On all of his projects — Grammy-winning albums, playing keys with Maroon 5, fronting a full string section in his NPR Tiny Desk Concert — PJ Morton evinces his mastery at updating classic soul and R&B with modern sounds. His latest full-length release, Watch the Sun, sees him joined by some of his own sources of inspiration, Stevie Wonder and Nas. The three combined forces on Morton’s track “Be Like Water,” which recites an uplifting mantra over unsettled harmonies. The effect is hypnotizing. Morton spoke with Switched on Pop about what it was like to work with his heroes and to share overlooked modern classics from Wonder’s and Nas’s catalogs.
Charlie: You formed a true supergroup for this single. What did Stevie Wonder and Nas bring to the song?
PJ: I literally wouldn’t be doing it without Stevie. I said, Oh man, he sits at the keys and writes songs and sings, I think I want to do that! What comes to mind is me actually producing his vocals, because I was a little bashful initially. He says, “Hey man, come on we’re doing this, I’m not Stevie right now. I want the best for the record.” Which was a lesson. The greats are the most open. No wonder he’s great. His ego is not in the way of this.
I think because it was a weird kind of beat, I’m like, Only Nas can slice this up, I need a master, I need a God MC, you know what I’m saying? I sent it to Nas and his right-hand guy was like, “Man, it’s crazy you just sent this. We just got off of a panel and they asked Nas who’s left for him to work with like, who would his dream be to work with? And he said, ‘Stevie Wonder.’” And it’s like, What? I kinda made his dream come true. And, of course, collectively made mine come true.
They’re masters, literally masters. It gave me a confidence of knowing, Oh man, these guys respect me enough to be on this record with me.
Charlie: with heavyweights like Stevie and Nas, I’m curious if you feel like there are overlooked recordings for each of them that you view as modern classics.
PJ: For Stevie, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants comes to mind only because I recorded Watch the Sun in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where he recorded Secret Life of Plants. I do think that it’s a slept-on album because it was left of center. And it was coming after freaking Songs in the Key of Life. So, like, what was going to compare to that? He was almost like, I probably need to talk about plants and take a break, I just did my magnum opus.
Charlie: How about a Nas track?
PJ: I think off of King’s Disease, his newer album, “All Bad” featuring Anderson .Paak. That song moves me. It’s so soulful. He’s always been so musical; you can tell that he knows music. I would say that’s a sleeper. It was just a good vibe. Hip-hop is so young that we’re just starting to see what our rock stars look like and how they can be relevant. I think Nas is really showing that he can rap about things that still relate to someone who isn’t a teenager.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.