When The Notorious BIG gave me a metaphorical whiplash injury with his charisma laden debut album, my mind wasn’t only turned back to Hip Hop, my mind was ready for what was beyond. Which is why, after listening to it around five times in a row end to end, I was enthralled by the backing track accompanying the ‘reconstructed’ arrival of Christopher George Wallace into the world.
After a not so lengthy investigation that involved asking a few family members (Shazam didn’t exist back then) I finally identified Biggie’s ‘birthsong’ as Curtis Mayfield’s gorgeous, uplifting, title track for an album that took the same name. Be sure to note the words I used to describe a song depicting a mans struggle against his surroundings and lack of choices. This though, is the essence of what puts Superfly among the greatest albums of all time and its creator in amongst the greatest exponents of the art.
I was intrigued by the juxtaposition. With Hip Hop being what it was at the time I first heard superfly and it was easy to tell what to expect from 90% of the music I was listening to. But being a relative newcomer to the trends of Classic Soul much of its hidden complexity was new to me. Hip Hop had opened a door to a new world (which I will go through in more depth in an upcoming column) and Curtis, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack and the like suddenly shot to the top of my mental playlist. For a substantial chunk of the early part of that period, Superfly was an ever present in my Classic top ten.
With Curtis, the trials and tribulations being depicted throughout Superfly almost came across like fleetingly quick happy-go-lucky exchanges with hardship. To me, his voice, even with its whisperish tone, didn’t ideally lend itself to downheartedness and pain. It’s waspishly smooth and it was almost as if he was at pains to surround it with downward trending soundscapes. Yet as much as that uplifting vibe exists, Curtis delivers all of his lyrics with a haunting tint in his voice that is undoubtedly the reason why, even though at times the said voice is almost drowned out by what accompanies it. Inevitably, it all fits together so seamlessly.
Opening with a song that is among thee most sampled, interpolated and parodied pieces of soul music of all time (the same can be said of almost every other song on the album), the bar should have already been at its peak. But as far as I’m concerned things only improve from there on out. With his Pied Piper type flow, Pusherman is almost comparable in a sense to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher. Lulling people into a false sense of security before the drama unfolds. He is so obviously bad yet you find a part of yourself wanting to make his acquaintance and bask in his charismatic charm.
A charm that gives way to the braggadocio, almost ‘boom bap’ vibe of Freddie’s Dead, a song that always has me snapping my neck while Curtis exhales lyrics such as “Everybody’s misused him, Ripped him up and abused him Another junkie plan Pushin’ dope for the man A terrible blow”. Myself and millions of others like me get lost in music with far more questionable lyrics (i love the flow of Eminem’s 3am beat) and don’t feel one iota of guilt, yet I did feel a smidgeon when this song first hit my ears. It’s probably a slight disposition on my part but these are the kind of quirky reactions that only great music can bring out of people.
Which is exactly what Give Me Your Love, Eddie You Should Know Better and the title song all do in equal measure. I remember recognising their various guises on many a Hip Hop song. As talented as the producers of the fabled Golden Age were, samples were the staple diet for most of them and it is albums such as Superfly that remind me that, someone had to put these intricate and at times complex pieces of music together. It was this thought that heightened my appreciation of this genre all the more. It’s one thing for one man to take a record and cut it, time stretch it or layer it but the original tracks have at times been put together by bands of 10, 15, 20 people (and more) strong. Both are obviously talents but they are 2 very different sides of the same coin.
My personal high point of Superfly however, was and still is a song that gets somewhat lost among the bohemian praise and overall reverence its brother and sister compositions are granted. No Thing On Me is quite simply one of the slickest soul songs I’ve ever heard. That it stands out as classy even among such esteemeed company is ridiculous but it is also fact. Normally if you put too many smooth elements together without something to bind them they just come across as cheesy (see much of today’s supposed popular RnB music for examples). But its a sign of the era in which this album was created that such a result was never on the cards in this case.
I usually have a well fashioned outro to these retrospective pieces. A way to knit the whole thing together. All I have this time however, is…. Only a fool would deny the genius that oozes from every orifice of Superfly. And only a fool would deny the genius that it must have taken to create it.