Wonder's gift for transcendent melody takes an ill-timed leave of absence on this studio album, his first since the vibrant 1991 soundtrack to Jungle Fever. Trying to sound au courant, he sets his oft-employed message of love and harmony to tough hip-hop beats—and too often winds up slamming out pedestrian songs lacking his usual celebratory bounce.
Wonder is at the controls, playing most instruments himself. On a few cuts, however, the Master Blaster enlists guest stars who help make those songs distinctive and fresh. Vocalist Anita Baker and trumpeter Terence Blanchard add to the cool, creeping, jazz feel of "Sensuous Whisper." The entwining harmonies of the a cappella group Take 6 and singer Deniece Williams practically levitate the lovely "I'm New" right out of the CD player.
Yet most of the album consists of roughly 6-minute songs that rely on state-of-the-art drum programming for visceral impact and aren't imaginative enough to overcome repetitive arrangements. Are Wonder's best days behind him? Perish the thought. Maybe it's just a 44-year-old superstar's song-writing slump. Keep swinging, Stevie, you've got more home runs in you yet. (Motown)