When you’ve been rating records, you inevitably come to a point where you feel like you have to give something a lower or higher rating than it deserves because it falls somewhere in the middle. I like to hold off on the coveted 4.0, and I really only give a 4.5 to records that will last the test of time, so I’m more likely to give something a 3.5 if it deserves, like, a 3.75 (in other words, I round down, much to the chagrin of Prefix‘s fearless leaders).
Madlib’s Stevie: An Instrumental Tribute to Stevie Wonder is a lot like that. Originally released in 2002 as a promo for Yesterdays New Quintet — his fictitious jazz “band,” consisting of five “members,” all alter-egos of Madlib himself — Stevie became such a successful word-of-mouth, file-trading, burned-copy, party-chilling record that underground hip-hop’s hottest producer decided to release a re-mastered version of the record and make a little money off it. It’s easy to see what people loved about it the first time through. The compositions of some of Stevie Wonder’s best work haven’t been changed much, but the keyboard riffs that have replaced the vocals and some truly sick drum beats move the proceedings along at funky miles per hour.
“Superstitious” would have to start off something like this, and its choppy keyboard grooves get under the skin and make it move. “Too High” is one my favorite Wonder songs, and the drum break that starts it off here, along with the almost druggy mix that meshes each instrument together, mimicking the dullness of feeling the subject of the song is experiencing, is probably the biggest departure on the album. But Madlib makes it work by capturing the song’s spirit without making the experience for the listener equally dull; he clearly understands the intention here, and his firm grasp on the material is what holds every song together.
It’s hard to criticize Madlib for a lack of breadth in his choices from Stevie’s catalogue — three of the songs here are from Innervisions alone — since he picked from the best era. But as a revelatory device, the record fails to breathe any new life into the original material. It would be great for Madlib fans to pick this up and get turned on to Stevie Wonder, but I doubt there are too many Madlib fans who haven’t realized the importance of Talking Book or Songs in the Key of Life. The album’s best tracks, the two mentioned above, along with the smooth hum of “Superwoman” and the already brilliant “Golden Lady,” make this a notable release, but not much more than that.
Madlvilliany, Madlib’s collaboration with MF Doom from earlier this year, deserved its 4.5 rating, and few would disagree with a 4.0 for Shades of Blue. But this album lacks the originality of the former and lags ever-so-slightly behind the staying power of the latter. Shades of Blue was a memorable release, and although Stevie brings the same kind of energy and enjoyment to equally important music, this set was better served by the self-discovery of peer-exchange. Still, the record confirms what everyone already knows: Madlib is the one to beat if you’re looking to take your place at the top of the hip-hop pile.