Though smaller scaled and rougher than Songs in the Key of Life and Journey through the Secret Life of Plants, Stevie Wonder’s Hotter than July is no less macrocosmic in its outlook. Only less messianic. Again, Wonder presents himself as a mystical star child and earth father to the family of man as he strains to embrace both Nashville and Kingston in his florid Afro-American synthesis. The artist’s last two magnum opuses revealed just how deeply he’d taken to heart the notion of music as a universal language, for he seemed no longer content to evoke heaven on earth. Instead, he apparently felt he had to try to create it single-handedly.
Thankfully, this moment of vainglory has passed. The current album is set in the real world, where the childish babble that’s too often Wonder’s verbal mode isn’t all happy gurgling. Dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., Hotter than July actually addresses black issues, and its vision of romantic love is, for a change, decidedly sour. After the quasi-symphonic puffery of Journey through the Secret Life of Plants, Wonder’s music has tightened and toughened into a roiling pop-funk that hits several fiery grooves. Many of the tunes have antecedents in the singer’s earlier work. The LP’s two ballads, “Lately” and “Rocket Love,” hark back to “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and “Golden Lady,” the main difference being the new lyrics’ petulance. “Lately” voices sexual suspicion, while “Rocket Love” howls of betrayal. “Do like You” is a child’s “Sir Duke,” and “Cash in Your Face” revises “Living for the City.” Though they don’t have quite the melodic force of their prototypes, these songs are brought to life by Wonder’s fervid, bullish vocals. Even the naive hyperbole of describing a lover as “a female Shakespeare of your time/With looks to blow Picasso’s mind” doesn’t jar too terribly within the context of the artist’s groping-for-words hyperemotionalism. With few notable exceptions, however, Hotter than July‘s lyrics are seldom more than kiddie verses.
But one such exception, “Cash in Your Face,” is Stevie Wonder’s strongest narrative statement since “Living for the City,” and it proves he can still make hard sense when he puts his mind to it. In this story of housing discrimination, Wonder plays two roles: the husband of a couple trying to rent an apartment and the racist landlord who invents every excuse to turn him down. Finally, the husband, a college graduate with a good job, disgustedly sums up the landlord’s viewpoint with an uncharacteristically pithy line: “You might have the cash, but you can…not cash in your face.” Wonder’s civil-rights voice rises again, more mutely, in “Happy Birthday,” in which he forthrightly requests that Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday be declared a national holiday.
Yet the record’s hottest tracks are incantatory, not narrative. “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” fuses a modal blues riff worthy of Ornette Coleman with a hypnotic gospel chant. “All I Do,” which Wonder wrote fifteen years ago, reiterates an obsessive chant-hook in a synthesized woodwind setting. “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a marvelous departure into reggae, is both an explicit tribute to Bob Marley and a hope for Third World oneness within Wonder’s universal family. Indeed, the disc’s only dud is “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” a C&W cheatin’ song in which the singer’s ersatz Southern accent ambles way past parody.
If Hotter than July doesn’t rank with Wonder’s greatest albums (Innervisions, Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life), it certainly shows that the thread of his genius wasn’t seriously unraveled by the pantheistic peregrinations of Journey through the Secret Life of Plants. On Hotter than July, the artist’s blend of pop hooks and African chants, his synthesized expressions of pipe-and-drum tribal dreams and his powerful vocal mixture of baby talk, galloping gospel singing and flowery melismata all add up to a unique musical style that goes far beyond words in conjuring a natural world one step removed from paradise. Stevie Wonder remains our most gifted pop muralist.