Just like Rodney, Curtis Mayfield don’t get no respect. No regard, either. Or at least, not enough. He wasn’t as efficiently pop as any of his peers from Detroit, so he simply doesn’t scan as a perennial hit maker. But like Smokey Robinson, Mayfield made a name in his era as a creative focal point, writing and producing dozens of now-obscure legends of Chicago soul. His contributions to funk, psychedelic soul and by default, hip hop, are truly impressive in context.
Curtis is Mayfield’s debut album is the culmination of his previous tenure with Chicago soul group, the Impressions. The album features a determined Mayfield running through some of the finest tunes he would ever pen; it’s all black pride anthems, songs of freedom, moral sermonizing. And although the album does address the specifically concern itself with the issues of the “people who are darker than blue," Curtis is not about racial polemics.
Mayfield offers the olive branch right away, calling out to all races and creeds on the infectiously funky “(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go." The song is one of two extended workouts on the album and it, along with the utterly classic “Move On Up," show a shift in Mayfield’s song structures. Both songs are just about the grooviest, yes, grooviest mother***ers you’ll ever hear.
The multi-instrumentalist’s pop aesthetic holds strong as edited single versions of “(Don’t Worry)" suggest but the idea is that Mayfield, given free reign over his compositions, is not going to holding back. Consequently, not only do the dance tracks get extensions, so do the ballads. “We The People Who Are Darker than Blue" is the prime example on this album, clocking in at over 6 minutes. Just as exceptional as the first two mentioned, the track begins as a typically elegant uptown soul song with strings and the works. However, it shifts at around the 3 minute mark into a wonderfully rhythmic jam before settling back into the emotional atmosphere.
Mayfield was never one to shy away from socially conscious themes even with the Impressions, so unsurprisingly Curtis is a big step away from the veiled politics of 60's soul. The album proved to be the impetus and inspiration for hundreds of soul albums that came afterwards, both musically and thematically. He’s less vehement than Gil Scott-Heron, more so than Marvin Gaye. And although Mayfield doesn’t have vocal presence of the latter nor the poetic grace of the former, his lovely high register is a joy to listen to and the themes are pulled off with subtle finesse. Most of the time.
In fact, the only real misstep on the album comes with “Miss Black America," a song that comes off a more than a little goofy. I suppose it’s admirable in a way. But even if your heart is in the right place, some topics simply aren’t suited for songs. It not like “Thank You, Miss Universe!" or “*** yeah, Little Miss Springfield!" would fare any better. The tune sounds only the more ineffectual after the raucous horns of “Wild and Free" start blaring. And compared to some of the more musically intriguing rough demos from the same sessions, you’ve got to wonder how it got through the final cut.
Curtis is a decided shift even from the latest era of Impressions tunes, much harder, funkier and progressive. It’s still roughly elegant but hand drums and bongos make the songs more voluptuous than cordial. As good as it all is, though, Mayfield’s third album, Superfly, overshadows this more-than-modest debut, rightfully so. Superfly is Mayfield’s perfect moment, flawless where Curtis is still working on the footing. But be sure, at this point, he was already an incredible song writer and an all-around outstanding leader and innovator in the genre of soul.