I've heard Curtis Mayfield in many contemporary R&B and hip-hop pieces. I was a kid then; "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West, "A Dozen Roses" by Monica & "Best Thing" by Usher were the three ones that had more influence on me. But I was a kid then, and I didn't know what they meant to me. Now I've learned that they were the enlightenment.
Through "The Makings of You" I got to know Curtis. This downtempo ballad, expressing a woman's admiration towards her husband, is one of his most sentimental tracks. The Gladys Knight cover, which was also produced by Curtis, is even better with a more emotional vocal performance. Both versions of the song were heavily sampled, including my favorite "A Dozen Roses" & The Isley Brothers remake "You're My Star".
However, "The Makings of You" is far from the best track in "Curtis" album. Curtis Mayfield is one of the most politically conscious black artist of his times, along with Marvin Gaye & Isaac Hayes. This debut self-titled record, has much to do with the Civil Rights Movement.
Let's take it back to the beginning. When Curtis was five, his father left the family. It was his mother who brought him up and taught him to play the piano. He joined a gospel quintet when he was only seven; that was the first revelation of his musical talent.
Before making music as a solo artist, Curtis had been a key member of a R&B trio, The Impressions. At the very first time, like The Whispers, The Temptations and other black groups, they performed Motown love songs which gained their popularity. "Love's Happening" might be considered as their best work. Things were changing, and Curtis began to put his thoughts about the social situation in 1968. Two years later, he found it easier to express himself by starting his solo career and left the group.
Generally, Curtis tended to use complex instrumental and vocal arrangements. Moreover, he poured all his thoughts, worries and wishes towards the post-Civil Rights America society. The African-American Civil Rights Movement changed America in every aspect. With the very necessary political consciousness, the black people had more freedom to pursue success in business, politics, culture and science. As a consequence, the black artists began to express their own idea about the current situation and future of their community. Curtis is, without a doubt, among the greatest ones.
The "Curtis" album diversified the R&B genre. Based on the realest experience of his own, the nine songs tell a story about his romantic affairs, his love for all human beings and his prophecy about new world order. One year later, Marvin Gaye dropped "What's Going On", which is universally considered as the greatest album by a black artist to date.
Besides traditional African instruments, Curtis added orchestral sounds to his songs. The mixed horn and harp sound effects worked out perfectly. Although they sounded tougher than songs of The Impressions era, Mayfield's silky voice is still charming and impressive.
"(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Going to Go" is the only smash hit from the LP. The seditious lyrics and intense beat called for all people to have fun together, regardless of their race, religion or social class.
Along with "Move On Up", the two songs showed a brand-new Curtis: Now he followed James Brown to take out some funky stuff. We can never consider "Move On Up" as a personal Narcissism. It has more political elements while reveals a positive attitude towards the prospect of African-Americans, that is to "move on up". Maybe Kanye West loved Curtis that much; if not, he wouldn't have interpolated the two songs respectively in two of his best works ever made: "Jesus Walks" and "Touch the Sky".
Different from the two club bangers, the rest of the album are much softer. "The Makings of You" inspired Monica's full-length album "The Makings of Me", and it caught my soul for the very first time; "Miss Black America" is an ode to all African-Americans which also included the best wishes for the community; but the song "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue" turns out to be my favorite song off this album. I get to tremble every time I hear these lines:
We the people who are darker than blue / This ain't no time for segregatin' / I'm talking 'bout brown and yellow too
High yellow girl, can't you tell / You're just the surface of our dark deep well / If your mind could really see / You'd know you're colored the same as me
Pardon me, brother, as you stand in your glory / I know you won't mind if I tell the whole story / Get yourself together, learn to know your side / Shall we commit our own genocide before you check out your mind?
I know we've all got problems / That's why I'm here to say / Keep peace with me and I with you / Let me love in my own way
When "Pardon me, brother" hits again, I think of the lines "Don't punish me with brutality" from "What's Going On". Sometimes I just wish that Marvin Gaye hadn't been shot by his father and Curtis Mayfield hadn’t been paralyzed in that accident. You see, unlike what has been stated in the Constitution "We the people of the United States...", we the people who are darker than blue. We are depressed, melancholy and tired of all kinds of discrimination and segregation. We are not to blame. Pardon me brother, as you stand in your glory; I know you won't mind if I tell the whole story. The song is still of introspective significance now: We are born equal, we're supposed to care for each other, we live in the same world with our own voice, and we are family.