October 20, 2020
After a 15-year hiatus from making music — aside from a 2016 single featuring Ariana Grande, “Faith” — Stevie Wonder, the legendary Motown artist who helped define and direct American music for decades, has returned to recording with a pair of singles and a perspective album in the works — his first since 2005’s A Time to Love.
After taking a break from music due to health concerns, he reassured fans in a recent interview that his recovery was on track, saying, “Since I have been released from the hospital, the nurses have made sure I’ve taken my medicine on time and I’m going to do it for as long as I have to, even if it is the rest of my life. I feel great. My voice feels great.” And on his latest singles, it sounds great too.
This is not the first time Stevie Wonder, one of the biggest names in the history of modern music, has overcome a medical hurdle. Wonder was born four weeks premature and needed to be kept in an incubator for a month. As a result of receiving too much oxygen in the incubator, Stevie developed retrolental fibroplasia and was rendered permanently blinded. Despite his immeasurable hardship, Wonder grew up optimistic and jovial, showing natural musical talent from a very young age. Not long after learning to speak, he was singing in church choir and playing the bongos and the harmonica. Stevie Wonder was only 11 years old when he was signed to Motown Records.
As documented by Nelson George’s 1985 book, “Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound,” Motown Records was a second home to Wonder. His father divorced his mother and abandoned Wonder at a young age, and as a result, Stevie Wonder’s mentors in the recording studios of Motown didn’t just develop his musical talent; they shaped and guided him as a man.
It is this long and familial relationship with the Michigan-born record label Motown that makes Wonder’s recently revealed departure from the record label so significant. Along with releasing new music, Wonder announced he would be leaving his veritable second home since 1962 to launch his own venture, Republic Records, under which he released two original singles: “Where Is Our Love Song” and “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate.”
Wonder revealed that “Where Is Our Love Song” had been a work-in-progress since he was just 18 years old, and that he had recently unearthed it, only to rework the lyrics to align with modern times. “Then came this year … with all the confusion and all the hate and all the east versus west, left versus right. It’s just a hard break.” The song features multiple Grammy award winner Gary Clark Jr on guitar and Wonder on his signature instruments, the piano and harmonica. While the instrumental arrangement of “Where is Our Love Song” sounds as distinctly Motown as anything, Wonder’s voice is noticeably more mellow than in his heyday – no longer capable of hitting tenor range in such jolting growls as on songs like “I Wish” or “High Ground,” or even his highest notes from “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Wonder smartly drives a soothing vocal, somewhere between the once great extremes of his vocal range.
The lyrics are far less interesting than the instrumentation. Imbued with platitudes, Wonder sings, “Where is our prayer for peace; The prayer so long we yearn to release; Not just on this urban bloodstained street… Where is our peace prayer? Our desperately needed prayer for peace.”
For his second single, “Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate,” Wonder discussed the song’s beginnings in an interview with Rolling Stone. “When I first wrote it, it was about a relationship… And then I was thinking about where we are in the world and I was thinking … this craziness is unacceptable. We’re not going for it anymore.” Accordingly, Wonder added rappers Busta Rhymes, Rapsody, Cordae and Chika to the mix, and in a departure from his recognizable Motown sound, opted for a rap and hip-hop driven record, with politics at the forefront.
This isn’t Wonder’s first venture into political waters. In 1974, he wrote the funky, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” a sardonic takedown of then-president Nixon, lambasting his empty campaign promises. But what made that song timeless was that — aside from being an irresistible groove — it carried a message that could apply to any bureaucrat. However, Stevie’s latest political attempt abandons the wry playfulness of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” favoring something far more bitter.
In “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate,” the lyrics read like a recent op-ed from football player turned activist, Colin Kaepernick. Rapsody and Cordae declare:
Apologize, you denied my people
Made our death legal,
we all paralegal…
Gotta defend ourselves when the laws ain’t equal.
They go on to accuse police of wantonly aiming to kill black people:
Cops aim lethal … death in cathedrals …
Bang-bang boogie, you could die wearin’ a hoodie…
Next, Wonder commits one of the greatest sins of songwriting by specifically calling out and censuring today’s “hot topic” — in this case, the “all lives matter” counter-movement.
You say that you believe that all lives matter;
I say, I don’t believe the f–k you do;
You say, “All things in time.”
I say, “That’s why I’m not gonna put it in the hands of fate.”
The song continues along these lines, relying on current trends for content and references the new phenomenon of kneeling for the national anthem at professional sports games.
Yeah, we went from fields into a field;
Bodies hittin’ the ground, and so we gotta take a kneel.
Generally, if you want a piece of art to outlive the era it was created in, it needs to be as loosely connected with the specifics of its era as possible. In “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate,” Wonder’s songwriting fails to achieve this. Wonder falters because he rejects the need for ambiguity, instead using his lyrics like a political pundit appearing on network news and launching straight into the most current, controversial subject available.
Understandably, at this point in Stevie Wonder’s career, he has more than enough enduring hits, which is why “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate” is essentially his version of penning an op-ed — it’s a piece of current commentary, not meant to outlive the current news cycle, let alone transcend its time.