Ever since he unleashed his magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life in 1976, Stevie Wonder’s musical output has been extremely erratic. During the 1980’s his admirers were now waiting several years between his new album releases. This culminated in the decade long absence after his 1995 album Conversation Peace. As the 1990’s dragged on with no new Stevie Wonder albums,I personally assumed by the turn of the century that he was basically retired from recording. At the time it seemed that some of the implicit edicts of rock writers of the 90’s declared that Wonder would not be allowed to do anything contemporary unless it fit with the hip-hop based soul/funk sub-genres popular at the time.
Stevie Wonder was always an artist who grew musically within the context of his own established compositional and rhythmic framework. And when that rhythm stiffened during the hip-hop era? I sadly assumed Stevie’s “place in the sun” had been co-opted. While I found much to enjoy in this modern sound as well? Stevie’s approach was starting to seem more and more important to popular music’s stalled progression at the time. After many false starts,his new studio album A Time 2 Love finally arrived in September 2005. And the song on the album that made the most immediate impact on me was “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby”.
Starting out with a tumbling rhythm,Stevie sings about “such a happy couple” whose relationship begins to disintegrate due to the fires of suspicion that begins to build up. Lyrically the rest of the song plays out the declaration of trust issues,and the fact that both parties should tell each other about their other suitors who are “just using them like a toy”. The refrains of the songs all feature that tumbling drum sound of the intro-making a very creative use of sampling as the Hannah Barbara cartoon-style percussive effect (used when a character would start running) shows up as a rhythmic element before the chorus comes in.
This chorus showcases Stevie’s trademark,grinding bass synthesizer playing very bluesy “Superstition”-style parts accentuated by bouncy,dancing horn charts and a choir of multi tracked Wonder vocals chanting “whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” repeatedly-as if somewhat in shock of the affairs occurring out of the lyrics. The second refrain of the song,which also closes out the song,is the part where Wonder provides the solution to the lyrics dilemma, features Stevie’s well known slogging drum style punctuated only by demanding horn blasts and ending with a rather boastful chant of “WHO-HA,WHO WHO-HA!”.
Some online articles I’ve seen in passing seem to have suggested this song was based on a leftover jam from Stevie’s massive 1972 production that resulted in the albums Music Of My Mind and Talking Book. Indeed it is filled to the brim with instrumental and melodic references to both “Superstition” and “Sweet Little Girl”. So on that level? This song marks a full on return to strong live band type horn funk of Stevie’s early/mid 70’s heyday and a break from feeling as if he had to be musically “new” on any particular level. Lyrically this song could not be more on time. While romantic discord and betrayal had been a big part of Stevie’s lyricism through his salad days,it was on a more individual level.
The early 2000’s represented an American pop culture built around what many refer to as “trash TV”. So called reality shows that seemed to function only for the purpose of breaking up romantic relationships for the purpose of winning a contest had become convention. So had lie detector based talk shows regarding paternity tests. Stevie was setting the couple in this song within a modern sociological framework that seemed to be nothing but cynical and suspicious about romance. And through the happily yet trepidatiously melodic funk of this song,advises honesty between people over any romantic types of conspiracy theories. It is romantically inclined funk with a modern message-with its “heard it through the grapevine” blues style lyrics and melody firmly updated for that contemporary ethic. And from where I stand? Just what Stevie’s inner Doctor Funkestein ordered!