James Brown - The Payback - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

James Brown - The Payback

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1973-12-03
James Brown - The Payback
James Brown - The Payback

James Brown’s 1973 masterpiece, The Payback was supposed to be the soundtrack to a blaxploitation flick, Hell Up In Harlem. Rejected by the producers as the same old James Brown, it shot to number 1 on the Soul charts and cracked the Top 40. Payback indeed. Two things make this LP unique. One, as long as the tracks are, it's James Brown at his most streamlined. The man is focused. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles.

What also makes this record stand out is how high minded it is with its meditations on Black Power. Brown wasn’t kidding around. He saw a crisis and he not only looked it square in the eye, but he also sought to give a positive message to see folk through. So, this isn’t just showbiz, this is Funk with a message. There is almost a shamanistic quality to these mesmerizing tracks. In terms of this phase of Brown’s career, one can see not only his musical but the socially conscious influence on a host of artists from Sly Stone to Miles Davis.

The title track has been sampled so often it should be familiar to anyone’s ears, but there’s nothing like the original. Suffice to say, the hardest working man in showbiz wasn’t sampling shit. They were laying it down for real. That’s not to say they were pulling this out of thin air. Brown had his influences for certain but as they say, amateurs borrow, a genius--- steals. “Can I get some hits? I need those hits! Hit me! Owwwwwww!” Not a bad way to kick off an album.

‘Doing The Best That I Can’ proves even the slower stuff has some deep groove. Here is Brown in searing ballad mode. While he may rightly be the godfather of Funk, Brown’s softer side tends to be somewhat overlooked. But there is potent magic here. When it comes to balladry, Brown could sing it like no one else.  

 ‘Take Some…Leave Some’ will bring you back time and again. The frenetic, ‘Shoot Your Shot’ ups the ante even more. Positively infectious. Yet, if these are extended jams, nothing is ever loose. This band is tight. You could bounce a dime off the bed of grooves they lay down here.

Things really slow down for the Bluesy, ‘Forever Suffering’, Brown’s voice pleading for compassion but never letting himself off the hook. “What have I done?” he chokes out at one point. Then later, “If I cry, would they be satisfied?”. Cue next, the undeniable groove of ‘Stone To The Bone’ which struts in and dares you not to get up out that chair and move.

‘Mind Power’ is the piece de resistance. The message. The payback. A positive mantra that Brown leaves echoing in your head long after the album is over. Rather than hamming away at it with a sermonizing ball peen hammer, musically, Brown lets his message fade out, sitting with the listener, giving them something to think over. Something to question.  

There’s a reason why this album is sampled with such frequency. But there’s nothing like the source. It’s not every day an artist harbors this kind of ambition. Which may explain why this album has stood the test of time. In terms of sampling, it remains a deep well from which many have drunk.

The Payback is not only Brown at the top of his game, it's one of the great albums of the 1970's. 


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