying someone should *never* cover a song? Please. For a lot of folks, this is the first time they’ll hear these songs…I’m thinking of all the teens me and some friends have been engaging with this set. A lot of them–like we did–will go seek out the originals and might find they like em a lot better. 

    I make this argument not just to be Mr. Obvious here. I think Wake Up ought to be considered seriously because it’s coming out now and under these circumstances. The context is important. We need for these songs to be out there at this moment. (The album will probably be a Top 5 when the numbers come out in a day or two, FWIW these days.)

    Maybe we want to focus about the aesthetics of the album here, but let’s at least acknowledge that the culture could use an injection of smartly considered revivalism, not just the stylistic tourism which defines all too much of what’s going on in music and music criticism these days. FINAL NOTE: This is not directed at all you fam here, just me ranting yet again about lost perspective. Thanks for tolerating.

    And so, flipping it: a question to O (and anyone else who wants to answer)…if you were given unlimited budget to do a cover album talking about right now, what songs would you choose and who would you have doing them?

  10. Zenski: 1) I don’t recall ever using the term “sin for anyone to try to cover a song.” Am I going to have to get all TNC about strawman arguments?  It’s also a remarkable accusation to toss in here considering how many cover-related projects I’ve put together. CLEARLY, I like covers. I just don’t happen to like Wake Up!. And I especially don’t like his and the Roots’ approach to a song (Kirkland’s) that really, can’t be easily covered for all the reasons I laid out above, least of all in the approach they happen to take. Is that a sin? Of course not. Just ill advised. And not surprisingly, unsuccessful (artistically). I agree that this album is going sell bananas. And hey, I’m not mad at that. 
    I get that “context” is important but that, of course, has to be mediated by performance. So while I can understand and appreciate the context of the album…I also happen to think it’s mostly mediocre. Yay context! But boo listening experience. My Mr. Obvious comment: Good intentions don’t always make good art. Least of all, good intentions in covering other people’s good intentioned songs. 
    Frankly, I’d rather hear Legend and the Roots roll out some new material than cover (gag me) “Wake Up Everybody.” I mean, were the rights to “Ooh Child” not available? But it’s not the idea that annoys me. I pretty much enjoyed Cat Powers’ “Jukebox” which was a covers album; I like when artists tackle new artistic territory; Marshall Chan singing “New York, New York” is interesting because she totally flips the Sinatra version. Legend doing Baby Huey? *eye roll* (Note: he would have been better, perhaps, doing Mayfield’s version of the song).
    And honestly, I don’t see this as “smartly considered revivalism” since a covers album, it puts it in a different category compared to, say, Daptone’s revivalism. For me, “smartly considered revivalism” is something like Saadiq’s last album. “Wake Up!” fits more into a “great R&B songbook.” 
    Ok – so, the unlimited budget question? I’ll have to get back to that later. Gotta a flight from ATL –> LAX to catch. Wessyde bound. 

  11. 1) This is splitting follicles but “Can’t. Be. Covered…”? I guess my strawman is addressing other commenters but also an approach to criticism here…

    2) I heard Hard Times and most of the rest of the record as a Roots record feat. John Legend not the other way, so I probably have a different take on it than most folks from jump. To me, most of the song choices were by the Roots, all the arrangements were by The Roots–and for the most part that stuff was impeccable. And again I hear the “Legend shouldn’t emote” argument.

    But OK, let’s set fire to the scarecrows, here’s the nub: I come from a critical stance that we should reward artists for risk when they do well. I tend against wanting to punish people because they have not stayed the same, which I think is the default stance of most critics–in all fields of art, but especially in American pop, which tends to valorize young and raw and be skeptical–if not worse–of older and considered. I want to add that I think this is part of the pop-making process that critics are implicated in that I’m most ambivalent about. We create then we Lohanize our subjects. I think all artists should be allowed to grow in their process and practice. That doesn’t mean that audiences are required to follow, but critics ought to be honest about their position. 

    3) We could argue all day about “smartly considered revivalism” vs. “the great R&B songbook”, I’ll just say that in talking to my strawman, he doesn’t hear many one-drop artists covering Prince Lincoln or funk bands taking on Ernie Hines. 

  12. Jeffers: For real, I know we’re just shooting the shinola on this one but we’re clearly listening to two very different projects. This “risky” album you speak of isn’t familiar to me. I hear two veteran artists executing on mostly tepid covers of other people’s songs and doing it a way that is very loyal to the originals in most cases. Risky means daring to offend. Risky is Jimi Hendrix playing his version of the Star-Spangled Banner. Risky is Public Enemy calling out Elvis Presley for being a racist on a song. *Risky is The Roots agreeing to be Jimmy Fallon’s house band.*
    This album doesn’t remotely approach anything that would inspire some kind of career-ending backlash. Legend and the Roots will be fine no matter what happens (especially with some Oprah love).  

    Also: John Legend covering Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers and yes, even Ernie Hines, sounds about as “something John Legend would do” as anything I could imagine. Him cameoing on the Colbert Xmas show was 10 times less predictable. So this whole “punishing people because they have not stayed the same” is kind of bizarre to me. This, to me, is an aesthetically conservative album, its social politics aside. That’s not always a bad thing – I rather liked John Legend’s cover of “I’m a Puppet” for example. But only about a third of this album really “worked” me for.
    Plus, last time I checked, people LOVE this album. I don’t think “critics” have uniformly lined up against it – it gets a 68 in Metacritic which isn’t exactly a slam dunk but clearly, more critics liked it than didn’t.   My NPR review will run sometime soon and I don’t hate on it from beginning to end. Just from beginning to 2/3rds of the way through. 
    And I don’t mean to split hairs either but “it’s a sin” suggests I was making a MORAL argument about covering Kirkland. But if you read what I actually wrote, despite my hyperbolic invocation of “handstamped by god,” my argument was really an aesthetic one and about how Kirkland’s original resists easy covering because the song itself was just an unlikely confluence of different elements that happened to come together just right. But lightning doesn’t strike twice for a song like this. I wasn’t at all suggesting it’s somehow sinful or immoral to cover it. I just think it’s ill-advised.

  13. Also…I find it funny that of all the albums that we’d go toe to toe over, it’d be this one. It’s all love though man, as always. 

  14. I thought the cover was sounding okay until I heard that original (which I’ve just purchased) – great stuff, thanks Oliver.

  15. Of course….it’s a UD sample, I knew it sounded so familiar!

    The cover, as you say isn’t good enough…..shame as it could have been better, not good, but better!

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