Various Artists: Conception: An Interpretation of Stevie Wonder's Songs
The main stumbling block Conception: An Interpretation of Stevie Wonder's Songs faces is succumbing to the sentimentality that has marred much of Wonder's own later work. His enduring status as a musical icon cannot completely disguise the fact that Wonder's most significant work was produced between 1972 and 1976. That period began with Music of My Mind and includes Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and concludes with the double disc set Songs in the Key of Life; an amazing run of albums that ushered in thematic cohesion, a dazzling mix of stylistic influences, and an astounding degree of organic warmth from music largely produced by one man and a host of synthesizers. These albums heralded the modern age of R&B, so it seems mean-spirited, and probably unrealistic considering the bar he set, to express disappointment with the continued positivity and pop success of Wonder's more sporadic offerings since his heyday.
Most of the performers approached for the project probably feel indebted to Wonder and have placed him on a pedestal, so given the chance to address their hero through his classic work, a certain tentativeness is evident. Who wants to monkey around with the master's best?
Contemporary R&B soulsters Glenn Lewis and Joe make straight copies of "Superstition" and "That Girl" respectively that merely highlight their ability to mimic his voice. Marc Anthony ("All in Love Is Fair") and Brian McKnight ("Send One Your Love") strive earnestly to pay tribute to the beloved musical genius, but neither of them effectively communicates the essence of what inspired them in the first place. John Mellencamp's downbeat take on "I Don't Know Why I Love You" is such a misstep that I don't know why it was included.
At this point, it's worth asking if anyone found a modicum of success with this Conception? Thankfully, yes. Eric Clapton easily finds his way through a rocking "Higher Ground". With Wonder handling the production chores on "Overjoyed", Mary J. Blige proves that one day soon, the Queen of Hip Hop Soul should be recognized as a royal without additional musical class distinction. And Steven Marley, along with several Marley family members, thoroughly enjoys digging deeper into the reggae roots of "Master Blaster".
In the liner notes for the project, Angie Stone came up with a little acronym to describe Stevie. "G.R.I.T.S. (Groomed Religiously InTo Soul). Religiously rich in song, spirit, and soul. The Consummate Artist." She quite possibly might have also been referring to herself. On "You Will Know" Stone combines the song, Stevie's spirit, and her soul in ways that truly bless each and every ear that hears the call. Thank you, sista.
It's too bad the majority of the performers on this set settled for a slavish devotion to being Stevie Wonder, instead of being the musicians he inspired in the first place. Wonder's best efforts came at a point in his career when he dared to challenge the status quo of Motown's hit-making machine. The titles alone of those masterpieces should remind musicians and audiences that music should be conceived from deep within guided by a sense of love and adventure. Looking at the current state of the world, I hold onto the curious hope that Wonder might find the inspiration in his own past to give us one more glimpse of what we can achieve. Maybe this lackluster Conception will force him to find a new higher ground.