// Album Recommendation

Earth, Wind & Fire

Illumination

(2005)

“Won’t you wake up, wake up,
Walk in the light,
Won’t you wake up, wake up,
Bring substance in your life.”

Illumination by Earth, Wind & Fire

After 2003’s return to form, The Promise (which received critical acclaim and reached No. 19 on the R&B Chart), original Earth, Wind & Fire members Maurice White, Phillip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson aimed to make the most of their new-found popularity by trying out a commercial concept: They had popular, contemporary R&B artists/producers write songs that were very faithful to the classic late 70s/early 80s Earth, Wind & Fire sound, albeit with modern production values. Detractors might say that Earth, Wind & Fire played it safe, but as interesting as it looks on paper, the experiment wasn’t without its risks and could very likely have resulted in a hit-or-miss collection of songs, or worse still, it could’ve failed miserably. However, Earth, Wind & fire knew what they were doing, when they picked their collaborators. Whether you like any of these artists on their own shouldn’t be a deciding factor simply because this is very much a fan’s project; these awe-struck artists painstakingly recreate an authentic vintage Earth, Wind & Fire signature sound and vibe with an admirable attention to detail. The most impressive songs here are delivered by people, who evidently grew up listening religiously to this legendary Soul/Funk band. In a sense, the exquisitely produced Illumination could be labeled “a tribute” to Earth, Wind & Fire, but that wouldn’t be fair to the legends in question. This is more of a celebration with the "guests of honor" (Earth, Wind & Fire) participating actively as the life of the party.

With a short intro featuring Kalimba and horns, the funky jam Lovely People kicks off the party. Even the lyric is true to Earth, Wind & Fire’s eternally positive messages of living a peaceful life in love and harmony with each other and nature. Written by will.i.am, the mastermind behind Black-Eyed Peas, he effortlessly merges retro sounds and modern beats. Equally successful are the two contributions by the highly respected production-team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the up-tempo Love’s Dance with its dance-friendly groove, and the up-lifting, spiritual ballad Pure Gold (“Where’s your heart, where’s your pride / Has it all been pushed aside / Life is dreams living high / Yet no substance in your life /...Riches come and go / Only love is pure gold”), which, with its love-is-all-that-matters message, is lyrically reminiscent of See The Light off their classic 1975 album That’s The Way Of The World. Pure Gold reached No. 23 on the Adult Contemporary Chart and received a Grammy nomination. The eight-minutes-long Show Me The Way by the talented Raphael Saadiq, which also received a Grammy nomination, and slick R&B crooner Brian McKnight’s To You, bring to mind classic Earth, Wind & Fire ballads like Can’t Hide Love (off 1975’s Gratitude), I’ll Write A Song For You (off 1977’s All’n’All), and After The Love Has Gone (off 1979’s I Am). Raphael Saadiq contributes two more songs, the mid-tempo Pass You By, another lovely, classy ballad (harmonies, piano chords, thumping bass line), and the funky, bass-heavy Work It Out. Produced by Outkast production-team Organized Noize, The One is a refreshingly modern take on Earth, Wind & Fire; Neo-Soul fused with the mandatory trademarks of their classic sound – horns, harmonies, strings, and inspirational lyrics about staying true to oneself in a world that’s constantly changing (“Don’t let them change you / Just stay honest and true / ‘Cause if they knew what you knew / It’s so hard to be the one, the one, the one, the one /...Many have tried it / But you are that walkin’ testimony that makes me believe / To not trust in what I hear / And rethink all I see”). It’s a mesmerizing, infectious track that has a haunting quality to it.

With Liberation, Earth, Wind & Fire resume their old tradition of interspersing the vocal tracks with a few African-inspired instrumental interludes (e.g. Beijo a.k.a. Brazilian Rhyme from 1977’s All’n’All), once again illustrating their musical diversity and their affinity for Afro-Latin grooves. They also celebrate Afro-American culture by collaborating with a couple of contemporary Hip-Hop artists. Big Boi of Outkast features on the catchy tune This Is How I Feel (Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child joins in the chorus with a sweet, passionate vocal), and Hip-Hop duo Floetry deliver outright rap verses on Elevated. Some might accuse these aging legends of compromising their credibility in an attempt to win over much younger record buyers, but let’s not forget that even if Hip-Hop music didn’t become mainstream until much later, the genre gained its first popularity among Afro-Americans as far back as the late 70’s/early 80’s, when Earth, Wind & Fire themselves were a young band. Still, those hypersensitive to the genre will be relieved to know that Elevated doesn’t feature your typical, contemporary Hip-Hop lyrics (hoes, guns, murder and money), and that the song owes much more to Neo-Soul than Rap Music. Earth, Wind & Fire stay true to their spiritual vision and their positive, inspiring music and messages. Illumination is a wonderful continuation of the Earth, Wind & Fire sound and an an impressive addition to their timeless musical legacy. The album was both a creative and a commercial success. Reaching Pop No. 32 and R&B No. 8, it also received a nomination for a Soul Train Music Award and a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album.

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