unCOVERed: “Lately” Featuring Stevie Wonder VS. Jodeci
by Matthew Allen
Intuition; that inner voice that tells you something that allows your body to observe things that your eyes overlook, or your own mind buries or ignores. Intuition is particularly sharp when it comes to matters of the heart. The song “Lately” addresses that sixth sense that comes when the one you love beings to change on you. It’s a somber tale of a man slowly but surely coming to grips with the conclusion that his woman is in love with another man.
Built mostly on a piano melody and vocal, the composition crescendos from the uneasy feeling of infidelity, though with no discernable proof, to the revelation from the source. “Lately” is an R&B story that finds men in a rare position of being cheated on, and the common reaction of inner turmoil that comes with that. It’s been a classic for two generations. First from its author, Stevie Wonder, in 1980, and more than a dozen years later, by R&B quartet Jodeci in 1993.
Which version is the best? With soulhead, the topic will be unCOVERed.
Stevie Wonder, 1980
By the end of the 1970s, it seemed like Stevie Wonder had begun his descend over the hill of his creative and commercial peak that came with an unparalleled streak of hit albums; 1972’s Music of My Mind and Talking Book, 1973’s Innervisions, 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life. He sold millions of albums, had five number hits and won 12 Grammys (including three album of the year awards). But in 1979, he released Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, a soundtrack he composed for a documentary of the same name. To say it was a departure was an understatement; a double album of most digitally performed orchestral instrumentals (save the Top five single “Send One Your Love”).
Seen as a misstep at the time, Wonder quickly rebounded the following year with Hotter Than July and gained two Top 10 singles in “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” and “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It.” The third single, “Lately” didn’t perform as well, peaking at 64 on the Billboard 100, but it was as strong a song as anything on that album, which says a lot considering that album was “All I Do” and “Rocket Love.” With a piano and bass synth backing him, Stevie, usually vocally armed with power and melisma, was more plantive, ethereal and feathery. His pain is quiet, yet no less expansive.
Jodeci & JoJo, 1993
The North Carolina quartet that is Jodeci had dreams of signing with Prince’s Paisley Park label, but fatefully landed at Uptown Records, under the guidance of young A&R Sean “Puffy” Combs. Brothers K-Ci and Jo-Jo Hailey handled with lead vocals, while DeVante Swing take care of the songwriting and production. Their debut album, 1991’s Forever My Lady, ushered in a new era of soul swagger, blending brooding, rugged mid-tempo love songs with gospel inflected vocals. Singles like “Come and Talk to Me,” “Stay,” and the title track made huge dents in R&B radio, sending the album to triple platinum sales.
Two years later, mere months before the release of their sophomore album Diary of a Mad Band, Jodeci thrilled a TV crowd on MTV Unplugged during an episode that showcased fellow Uptown Records artists like Heavy D, Christopher Williams and Mary J. Blige. While they sang the hits from “Forever My Lady” back by acoustic band, it was a cover of Stevie’s “Lately,” that they performed that wound up being the highlight of the broadcast. When K-Ci and Jo-Jo sang their signature “ooooooohhh yeaaaaaah’s” over Mr. Dalvin’s piano, there was an anguish and agony that jumped through the scene before they sang a single lyric. The build-up climaxed and they belted out with bombast, but still managed to stay fairly restrained, considering they were singing live. Unlike Stevie’s version, Jodeci’s cover of “Lately” became a platinum success. Crossing over to number four on the Billboard 100, it remains to this day, Jodeci’s most commercial successful single.
Here is the live version originally recorded on Uptown MTV’s Unplugged in 1993:
Stevie’s version is sparse, contemplative and multi-layered. Jodeci’s version wear’s its emotion on its sleeve much more freely. Jodeci’s accompaniment was far more intriguing that the two instrument arrangement on Hotter Than July, but Stevie is Stevie, and his voice is just too undeniable, regardless of the incarnation. He’s able to express a more dynamic range of emotions. Stevie wins wins, but narrowly.
As a bonus, check out this performance of the track on The Arsenio Hall Show with Stevie Wonder:
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.