Half a century ago, Stevie Wonder defined what an 'artist's classic run' could mean For 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.

Half a century ago, Stevie Wonder defined what an 'artist's classic run' could mean

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's been called the greatest creative run in the history of popular music, and it started 50 years ago this week. Stevie Wonder released five brilliant albums in the span of five years from 1972 to 1976 - "Music Of My Mind," "Talking Book," "Innervisions," "Fulfillingness' First Finale" and "Songs In The Key Of Life." The last three won Grammys for album of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERSTITION")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Very superstitious, writing's on the wall.

MARTINEZ: Stevie Wonder first signed to Motown Records when he was 11 years old, so basically he grew up with label head Berry Gordy calling all the shots. 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, and that led to a geyser of superb recordings. I spoke with cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib about Stevie Wonder's classic period, and he says the story begins with the album just before all that. It's called "Where I'm Coming From."

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 album, in part because they were thematically similar in terms of ambition, because they were both kind of operating from this newfound realm of freedom within the Motown machine.

MARTINEZ: All right, 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. So what's different about this album?

ABDURRAQIB: The primary thing that jumps out for me is just the sonic leaps. When "Music Of My Mind" gets talked about, there are kind of people who want to discuss Marvin Gaye as an inspiration. But, you know, really, what shifted Stevie Wonder's sound was hearing Tonto's Expanding Head Band debut album, "Zero Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDURRAQIB: He heard this album, and he wanted to go and meet the architects of the album, one of them being Malcolm Cecil. And 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. Like, you think in his head, he was hearing things that he just did not have the equipment to execute, right? His imagination was beyond the tools. With the synthesizer, he found his way to those tools.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERWOMAN")

WONDER: (Singing) When the summer came, you were not around. Now the summer's gone, and love cannot be found. Where were you when I needed you, last winter?

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" and "Talking Book" through "Innervisions" to "Fulfillingness' First Finale" to "Songs In The Key Of Life," which I think is really the mountaintop. But the small window of time in which these projects were released from '72 to '76, the corners that he was able to turn as an artist - you know, those are pretty fascinating to look back on, and it kind of begins with "Music Of My Mind."

MARTINEZ: You know, 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?

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 - 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 imagination possible to dream up some of those songs - I just wholeheartedly believe that those came to fruition. It just feels impossible that - well, I can't believe a human being made this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIR DUKE")

WONDER: (Singing) You can feel it all over. You can feel it all over people. You can feel it all over. You can feel it all over people.

MARTINEZ: Stevie Wonder went on to have other huge records, huge hits in the '80s. They're not, though, considered part of this classic period. Why not?

ABDURRAQIB: I actually think that "Hotter Than July" 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 - if there wasn't the interruption of "Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDURRAQIB: That serves as an interruption in the run. That kind of breaks it up.

MARTINEZ: I've heard that album be described as deeply weird.

ABDURRAQIB: It's - you know what? It is weird. I will, of course, say it is strange, 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, but I think some of that was because it came right on the back of - for me, "Songs In The Key Of Life" is one of the greatest albums ever created. 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 is odd.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: You know, I'm wondering - and I'd love to get your thoughts on this - if you've ever looked up and down music history and thought of an artist, maybe, that came close to Stevie Wonder's run.

ABDURRAQIB: This has opened up a big can of worms because I think about this - this is something I think about all the time, you know? I will say that I think Stevie Wonder's is the best. And for me...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...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" "Saint Dominic's Preview" - that's five albums in five years. Bjork - "Debut," "Post," "Homogenic," "Vespertine" - that's four. I could keep going. I feel like I should stop because I could really keep going.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. That is Hanif Abdurraqib. Thank you very much for your thoughts.

ABDURRAQIB: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING FOR THE CITY")

WONDER: (Singing) Living just enough, just enough for the city.

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