The 19th studio album from Stevie Wonder kicked off the most successful decade of his career
From 1972 (and maybe earlier) through 1976, Stevie Wonder had an almost unparalleled run of consistently great albums.
After the overflowing Songs in the Key of Life brought Wonder’s burst to a climax, the second half of the decade let him nearly disappear. After winning Grammys for three straight albums, the artist took a few years off before producing Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, a strange record that, while commercially successful, pushed into a mixed bag of digital experimentation. If there were any concerns that Wonder had lost his artistic and melodic sensibilities, though, he answered them just a year later with Hotter Than July, an album that mixed styles and statements while providing a burst back into the mainstream.
The record gained some momentum from its place in Wonder’s narrative: music superstar finishes classic run, takes weird detour, recovers with energy. That makes for a nice story, but Hotter Than July holds up 40 years later completely devoid of context; Wonder simply wrote and performed smart, memorable songs. Fans got their first taste of his new direction with lead single “Master Blaster (Jammin’).” The song marks Wonder’s deepest dive into reggae, clearly referencing and honoring Bob Marley. The influence is unmistakeable from the first few seconds, but Wonder, largely through his vocals, manages to put his idiosyncratic twist on the genre. He uses the cut to celebrate unity (particularly after the Zimbabwe ceasefire), offering an all-night celebration as both its own form of a resistance and a reminder that the push for justice never ends.
That sense of justice comes across throughout the album, most notably on album closer “Happy Birthday.” The song, along with the album’s record sleeve, argues for the establishment of a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. The song’s content feels dated 20 years after the last state finally instituted the holiday, but the energy doesn’t and Wonder’s melody sticks as a sort of joyful activism. The singer also tackles injustice with “Cash in Your Face,” the story of a young black family trying to find a new place to live while white landlords block their access. Wonder manages some restraint as he performs both parts, but the steady groove highlights his anger on the chorus.
Despite the packaging and the focus of some of the key songs, Hotter Than July doesn’t play as just a political album. Sandwiched between “Cash in Your Face” and “Happy Birthday,” “Lately” offers an uncomfortable look at a relationship in trouble (or possibly one partner’s paranoia). Wonder might be known for his optimism and bright approach, but here he does interpersonal struggle well, getting into the internal turmoil of a man who suspects he’s about to lose the woman he loves.
That second side of the album still gets the most attention, largely because the record’s two most remembered cuts (“Master Blaster” and “Happy Birthday”). Side one, though, remains its strongest, right from the opening beats of “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me.” Wonder might be inquiring earnestly, but the force of the band and the power of his vocal suggests nothing but confidence; the answer to the titular question is a given. In the larger Wonder narrative, the track makes a startling pronouncement that he’s back to pop with plenty to offer.
Wonder may offer self-assurance on that first track, but his singers across the disc have mixed feelings. “Lately” looks at anxiety, but “All I Do” brings that worry to the front of a connection and “Rocket Love” puts loss into ballad form. “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” approaches parody in its delivery, as Wonder goes country for a somebody-done-somebody wrong song, but he turns it into an unexpectedly catchy statement. Musically, it highlights his gift for sonic incorporation, as his country number plays with the disco influences scattered across the album. Wonder maintains a remarkable ability to synthesize various genre into a singular vision. Just as the album blends the political and the personal, it blends disco, pop, reggae, country, and more into a unified sound. The record’s first side ends with a funky love number, a harmonica standing in for the consummation of romantic mind-reading. It makes a fitting finale before intermission, letting the more justice-focused second side take off with all the heart it needs.
Hotter Than July doesn’t reach the highs of Wonder’s classic period, but only because those early ’70s records set the bar so high. After 1980, none of Wonder’s albums would catch up with July. As such, it marks a pivotal moment in his career, either the last gasp of his most creative era or the first and most essential release of his lengthy late era. But even that reading puts too much on the narrative.
More than anything, even after 40 years, Hotter Than July stands a strong work stuffed with ideas and sounds, an unforgettable work from a true pop genius.