For all his revolutionary screams and squeals, James Brown stopped making groundbreaking grooves a couple of decades ago. Still, the gems that went straight to the top of Billboard‘s R&B and pop lists in the mid-‘70s remain some of his most recognizable (and definitely, the most sampled by hip-hop producers). Rarely can a collection of hits reveal anything new about a musician or genre, and in the case of James Brown—who has sung and shimmied his way out of juvie hall, accusations of domestic violence, jail, and band break-ups—a compilation doesn’t even tell a quarter of his story.
And this volume in particular captures only a small part of his essence, at a time when he had just parted with his longtime band, the Flames and started recording with the Pacemakers, featuring guitarist Catfish Collins and bassist Bootsy Collins. Though they aren’t the most significant of his achievements, it never hurts to be reminded of how funk used to sound but most importantly, how it felt when it passed through the lips of “Soul Brother No. 1” better known as the penultimate soul alchemist.
Urban legend suggests that the full breadth of Brown’s charisma and stage presence can’t be captured on record anyway, and playing these up-tempo hits consecutively (instead of how they were originally intended, as singles in a jukebox-friendly market) reinforces that. “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” and “Hot Pants” lose some of their feisty flavor and sound repetitive when mashed together. Combining “The Payback” or “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” parts one and two doesn’t seem to make much difference one way or another—but there are two other two-part songs here nonetheless.
Instead, this 20th Century Masters—Millennium Collection is a quaint reminder of his wide influence—from R&B to pop to rap. The 10 tracks found here are the ones that follow Brown from 1970 to his last major hit in the 1970s, “Get Up Offa That Thing”. Nine of the songs here were hit singles on R&B and pop charts, although the late ‘70s found Mr. Super Bad singing more to black audiences and losing his pop influence. Although this is a lackluster collection overall, the songs haven’t lost their groove quotient after three decades—which might be the overarching point, anyway.