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Stevie Wonder - Hotter Than July Music Album Reviews

Stevie Wonder - Hotter Than July Music Album Reviews
Today on Pitchfork, we are celebrating the artistic bounty of Stevie Wonder with five new album reviews that span the breadth of his remarkable career.

I find that summer—particularly summer vacation—is what’s truly wasted on the young. Even in the summers where I worked 20 or 30 hours a week at some fast-food spot or convenience store, I still took the relative freedom of the days for granted. I still got to wake up late, stay out later, fuck around for most of my waking hours, and do it all again. Stripped of what I now appreciate as that exhilarating freedom, summer on the other side of adulthood can leave much to be desired. I don’t so much mind the increase in responsibilities, or the earlier alarm, or the more-constant temptation of sleep. But, like so much nostalgic longing, there’s a feeling that I can’t as easily access. Yet I know that even as you read this, you know that feeling, or something like it, even if our definitions of the feeling aren’t the same. It can be unearthed, sometimes, in a scene: a sunset, the taste of a drink, a waning bonfire, and yes, a song. Something to interrupt what otherwise might as well be a long series of hot days that keep getting hotter by the year.

I like the word heat far more than I like the feeling of it. I like the word because I’m from a place where it holds multiple definitions, more than any four letters should. So many that it swells at the seams. In 1980, Stevie Wonder was, perhaps, feeling a few of those definitions hovering over his career, most notably the definition of heat as a type of immovable pressure. What Stevie Wonder accomplished between 1972 and 1977 is astonishing. Baffling to the point of near-impossibility if there weren’t the touchable material to inform a listener that they did not dream it. And with impossible triumph comes impossible expectations. I won’t dwell on 1979’s sprawling Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants here but to say that it is an album that, in quality, nearly matches its overwhelming ambition. But needless to say, after one of the greatest runs of albums there has ever been, Secret Life of Plants fell relatively flat. Motown didn’t promote the record with the same ferocity as Wonder’s previous albums. Secret Life of Plants entered at No. 4 on the album charts, in part due to Wonder’s immense hold on the commercial landscape at the time, but only one of its singles made a mark, and reviews were mixed.

What can’t be undersold about Secret Life of Plants, amid its somewhat forgotten history, is that it was one of the first albums to be digitally recorded, which opened up a new window for Stevie Wonder, always the tinkerer, always seeking the newest and greatest tools to add to his expansive toolbox. Wonder spent 1979 and early 1980 holed up in the studio, toying with new digital recording equipment from Sony, locked in with engineers helping him navigate the technology to best suit his needs. He had purchased an old Hollywood radio studio—the C.P. MacGregor Studio—which was so old that it predated home television, so old it even predated magnetic tape. It had been abandoned for years, but Wonder had an ear for the acoustics of the place, and a feel for its history. Because there was no real recording infrastructure, Wonder had to also purchase a remote recording truck, and have cables run from the truck to the inside of the building. It was, once again, Wonder attempting to find the perfect intersection point between innovation and ambition. Reinventing himself by dragging the past into the future, at any cost.

To speak of heat in the most literal sense, it must be said that it was, indeed, hot in the summer of 1980, in the months right before Stevie Wonder released Hotter Than July, the album that he’d been working on as a career re-shaping step into the new decade. Not hot in the sense of overly romantic summer nostalgia: The 1980 Heat Wave had its most vicious impacts in the Midwest and through the Great Plains. The heatwave began in June and didn’t relent in many areas until September. It was reported to have claimed at least 1,700 lives. There were droughts and agricultural damage. In Kansas City, temperatures were over 100 degrees for 17 days straight. In early August, there was a brief reprieve, only due to a hurricane.

The heatwave made its exit in mid-September, just a week or so before Hotter Than July made its entry. The album’s title—which comes from the opening lyric of the first single, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”—aligned with the month that the heatwave reached its peak. On the cover of the album, Stevie Wonder is made to look as if he’s survived the heat (that most literal definition, again) that others didn’t. His mouth is half-open somewhere between awe, exhaustion, and pleasure. There is a glint on the edge of his red-rimmed sunglasses which might suggest that he’s turned towards the sun—a suggestion that feels more on-point when one clocks the beads of sweat cascading down his face, towards his neck and bare shoulders. It is an image that gives off a humidity, and the relief that comes with escaping it, even briefly.

There are many ways for a song, or an album, to feel like summer, and Hotter Than July encompasses a small series of examples. Its (highly underappreciated) opening track, “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me,” begins with a slow buildup of voice, a shout that originates from a far-off elsewhere before fighting its way to the front of the sonic line, a slow and steady “…ahhhhHHHHHHHHHHHOUUUUU” and before the music hits, the feeling hits. This is what I mean: There is a buildup and then a release. Confronted with the pleasure and excitement of whatever newfound freedoms (small or large) that summer might offer you, what is there to do but shout something loud and indecipherable to everyone but you. The shout kicks open the door for a slow-trickling groove of guitar and bass interplay and then, through the gaps, come the bursts of horns, steady as sunlight through a cracked curtain of sound. “As If You Read My Mind” is lush, danceable pop, so fluorescent that it might bury the lyrics if not for its infectious chorus that demands to be sung breathlessly, mid-movement. “Do Like You” is a showcase of Wonder’s greatest vocal ability, to bend a single word until it feels like it is unraveling into several words, and to pursue lyrical repetition not for the sake of repetition, but to reach for something greater, more urgent with each rotation of language, so that by the end of the song, when he is fully committed to the circular presentation of the words “show me how to do like you,” there are pauses and ad-libs where you think he might be done before he jumps right back in. The lyrics become first an earnest question, and then one dripping with envy or ferocity, before they circle back to a type of awe.

In these moments, the greatness of Hotter Than July is in how relentlessly Stevie Wonder reaches for the ecstatic—a shift after releasing a high-concept encyclopedia of an album right before this one. At times, Hotter Than July feels like running into a sweltering day; at times it feels like drinking a glass of something cold after coming inside while still smelling like outside; and at times it feels like the slowness that falls over a summer day as it winds down.

For that latter feeling, there is “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” which served as the album’s first single. During Wonder’s creative exploration in the ’70s, he had become friends with Bob Marley, playing live shows with him throughout the latter half of the decade. Reggae had begun to make its way into his sound bank. “Master Blaster” is a slow-swaying ode to Marley, even shouting out the legend in the lyrics. It also uses Marley’s 1977 song “Jamming” as a musical template, taking the sparse guitar and percussion that ran through the original’s backbone and aligning it with Wonder’s expanded imagination, adding layers and pace, but not giving up the song’s feeling of ease. “Master Blaster” signaled a return to Wonder’s status as a hitmaker, staying atop the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks, and peaking at No. 5 on the pop singles chart.

Hotter Than July is also an album that holds two distinct movements within it. Its final two songs, “Lately” and “Happy Birthday,” work almost as an encore; not entirely separate from the album’s overarching thematic and sonic concerns, but slightly wandering into different territories of emotional purpose and mission, and also robust enough to feel like they are carrying their own weight. The former is a classic Wonder ballad, the artist and piano and a palpable sense of longing (forgettable to me, but only because of Wonder’s singular ability to pull this type of song off in various ways throughout his career).

And then, there is “Happy Birthday.” If you have the record of Hotter Than July, and you unfold all of the gates of the album, that, too, presents an exercise in duality. Directly opposite the cover of Wonder appearing breathless and sweating out the ecstatic pleasures of the sun, there is an image of a piano on fire, in the same color landscape as the cover itself. The two panels on the bottom half are in black and white.

On one side, there is a large portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. against a black background. Above the photo, the date of King’s birth and the date of his death are printed in white lettering. On the opposite side of the sleeve, there are five photos: across the top, a photo of a city divided by a six-lane highway, both sides of that highway encased in smoke, touched by the aftermath of a riot. Across the bottom, a photo of white police officers with white helmets and weapons at the ready, appearing to advance on Black protesters standing in nonviolent defiance. In a photo to the left, there is a Black boy being pulled by the limbs. Two police officers on each arm, and one on his leg. In a photo to the right, a Black man is in a pool of his own blood outside of a store. Another Black man is crouched against the wall, looking away in agony. In the foreground, a police officer in a white helmet stands with a hand on his hip.

The photo in the center is of Martin Luther King Jr., leading a march. The link between the center photo and the surrounding photos is vital, particularly within the American imagination that has limited King to palatable quotes and vague concepts around unity. This photo, surrounded by the other photos, gives context to the engine that pushed King towards his work, and gives context to a society that wanted him gone then, and would still want him gone now. While I have gratitude for the words of King, I have little interest in a framing of him that relies solely on those words—which have, by now, been manipulated and defanged in too many ways, by too many bad-faith actors and institutions. Instead, I desire this kind of presentation: one that shows him in solidarity with other Black people, at the center of America’s chorus of chaos, and Black people’s fight to both survive within it, and tear it apart.

Accompanying this layout is a small message from Wonder, urging the public to join him in pushing for the national recognition of King’s birthday. To those efforts, the song “Happy Birthday” arrives as the landing point for Hotter Than July. In a run of tunes already overflowing with exuberance, it is the album’s longest and most exuberant track. To first note that I don’t necessarily believe that “corny” is a pejorative, one great miracle of “Happy Birthday” is that it survives the somewhat corny pleading of its verses due to the everlasting and constantly refreshing pleasure of the chorus. The verses are, understandably, individualized in a way that makes clear the song’s mission statement. In the verses, there is a very specific you that is being spoken of, but when the chorus is extracted, the you becomes anyone in a room surrounded by people who love them, people in the mood for celebrating.

To exit here as we entered—considering the many modes and energies that encompass the feeling of a “youthful” summer, fleeting for some of us wandering the endless caverns of adulthood. I often return to a story from the summer of 2020. What stands out most in my memory about the uprisings in and around my city is how exhausted people were by the end of each day. With the exhaustion came some sense of gratitude for not having been swept away in a cop car, or having survived the gas sprayed into crowds, or whatever other violence the police decided to inflict on those gathered in the streets. The balm for this exhaustion, often, was someone dragging a speaker into the middle of a road at night, well after the cops decided they were done for the day, when the streets belonged to whoever still had it in them to celebrate getting through the hot, chaotic, rage-filled hours.

These were my favorite times, largely for how they unlocked that elusive myth of youthful freedom—nowhere to be, nothing to do except take advantage of space and a clock that felt slowed down. Someone would play songs, and Black folks would dance, and laugh, shout lyrics, and fall into each other. One day in August, someone was celebrating a birthday, which I only remember because when it came time to sing “Happy Birthday,” no one asked which version would be sung. Not many Black folks I have been around ever ask such a foolish question. The answer is already known. From out of the speakers came Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” and when the chorus hit, the singing was loud enough to echo several blocks in every direction, carried on the backs of clapping hands, as it often is.

This moment, on the streets after protest, was merely one of the latest in a wide range of moments defined and earmarked by Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” and—more broadly—by Hotter Than July. The reality is that, had Stevie Wonder never made another album after Secret Life of Plants, what he’d already given the world would have been generous enough. A bounty to last several lifetimes. It is narrow and erroneous to consider Hotter Than July as only a “comeback” album, or a response to skeptical critics. It doesn’t come across, to me, as an album obsessed with proving worth, or even all that obsessed with showcasing the individual talents of the artist. For all that can be said of Hotter Than July’s legacy, what stands out the most is that it is an album of seemingly endless abundance. An album that asks not only “How do you want to feel?” but also, “How do you want to survive?” and then turns us towards the expansive forest of ever-shifting answers.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Stevie Wonder - Hotter Than July Music Album Reviews Stevie Wonder - Hotter Than July Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, March 06, 2022 Rating: 5

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