"And I Bumped Into Stevie... (Part 1)"

December 6, 2015

When people look at things in hindsight, their view tends to be rosy.  Well, this piece will be very rosy.  As a lifelong music fan (as an infant, my father baptized me in the waters of musical appreciation with Ahmad Jamal's Poinciana), my music collection and roster of favorite artists is vast.


Each morning when I rise, I begin with music from my laptop.  The sounds signal my family that it is time to get the day started.  This morning while I was jamming, I ventured into Common territory and my musical appreciation began to brew along with the morning coffee. The brew's final

concoction was an idea of paralleling the albums of hip hop artist, Common with musical legend, Stevie Wonder.


To be clear, I know that Stevie Wonder and Common operate to two vastly different levels. In fact, if Stevie Wonder is the Bill Russell of music and Common could very well be Joe Dumars.  Bill Russell is considered to be the greatest basketball champion (he coached one championship team while playing on the same team!). Joe Dumars is a Hall-of-Fame basketball player who was such an asset to his team and the game that the NBA Sportsmanship Trophy is named after him.  I mention those gentlemen because as remarkable of a basketball player that Joe Dumars was, it is an unfair comparison to compare him to Bill Russell. This piece is not a comparison. It is an appreciation of one artist's discography with the use of an icon's discography as a lens for understanding. So let's get started!


Can I Borrow A Dollar & Music of Mind


When Music of My Mind was released, Stevie was already an established artist. But instead of remaining entrenched in the Signed, Sealed, Delivered box of the Motown sound, he had already began to traverse into an unchartered galaxy of melodious creativity. One of the brilliant shooting stars in that galaxy was the 8 minute opus, Superwoman.  This wonderful piece of art also establishes or affirms Stevie's uniqueness when compared to other R&B artists.


It would be a stretch to say Common's Can I Borrow A Dollar was a comparable artistic statement of uniqueness. Initially, I viewed it as  inconsequential and it is the only Common album that I never purchased.  That is not an indictment of Common, but instead it is a reflection of where I was in life - a Midwestern teen attending college on the East Coast. Common's delivery sounded similar to East Coast rappers Das EFX and much like the Detroit-based rappers AWOL (who rapped "your wiggity wow wiggity wow is bullshit to me"), I was defiant in my refusal to embrace any wiggity wiggity rhymes.


My friend, Jay, didn't share my disdain for wiggity rhymes.  In fact, his repetitive playing of Soul By The Pound caused me to make an exception to my position.  I never grew to like that type of rhyming, but I began to think Common Sense (as he was known then) might be alright.  Plus, with him being from Chicago, I was willing to have some Midwestern love for him.  I wasn't quite a fan at this point, but I had heard enough to set the stage for what would come next.  Whereas Stevie's Music of My Mind set him apart from other R&B artists, the fact that a rapper from the Midwest had a national album release and video on Rap City planted the seeds of Common's uniqueness for me.


Resurrection & Talking Book


The stepfather of my friend, John (JV), had the most organized record collection I had ever seen. Albums were organized by genre, alphabetized, and in plastic sleeves.  As a child, I handled my parent's records with care because I did not want to get into trouble.  But it was through the organization of Wendell's collection that I began to see albums as works of art.  It was through this collection that I came across Talking Book. Now my parents had the album, but as I sat on the couch waiting for JV that day, I paid more attention to the cover art and lyrics on the inside.  I also played the album.  Within a few days, I knew the whole album by heart.  I was an enthusiastic convert to the religion of Stevie-Wonderdom. The despair conveyed on Blame It On The Sun resonated in my soul. But that wasn't the album's biggest hit. The most popular song was Superstition, one of the most iconic songs in American history.


Much like my experience of finally listening to Stevie, I was in a circumstance where I was forced to listen to Common.  I was in the car with my friends, Brian and Rashad, and Brian played I Used To Love H.E.R. and it changed my life! I haven't been the same since.  I purchased the cassette and listened to the song well over thousand times in one summer. In fact, this was the begining of my problem of really enjoying the first few tracks of an album and not listening to the rest of the album. I think I had the tape for years before I listened to it in it's entirety.  While the opening track, Resurrection, was a good song, I Used to Love H.E.R. is one of the most transcendent hip hop songs of all time.  Like Talking Book, Resurrection is a really good album made historic because it contains a genre-defining, otherworldly hit.


One Day It'll All Make Sense & Fulfillingness First Finale



Some would think that the only thing these albums have in common are their multi-syllablled titles.  Yet, I believe they share another similarlity.  Look at it this way - if Stevie or Common had not recorded any previous or subsequent work, then both of these albums would be more highly acclaimed.  In Stevie's case, Fulfillingness First Finale is highly celebrated; yet among his acclaimed classic albums (Innervisions immediately preceeded this album and was not included in this post), it is the Andrew Bogut of the classic five - the misperceived least important component of a championship starting five. Nevertheless, Boogie On Reggae Woman is one of those songs I "knew" as a child but didn't really understand until I was a man.  The same could be said for Creepin'.


Continuing with the notion that in a vacuum, these albums would be more highly celebrated but because they were sandwiched between Stevie's and Common's more acclaimed work, these albums aren't as celebrated as much as they should be.  In Common's case, his most memorable song was released before this album and his next album, well, I will get to that soon.  As much as I enjoyed this album, I felt like I was driving a sports car attempting to shift it into a higher gear it didn't have.  Again, if One Day ... was Common's only album, this post would be about how slept on he was.  G.O.D. was almost like the thoughts I had during that season of life were recorded by two of my favorite artists (Cee-Lo joins Com on this track). Not only was I wrestling with the limitations of religious practices I experienced as a child, I was also experiencing a full dosage of love relationship challenges.  I suppose those challenges (learning how to manage one's admiration, love, and lust) are a part of becoming an adult.  While Retrospect for Life carries a prominent anti-abortion message, for me it was the background / theme music for learning how to conduct myself with women as a responisible man.  The melancholic uncertainty regarding long-term dating during that season of my life matched the undertone of the track.  It was in this season that Common evolved from a promising hip hop artist into a legitmate voice within the artform.  Common's legitimacy is established and Stevie's is cemented.  I know because their music began to "creep into my dreams."


Check back soon for Part 2.

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