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Curtis Mayfield - Super Fly Music Album Reviews

Curtis Mayfield - Super Fly Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we explore the political soul of Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 album Super Fly.

The success of an album like Super Fly goes against all conventional wisdom. Nothing this raw, this ghetto, this funky, soulful, and political is supposed to sell five million copies. At least, to my understanding, nothing before the dawn of hip-hop, and even then you had to sacrifice some of those elements for commercial success. That’s what all the “conscious” rappers were telling me around the time I discovered Curtis Mayfield’s album some 15 years ago. It was around the time when George W. Bush was trying to convince the country that there were definitely WMDs in Iraq and even if there weren’t, he was still justified in leading us into another war with no information, no goals, and no end in sight. And yet the only protest music to really penetrate the charts was Green Day’s (decent) “American Idiot” and Jadakiss’ (less decent) “Why.”

The worst political music sounds like political music. It tends to be didactic, sure, but that’s an understandable and almost forgivable sin; it is difficult to condense any meaningful and convincing political message into the space of a few verses and a chorus. But when political music is truly awful—here, think of something like John Lennon’s “Imagine”—it is because the artist has made the same mistake as the politician: they have treated the message as more important than the people it is being delivered to. The best political music doesn’t necessarily announce itself as political because it is concerned first and foremost with the people for whom the politics matter the most.

That’s Super Fly. As Mayfield’s third studio album as a solo artist, Super Fly perfectly encapsulates the post-Civil Rights/early Black Power feel of black America struggling to survive the social and political consequences of the nation’s conservative backlash. This is the backdrop of all of the so-called blaxploitation era of film in the early ’70s, though Super Fly (directed by Gordon Parks Jr.) is the most explicit. The 1972 film follows Youngblood Priest, disillusioned by the drug trade that brought him riches beyond his imagination, as he seeks to set up one final score before leaving the game for good. The soundtrack became the most cohesive and poignant of Mayfield’s albums because it unfolds around this story of the dispossessed, forgotten strivers. The film’s star, the classically trained Ron O’Neal, said in an interview: “Super Fly is about people who don’t believe in the American Dream at all.”

As such, Mayfield opens the album with “Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” a song that was in the works before he got the Super Fly assignment, which balances both the frenetic pace and precarious circumstances of ghetto life. The string section is ominous, while the horns feel like a further warning of the dangers Mayfield describes in the lyrics. But when he wails:

Didn’t have to be here
You didn’t have to love for me
While I was just a nothin’ child
Why couldn’t they just let me be

You can feel the pain coursing through his falsetto as it gives way to resigned, desperate moan on the last “let me be.” You cry for the nameless, faceless child who runs with no escape.

Then, when the percussion kicks in on “Pusherman,” you’re ready to groove. The drums are brought to the fore, giving us a percussive melody foreign to pop music but which hit the definition of funky. It would have been easy to let the tune carry on to the dancefloor with some lighter lyrics, but Mayfield didn’t let listeners off the hook, dropping us into the life of this “man of odd circumstance/A victim of ghetto demands.” He enjoys all the spoils you expect to come from a life of dealing drugs: money, sex, clothes, cars, envy. But Mayfield’s chorus provides us with an important insight into who and what is embodied in the “Pusherman”:

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

It’s not simply that the pusherman becomes this singular figure that replaces every important relationship in the addict’s life, but rather that the pusherman could be any one of these people. Black America faced an uncertain world in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the election of President Richard Nixon. Politicians were promising to restore “law and order” after years of urban rebellions frightened white folks who had long fled to the suburbs. Steady divestment from black communities, along with increasing levels of violent policing, right at the moment where black people were supposedly free to enjoy the rights of American citizenship, put black neighborhoods at economic depression levels. The drug trade offered the best sense of escape. No one, as Mayfield pointed out, was exempt from the temptation. He had intimate knowledge of this world. Mayfield was a son of Chicago, having been raised in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects. The lyrics were as much his personal reflection on ghetto life as they were based on the characters of the film.

The soundtrack’s biggest hit, “Freddie’s Dead,” is the tragic tale of one of the film’s characters, Fat Freddie, an addict that Youngblood Priest exploits in his plot to make his last big score. Mayfield employs the wah-wah guitar to place some funk underneath the mournful orchestra while warning us against Freddie’s life choices. The most interesting lyrical couplet, though, is: “We can deal with rockets and dreams/But reality, what does it mean.” It’s reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” lamenting the ability of mankind to explore the stars but not provide for people suffering right here on earth. The album and Mayfield’s politics were aligned in being concerned, above all else, about how we care for one another.

The back half of the soundtrack includes the sensual “Give Me Your Love” which accompanies the film’s iconic bathtub scene where Youngblood Priest and his lover, Georgia, make love in the bubbles. The scene itself is maybe not as smooth as the music, but at the time, seeing black bodies be sensual and sexual with one another was so rare in film that it had to feel more revolutionary than Parks Jr.’s camera made it look. Still, the machismo and misogyny of the film can’t be overlooked, as so much of the blaxploitation era leaned on sexist tropes to carry their narratives, turning the women of their films into ancillary characters who only bolstered the male protagonist’s claim to manhood and vitality. “Give Me Your Love” isn’t so much a love song as a command song. It manages not to veer too far into the territory of aggression, maintaining a romantic assertiveness, but the line is bit blurry.

The cheesiest of the album’s nine tracks is “No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)” which feels thrown in to satisfy Mayfield’s desire to ensure that he didn’t glorify drug use, as the film tended to do. But even with his overly cautious, hall-monitor lyrics (“You don’t have to be no junkie”), he never leaves the groove behind, opting this time for something a bit more triumphant and celebratory. He closes it out with “Superfly,” a clear attempt at mimicking the boisterous superhero anthem that Isaac Hayes provided for Shaft the year before. Hayes’ song may be the single most popular track of the blaxploitation genre, but that has as much to do with its being peppered with easily parodied, overtly ’70s slang as it does with the quality of the song (it helped Hayes become the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song). “Superfly” aspires to be as big, musically, as “Theme from Shaft,” but it doesn’t sacrifice on the thematic continuity. This is still about hustling, surviving, poverty, blackness, and pain. It is, as Mayfield’s highest falsetto intones at the end of the song, about “Tryin’ ta get over.”

Super Fly inspired imitations in the blaxploitation soundtrack genre, such as Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, James Brown’s Black Caesar, and Willie Hutch’s The Mack (not bad imitations, but imitations nonetheless) that didn’t quite capture the tension, despair, and astute political analysis that make Super Fly stand out. Mayfield created the perfect film soundtrack; certainly the best of the blaxploitation genre, and perhaps, outside of Prince’s Purple Rain, the best of any soundtrack written and produced by a single artist.

And while he sang sweetly on record, Mayfield had entanglements with the real women in his life that were much more harsh. According to the Curtis Mayfield biography, Traveling Soul, co-written by his son Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria, around the time of Super Fly’s success, Curtis was abusive toward the woman he lived with, identified only as Toni, and referred as his “spiritual wife.” Todd writes: “On vacation in Nassau in October [1972], right around Super Fly’s ascendance to the top of the pops, he and Toni got into a late-night argument as [his daughters] Tracy, Sharon, and I slept in another room. When the commotion startled me awake, I walked out to find policemen hulking in the doorway and Toni with a black eye. Dad never did these things in front of us, but we’d see the aftermath.”

There is a tendency to celebrate male artist in such an uncomplicated way that obscures, and even rationalizes, some truly abhorrent behavior. This is especially true when it comes to violence against women committed by musicians we celebrate for their political contributions. We have to be willing to complicate the legacies of the men responsible for these acts. Entangled within Mayfield’s life is Super Fly, the ghetto, funky, soulful, political album that was disseminated across America. Maybe the conscious rappers of my youth were right. If Super Fly needed to accomplish all of that to become popular, it’s the exception that proves the rule. It was a moment of fortune.

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