The Singer: The list of truly certifiable pop-music geniuses is a short one, but even the briefest tally would have to include Stevie Wonder. Forget the fact that he's blind and that he played nearly every instrument on his best-loved albums. Forget that no one paired such stone-cold funk with vocal intensity as Stevie. Wonder's lyrics alone place him at the top of the class. He's written better slow jams than today's selection ("Knocks Me Off My Feet" and "That Girl" come to mind), but Wonder touched on something special and sacred with "As."
The Song: Coming as the penultimate track on 1976's epochal double album Songs in the Key of Life, "As" serves as both the summation of the record's themes and, I argue, the pinnacle of Wonder's career. You can accuse Stevie of going a little long on many of the Key of Life tracks, but even at seven-plus minutes, "As" feels perfectly measured. Unlike other slow jams, you don't merely make love to "As"; you create worlds to it.
Most of the track is a straightforward declaration of undying love, but the final verse turns it into something spectral.
In his rarely used growling register (employed to great effect at the end of "Living for the City"), Stevie implores the listeners to recognize their role in the cosmos. It's as good of a mission statement as rock & roll can offer:
"We all know sometimes life's hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and place
But you can bet your life times that and twice it's double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you're in it but not of it
You're not helping make this Earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truth and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children's grandchildren and their great-grandchildren will tell"
The Video: No video for this one, but I couldn't pass up posting this song even in its still-screen minimalism.
Hipster Cachet: Jazz pianist extraordinaire Herbie Hancock guests on Fender Rhodes on this track, as do a sextet of hand-clappers, though the claps are hard to make out over Wonder and Mary Lee Whitney's backing vocals.
-- Christian Schaeffer