By the time Curtis Mayfield left The Impressions to start a rich solo career in 1970, he was well-known at imbuing his soulful compositions with a deeply felt Black experience during a time of great social upheaval. Hits like "People Get Ready" and "We're a Winner" helped broadcast the ideas of a revolution from coast to coast across America's airwaves. By 1972, he put his talents to work in a new way, fusing funk and soul to the Blaxploitation blockbuster Super Fly - considered the defining work of his career.
But Mayfield's penchant for cinematic soul didn't necessarily need a motion picture backing it up, as two newly-reissued vinyl albums of his prove. 1971's Roots and 1975's There's No Place Like America Today paint vivid pictures of Black life, joy and sorrow, further cementing the late musician's reputation as one of his generation's greatest storytellers.
Roots plays like a less conceptual version of another landmark album from 1971: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. In its grooves lie universal declarations of hope ("Get Down," "Beautiful Brother of Mine") and urgency ("Keep On Keeping On," "We Got to Have Peace"). Its messages and cautions never exist solely to scare audiences, even on the dark "Underground," which warns of a world forcing to rebuild after war and ecological disdain have rendered the outside world uninhabitable. With a flip of the side, "We Got to Have Peace" recalls the musical highs of "People Get Ready" or even The Impressions' beloved "It's All Right." You hear his lyrics (a standout couplet from "Beautiful Brother": “Together we’re truly black power/Learning to trust by the hour”) and you consider how to take steps to maintain and build a world that beautiful.
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The tone of There's No Place Like America Today is considerably different. In 1975, America has barely survived Watergate and Vietnam and is hurtling through an energy crisis. The album's harder grooves are propelled by wah-wah guitar, ominous keyboards and bursts of horns. The tempos are slower, wearier, more contemplative - the character studies ("Billy Jack," "Hard Times") starker. Critics were stymied, seemingly unaware of just how sharp the mirror he was holding up to the world was. (The album's cover, based on a photograph of displaced Black Americans after the Lousville flood of 1937 queueing in front of an opulent billboard, was apparently not clear enough a hint.)
In retrospect, though, it's clear that Mayfield's gift was scoring the world as he saw it, just as adroitly as he saw the world as it could be. The bittersweet joy in his work - and in these two albums - is that you can have it both ways.