Hotter Than July was released September 29, 1980 and was Stevie Wonder’s first new true studio album since the release of Songs In The Key Of Life during 1976. The only new group of material in the interim had been his soundtrack to the film, Journey Through the Secret Life Of Plants, which many people assumed was a studio release given the quick disappearance of the movie.
The album showed that he had left the 1970s behind as the music differed from his classic 1970s period. There was a jam like quality to many of the songs as the well-crafted structures of the past gave way to a looser feel. The lyrics have depth and are some of the best of his career. All in all, it may not equal his 1970s classic period, but it is a fine album in its own right and emerges as one of the better albums of the early 1980s.
The album produced two hit singles, which were as different as could be. “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” is a fascinating song in the Stevie Wonder catalogue. It is about as close as he has ever come to creating a country song, complete with Ben Bridges’ pedal steel guitar and Hank Devito’s steel guitar. Traveling in a completely different direction is “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a sprawling piece that was pure 80s but in a good way. It has a reggae foundation and is an ode to Bob Marley. It also contains the “hotter than July” line that formed the title of the album.
The album’s best track and one of the most sophisticated of his career is “Lately.” It contains an emotional vocal with words that tell the story of a woman being unfaithful to her husband. The music was in a major key but minor chords are interspersed throughout the song. It has a sad beauty that stays with you.
The most important song is “Happy Birthday.” While it may seem dated today, it was his plea to establish a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. He remained in the forefront of the movement until President Reagan signed the law creating the holiday. I have always found it interesting that the single release did not make the charts in the United States but reached number two in the U.K.
The other highlight was “Rocket Love.” It is one of those smooth mid-tempo tunes that seemed to inhabit his releases. Many times they pass by unnoticed but they have a subtle majesty to them.
Thirty years after its release, I find Hotter Than July an album of excellent parts that don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive whole. Still, while it may not be among the classic group of albums he created, it was very close.