Half a century ago, Stevie Wonder defined what an 'artist's classic run' could meanFor the occasion of its half-centennial, cultural critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib takes the measure of Stevie Wonder's unmatchable artistic achivements in the early-to-mid '70s.
Wonder first signed to Motown Records when he was 11 years old, and so basically grew up with Motown's head, Berry Gordy, calling the shots of his creative life – and Gordy was famously reluctant to allow his artists to make political or social statements in their music. But, when Stevie Wonder's contract was about to expire on his 21st birthday, he was able to negotiate for more creative freedom. It led to a geyser of superb recordings.
Morning Edition's A Martinez spoke with poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib about this "classic period" of Wonder's, saying its story begins with the album just before that historic quintuple run, called Where I'm Coming From.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the broadcast version of this conversation, use the audio player at the top of this page.
Stevie Wonder, performing "Superstition" on Soul Train in the early '70s.
Hanif Abdurraqib: It received some mixed reviews, both commercially and critically. Some of this, I think, is because it was released right around the same time as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album, and Gaye's album kind of swallowed Stevie Wonder's, in part because they were thematically similar in terms of the ambition. They were both operating from this newfound realm of freedom within the Motown machine. Where I'm Coming From is an interesting album because it's a little bit delightfully self-indulgent. Like, you can tell that it was created by someone who had for a long time wanted to do more with what they were being given. And this is kind of the first swing at that.
A Martinez, Morning Edition: So March 3, 1972 – Stevie Wonder, armed now with this creative control that he never had before, releases Music of My Mind, the beginning of what's known now as his "classic period." What was different about this album?
Hanif Abdurraqib: Well, the primary thing that jumps out for me is just the sonic leaps. When Music of My Mind gets talked about, there are people who want to discuss Marvin Gaye as an inspiration. But really what shifted Stevie Wonder's sound was hearing Tonto's Expanding Head Band debut album, Zero Time. He heard this, and he wanted to go and meet the architects of the album, one of them being Malcolm Cecil.
Through this introduction, Stevie Wonder was introduced to the synthesizer. Stevie Wonder, for all of his ability, was very much ahead of his time sonically. In his head, he was hearing things that he just did not have the equipment to execute. His imagination was beyond the tools. And with the synthesizer, he found his way to those tools. I think Stevie Wonder was kind of due for a breakthrough album as an adult. If you read stories from Malcolm Cecil, who produced Music of My Mind, he'll say things like, "I knew him still as Little Stevie," you know? And so he was really due for a breakthrough album that treated his work with the gravity it deserved.
What stands out lyrically about this new freedom?
Hanif Abdurraqib: I think he honed a lot of things on a song like "Evil," which is the final track on the album, which is like [Marvin Gaye's] "What's Going On" in that it's primarily rooted in questioning. It is almost personifying evil and asking it questions ... It's kind of the reason I don't often compare What's Going On with anything in Stevie's golden era – because I do think that Stevie's work was a little more optimistic, or a little less cynical. I'm not using cynical as a pejorative; I'm a noted cynic in many ways. But there is something interesting about Stevie Wonder's ability to embody an emotion or a human impulse as something more than that.
Stevie Wonder, "Evil" from the album Music of My Mind.
"Evil" is not very long; I believe it's only one verse. But Stevie Wonder's great ability throughout his whole career is taking a handful of lyrics and building a sonic ecosystem around them to stretch a song out musically, to make it feel like a full and broad song. "Evil" is a great example of that.
Music of My Mind was the first stand-out album from this period. He then went on a run not rivaled in almost any field of life and work that anyone has ever seen.
Hanif Abdurraqib: For me, the Stevie classic run is fascinating not only because of the quality of the work or the fact that, for me, the albums get progressively better – from Music of My Mind to Talking Book to Innervisions to Fulfillingness' First Finale to Songs in the Key of Life, which I think is really the the mountaintop – but the small window of time in which these projects were released. From Music of My Mind to Songs in the Key of Life, from '72 to '76, the corners that he was able to turn as an artist are pretty fascinating to look back on.
You said that this period peaked with Songs in the Key of Life. What was it about that album in particular that stands out to you as his finest moment?
Hanif Abdurraqib: You know, as someone who creates things, I know that the writing or the song or the work that you imagine and the work that you're actually capable of executing – those two things rarely intersect. They can get close to each other, but they rarely intersect. I think Songs in the Key of Life is one of those rare albums where the way the creator imagined it is actually the way it turned out. You know, all the wildest imaginations possible to dream up some of those songs, I just wholeheartedly believe that those came to fruition.
The first time I heard "Love's in Need of Love Today," which for me is one of the great track-one/side-one's of all time, I remember thinking: "I have no idea how a person made this song!" I mean, the entire side-one of Songs in the Key of Life is just note-for-note one of the most perfect sides of all time.
Stevie Wonder went on to have other huge records, huge hits in the '80s. They're not considered part of this classic period. Why not?
Hanif Abdurraqib: I actually think that Hotter Than July [from 1980] would be considered a part of this classic run, if not for – and I have to say this is not my opinion – but I think the historical critical opinion is there was the interruption of Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants [from 1979]. That serves as an interruption in the run that kind of breaks it up.
I've heard that album described as "deeply weird."
Hanif Abdurraqib: You know what? It is weird. But there's something really fascinating about it, and I think it's due for a critical revisit because it was not generously perceived at the time, because people found it to be vague and strange and self-indulgent in its ambitions. But I think some of that was because it came right on the back of Songs in the Key of Life, one of the greatest albums ever created. Right? And so I think actually Stevie Wonder did a very brave and smart thing by saying, well, to follow that feels impossible, and I need to do something that is strange and odd.
The song "Ai No, Sono" from Stevie Wonder's outlier of an album The Secret Life of Plants.
I'm wondering if you've ever looked up and down music history and thought of an artist that came close to Stevie Wonder's run.
Hanif Abdurraqib: This opens up a big can of worms, because this is something I think about all the time. I think Stevie Wonder's is the best – any great album run has to include more than three albums.
So, though he has veered into some territory that I believe is unfortunate, I will say: Van Morrison. From Astral Weeks to Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, St. Dominic's Preview – that's five albums in almost five years, maybe four years. That, I think, is a brilliant run.
Gal Costa maybe? Her self-titled debut, then another self-titled – both in 1969 – and Legal in 1970. And perhaps adding her fourth album, Gal a Todo Vapor, in 1971.
I could keep going. I feel like I should stop because I could really keep going.
Obviously, I'm not the music mind that you are or other people are on this, but I just remember growing up - 1979, when Prince came out with Prince and then followed up with Dirty Mind, Controversy, and then leading up to 1999 and then Purple Rain two years after. I kept thinking to myself, "Everything's getting better and better and better." Then he drops the hammer with the last two.
Hanif Abdurraqib: Prince is another one where if I'm talking classic Prince ... listen, this is going to get me in a lot of trouble ... but I don't know if Prince has a great run. For me, if I'm holding Prince to a standard of his level ... whenever we talk about classic album runs with artists, I really feel like it's important to define what we believe to be a classic and stick to that, right? I don't know if Controversy is a classic. Dirty Mind I think is a classic. 1999? Purple Rain? Classic. I don't know if Around the World in a Day or Parade are classics. Sign O' the Times absolutely is a classic. And to be fair, a Prince "non-classic" album is still a hell of an album. I'm saying that Controversy is not a classic album based on the standard that Prince set.