Curtis (Curtdom '70, Rhino '00) Rating: A
Justifyably famous for his soulful work with The Impressions
in the '60s and the Superfly soundtrack, it's time that the rest of Curtis Mayfield's solo output started getting its just due, in particular his revolutionary pre-Superfly early '70s work. The fact is that all of Superfly's best attributes were already on ample display on Curtis, Mayfield's solo debut, which was released on his own Curtdom label, a groundbreaking move at the time for a black artist. The funky "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go" starts things off with a simmering if perhaps overly long (7:51) groove (not to mention one of the greatest song titles ever), while Mayfield slips into a more musically lush mode on "The Other Side of the Town," though the lyrics deliver an equally despairing account of black ghetto blues. "The Makings of You" is a beautiful ballad that shows off a tenor worthy of Eddie Kendricks (though Mayfield admittedly lacks the grit of a David Ruffin), while the ambitious, multi-sectioned "We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue" is a memorable call for black pride that's fueled by some serious Latin percussion. The great horn heavy groove of "Move On Up" is probably the album's best-known and best song (it’s also the longest at nearly nine minutes in length), while "Miss Black America" and "Wild and Free" are its most uplifting, as hope replaces the earlier mood of gloom. Finally, "Give It Up" closes things out on an intensely personal note, as Mayfield honestly depicts the end of a relationship that may or may not be autobiographical in nature. No matter how dire the lyrics get on Curtis, the songs are always melodic and catchy, and Mayfield offers a nice balance of searing social critiques with his own more personal experiences. The result is an unjustly neglected classic that's ripe for rediscovery, as the album grippingly tells of troubled times while remaining timeless. After all, though Mayfield was a sharp mouthpiece for disaffected black America, he was first and foremost a brilliant musician, and his many talents are amply showcased on Curtis.
Curtis/Live! (Curtdom '71, Rhino '00) Rating: A- Curtis was a platinum selling success on which Mayfield made a clean break with The Impressions, but a live album appearing a mere eight months later must have seemed a bit redundant or unnecessary at the time. However, one listen to Curtis/Live! will convince you otherwise. First of all, only three songs are repeated from Curtis, and the five Impressions songs included are given gritty new life, so much so that the group's pristine vocal harmonies are barely missed. In addition, Mayfield unveils three brand new songs. On the first, falsetto-led new track Curtis declares "I Plan To Stay A Believer," but things take a turn for the worse on "Stare and Stare" (excerpt: "the only thrill is doing bad, and that's kind of sad"). "Stone Junkie" closes the album with a warning about the dangers of drugs, and such was the power of Mayfield's magnetic stage presence that the audience sings along with what was then a brand new song! Recorded live at New York City's legendary Bitter End nightclub, this is a warm, intimate performance that's clearly live and very much alive. In fact, one can easily picture how it was like to have been there on that special night. Mayfield's fine band delivers sparse backing support (percussionist Henry Gibson especially shines), letting the simple strengths of his funky soul compositions to ring true. Among the highlights is a lovely, unadorned cover of The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," which was as inspired a reading as it was surprising a selection. Curtis Mayfield wondered why "we seem to be able to do everything but get along," a sentiment that Rodney King would famously echo some twenty years later. But while Mayfield honestly depicted the dark side of ghetto life, he also had a good sense of humor and was able to look at the bright side of things. Mayfield ultimately believed that "tomorrow can be an even brighter day," and the sheer quality of Curtis/Live! is bound to brighten the day of any music lover willing to give it a try.
Roots (Curtdom '71, Rhino '99) Rating: A-
To quote A. Scott Galloway's well written liner notes in the reissue, "Curtis left his lead spot in The Impressions to pursue topics of the times with greater depth, candor, and the language of the streets. Along with the sharpened lyrical themes came a shift in the music as electrofied wah-wah guitars and African drums began dominating the mix." This is true for all of Mayfield's early '70s solo albums, but Roots is probably the least essential of the albums covered on this site. It's still a really good album, but the melodies simply aren't as consistently memorable as on the surrounding albums, and these lushly arranged, leisurely evolving (i.e. long) songs are almost too string heavy at times. The album sure ddoes have a groove, though. For example, "Get Down" sounds like a funkier Santana with strings, horns, and Curtis singing, "We Got To Have Peace" is rightfully "one of Curtis' all-time favorite (anti-war) anthems," and "Beautiful Brother Of Mine" throbs and shakes for over 7 intoxicatingly over-elaborate minutes. Elsewhere, Mayfield delivers the kind of upbeat message songs ("Keep On Keeping On") and sweet love ballads ("Love To Keep You In My Mind") that he's famous for, and he gamely attempts brooding ("Underground") and bluesier ("Now You're Gone") fare while showing off his understated (and underrated) guitar playing. In short, I'd recommend getting Roots only after checking out the other albums detailed here, but any fan of Mayfield should get this one too.
Superfly (Curtdom '72, Rhino '99) Rating: A
I've never seen the movie that this soundtrack album ties in with very closely, which is proof positive that it stands up all by its lonesome. That said, like most soundtracks this is primarily mood music, albeit of an often brilliant kind, as Mayfield again crosses smoothly sensuous yet funky music with dark, despairing lyrics about ghetto life. "Broken home, father gone, mama tired, so he's all alone...kinda sad, kinda mad, ghetto child, thinkin' he's been had" (from "Little Child Runnin' Wild") and "I'm your mama, I'm your daddy, I'm that nigga in the alley, I'm your doctor when in need, want some coke?, have some weed, you know me I'm your friend, your main boy thick and thin..I'm your pusherman" (from "Pusherman") are vivid portraits of the junkie subculture. Far from glamorizing said subculture, songs such as the classic "Freddie's Dead" describe the inevitable end result of such a lifestyle. Two instrumentals, the funky "Junkie Chase" and the sad blues "Think" offer temporary breaks in the action, while the hopeless devotion of "Give Me Your Love" and the positive anthem "No Thing On Me" (lyric: "my life's a natural high") demonstrate the uplifting attitudes that allow people to overcome dire obstacles. Most of the protagonists here, who we get to know intimately, suffer much darker fates, however, especially on songs such as "Eddie You Should Know Better" (last lyric: "and I don't think he's gonna make it this time") and the famous title track ("if you lose don't ask no questions why, the only game you know is do or die"). These dark, gritty songs, in particular “Freddie’s Dead,” “Pusherman,” and the title track, are what most people remember about Superfly, and decades later this influential album is still more lyrically real and prescient, not to mention far more musically inventive and moving, than any gangta rap album.