Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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James Brown

  • Cold Sweat [King, 1967]  
  • "Live" at the Apollo Volume II [King, 1968]  
  • Sex Machine [King, 1970] A
  • Super Bad [King, 1970] A-
  • Sho Is Funky Down Here [King, 1971] C+
  • Hot Pants [Polydor, 1971] A-
  • Revolution of the Mind [Polydor, 1971] B+
  • Soul Classics [Polydor, 1972] A-
  • There It Is [Polydor, 1972] A-
  • Get on the Good Foot [Polydor, 1972] B-
  • Black Caesar [Polydor, 1973] D+
  • Slaughter's Big Rip-Off [Polydor, 1973] C
  • Soul Classics Volume II [Polydor, 1973] A-
  • The Payback [Polydor, 1973] B+
  • Hell [Polydor, 1974] B
  • Reality [Polydor, 1974] B-
  • Sex Machine Today [Polydor, 1975] C+
  • Everybody's Doin' the Hustle and Dead on the Double Bump [Polydor, 1975] B-
  • Hot [Polydor, 1975] B
  • Get Up Offa That Thing [Polydor, 1976] B-
  • Bodyheat [Polydor, 1976] C
  • Mutha's Nature [Polydor, 1977] C
  • Jam/1980's [Polydor, 1978] B+
  • Take a Look at Those Cakes [Polydor, 1978] B-
  • The Original Disco Man [Polydor, 1979] A-
  • People [Polydor, 1980] C+
  • James Brown . . . Live: Hot on the One [Polydor, 1980] B+
  • Nonstop! [Polydor, 1981] B+
  • Bring It On [Augusta Sound, 1983] B+
  • The James Brown Story: Ain't That a Groove 1966-1969 [Polydor, 1984]  
  • The James Brown Story: Doin' It to Death 1970-1973 [Polydor, 1984]  
  • Roots of a Revolution [Polydor, 1984]  
  • Gravity [Scotti Bros., 1986] C+
  • Solid Gold: 30 Golden Hits [Polydor, 1986]  
  • I'm Real [Scotti Bros., 1988] B
  • Motherlode [Polydor, 1988] A-
  • Live at the Apollo [Polydor, 1990]  
  • Star Time [Polydor, 1991] A+
  • Soul Syndrome [Rhino, 1991] A-
  • Love Over-Due [Scotti Bros., 1991] Choice Cuts
  • The Greatest Hits of the Fourth Decade [Scotti Bros., 1992] *
  • Universal James [Scotti Bros., 1992] Dud
  • Soul Pride: The Instrumentals 1960-1969 [Polydor, 1993] ***
  • Live at the Apollo 1995 [Scotti Bros., 1995] ***
  • I'm Back [Georgia Lina/Mercury, 1998] **
  • Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68 [Polydor, 1998] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Cold Sweat [King, 1967]
The modal title milestone one-upped Wilson Pickett's "Funky Broadway" and introduced JB's funky drummer number two, Clyde Stubblefield. The uptempo oldies Brown added to the hit to make an album--Lloyd Prince's "Stagger Lee," Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City," Little Willie John's "Fever," and Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight"--smelled a little fishy at the time. Now, however, they're caviar--JB's full voice and flawless time yoking proven classics to some of the tightest big-band blues ever recorded. The slow side pits Brown's ballad falsetto and ballad scream against some of the most elaborate r&b strings ever recorded. Especially on the two Nat King Cole numbers and an over-the-top "Come Rain or Come Shine," the falsetto wins by a mile. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]  

"Live" at the Apollo Volume II [King, 1968]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]  

Sex Machine [King, 1970]
Some doubt the claim that this was recorded in concert in Augusta, Georgia, but everyone believes in the music. On "Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" he creates a dance track even more compelling than the single out of the same five elements: light funk-four on the traps, syncopated bass figure, guitar scratched six beats to the bar, and two voices for call and response. When he modulates to the bridge it's like the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. After that he could describe his cars for three sides and get away with it (hope this doesn't give him any bright ideas), but in fact all of what remains is prime JB except for the organ version of "Spinning Wheel" (horn bands will out) and the cover of "If I Ruled the World" (thought he already did). Side four, with its powerful "Man's World," is especially fine, closing with a soul-wrenching scream that says it all. A

Super Bad [King, 1970]
Recorded live, it says--hmm. Were the strings that accompany "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" on stage with him, or did he borrow them from Isaac Hayes on his way to pick up the uncredited "Chain Gang" finale from Sam Cooke? But it doesn't matter. Ten minutes of super rhythm plus ten minutes of bad blues plus a surprisingly passionate "Let It Be Me" with the Jamesettes and you even forgive the bad (really bad, I mean) Albert Ayler imitation that he identifies as a tribute to 'Trane. In fact, you kind of like it. A-

Sho Is Funky Down Here [King, 1971]
Brown's farewell to his own indie label is so outre purists will probably prize it. Rock-funk instrumentals dominated by (literally) anonymous electric piano and guitar, both more rock than funk, which would never be said of the rhythm section. At moments it sounds like JB Meets BB--and I don't mean the bluesman, I mean Bela Bartok--in the person of arranger Dave Matthews. As for JB, he grunts a few times. Veddy interesting. C+

Hot Pants [Polydor, 1971]
Is it rolling, James? The hit vamp (can't call it a tune, now can you?) "Escape-ism" was supposedly cut to kill time until Bobby Byrd arrived. The title track follows and it's a killer too, one of Brown's richest Afro-dances. "Blues and Pants" suggests that the title track is a mellowed down takeoff on "Sex Machine," which is good to know. And "Can't Stand It" is not to be confused with "I Can't Stand Myself." If you say so, James. Only he doesn't. I don't think he cares. And neither do I. A-

Revolution of the Mind [Polydor, 1971]
Ever the innovator, Brown here presents a live double-LP, "Recorded Live at the Apollo Vol. III." Good stuff, too--a consistent overview of his polyrhythm phase. But "Sex Machine" is sharper and "Bewildered" deeper on last year's live double. And with the medley on side three the tempo gets so hot that anybody but JB will have trouble dancing to it. B+

Soul Classics [Polydor, 1972]
Brown recorded nine of these ten cuts for King; every track is good and many--"Sex Machine," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You"--are great. But they're so jumbled chronologically--side two jumps from '71 to '65 back to '71 to '69 to '66--that it's a tribute to Brown's single-minded rhythmic genius that they hold together at all. Hearing his classic '70s dance tracks in their original three-minute formats, you begin to pine for the extended album versions--devoid of verbal logic and often even chord changes, these patterns, for that's what they really are, are meant to build, not resolve. And the chief formal advantage of top-forty strictures is that they force speedy resolutions. A-

There It Is [Polydor, 1972]
A generous four r&b hits here, three of them--"There It Is," "I'm a Greedy Man," and "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing"--ace JB grooves. (Who's on congas, James?) The fourth is the "King Heroin" sermon, which together with its ten-minute offshoot "Public Enemy #1" is stuck cunningly--Brown has been reading his Alexander Pope--in the middle of the dance stuff on both sides. Plus an actual song, the first new one he's recorded in years, and a JB composition called "Never Can Say Goodbye" that asks the musical question, "What's going on?" For junkies, this is an A plus; for the rest of us, it's somewhat more marginal. A-

Get on the Good Foot [Polydor, 1972]
Only two hits on this studio double, though it takes Hank Ballard five minutes to describe its riches on side two--"he comes from all sides on this one." Lines repeat from song to song--"The long-haired hippies and the Afro blacks/All get together off behind the tracks/And they party"--and so do riffs. The hook on the twelve-minute "Please, Please" (not to be confused, of course, with "Please, Please, Please") repeats one hundred forty-eight (and a half) times. I love the hook, I even like the line, and if this were the world's only James Brown album it would be priceless. But there's a lot of waste here, and Brown's voice can't carry ballads the way it used to. B-

Black Caesar [Polydor, 1973]
You listen to Brown for music, not songs, but that's no reason to expect good soundtrack albums from him. He should never be allowed near a vibraphone again. D+

Slaughter's Big Rip-Off [Polydor, 1973]
As movie scores go, this ripoff is only medium-sized. At least it apes Oliver Nelson rather than Henry Mancini, and sometimes it even breaks away from the atmosphere into something earthier. Worth hearing: "Sexy, Sexy, Sexy." C

Soul Classics Volume II [Polydor, 1973]
In absolute terms, Brown has declined on Polydor. Even if you don't insist on great compositions (never his strength) or great singing (where he's waned physically), he just hasn't matched rhythmic inventions like "Mother Popcorn" and "Sex Machine" for the big label. And this compilation inexplicably omits "Hot Pants," which comes close, in favor of his ill-advised revivals of "Think" and "Honky Tonk." Still, eight of these ten tracks have made the soul top ten over the past two years, and not counting "King Heroin" you'll shake ass to every one. A-

The Payback [Polydor, 1973]
Because more is often more with JB, a studio double comprising eight long songs isn't necessarily a gyp. Especially when all the songs have new titles. Not only does most of this work as dance music, but two slow ones are actually sung. "Time Is Running Out Fast," however, is a spectacularly inaccurate title for a horn-and-voice excursion that shambles on for 12:37. B+

Hell [Polydor, 1974]
Great stuff on the two good sides--tricky horn charts, "Please, Please, Please" with a Spanish accent, law-enforcement advice. Then there's the side of ballads w/strings, which might be all right if they were also w/voice, and the side that begins "I Can't Stand It '76." B

Reality [Polydor, 1974]
Talkin' loud and sayin' nothing, Brown's streetwise factotum intones: "He's still the baddest--always will be the baddest--that's why we give him credit for being the superstar he is." A bad sign (really bad, I mean). As are "Who Can I Turn To" and "Don't Fence Me In." B-

Sex Machine Today [Polydor, 1975]
If Someone were to airlift this one tape to you in the tundra, the remakes would be godsends. But if you own another version of "Sex Machine" you own a better one. Ditto "I Feel Good," ditto every aimless solo, and ditto the reading from Rand-McNally. Which leaves us with the symphosynth, the complaints that other musicians are ripping him off, and the putdowns of hairy legs. C+

Everybody's Doin' the Hustle and Dead on the Double Bump [Polydor, 1975]
In which JB eases the tempo and stops using his voice as a conga drum, thus fashioning a languorous funk that I guess is designed to compete with Barry White. It's not horrible, but I'd just as soon hear the competition--after all, what's JB without intensity? And then suddenly he says fuck it and closes the record with a seven minute jam on "Kansas City" so sharp it could bring back the lindy hop, at least in dreams. B-

Hot [Polydor, 1975]
This record has a bad rep. Most of it was reportedly cut with arranger Dave Matthews by New York studio musicians and then dubbed over by JB, and the title hit didn't do as well among blacks as David Bowie's "Fame," where its guitar lick first went public. But side one really works. If Brown did cop that lick, he certainly had it coming, and except for the sodden "So Long" everything else is touched with the extraordinary, from the cracked falsetto that climaxes "For Sentimental Reasons" to the stirring male backup on "Try Me" to "The Future Shock of the World," a high-echo rhythm track on which JB does nothing but whisper the word "disco." Unfortunately, the dance vamp and ballads overdisc are nothing new, though "Please, Please, Please" (with more male backup) sounds fine in its umpteenth version. B

Get Up Offa That Thing [Polydor, 1976]
"I'm Black, I'm Back?" is how JB begins the commercial message on the jacket, and the title track is his biggest single in a year and a half. "I can see the disco now," he emphasizes, and even the blues and the ballad cultivate a groove designed to reintroduce him to that alien world he founded. But he sounds defensive because he has a reason to be--he can't hit the soft grooves the way he can the hard ones. When he starts equating himself with Elvis Presley (just before the fade on "I Refuse to Lose"), you know the identity problems are getting critical. B-

Bodyheat [Polydor, 1976]
Two or three functional dance tracks, and Brown's will always be tougher than MFSB's. But not than Brown's. "Woman" is unlistenably sanctimonious, "What the World Needs Now Is Love" is the raggedest singing I've ever heard from him, and "Kiss in 77" is "head to head and toe to toe"--in other words as "brand new" as the "New Sound!" he promises. C

Mutha's Nature [Polydor, 1977]
When they start writing songs called "People Who Criticize," you know they're really worried. And the anxiety always comes out in the music. C

Jam/1980's [Polydor, 1978]
Free of the pretentious bluster that has marred so much of his work in the disco era, this is the groove album Brown has been announcing for years. He's finally learned how to relax his rhythms without diluting his essence, and the A side is simply and superbly what the title promises, though he may have the decade wrong. The B side is less of the same, and I bet no one who buys this record ever chooses to play it. I also bet they'd get dancing if they did. B+

Take a Look at Those Cakes [Polydor, 1978]
The title cut is a great throwaway--an eleven-minute rumination on ass-watching, including genuinely tasteless suggestions that Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder join the fun. The rest is just throwaway--with a beat of course. B-

The Original Disco Man [Polydor, 1979]
In which Brown relinquishes the profit-taking ego gratification of writing and producing everything himself. Those credits go to Brad Shapiro, Millie Jackson's helpmate, who thank god is no disco man himself. Sure he likes disco tricks--synthesized sound effects, hooky female chorus, bass drum pulse--but he loves what made JB, well, the original disco man: hard-driving, slightly Latinized funk patterns against the rough rap power of that amazing voice, which may have lost expressiveness but definitely retains its sense of rhythm. Plus: disco disc of the year, "It's Too Funky in Here." And a renunciation of "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World." A-

People [Polydor, 1980]
Anybody who thinks his first Brad Shapiro album was mechanical should get a load of what a real assembly line sounds like. Original Disco Man was a labor of vanity, and when it didn't hype his career the way he'd been told it would JB went back on automatic. Shapiro & Co. respond in kind. C+

James Brown . . . Live: Hot on the One [Polydor, 1980]
Hard to believe almost ten years have passed since JB had the wherewithal to release a live double--not the new tunes, which he mostly skips for old stuff, but the commercial credibility. Hard to believe this one's so different--busier, relying on band and backup rather than the acuity of Brown's singing. Hard to believe it's so alive--until you play the damn thing, which only slackens to make room for the latest edition of "Man's World." B+

Nonstop! [Polydor, 1981]
Titles like "Popcorn 80's," "Love 80's," "Super Bull/Super Bad," "I Go Crazy," signal a contract-fulfilling rehash, but this time he's rehashing the right stuff in the right way--the horn charts and rhythm arrangements are as tricky and on the one as in any newfangled funk you want to name. Most of the sweet ache has disappeared from "I Go Crazy" since 1960, and I'm not going to claim that the successfully renegotiated tempo makes up for it. But it is a consolation. B+

Bring It On [Augusta Sound, 1983]
The fast side is honorable and dispensable--great title riff plus filler, nothing anyone who owns some early-'70s JB is likely to need or even want, though neophytes will dance to it now. The slow side comprises the three strongest covers Brown's released since he stuck a classic "Kansas City" onto Everybody's Doin' the Hustle in 1975. He still approaches high notes with the caution of someone who's hoarse as indelibly as he's black and proud, but he's emoting like he wants you to believe "Tennessee Waltz" and "For Your Precious Love" and in between comes "The Right Time," which isn't really slow at all and features a Brownette who approaches any kind of note as if she owns it. B+

The James Brown Story: Ain't That a Groove 1966-1969 [Polydor, 1984]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

The James Brown Story: Doin' It to Death 1970-1973 [Polydor, 1984]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Roots of a Revolution [Polydor, 1984]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Gravity [Scotti Bros., 1986]
Not a James Brown album--a James Brown-influenced Dan Hartman record, with James Brown on vocals. Unlike Brad Shapiro, who manufactured good music this way in 1979, Hartman takes his humdrum copyrights and urges the great one to go for the expressiveness he hasn't commanded in over a decade rather than the rhythm he'll take to his grave. Don't believe me--just compare any of Polydor's most recent compilations: James Brown's Funky People (featuring Lyn Collins, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and James Brown), Dead on the Heavy Funk 74-76 (salvaging a total of zero good LPs), or In the Jungle Groove (long-promised, worth-waiting for, full-length, '69-'71 dance classics). Hartman would love every one. C+

Solid Gold: 30 Golden Hits [Polydor, 1986]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

I'm Real [Scotti Bros., 1988]
Fact is, he hasn't known what to do with his reality, originality, genius, and so forth since the mid-'70s, when disco took the bump out of the JB funk that made modern dance music possible. Though after years of floundering he figured out the new groove, Brad Shapiro still had to show him the ins and outs of its glitz; now that young dance musicians have reacted back to JB funk, cramming and twisting its bottom while running poesy across the top, he needs Full Force (who like Shapiro aren't true genre insiders, just pros who can take the genre to the bridge) to hip him to its lore. Raps and hooks are nothing special. But whether it's live or Memorex, the dense hostility of the drum attack is both fresh and in the tradition--his tradition. B

Motherlode [Polydor, 1988]
Damned if I noticed "People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul" on the Slaughter's Big Rip-Off soundtrack, but for nine minutes it climaxes the instrumentals and vamps on side two of this revelatory-as-usual Chris White vault job, bopping along on some swinging souly-funk genre cusp of its own--not "Sex Machine," but in the same worth-the-price-of-admission league. The spare, curlicued "Untitled Instrumental" is more like jazzy-funk, the rest just JB playing rough and getting loose in the halcyon early '70s. Which come to think of it is also worth the price of admission. A-

Live at the Apollo [Polydor, 1990]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Star Time [Polydor, 1991]
Canonizing as they commodify, CD boxes sever individual works from history. They obscure how albums as much as singles reflect cultural moments as well as formal imperatives and personal impulses, and rarely are their remixes, B sides, and previously unreleaseds more enlightening or entertaining than the album tracks they supplant. Redefining as it compiles, this is the great exception. The "songs" are all familiar, but with Brown, songs are only an excuse. Though his catalogue conceals a ballad album that could scare the shades off Ray Charles, with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" he discovered the deepest of his many callings, which was putting rhythm on top of American pop. Hence there's no excess in the many extended performances compilers Harry Weinger and Cliff White extract from the vault. Except perhaps on the first disc, which strains to provide the originals of songs known to most of us from their once-overs on "Live" at the Apollo, the five hours of music never falter. Only one question remains. If James Brown is the greatest popular musician of the era, how come he's never put out an album this convincing himself--not even Sex Machine? Does he know something about records that we don't? Is it possible they're not so important after all? A+

Soul Syndrome [Rhino, 1991]
With his '70s output reconfigured by Polydor, this rarely seen 1980 T.K. LP-plus-12-inch becomes a valuable document: solid JB funk the way JB conceived it, or threw it out there, or whatever. Highlights include the on-the-one coughs of "Smokin' and Drinkin'" and the big-band "Honky Tonk," but never mind that--this stuff is prime, so the groove's the thing. A-

Love Over-Due [Scotti Bros., 1991]
"Teardrops on Your Letter" Choice Cuts

The Greatest Hits of the Fourth Decade [Scotti Bros., 1992]
yes, he did have a synth-funk phase ("Get Up Offa That Thing/Dr. Detroit") *

Universal James [Scotti Bros., 1992] Dud

Soul Pride: The Instrumentals 1960-1969 [Polydor, 1993]
all the jams you need and more ("Ain't It Funky Now, Pts. 1 & 2," "Come On in the House") ***

Live at the Apollo 1995 [Scotti Bros., 1995]
tempos up a notch, vocal pitch down a notch, he puts out like he has something to prove ("It's a Man's World," "Make It Funky") ***

I'm Back [Georgia Lina/Mercury, 1998]
It was like you never left ("Funk on Ah Roll [S-Class Mix]," "James on the Loose"). **

Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68 [Polydor, 1998]
Counting the half-studio Sex Machine, this makes Brown's fifth live album from the crucial 1967-1971 period--and except for Sex Machine, it's also the best. Its chief competition, Live at the Apollo Volume II, was released a few weeks after it was recorded, but Brown moved so fast in those years that the Apollo record is radically different, a soul envoi at a moment when, as here, the funked-over "Cold Sweat" was his centerpiece and the daring "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" his pride and joy. From touchstone to newborn, from bop-inflected Maceo on the piss-break instrumental to born-again JB on the climax medley, breakneck intensity for the ages. A-

See Also