16 June 2024

The 1990s - One of Stevie Wonder's Best Artistic Decades

Stevie Wonder got his start in the music industry in 1961, when he signed a record contract at 11 years old.  Most child stars (regardless of what field of entertainment they're in) do not transition into adult success.  So the executives at Motown were not banking on Stevie being around for long.  In fact, they intended to drop him once his voiced changed at puberty.  But instead, he managed to buck the trend and firmly establish himself as a viable music star during his teenage years, i.e. the 1960s.

The next decade was even more monumental for Wonder.  He won a slew of Grammy Awards, of historical proportions, during the 1970s.  Between 1974 and 1977, Stevie took home 13 Grammys.  As such, the albums which mark those achievements - Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness' Final Finale (1974) and Songs in the Keys of Life (1976) - are said to represent the "classic era" of his career.

But the 1980s are considered by many to be his signature decade.  Wonder wasn't winning Grammys like before, but many of his most-memorable songs came out during this time.  For instance, it was in 1984 that the biggest single in Wonder's discography, I Just Called to Say I Love You, was released.  That decade also bore witness to the dropping of Happy Birthday in 1981, as well as the hit collaborative singles That's What Friends Are For and We Are the World in 1985.  It was during the 1980s that he became more of an international star than he was before.

As for the 1990s, relatively speaking it's a forgotten era in his music career.  By the time that decade rolled around, Stevie was a 30-year industry vet who had broken the age of 40.  In other words, he was now more of an old school, classic artist.  And that's besides the fact that he had kept his lyrical content pure, like a parent so to speak.  Concurrently, gangsta rap was taking off, and so was more salacious styles of R&B.  So the days of Wonder being a trending artist were long gone.

But the funny thing about it is that musically, the 1990s was one of his best decades.  He may have dropped or participated on some legendary singles during the 1980s, but the albums he released back then - Hotter Than July (1980), The Woman in Red (1984), In Square Circle (1985) and Characters (1987) - are quite forgettable.

The same cannot be said for the 1990s.  Conversation Peace and Natural Wonder are two of his best works.  At the start of the decade, Stevie held down the soundtrack to Jungle Fever.  And of course, we can't forget Gangsta's Paradise (1995), which indirectly became the biggest hit Wonder ever participated on.  Before the decade ended he won five Grammys (as opposed to two in the 1980s).  And in 2000, prior to the century fully turning over, Stevie contributed a couple of noteworthy songs to the Bamboozled soundtrack.


The soundtrack to Spike Lee's Jungle Fever was helmed by Stevie Wonder.  It wasn't a big hit, nor does it represent one of Wonder's better albums.  This project may be considered sort of a holdover from the 1980s.  For instance, as with every album Stevie dropped during the '80s, Jungle Fever also reached number one on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.  But it didn't achieve much else, besides also going Gold in the US.  However, it does feature one of Stevie's best universal-love songs in These Three Words.


Conversation Peace is one of Stevie's finest works and perhaps the closest he has ever come to dropping a concept album.  There are songs about different topics, including romance, on its playlist.  But the project overall revolves around a central theme of peace.

Conversation Peace came out in 1995, as the world was approaching the new millennium.  And again, by this point African-American music had begun to lose most of its moral boundaries.  But here was Stevie stressing the importance love and peace, not only on an interpersonal but also international level.  And it becomes increasingly clear, when looking at the state of the world even today, that his message was more pertinent than that of his peers.

Conversation Peace didn't sell particurlarly well, nor did it win any major awards itself.  Its most-notable achievement as an entire work is breaking the top 10 of the UK Albums Chart and Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums list.  But unlike the projects Stevie dropped in the 1980s, this album is an enjoyable listen from beginning to end.  It also features one of Wonder's best love songs (Taboo to Love), as well as one of his most-uplifting tracks (I'm New). 

There's also For Your Love, the lead single from the album, which arguably represents Stevie's most-memorable music video.  That song won a couple of Grammys (Best R&B Song and Best R&B Male Vocal Performance) in 1996, which is something I didn't realize until now doing this research.

If I were to recommend a Stevie Wonder album to someone who never heard any in their life, I would start off with Conversation Peace.  Not only has it aged well, but it's also a solid listen, replete with timeless and pertinent messages.


Stevie Wonder only released two albums during the 1990s, and both were in 1995.  Wonder regularly staged live performances during the 20th century.  But interestingly, Natural Wonder is the first live album he dropped since 1970.  And all things considered, it may be his last also.

When this album was released, it sorta flew under the radar.  I remember at the time I was in college and went to the nearby mall to purchase a copy.  When I brought it back to the university, hot off the press, one of my mentors, an administrator who was also a Stevie fan, took it from me.  So I ended up copping Natural Wonder twice.

It's arguably Stevie's best album vocally.  It's a live project and furthermore a double album, so I'm saying that his vocals are absolutely perfect throughout.  But you can tell Stevie and his people were really prepared for those performances.

That said, the most-notable aspect of Natural Wonder is that it is in fact live.  So even when Stevie is laying down classics that his fans are well familiar with, he's able to do so using improvisation or different styles.  There are some tracks on the album, like the closer, Another Star, which are actually carried by the instrumentals, with Stevie being backed by an orchestra.

There are innumerable Stevie Wonder compilation albums out there.  Natural Wonder is not technically one of them, but it does feature a better mix of the various songs in his discography than any of Stevie's other projects that I've come across.


All things considered, Gangsta's Paradise is actually the most successful single, by far, in Stevie's entire catalog.  This isn't one of his tracks, rather being rendered by the late West Coast rapper Coolio (1963-2022).  But its sound relies very, very heavily on Pastime Paradise, a song Stevie dropped in 1976.  That tune can also be found on Natural Wonder, which came out a couple of months after Gangsta's Paradise.

Gangsta's Paradise was, according to some rankings (including the Billboard Hot 100), the top song of 1995.  It won a Grammy, Best Rap Solo Performance, which went directly to Coolio.

Coolio also named his second album Gangsta's Paradise.  His debut project, It Takes a Thief, came out in 1994.  From that album, he scored a notable hit with Fantastic Voyage, a song which benefited from the subsequent success of Gangsta's Paradise.  In other words, it was the latter that really put Coolio on the map.  In fact, it can be argued that he was akin to a one-hit wonder, who more or less owed his overall career success to Stevie Wonder.


The soundtrack to the movie Bamboozled wasn't released during the 1990s.  But in context, I feel that it's worthy mention in terms of how Stevie closed out that decade musically.  He didn't helm this soundtrack but did contribute a couple of songs, Misrepresented People and Some Years Ago, which are overlooked entries in his discography.  However, the latter track is perhaps the most haunting he's ever released.


Stevie Wonder also earned a bunch of accolades during the 1990s.  For example, he made the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 and won a couple more Grammys in 1999.  In the grand scope of his life and accomplishments, that's likely what the 1990s will be remembered for, the various honors Stevie won - and Gangsta's Paradise.  And if so that's a shame, because two of his very best albums happened to come out in 1995, way past Wonder's musical heyday, so to speak.


For more in-depth information and analysis of Stevie Wonder's life and career, check out my new (ongoing) project, All Things Stevie - The Stevie Wonder Encyclopedia.

04 June 2024

"No Face" by Ghostface Killah ft. Kanye West (2024)


Kanye West, aka "Ye", is one of the most intriguing rappers to study.  Unlike most others, he's established himself as an A-list celebrity well outside the realm of music.  In other words, Yeezy has the tendency to make mainstream headlines even when he isn't dropping songs.  And unlike when most rappers make the news, it's not because he's in trouble with the law.

Kanye also fluctuates between the dark side and the force.  Just a couple of years ago he dropped Donda (2021), the only gospel-esque album ever to feature a bunch of popular gangsta rappers.  But since then, he's most notably participated in Vultures 1 (2024), a project which for instance has a naked woman on its cover.

Circa West's divorce with Kim Kardashian being finalized in 2022, around the time he was publicly making statements against Jews, it felt as if his music career was all but over.  You could tell that he wasn't particularly interested in maintaining the Christian path, that Yeezus wasn't going to transition fully into that genre.  Concurrently, there wasn't as much interest in him on the streets.  Meanwhile, in terms of maintaining his status as a mainstream pop star, he had burned a lot of bridges in criticizing and negatively stereotyping the Jewish community, amongst other acts.

But surprisingly, Vultures 1 was a major hit, at least in terms of chart success.  It's a collaborative album between Kanye and Ty Dolla $ign.  Ty isn't that much younger than Ye, but he is associated with a younger and therefore trendier generation of rappers.  And you'd have to presume that reality at least contributed to the project being so well-received (on streaming services) when it was dropped.

The reason I'm bringing this all up is because recently, the ever-outspoken Charlemagne Tha God went on a couple of tirades against Kanye.  Euphemistically interpreted, he argued that Ye isn't nearly as poppin' musically as he once was.

As an example, Charlemagne pointed out the fact that West recently dropped a remix of Like That (2024), a hit song that Kendrick Lamar and co. originally put out in March.  Yeezy further used that opportunity to diss his longtime, equally-popular rival Drake.  But said remix didn't generate much buzz.  So Charlemagne was like, if this were 10 years ago and Ye dissed Drake, the music world would have been abuzz instead of ignoring the track.  Or put otherwise, West has fallen off.

In Kanye's defense and what Charlemagne should have acknowledged when making those statements is that no musician stays hot forever.  I talk a lot about older rappers in this blog, of which West can be considered, since he became professionally active in the '90s.  He's actually one of the wiser ones, because the careers of famous musicians inevitably reach a point where the only way they can only maintain A-list recognition is by their personal lives being newsworthy.  It's that type of recognition that has prolonged the relevancy of West's music career.  I'm sure there's a lot of older rappers who wouldn't mind hopping on a track with Future and Metro Boomin.  But unless they enjoy a Yeezus level of fame, they're not likely to be granted the opportunity.

Dropping songs with rappers who are from a younger generation is a risky endeavor.  Rap is an art form whereas participants tend to perform to the level of their collaborators.  So if the person on the track with you is more sophisticated, you know to also bring your A game.  But if the collaborators are noticeably younger, then you have may have to turn things down a degree or two, potentially appearing retrogressive or immature in the process.  And that seems to be the issue with the music Kanye has been putting out of late.  It's as if lyrically, he's intentionally made himself less intelligent in order to appeal to a generation that's young enough to be his offspring.

No Face, the second single from Ghostface album Set the Tone (Guns & Roses) (2024),
was released as a single (with the above cover art) on 31 May 2024.

That's why I was elated to hear that he came out with a track alongside Ghostface Killah.  Ghostface, as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, is not only a pioneer of the type of 1990s' rap that spawned artists like Kanye, but the Wu itself is known to take lyricism very seriously.  No Face would be akin to Ye teaming up with someone he undoubtedly looked up to, considering how hot the Clan was in their heyday, well before West's career took off.


The Wu-Tang Clan is another interesting study.  Looking at them now, it's hard to believe that there was a time when they were arguably the most-popular act in rap.

I have a number of theories as to why their era at the top was so short-lived.  For starters, to Wu became too proud of their success.  They were also too inclusive and didn't realize the value of collaborations until it was too late.  They didn't properly invest in their younger stars, in anticipation that the torch would eventually and inevitably have to be passed.  The Wu alienated a lot of their fanbase by presenting themselves along the lines of revolutionaries and then, after 9/11, taking more of a patriotic stance.  And of course there was the death of Ol' Dirty Bastard, one of the most-unique artists the genre has ever produced.

The Wu-Tang Clan recently experienced a resurgence in popularity due to being the subject of a well-received BET biopic series.  But musically, they lost their relevancy a long time ago.

The one member of the Clan who seems to have bucked that trend more effectively than the others is Ghostface.  It may no longer be a situation, as with the '90s, where people are rushing out to buy his albums.  But Ghost has managed to consistently drop projects throughout the decades - from his debut solo outing, 1996's Ironman, up until Set the Tone (Guns & Roses), which just came out last month.  Besides that, his proficiency as an emcee remains recognized by fans.  So there are high expectations, at least from individuals such as myself, in terms of this collaboration with Ye.

That said, this isn't the first time the rappers have teamed up.  Back on 2006's More Fish, Ghost featured Ye  on the remix of his song Back Like That.  Then in 2012 the two of them, along with Pusha T, released New God Flow.1, from Kanye West Presents: Good Music - Cruel Summer.


From the onset, it's established that this isn't a conventional mainstream rap per se.  We are met with a rapper, Ghostface, who isn't priding himself on his toughness or wealth but rather the fact that he has "soul".  In that regard, he references popular African-American media of the 1970s, such as the TV shows "Good Times and What's Happening", as well as the musical group, the Jackson 5.  Ghost also shouts out one "Zion Zamir", but it's not clear at this time who he's referring to.

His lyrics are more in tune with genre standards by the time the first verse rolls around, in that Killah starts off the passage by alluding to street beef.  But another thing about the Wu-Tang, especially the likes Ghostface and Raekwon, is their preference to use unorthodox, sometimes hard-to-decipher figurative language.

But the verse isn't that complicated, in terms of ascertaining its main subject, which is Ghost depicting himself as a viable killer.  That has been his persona since day one, going back to the days of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993).  Ghost also hints at his wealth and the concept of major drug dealing, the latter of which is also one of his favorite topics from the 1990s.

As relayed in the chorus, the title of the track also harps back to why he adopted the name "Ghostface".  That's because when Killah strikes in a street assault, like a shooting for instance, he does so with "no face", i.e. without leaving behind any evidence.

West likewise starts off the second verse by alluding to a criminal lifestyle.  But the passage quickly transforms to Yeezy making raunchy statements about women and his sex/romantic life.

Based on the few tracks of his I've looked at post-Donda, those appear to now be his favorite subject matters.  And all things considered, it does make sense.  For instance, there's been rumors circulating that Ye is one the verge of opening his own porn company.  And let's not forget that he often has his current wife, Bianca Censori, out in the public, in full view of photographers, more or less nude.  So we can safely presume that of all the benefits being a celebrity has afforded Ye, what fascinates him the most is access to females.

This track, the seventh on the playlist of Set the Tone, is led by Ghostface.  He dominates the song, and in a way Kanye's contribution is minimal, only constituting a verse, as opposed to Killah being afforded two, as well as the choruses, intro and outro.

As for the third verse, Ghost once again focuses on this storyline of being a stickup kid.  But in this segment, it's more along the lines of insinuating that he was engaged in that lifestyle circa the late-1980s (i..e. the reference to Biz Markie).  So it seems as if what Ghost is trying to say, all lyrics considered, is that he never forsook that line of work.  Instead, being a gangster has proceeded to make him rich.

So this is a dual-subject track, in a manner of speaking.  Ghostface dedicates ample bars to presenting himself as a successful and formidable gunslinger.  But Kanye, even if only briefly within the grand scheme of the song, rather focuses on women.


The instrumental is perhaps the best parts of this track.  Its producers are Backpack and EZ Elpee.  The former is apparently from College Park, a part of Atlanta.  And the latter has been in the game for a minute, having produced the 1995 Junior MAFIA classic, Get Money.

Rap is a genre that relies heavily on instrumentals, and throughout the years, Ghostface has had the privilege of gracing quite a few exceptional ones.  But on this song, it's really Kanye who catches the flow almost flawlessly.

The cover at to Ghostface Killah's 12th studio album,
Set the Tone (Guns & Roses)


Ghostface enlisted a plethora of rappers to guest star on Set the Tone.  The list includes the likes of Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Remy Ma, Busta Rhymes, Nas, AZ, Method Man and of course Raekwon.  Every song on the album has a featured artist, so it's basically a collaborative project.  That's not really surprising.  What is though is that all of the recognizable rappers are from Ghostface's generation, as opposed to a bunch of younger, trendier cats.  

Set the Tone was dropped through Mass Appeal, a label whose roster consists mainly of rappers from the 1990s'.  So with all of that in mind, it doesn't appear to have sold particularly well.  But the album did manage to chart in the UK.

That said, I'm not able to ascertain why it's subtitled "Guns & Roses", which of course is the name of a popular rock band (i.e. Guns N' Roses).


It's easy to conclude that West's verse is the highlight of No Face.  Complex referred to it as "one of Ye's best featured verses in years".  It isn't so outstanding that it'll make you jump out of your seat.  Some portions of it, from an audio standpoint, are unintelligible.  But I was apparently correct in speculating that rapping alongside Ghostface inspired West to step up his game a bit.  So maybe Ghost should've given him two verses instead of one.

28 May 2024

"Black Republican" by Nas ft. Jay-Z (2006)

I had already (ghost)written about Black Republican (2006) a year and a half ago, while working for Song Meanings + Facts.  Since then, I discovered that historically, there was such a thing as a "Black Republican".  So I decided to reexamine the track to see if there was any connection between its lyrics and the historical term "Black Republican".


Nas's debut joint, Illmatic (1993), is the best pure-rap album I ever had the pleasure of listening to.  There's no R&B singing, no gimmicks and only one guest star.  Yet every track manages to keep the listener's attention throughout, which is the most difficult task that rappers, if not musicians in general, are faced with.

I haven't really been much of a Nas fan since.  He suffered from a professional malady that's common to rappers.  That's being a young, hungry artist with an amazing product at the beginning of their career but, once fame and riches are achieved, the impetus to generate quality output falling off.  But that's just my opinion.  I had a homey back in the day who would always argue that musically, Nas could do no wrong.

In any event, I haven't been compelled to listen to any of his albums since 2001's Stillmatic.  By the time that project was dropped, being Nas's fourth studio project, his music career was noticeably trending downwards.  However, the rapper remains a regular recipicient of Grammy nominations, including winning one for Best Rap Album for 2020's King's Disease.


Back during the days of American slavery, African-Americans could not vote.  Technically, most Blacks in the United States weren't even "African-Americans" per se, as it wasn't until 1870 that they became "equal citizens under the law".

That was right after the American Civil War, during a period known as Reconstruction.  That was also when African-Americans were first granted the right to vote.

It wasn't really like now, where voting advocates had to go out of their way to convince African-Americans to exercise that right.  Back then there were some Black people who were reluctant to vote, though apparently out of fear more so than simply not caring.

But by the looks of things, most were eager to participate.  These were people who experienced slavery firsthand and thus were well aware of the dangers associated with political power falling into the wrong hands.  So they knew what time it was.  In fact, African-Americans were so eager to vote during Reconstruction that militant racists committed murders or even massacres to dissuade them from doing so.

A group of prominent "Black Republicans" from the Reconstruction Era.

These days, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and co., i.e. the Democrats, are generally viewed as the political party sympathetic to the Black cause.  But that wasn't the case during Reconstruction.  It was rather the Republicans who embraced the African-American cause in the South, while the Democrats sought to retain White power.  So on one hand, you had "Black Republicans".  And on the other, there was the "Southern Democrats".

To reiterate, being a Black Republican in the South was extremely dangerous.  White vigilantes were still powerful enough to not only systematically intimidate Black voters in general but Black Republicans in particular, including those who were voted into office.


That's an interesting history lesson, but it doesn't appear that the song Black Republican is that deep.  Nas has always been known as an intellectual rapper, and Jay-Z's lyrics have become more profound as he's aged.  But most hip-hop artists don't appear as if they're adept in history.  And most hip-hop fans aren't looking for that type of content anyway.

It becomes more or less clear from the chorus that the homeys aren't referring to a "Black Republican" in the historical sense of the word.  For instance, the typical Black Republican of the Reconstruction era was not rich.  Most of them were akin to slaves who had just been freed after the Civil War.  So it wasn't like they had a bunch of "money... coming in".

Rather, Nas and Jigga refer to themselves that way as an analogy pointing to their wealth within the context of the present-day Republican Party.  Republican Presidents, like Geroge W. Bush and Donald Trump, are known for being from the upper, richer echelons of American society.  But to note, this track was dropped in 2006, before Trump became a Republican.  It also came out a couple of year before Barack Obama, a Democrat and friend of Jay-Z, became US President.

But that said, there obvously isn't anything serious going on in these lyrics, at least not from a political standpoint.  The hook isn't so much about the artists' wealth as it is their commitment to the 'hood.  The rappers set out to prove that even though they have made it, they haven't lost touch with their street roots.

The most-interesting passage is arguably Jay-Z's verse, because he uses the opportunity to poetically expound on a real-life fractured relationship with a close friend.  When I first heard this song back in the day, I thought that he may have been talking about his friendship with Nas.

Remember that at the turn of the century, shortly before this track was released, Jigga and Nas were engaged in a serious rap beef against each other.  Earlier, when I said that Nas's career was losing steam, what helped him gain some much-needed momentum was Ether, his classic diss track aimed at Jay-Z.  That's something I always like to point out when it comes to these rap beefs, which is that they tend to sell songs.

So when Black Republican came out, it was like a surprise release.  This was back in the days before internet usage became as ubiquitous as it is now.  So many of us didn't even know that they had squashed their beef circa the end of 2005.  It was the dropping of Black Republican, their first collaboration, which made that fact known to the world.

But the issue with that theory, believing that the first verse is about the relationship between the two rappers, is Jigga and Nas are from two different parts of NYC and did not grow up slingin' together, as put forth in the lyrics.  Both started their music careers circa the early 1990s.  And I would venture to say that both indirectly benefitted from the death of Tupac, who was a mutual enemy.  But there was never any indication during the 1990s that Jay-Z and Nas were actually friends.

Through the power of Genius, what has rather been concluded is that Jigga is rapping about an old homey of his named DeHaven Irby.  According to the lyrics, this is someone whom he profitably sold drugs with when they were teenagers.  But unfortunately, they were so successful that the likes of wealth and women destroyed their relationship.

Jigga never mentions DeHaven by name, but their former friendship has helped propel Irby into semi-celebrity status.  In other words, even though he and Jay-Z never buried the hatchet, DeHaven proceeded to make a name for himself by talking about their relationship and Sean Carter's pre-fame life.

In one of those interviews, he stated that Jigga has the tendency to 'overexaggerate' when it comes to his drug-dealing past.  That's an interesting observation within the context of Black Republican because, unlike Jigga, Nas isn't necessarily known as a hustler-turned-rapper.  But in his verse, Jones does imply at least once that he's moving weight (i.e. 'slinging pies').

Maybe, if that was in fact the case, Nas was referring to having gotten into the game after he blew up as a musician.  Rap is a genre which celebrates certain forms of criminal activity, including drug dealing.  It's a line of work that's extremely dangerous and therefore, in the eyes of many disenfranchised people, illustrates a willingness to put one's life on the line in hopes of making it big.  So it's pretty well known that most rappers like to come off as if they are or were street-wise criminals.

But Nas has never really been on it like that.  The narco implications aren't as strong in his verse as that of Jay-Z.  Nasir presents himself more as a survivalist and someone who is cognizant of the setbacks of coming up in the ghetto.

The cover art to Hip Hop Is Dead (200d), Nas's eighth-studio album.


What really makes this track outstanding is its instrumental.  The lyrical presentation is exceptional, harping back to the era when Jigga was at his lyrical peak.  But the instrumental is one of those types that only the most-skilled rappers dare approach.

Black Republican is from Nas's 2006 studio album, Hip Hop Is Dead.  The track was co-produced by L.E.S., a musician who had been working with Nasir since Illmatic.  The other producer is Wyldfyer, who was one of the rapper's regular collaborators circa the late-aughts.

The instrumental of Black Republican is highlighted by a sample from The Godfather Part II (1974).  It slaps so hard that when Nas heard it, he knew Jay-Z would be down to jump on the track.


Nas and Jigga went on to collaborate on a few other tracks, though seemingly none as memorable as Black Republican.  The genesis of their previous beef dates back to Nasir failing to show up, as scheduled, to participate on Jay-Z's debut album, Reasonable Doubt (1996).  In more recent times, since 2005 and the subsequent dropping of Black Republican, they have become cool, even if not besties.

For instance, I still believe that Jay-Z may have been referring to Nas on the third verse of Thank You (2009).  By then, Nas had become known more as a rap legend than someone who was still dropping hot tracks.  And that's more or less how he's perceived to this day, besides being a successful businessman, though not on the same level as his fellow "Black Republican".