Hotter Than July

Hotter Than July

With 1979’s A Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants”, Stevie Wonder had experienced another first: a critical flop. While Wonder was publicly blaming Motown for under-promoting the forward-thinking, digitally-produced double album, he was privately toiling on his 19th album in his recently purchased Wonderland studios. The album that emerged, 1980’s Hotter Than July, was a new Stevie for a new decade: For the first time since the late 1960s, Wonder released an album without any larger social commentary or spiritual aims (and, to Berry Gordy’s relief, not a single reference to botany). Hotter Than July is simply a collection of pop-flavoured, exquisitely produced R&B. Given the sonic tenor of the times, a four-on-the-floor groove winds its way through the album’s early moments, when the buoyant “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” seamlessly segues into “All I Do”, which Wonder had originally co-written during his pre-independence Motown era, and then dusted off and turned into a low-key disco burner. He might not have been arguing for music as a universal language anymore, but he showed on Hotter Than July that he could easily switch genres: On “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It”, Wonder actually (and successfully) pulls off a country song, while “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” is a reggae-lite tribute to Bob Marley, perhaps Wonder’s only 1970s peer as a global icon of Black music. Though Hotter Than July wasn’t marketed as a political album, Wonder made his voice heard loud and clear on the album’s most pointed songs, which augured some of the most common complaints of the dawning Reagan era—which officially kicked off a month or so after the album’s releases. The slickly funky “Cash in Your Face” played like a sequel to Innervisions’ “Living for the City”, but with a focus on the racist real estate agents who devised all manner of excuses to deny Black Americans the opportunity to purchase a home. The joyous undercurrents and uptempo rhythms of the album-closing “Happy Birthday” were a feint, as this was one of Wonder’s most direct activist anthems, a response to the US House of Representatives’ refusal to make Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday in 1979. While far from Wonder’s best musical work, the spirit of “Happy Birthday” was undeniable, and played a small role in King’s birthday finally being federally recognised in late 1983—with Wonder in the Senate gallery, with Coretta Scott King, to celebrate.

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