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Stevie Wonder kicked off an unmatched run with 'Music of My Mind'

Stevie Wonder - 'Music of My Mind'

The world was changing around Stevie Wonder. Having dropped the “Little” moniker as he grew into his own man, Wonder had charmed his way into landing number one hits in the mid-1960s, worked through the upheaval of the late 1960s, and arrived in a world with infinite possibilities during the early 1970s. During all that time, Wonder was taking in influences, philosophies, and new technology, hoping to combine them all into a singular artistic vision.

There was just one problem: Barry Gordy. As the head of Motown Records, Gordy was instrumental in the establishment of black voices into mainstream culture during the ’60s. But in Gordy’s mind, the key to global success was by sticking to a formula: catchy, short, and inoffensive. During the turbulent end of the decade, Gordy refused to allow his artists to make more politically-conscious material, but artists like Marvin Gaye wanted to use their sustained success as a bargaining chip for more autonomy.

Wonder desired to do the same, and he had an ace up his sleeve: his Motown contract included a clause that allowed him to leave the label when he turned 21. Right before his original contract was set to expire, Wonder produced Where I’m Coming From, an album filled with protest songs and social commentary. As it was possibly the last album from one of their biggest artists, Motown had no choice but to accept the album and its contents.

In the subsequent months before his 21st birthday in 1971, Wonder began crafting his follow, Music of My Mind, without knowing what record label was going to release it. Eventually, Wonder and Motown came to an agreement that greatly increased Wonder’s royalty rate. More importantly, his new contract stipulated that Wonder had complete artistic freedom and that Motown would accept his music without interference or edits.

Around this same time, Wonder befriended Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, an electronic music duo consisting of Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. The pair exposed Wonder to the expanded world of cutting edge synthesisers, including ARP and Moog keyboards. The expanded sounds of the new synths allowed Wonder to largely function as a one-man band, covering the parts that were previously taken on by guitar, bass, and brass. Wonder hired Margouleff and Cecil to help him finish Music of My Mind as programmers and studio engineers.

The new addition of futuristic keyboards began to push Wonder in a more progressive direction. No longer needing to dictate parts to musicians, Wonder’s songs began to sprawl and stretch out to whatever length he desired. Music of My Mind has half of its songs over the five-minute mark, a stark contrast to his previous albums, which were largely singles collections. Wonder wanted his albums to be conceptual and complete products, telling stories and representing sonic journeys that only work when strung together.

The album’s only misstep comes on the fourth track, ‘Sweet Little Girl’. Instead of singing, Wonder decides to mostly run through the song in an uncomfortably intimate spoken word. While it’s meant to be romantic, the results are actually quite gross, with Wonder plying the eponymous figure with candy and even affecting what sounds like a Big Bopper impression at one point. Wonder starts getting weirdly aggressively towards the end, and the results make ‘Sweet Little Girl’ the rarest of things: an embarrassing Stevie Wonder song.

But the rest of the album’s eight tracks more than make up for it. Kicking off with the dual-epics of ‘Love Having You Around’ and ‘Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)’, Wonder pairs his unique blend of soul with additional layers of electronics and ambience. The album’s first two tracks are the only ones featuring outside instrumentation – from that point on, every noise, voice, and sound comes directly from Wonder.

In his desire to create more conceptual work, Wonder largely abandoned hit-making. The album’s only single, ‘Superwoman’, is eight minutes long and largely functions as two songs in one. But just because he wasn’t making radio-friendly material didn’t mean that Wonder sacrificed his ear for melody. Quite the contrary, as Music of My Mind is dense with hooks and lines that could easily have powered multiple individual songs. Instead, Wonder jam-packs them into the album’s nine tracks.

For better or worse, Music of My Mind remains perhaps the most purely-singular album that Stevie Wonder ever released. With few outside collaborators, Wonder allows his outpouring of creativity to take over the album’s material. It represents a major step forward for the artist, and Wonder would continue to evolve with his new freedom and perfect his signature sound on his subsequent albums. Music of My Mind is the starting point for Wonder’s still-unmatched run of classic albums throughout the ’70s, and even if it’s the lesser of his “classic period” records, it remains a fascinating window into the genius of Stevie Wonder.