Stevie Wonder has spent most of the past three decades winning accolades but few disciples. Now, though, Wonder is at last seeing the props translated into real musical influence. Of the many current neosoul acts inspired by Wonder's innervating albums from the '70s (including, among many others, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keyes and Glenn Lewis), none has tapped into Wonder's strengths as successfully as Musiq.
On Juslisen, Musiq's second album (his first, Aijuswanaseing, was released under the more fulsome moniker Musiq Soulchild), this Philly-based singer/songwriter borrows electric-guitar licks from the Spinners, simulates Marvin Gaye's orchestral moodscapes and even covers George Harrison's "Something." Mainly, though, he's all about Stevie. Musiq's rubbery melisma and sighing organ, his gracefully wandering ballads, his attention to the rhythm track first and foremost -- it's all wonderfully evocative of Wonder, usually without being merely derivative. The opener, "Newness," a phone conversation between young lovers, is sweetly goofy where Wonder would've been reverent. "Halfcrazy" captures a relationship's growing pains (You used to laugh, now you get mad. Damn!) with looped acoustic guitar and a heavy bass bump that sounds like right now.
Musiq is sometimes too fond of Wonder's later work, which has increasingly tended toward flaccid lyrics, meandering arrangements and squishy themes. Musiq's gangsta-lean-inspired slow ride "Future," for instance, embraces that most Pollyanna-ish of twentieth-century's lies: You can be whatever you want to be. The frustratingly clichéd and unironic "Don't Change" presents as romantic and steadfast a plea that's actually imprisoning and, for that matter, impossible. In addition, Musiq's arrangements and melodies can now and again wander about a bit too lazily, as if he'd had the misfortune, when but a little soulchild, to purchase a copy of Songs in the Key of Life that didn't include sing-along radio singles such as "Sir Duke" and "I Wish."
This isn't to say that Juslisen doesn't have plenty of irresistible hooks and grooves, but the album throws down just once. On "Religious," Musiq worships a new lover to a thumping, churchy groove and a funk lick that shouts, "Amen!" Yet, instead of hearkening back to classic Wonder radio hits, it too sounds like right now, as if Stevie, instead of fading away, had been keeping up all along.