#56 on Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums.
Eddie Murphy on Stevie Wonder; Delirious
“I remember I did Stevie Wonder on a show once and black people lost their mother****ing minds."
“Hey, you the mother****a that be doing Stevie Wonder? That **** ain’t funny mother****a! Don’t you never let me see you do that **** again, I’ll **** you up! Stevie Wonder’s a musical genious!"
And then he wiped his nose.
1) That **** was pretty **** funny.
2) Stevie Wonder is, indeed, without a shred of doubt, a musical genius.
Number one is subjective; some people don’t find 80's Eddie Murphy funny. Those people need to take the stick out of their ***.
Number two is a truth. It’s not up for debate. Steveland Hardaway Judkins learned to play the piano, drums and harmonica by the age of nine despite the fact that he was blind due to a premature birth. Age eleven, he signed to Motown Records. At thirteen, he already had his first pop hit. Some artists with twice the tenure Little Stevie Wonder had at the time couldn’t even boast a resume like that.
However, like other Motown artists, Wonder was constrained by the hit-factory. Motown had the final say on his work and his direction and by the 70's, Wonder split off on his own with one primary goal: artistic control. Each successive release found Wonder increasingly setting the bar, not only in terms of his own personal success and artistic expression but also creating the standard by which all R&B music could be measured. Throughout the 70's, each Wonder release received critical and popular acclaim with great reason. Certainly the hits rolled on but it was more than just hits; Stevie Wonder created music that was timeless in it’s daring and innovation as well as its accessibility. Wonder experimented with synthesizers and electronics, creating sounds that did not loose emotion despite their artificial nature. All of his 70's releases (and some of his late 60's work) exposed a socially conscious side that would inspire other artists to come to take a stand. His tunes were not simply catchy but also heart-warming to a precise degree that prevented them from becoming sappy. Simply put, Stevie Wonder did it all. He wrote, produced, played most of the instruments, sang... genius isn’t the word we’re looking for here. Is virtuosensationomenonius a word?
With Music of My Mind
, Talking Book
, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale
, Stevie transcended genres and cultural boundaries. Funk, soul, rock, black, white, inner city, suburbia, Stevie Wonder not only became recognized in every facet of American culture (and abroad) but became a loved and endeared icon who had already cemented his place in the cultural history. Of course this all came before releasing what many would come to consider his masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life
Songs in the Key of Life
is a massive release by any standard. Equal in length to two LPs and an EP, the work took over two years for Wonder to put together. Let’s put it in slightly more tangible context: it’s two hours, twenty-two minutes and forty seconds in complete length. Were this the release of most artists, the first assumption one might make is preponderance of filler. Then again, Stevie Wonder isn’t even within the same realm as most artists. Both discs are packed with timeless songs that are ingrained in the world of music, most apparent in hip hop where finding Wonder samples is easier than saying “Gangsta’s Paradise."
The album kicks off with “Love’s in Need of Love Today." Opening with spine-tingling vocal harmonizing, the song is fairly stripped down instrumentally. If you asked someone to assemble the tracks of Songs in the Key of Life
without prior knowledge of the track listing, “Love’s in Need of Love Today" could easily be mistaken for an album closer. This displays the album’s one flaw, a very nit-picky flaw but apparent nonetheless; certain tracks tend to wind on longer than expected. The songs don’t necessarily meander anywhere, rather they continue repetitively on tightly structured grooves and vocals.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Wonder’s lyric writing is that, despite topics containing a high cheese-factor risk, in his prime he managed to keep away from falling into that abyss more often than not. Worst case scenario, Wonder becomes a bit preachy, the worst offender, “Have a Talk With God." Best case scenario, he writes another brilliant piece of social commentary like “Village Ghetto Land," which is an exceptional narrative. Wonder’s distinct vocals create remarkable imagery, for example, “Children play with rusted cars/ Sores cover their hands/ Politicians laugh and drink, drunk to all demands." The faux-string accompaniment is contrastingly warm compared to the lyrics, just another example of Wonder’s expertise of synthesizers.
Lyrical topics diverge from point to point throughout the album. “Sir Duke" is a nod to Duke Ellington, a music appreciation track grouped with an awesome upbeat groove and a horn section that blows with the presence of the names Wonder drops (Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller.) Will Smith fans (I’d suppose they're out there) will instantly recognize “I Wish," sampled by Smith in the blasphemous “Wild, Wild West." Despite that, “I Wish" is still exceptional, a song musically and lyrically nostalgic of youthful exuberance. The diversity of the album aside, Wonder’s strongest lyrical suit is heart-warming and/or poignant love songs. Always present in his catalog, Songs in the Key of Life
features some of his most memorable including “Summer Soft," “Knocks Me Off My Feet," “Ordinary Pain," “Joy Inside My Tears" and “As." All of these songs are incredibly humbling, not only in regards to the talent expressed by the artist but also in the respect that this the work of a man who was denied sight, a denial that had no effect on his ability to understand and convey the world in terms more impassioned than the average person.
Of all the songs on the album, my two personal favorites are “Ngiculela - Es Una Historia/I Am Singing" and “Isn’t She Lovely." Anyone who hasn’t heard “Isn’t She Lovely" probably can't hear. This ode to his daughter is a perfect portrayal of the best qualities of Stevie Wonder’s work, it’s the kind of song that is so uplifting you can’t help smiling, let alone stop yourself from humming or singing along. For most people born after Stevie Wonder’s prime, this is also probably the most ubiquitous and instantly recognizable song as well. First Stevie song I remember hearing. “I Am Singing" is captivates at first by Stevie’s shifts from Zulu to Spanish to English in his vocals. What also catches the ear is the slick rhythm and spanish-influenced riffing. At the two minute mark when Stevie gets out that, “I am SIIIIIIIINGIIIING!" I get a really big grin. It’s just an awesome vocal performance.
I could keep writing and trying to explain what exactly it is about this album that is so inspiring, probably to little avail. I’ve hardly scratched the surface here and I’ve left out many important things, such as the importance of Stevie Wonder’s backup players who perform absolutely flawlessly with Wonder’s guidance. I’ve also failed to mention the fact that it’s a mistake to pigeon hole this album in one or four genres. I’ve forgotten to mention some songs, all of which are superb, especially the greatness that are the last two tracks of the album, “All Day Sucker" and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)." I can’t do it. This album is a must-listen, no matter what type of music you enjoy. It’s a must-have for any record collection, for any collection that is missing this (and Innervisions for that matter) has a massive gap in it. I don’t think it’s Stevie Wonder’s most precise attack nor his opus (that would go to Innervisions
in my book.) So here’s the conclusion: This is an aptly named album, an album that touches nearly every inspiration that can come to mind. It can be overwhelming but it is a beautiful, multi-layered work that can both be instantly and slowly gratifying. Lastly, go watch Eddie Murphy’s Delirious
. It’s hee-larious. Maybe if I do a James Brown album, I’ll get to reference it again.