Pt. 4

This series is co-authored and researched by Editor-in-Chief Bobby Rone, and Managing Editor Bayo Fasipe

Modern Classics: Who’s Come Close to Stevie’s Brilliance?

Even while Stevie was in the midst of his classic period, he was still hugely influential, and would end up inspiring the sound of many artists throughout the rest of the 20th century. The Isley Brothers, for example, were inspired enough by Stevie’s sound to contact Malcolm Cecil and ask to use the TONTO synthesizer on their upcoming album, the eventual classic 3+3 . The TONTO synth sound spread directly to other admirers like Gil Scott-Heron, Quincy Jones1, and Weather Report. As Stevie worked into the 80s, he also collaborated with artists like Michael Jackson (“I Can’t Help It” was originally supposed to be on Songs in the Key of Life) and Elton John, gently steering younger contemporaries into a new era of pop music.

In addition to rubbing off on his contemporaries, Stevie’s work guided his musical offspring as well. Stevie remained influential in the 90s and early aughts; R&B artists like Jamiroquai (they had a song called “Music of My Mind”!) and D’Angelo (he played the same organ Stevie used for Talking Book on Voodoo) constantly nodded to his musical influence. and Stevie was heavily sampled by a generation of hip-hop and neo-soul artists; Questlove has gone so far as to argue that Stevie may have helped start the sampling revolution. The 2010s saw a return to 70s aesthetics; in nowhere was that more apparent than the retrofunkalia of many alternative black artists, who cited Stevie’s guiding influence. Janelle Monae consulted with Stevie on Dirty Computer (and featured him on “Stevie’s Dream”); Solange cited Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants as a major influence on When I Get Home;  Tyler, the Creator wrote “Boredom” to the chords of Stevie’s “God Bless the Child” cover. 

While Stevie’s lyrical content and musical style have become source material for countless projects, the one thing that has remained nearly inimitable from his Classic Period, in a meta way, is the Classic Period itself–in many ways, Stevie invented the modern Classic Period.  To put out eight albums in 10 years is daunting; for nearly all of those albums to be among the greatest ever is superhuman. It’s telling that many of the historical creative runs since Stevie’s (ex. Michael Jackson, Kanye West) have been followed by periods of exhaustion that play out as public breakdowns. So, while sustaining a Wonder-esque level of creativity and musicality for a decade is next-to-impossible, it’s worth celebrating and looking at the musicians who have tried and come close. The DXCEGAME staff felt like it would be best to close out this series by discussing the artists who we feel have most encapsulated the excitement and innovation of Stevie’s classic years, as the music that has emerged from these mini-Classic Periods has been some of the best of the past 50 years. 

To make the list, we thought of our favorite artists and musicians since Stevie’s run, then narrowed them down based on their similarities to what we considered to be the essential aspects of Wonder’s classic period: critical acclaim, musical innovation, both in a holistic sense and record-to-record, progressive sense, influence following generations, and the length of their sustained accomplishments. 

As we wrote our list, we found that our suggestions were dominated by men. This is due partly to our own bias, but also due to systemic factors within the music industry that limit female artists from having a Stevie-esque run. Female black popstars, moreso than women working in any other genre, face aesthetic and musical constraints that have traditionally limited their creative freedom. Furthermore, even when that creativity can be expressed, those aesthetic and musical boundaries define how the music is marketed, making it difficult to cross gendered audiences. This causes misogynistic and male-dominated criticism, patriarchal gatekeeping that results in a male-skewed definition of musical genius. As far as Stevie’s ability to find innovative collaborators, that too can be difficult in an industry that protects and enables abusers. DXCEGAME as a publication will continue to try and recognize and challenge our own biases and bring further recognition to femmes and underrecognized artists. 

Honorable Mentions: Erykah Badu; Aaliyah; Outkast; Tyler, the Creator


Classic Period: 


Projects from the Period: 

Prince (1979); Controversy (1980); 1999(1982); Purple Rain (1985); Parade (1986); Sign O’ The Times (1987)

Why It’s Close: 

It’s Prince. I mean, it’s fucking Prince dude. 

For our money, he is the greatest American musician ever —a disciple of Stevie Wonder, and a true virtuoso. His entire career is a classic period, but his output in the 1980s was otherworldly. He was the most interesting thing happening in a decade that saw Michael Jackson become bigger than Jesus, Reagan and the USSR combined, the proliferation of synthesized music, the beginning of hip-hop, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. His self titled debut and Controversy both showcased unparalleled, precocious talent as a songwriter and instrumentalist, culminating in the unbelievable highs of 1999, Purple Rain and, quietly the most essential record of the 80s, Sign O’ The TImes. Borrowing from jazz, blues, funk, house, techno, psychedelia and eventually hip-hop, he made some of the most essential pop music ever, and laid the foundation of the next 40 years of sonic innovation, just as Stevie concocted his singular, diasporic style by bridging Black past and present to create Black future.

 The Purple One is classic, personified. 


Classic Period: 


Projects from the Period: 

People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm; The Low End Theory (1991); Midnight Marauders (1993); Beats, Rhymes and Life

Why It’s Close: 

Unlike Stevie, Tribe emerged as the vanguard of a new genre, and thus started their classic run with their very first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Like Stevie, their early classic work was defined by technical innovation. Many of the intricate layered beats on the album had been made with pause tapes–a process by which Q-Tip would loop samples using a dual cassette player. On their next two albums, The Low End Theory and Midnight Mauraders, they further developed sampling techniques by layering drum samples and their own beats, as well as by working with engineer Bob Power, who would find new ways to EQ and clarify samples, particularly the bass section (hence The Low End Theory’s name). Tribe exhibited further similarities to Stevie in their groundbreaking thematic content. Eschewing the hardness of gangsta rap and its funk samples, they instead opted for the mysteriousness of  jazz-centric samples and lyrical themes ranging from pager uses to coastal beef to record industry problems.

Of course, another similarity between the two has been the influence of their classic period. As pioneers of the alt-rap/lo-fi genre, many of the biggest and most innovative acts from the early aughts cited them as a direct influence, from OutKast to Kanye to Pharell. It is perhaps due to this that their best work still endures beyond them–like Stevie’s classic work,  Tribe at their best remains a barometer by which to measure other rap albums for their musicality, lyricism, and influence. 

Missy Elliott

Classic Period:


Projects from the Period:

Supa Dupa Fly; Da Real World; Miss E…So Addictive; Under Construction; This Is Not a Test!; The Cookbook

Why It’s Close:

From her first project, Missy Elliott exuded the creativity and work ethic that started Stevie’s run. Finding a fellow producer to realize her visions in Timbaland, she simply wouldn’t leave the studio. After one week, they created Supa Dupa Fly, fusing original production, electronic samples, R&B, and everything in between into a singular Afrofuturistic adventure. Lyrically, she refused to fit into any boxes either, owning her sexuality just as unabashedly as any male rapper, while still being vulnerable enough to share love’s emotional ups and downs.  Da Real World continued Missy’s creative and commercial streak. Despite sophomore slump fears extending the recording process (two months), Da Real World also debuted in the Top 10. Miss E…So Addictive extended the run, spawning “Get Ur Freak On” and debuting at #2. Missy switched focus to classic hip-hop samples for 2002’s Under Construction, which debuted at #3, sold 2 million units, was nominated for Best Album, and gave us “Work It”. Under label pressure to capitalize on the success, she followed up with This Is Not A Test!, which, while doing fine, was nowhere near as successful as Under Construction. She waited until 2005 to drop The Cookbook, a return to form that debuted at #2 and gave Missy five Grammy nominations for the year. 

In terms of influence, it’s difficult to overstate Missy’s impact. Like Stevie, the unique sound that she mastered made her an extremely sought-after artist, with the likes of Aaliyah, Ciara, Mariah Carey, Monica and more seeking her out. Her prolific output – 6 albums in 8 years–(thankfully) became ubiquitous in both the early aughts club scene and the soundtracks of a million dance movies. Perhaps more importantly, though, was her music video work. From her debut, she strived to make her videos as captivating and genre-defying as her music, resulting in far-left visual treatments that are still ahead of their time. Her work continues to encourage black artists to be their weirdest selves and defy the racialized and gendered norms that have come to define hip-hop.

Lil Wayne

Classic Period:


Projects from the Period:

 Like Father Like Son(2005); Tha Carter II (2005); Da Drought 1-3 (2006-2008); Dedication 1-3 (2006-2008); Tha Carter III (2009); No Ceilings (2009)

Why It’s Close: 

Lil Wayne’s career trajectory mirrors that of Stevie Wonder to an alarming degree. Both were child stars, turning out contemporary pop hits for factory-like labels —there’s a compelling argument that Cash Money is hip-hop’s Motown3. Both rose to the top of their dense rosters and became established stars in young adulthood. Both were prolific, prodigious and acclaimed superstars in their mid 20s. Both had their money played with, constantly.

Tha Carter II, oft considered top two in Weezy’s discography, marked a paradigm shift that had been long brewing as Wayne and his peers mastered the mixtape, redefining it for commercial and critical success. Though he only has 3 studio albums in this time span —C2, Like Father Like Son (with…. estranged father stand-in(?) Birdman), and the bow on top, Tha Carter III— his overall musical output personified and set the standard of the mixtape era. The Da Drought and Dedication series turned mixtape collective Gangsta Grillz into the (collective) Dr. Dre of Bush’s second term. Not only was Wayne rapping circles around the competition —frequently over their own beats— he was reinventing the structure of the music industry and the process of how audiences consume music. The content was transformative too; No Ceilings is commonly cited as a formative record by the likes of Chief Keef and Lil Uzi. Top five and he’s not five; the Kobe Bryant of rap, in more ways than one. 

Kanye West

Classic Period: 


Projects from the Period: 

Graduation (2007); 808s & Heartbreaks (2008); My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010); Watch the Throne (with Jay-Z) (2011), Yeezus (2013); The Life of Pablo (2016)

Why It’s Close: 

Kanye, on paper, had the most sustained, consistent classic run of the 21st Century. While there is a sound argument that his classic period begins at debut, Kanye became truly singular with his third effort, Graduation. With that project, Kanye created the rap analog to Stevie’s breakthrough with Talking Book, with space age synths and Dilla 2.0 approaches to sampling and drum programming. Graduation felt like the first true art-rap project, serving as a prototype for the styles developed by Drake, Odd Future, Young Thug, and Future. 

Kanye followed Graduation with the more influential follow-up 808s & Heartbreak. 808s redefined popular music entirely, resurrecting Roland TR-808 synth sounds and introducing electronic staples to the pop soundscape. Those accomplishments alone pale in comparison to what it did for Autotune. 808s made the tool commonplace, driving (arguably) the most important invention in modern music history to the forefront of the industry. Then Kanye berated a white woman at the MTV Awards and went to Hawaii for a year3. This resulted in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. So much has been written on it, I’m not going to waste time.  

Yeezus is bar none Kanye’s most daring, singular work. It’s implementation of industrial and electronic sounds stripped the polish from 808s, resulting in a grimey, angry, screeching thirty minute album that music is still catching up to. Initially dividing fans upon release, it has comfortably achieved near universal critical acclaim.

The final record of Kanye’s classic period is The Life of Pablo, a fascinating combination of the experimentation of Yeezus and the gospel flavors of his first two records. Like 2016 as a whole, the album is both the best of times and the worst of times, full of traditional (and unconventional) melodies, career making (and breaking) features, and some of Kanye’s best (and worst) songwriting. Like Songs in the Key of Life, it is defined by his ascension into fatherhood and a renewed spirituality, but the most fascinating comparison is Pablo’s seemingly endless construction5. Even following the project’s release, Kanye continuously added backing vocals, features and entire tracks (see “Frank’s Track” and “Saint Pablo”).  The album is also responsible for the now infamous tweet: “Ima fix wolves.”  He did, for the record. 


Classic Period: 


Projects from the Period: 

4; Self-Titled; Lemonade; Everything Is Love (with Jay-Z); Homecoming

Why It’s Close:

If not limited by misogyny and general dismissal of popular female R&B, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter would have long been considered a Wonder, Ross, or Franklin-level figure. The immediate Stevie parallel is that of the child prodigy that matures in the public eye, breaking free from the system and challenging norms. Considering her outsized presence within Destiny’s Child, and her solo career, Beyoncé is batting like. 750 (with the exception of the memorable, but subpar I Am…Sasha Fierce). The projects in the buildup to her classic period showed consistent dynamism, improvement and furthered experimentation. She quickly asserted herself at the top of her field, but never received the mainstream praise she deserved. 

Popular music criticism during her rise in the aughts neglected pop music at best, and condescended it at worst. As she entered her experimental phase (beginning with 2011’s introspective, Stevie-inspired, baroque force of a project, 4, through her now mythical run with audio-visual projects Beyoncê, Lemonade, Everything is Love and Homecoming) Yoncé finally achieved the widespread recognition at this point denied to her. The advent of  social media (a critical part of the public movement to give Yoncé her flowers by way of the Beyhive) plus the egalitarian journalism of the blog era coalesced into a more democratized economy of criticism and community-defined value. This movement, in tandem with a continued racial and cultural reckoning throughout America, forced the lily-white critics and ivory towers of culture to join Black America in celebrating Beyoncé’s singular work ethic, showmanship and growth.

Beyond that, Beyoncé and Stevie share so much more: they both redefined celebrity and shifted the power dynamic between artist and industry, destroyed standards of promotion and creation, found the balance between collaboration and individual brilliance, and became personifications of Black and popular culture. Like Stevie, Beyoncé turns heads, ears and eyes with just one name, as that one name represents a figure bigger than music itself. 

Frank Ocean

Credit: Getty

Classic Period: 


Projects from the Period: 

Nostalgia, Ultra; Channel Orange; Endless; Blonde

Why It’s Close: 

Frank Ocean’s inclusion on this list is somewhat controversial, given that his output has been the most limited of any artist on the list–arguably, his classic period is still running. However, there are striking similarities to Stevie worth exploring. 

First is the stylistic influence. As we mentioned, Stevie samples appear throughout Frank’s work. Like Stevie Wonder, Frank Ocean developed a singular, nearly inimitable style, built on simply yet intricate arrangements, keys, and guitars. The influence of this experimental R&B style on his contemporaries was immediate: Nostalgia, ULTRA (as well as Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dreams and The Weeknd’s House of Balloons)–launched a 2010s soul/funk revival, inspiring a generation of post-R&B acts including The Internet, Daniel Caesar4, SZA, and countless more. Blonde’s one-minute-masterpiece, ‘Close To You,’ is a cover of  a Stevie Wonder (covering The Carpenter’s original) version of the song using a talkbox. Ocean’s penchant for the Fender Rhodes piano and melodic minimalism is the best channeling of the essence of Stevie in popular music today. 

Quite possibly the most important commonality between Frank Ocean and Stevie Wonder has been the way that they have leveraged record labels and predatory contracts to gain financial and creative freedom. Frank Ocean signed a lengthy, exploitative contract with Def Jam, similar to Stevie Wonder’s Motown deal at the beginning of the 70s. However, rather than re-upping with Def Jam, Frank Ocean famously exited the relationship with a bold power play, creating leverage through artistry, mirroring Stevie’s contract restructuring by threatening to leave Motown5.

While many artists weren’t able to replicate this level of success, the moment marked a new level of independence for artists, signaling that, thanks to the rise of streaming, they now had the opportunity to release music more directly to the masses without as much need for traditional label distribution. 

Earl Sweatshirt

Classic Period: 2010-Present

Projects from the Period: Earl; Doris; I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; Solace; Some Rap Songs; Feet of Clay

A particular part of Earl’s journey that seems similar to Stevie’s is his journey into adulthood, particularly the difficulty of that journey in the public eye. Starting out with Earl, and following it up with Doris, Earl Sweatshirt has been receiving comparisons to rappers like MF DOOM, Nas, and Eminem since 16, and the expectation was that Earl would always be a technical lyricist in their vein. However, by his own admission, he didn’t even feel like he sounded like himself on his first two projects. Yet despite his growth, there are fans and critics that still clamor for the “old Earl”, whomever that may be. Similarly, Stevie never managed to live down the impact of Songs in the Key of Life. It seems like a key difficulty in making transformational music is that it binds you to everyone else’s transformation; the artists must balance being the repository for everyone else’s nostalgia while also nurturing their own growth and growth for their listeners. 

Another similarity between the two artists is the natural political progression of their music. As Stevie got older, he also began making more music speaking about politics, especially as Motown allowed their artists more political freedom. The songs were so poignant then–and still are today–because they don’t sound preachy or forced, but rather real reflections on the black experience. Earl Sweatshirt embarked on a similar trajectory. While his first two albums stand out for shock value, technical prowess, and introspection, Some Rap Songs finds Earl connecting more to themes outside of himself, referencing the current political moment, historical anti-blackness, misogynoir, and more. He takes further stock of his surroundings on Feet of Clay; in a statement, he described the EP as “a collection of observations and feelings recorded during the death throes of a crumbling empire”.  These songs resonate for what they are not: they aren’t gimmicks, they aren’t preachy, they’re just Earl speaking about what we’re all going through. Like Stevie, that seems to be a talent that he’s only honing in on: finding ways to be most universal by being most himself. 


Classic Period:


Projects from the Period: 

Honest; Monster; Beast Mode; 56 Nights; DS2; What a Time to Be Alive; Purple Reign; Future/Hndrxx

Why It’s Close: 

Like Stevie, Future started out as a “pop star,” making mainstream, traditional rap up through his debut, Pluto. Furthermore, his classic run, starting with sophomore effort Honest, was also marked by the search for a new sound–but rather than being marked by TONTO synths, Future’s run was defined by the woozy production (and iconic tags) of Metro Boomin and Southside, who, between them, executive produced Monster, 56 Nights, DS2, and What a Time to Be Alive. Future’s experimentation on his classic run didn’t stop there–he also began incorporating bluesy, raspy crooning into the music, and began openly discussing the dark depths of his nature (he is a Scorpio!7)–chiefly, his shameless cheating and inability to maintain relationships, and his untreated addiction to prescription medication. 

Perhaps most importantly, the genius and impact of Future’s run was palpable as it was happening. While I wasn’t there for Stevie’s run, when I picture it, I imagine “Superstition” had much the same effect for Stevie fans (like a young Barack Obama) as “March Madness” did for me. Future would release six (6!!!) contemporary classic projects in 2 years, each building on each other so cohesively and rapidly that they demanded critical and commercial attention. Suddenly, Pitchfork began to view trap music as art, naming DS2 and Soundcloud-exclusive single “News or Something” Best New Album and Song, respectively.

While the two are also similar in terms of impact, they differ perhaps most in the way they impacted the mainstream. Stevie’s classic period focused on reminding audiences of the hope in life through music–elements that other artists would channel through their usage of Stevie-esque synths and similar lyrical themes. Future, on the other hand, married production and lyrics into a style so nihilistic, hopeless, and head-turning that other artists had to mimic, leaving a trail of acolytes ranging from Desiigner to Beyonce. Future ultimately brought rap into its psychedelic phase; he’s Future Hendrix for a reason. 


Classic Period:


Projects from the Period:

A Seat at the Table; When I Get Home

One of the most difficult parts of Stevie’s transformation was escaping the shadow of the legendary Motown artists like Marvin Gaye that were already well-established. And when it comes to escaping shadows, there is perhaps no one on our list more familiar than Solange. The younger sister to Beyonce, she nonetheless started out as a talented child star in her own right, singing the still-slapping “Proud Family Theme Song” and dropping her debut, Solo Star, with production from Timbaland and the Neptunes. However, she was dissatisfied with the amount of creative freedom she received and continued to branch into her own, dropping throwback album Sol-Angel in 2008. But her biggest breakthrough, much like Stevie’s Talking Book, came with A Seat at the Table: a lush, synth-heavy, re-introduction that combined life events, her impressionistic art, her political expression, and pop structures to create a genre-defying # 1. She followed up on her success in 2019 with When I Get Home, a Stevie-inspired, even more abstract tome that emphasized themes of black womanhood, love, and cultural identity. By embracing her own art and shunning the shackles of pop expectation, she has escaped the shadow of any sibling to be a world-stopper in her own right. 

  1. Yes, the same messy-ass Quincy Jones who said Marlon Brando was fucking James Baldwin, Richard Pryor, and Marvin Gaye. He also said he bought heroin from Malcolm X. He also said Michael Jackson stole a lot of Thriller from other artists, but that’s not a discussion for this article. Also, it’s worth noting that 2Pac once said Qunicy Jones needed to “stop fucking so many white women and having all them fucked up ass kids”. Tupac later began dating Kidada Jones, Quincy’s fourth child. 
  2. “Bad,” the lead single from the 1987 album of the same name, was meant to be a duet with Prince, but because he had been fucking the game up for the last five years (in the time it took Mike to follow up Thriller, Prince released 1999, Purple Rain, Parade and Sign O’ The Times), they formed something of a proto-rap-beef, and the collab was scrapped.
  3. Many call this one of the lowest points of Kanye’s career. Other honorable (or dishonorable?)  mentions include being called a #FingersInTheBootyAssBitch by Amber Rose and saying slavery was a choice. EDIT This list now also includes saying he was going to go ‘DEATHCON 3’ on all Jews. DXCEGAME does not support or condone Kanye West’s actions.
  4. Daniel Caesar once drunkenly defended a white influencer named YesJulz because she wanted to wear a t-shirt saying “Niggas lie a lot” (although it’s true, niggas do lie a lot). According to Pusha T, LeBron and D-Wade allegedly both had affairs with YesJulz, but most of the evidence of his statement cannot be found on the Internet, possibly scrubbed by Rich Paul.
  5. Acutely aware of the labor theory of value, Ocean flexed his artistic muscles,  delivering his final contractually obligated record, Endless, via a three-day video of himself building a staircase. He then used the Endless’ advance to buy back his masters, while subsequently inking an exclusive deal with Apple Music for the streaming rights to Blonde, courtesy of his own newly formed label, Boys Don’t Cry, the next day. 
  6. Stevie Wonder is a Taurus. He alluded to this in 1974 when he worked with Minnie Riperton on Perfect Angel; because his contract didn’t allow him to work with artists outside of Motown, he produced the album under the pseudonym El Toro Negro.

Read Part 3 of our Stevie Wonder series here.

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