Review Summary: Stevie makes an extra poppy splash into the 80s with his usual repertoire of soul, funk, political, and love-themed songs.
By the time 1980 rolled around, Stevie Wonder had already won the Grammy for Album of the Year three times in a row, had six #1 US singles, and 42 Hot 100 singles, as well as similarly impressive record in various other countries. He was indisputably an international superstar. He had such a high reputation that even the incredibly flawed and inaccessible Stevie Wonder's Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants" was a commercial success and spawned 2 hits. With such an incredibly high reputation, there were high expectations for Stevie’s first release of the 1980s and Hotter Than July
was a pleasing result, if not an incredible one.
Of course there are some noticeable differences from his past work on Hotter Than July
that make it sound especially 80s. Firstly, the production is far thinner than any of his 70s albums making each of the instrumentals sound incredibly bright in quality. However, this also causes the music to sound far more simplistic on most of the tracks and even more predictable with their direction. Also, Stevie uses a heavier amount of synths on the album than he had previously giving it a typical 80s pop vibe overall. In a way the music almost sounds like an artificial counterpart to his more natural sounding 70s work, though to those who do not mind a poppier approach, this might not even be seen as a flaw at all.
Other than synths and pop, the album is full some other prominent instruments and genres. The piano and drums present on almost all of the upbeat tracks provide base structure to the songs. Trumpets, saxophone, guitar are also found on various tracks mostly to give it a flavor of funk. However all of these instruments are still trumped in prominence by the synths and the heavy use of bass guitar. Almost embarrassingly, the synths on “Happy Birthday” cheerfully prance around like a children’s song while the bass thumps along. Even on ballads like “Lately,” which actually manages to lack the synths, the bass still thumps along distinctly to his slow and emotional words. Though other than upbeat funk tracks and soulful ballads (which account for 9/10 tracks,) the only other musical ideas the album has to offer is the reggae fusion of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” which is undoubtedly the album’s highlight both musically and lyrically. So while Hotter Than July
manages to be musically interesting, it’s still far less so than any of his Grammy winning albums.
Speaking of lyrics, they are probably the best quality of Hotter Than July
. Because Stevie knows that a large portion of his fan base in interested in his love songs, exactly half of the tracks are based upon just that. However, they are not necessarily typical in their style. Particularly, highlight “Rocket Love” compares his break up to being dropped thousands of miles from space back to Earth. Three of the tracks are politically based and are thorough enough in their ideas to where they work completely. Specifically in “Cash in Your Face,” lyrics like “, you might be a great doctor, you might be a great lawyer, you might possess the key to the city” but “We don't want your kind living in here” really stresses the prominence of racism in real estate (something that’s still prevalent in today’s society.)
Every song on the album is up to the par lyrically as his previous works… well except for one track. Despite being a huge hit, “I Ain't Gonna Stand for It” has terrible lyrics not just by Stevie’s standards, but even by musical standards in general. Upon first listen, the worst lyrics are the excessive refrain of the title, but upon further listen it’s noticeable that the verses are awful too. Lyrics like “Don't wanna believe what somebody said. But somebody said somebody's shoes was under my bed“ not only bring up poor examples of why he should be angry (which is the main emotion of the song,) but also are just random in nature. As said before, this is the only song to be poor lyrically, so it’s not a recurring flaw.
As a whole, Hotter Than July
may not be Stevie’s best work, but it’s still incredibly entertaining, accessible, and lyrically impressive. Although Stevie had decidedly taken a less instrumentally diverse approach and instead focused on catchy hooks and lyrical development, you have to appreciate the album for what it is trying to be: a pop album. And honestly, it’s a damn good pop album.
Album highlights: “Rocket Love”, “Master Blaster (Jammin')”, “Lately”