Curtis Mayfield - Superfly - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Curtis Mayfield - Superfly

by Jon Burke Rating:10 Release Date:1972-07-10
Curtis Mayfield - Superfly
Curtis Mayfield - Superfly

Critics who talk shit about Curtis Mayfield’s first two, post-Impressions, solo albums can suck it. Both Curtis and Roots are stellar records—Roots, in particular, has been critically ignored for no apparent reason. As proof I’d suggest you briefly click away from this review and search YouTube for Mayfield’s "Now You're Gone.” Prepare for layers-upon-layers of instruments churning out a distinctly Mayfieldian brand of slow groove funk and soul. Bask in it. Play it twice—three times if necessary! Because it’s just that good.

Now that you’re back, ask yourself, why would anyone ignore something so sonically sumptuous? The answer is simple: Superfly. In much the same way Rubber Soul and Revolver were overlooked for years because they had the misfortune of preceding Sgt. Pepper’s, so too are the first two Curtis Mayfield albums frequently passed over for the famous soundtrack. It would all be so completely unjust… if Superfly wasn’t so, damn, good. But, Superfly is more than just good, it’s a great soundtrack that changed an entire musical genre for the better. Not only that, but the album also actively questioned the politics and values at the heart of the exploitation film on which it was based. In this way Mayfield had his cake, ate it too and somehow had enough left over to feed the masses a slice of soul so tasty that it can still be heard, 45 years after its release, in countless hip hop samples.  

The album’s opener, “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”, rides in on a laidback funk beat that belies the song’s subject matter. The story of youth corrupted may be told over a smooth groove but Mayfield collaborator, Johnny Pate, peppers the track with orchestral stings that feel a bit like a sonic stabbing. All the while Mayfield’s voice is pure honey, poured out slow, mourning the song’s eponymous child led astray. Though it’s a little sleepier than the rest of Superfly, “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” hints at what’s to come: an epic tragedy told over some of the most gorgeous pop music ever recorded. Johnny Pate, who arranged all of Superfly’s string parts, doesn’t get enough credit for his work in turning Mayfield’s songs into epic compositions. Pate’s work on the Shaft in Africa soundtrack is worth a listen, or three, as well.   

Next up, “Pusherman”, is one of Superfly’s most celebrated tracks and for good reason. Impossibly smooth and densely layered, “Pusherman”, paints the unflattering self-portrait of a drug dealer in surgically sharp detail. The song’s lyrics seem to access the unexamined thoughts of a hustler on the make; the things a drug dealer must tell him or herself in order to get through a day of selling poison to their neighbors. It’s absolutely haunting, especially in light of the way the film valorizes its central character, Priest, a remorseless cocaine dealer:

“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…”

“Freddie’s Dead”, the first single from the soundtrack, centers on the death of Fat Freddie—a character from the film who fails to pay Priest on time and eventually informs on Priest’s illegal activities to law enforcement. In the film, Freddie’s death is seen as cosmic comeuppance for snitching. Mayfield offers a more nuanced view of a man who never had a chance:

“Everybody's misused him/ Ripped him up and abused him/ Another junkie plan/ Pushing dope for the man/ A terrible blow/ But that's how it goes”

The rest of the album continues with Mayfield’s brilliant music overlaid with more insightful criticism of drug dealing, ghetto injustice, legalized corruption and the myriad ways inescapable criminal lifestyle is the opposite of glorious. “Give Me Your Love” stands out as yet another, in a seemingly endless catalog, of Mayfield’s masterful love songs. The album’s only throwaway track, “Think”, is an instrumental featuring what sounds like an oboe solo that goes absolutely nowhere. The best thing to be said for “Think” is that it lowers expectations in such a way that the killer closing track, “Superfly”, only benefits in the comparison.

“Superfly” is to the Superfly soundtrack as “Theme From Shaft” is to the Shaft soundtrack and, by that, I mean it is perfection on record. Both Hayes’ and Mayfield’s songs are epic in nature, boasting massive shifts in dynamics, huge brass and orchestral parts and intense pacing. “Superfly” is also the only moment on the soundtrack in which Mayfield allows himself, however briefly, to be caught up in the fantasy of the film’s plot. He does this by initially boasting about Priest’s drug dealing prowess, his quick thinking and his sheer will to escape his life in the ghetto. By the end of the song however Mayfield has turned the fantasy over to reveal its wormy underbelly:

“The aim of his role/ Was to move a lot of blow/ Ask him his dream/ What does it mean?/ He woudn't know/ ‘Can't be like the rest’/ Is the most he'll confess/ But the time's running out/ And there's no happiness”

This approach, to lead listeners into a faux paradise and then pull the rug out from under them, masterfully subverts the film’s more nihilistic message. Mayfield was able to make a statement with big brassy horns, wah-pedals and ten tons of funk about the reality of the drug game and the lies perpetrated by the film and still make an amazing record at the same time. If you haven’t heard Superfly, now is the time to do so.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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