Stevie Wonder is one of the most accomplished artists in all of American popular music. His influence can be heard in R&B, funk, soul and pop-based permutations thereof. In many ways, Wonder wrote the rules that everyone else follows, whether they realize it or not.
That influence has not always necessarily been a good thing. The inane music-as-battle scenarios of televised singing contests like “American Idol” and “The Voice” are stuffed with folks who mistakenly equate oversinging, coloratura and melisma with soul. Ask any of these musical offenders, and they’ll quite likely tell you they were inspired by Wonder. The difference between Wonder and these preening, oversinging would-be Kings and Queens is vast, but can rather handily be broken down as follows: Wonder does indulge in snaky, scatlike lines that stretch the melody to near breaking point, and yes, it requires incredible chops to do this. But Wonder never sacrifices musicality to showboat. He’s got soul in abundance. He doesn’t feel the need to prove it through every measure of every tune.
The Wonder influence is all over contemporary music and has shown up in genres ranging from hip-hop to neo-soul to jazz. Here are five artists who have assimilated that influence into their own artistry, and came up with something fresh and new.
He hasn’t been anywhere near as prolific as most of us would like, but D’Angelo has filled his sparse canon with funky, soul-drenched tunes that define him as one of Wonder’s children.
The Wonder influence is in everything Legend does, particularly his vocal phrasing and restraint. Check out “Wake Up!,” the 2010 album credited to Legend & the Roots – it’s all but a love-letter to Wonder.
Spalding is a jazz artist at heart, but her brilliant “Black Radio” album owes a significant debt of gratitude to prime-period Wonder platters like “Fullfillingness’ First Finale” and “Innervisions.”
This brilliant neo-soul/jazz ensemble clearly studied its Wonder albums closely – particularly singer/guitarist Nai Palm, who has never hidden her admiration for the man.
Badu’s deliciously sleepy soul is peppered with hip chord changes and sultry funk grooves. We know who she grew up listening to, don’t we?
– Jeff Miers