Unquestionably, James Brown was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of popular music. A musical innovator of staggering magnitude and a dynamic performer with a phenomenal stage presence, James Brown became a cultural figurehead for Black America and altered the landscape of rhythm & blues music forever. It’s regrettable then, that his back catalogue is in such a mess. Brown churned out some 80 odd studio albums of widely divergent quality over the course of his career. Many releases consisted of two or three hot lead singles mixed in with studio filler. There’s another 30 odd live albums and well over 100 compilations floating around out there. Attempting to navigate your way through Brown’s discography can be a daunting prospect. But The Payback is the real deal, one of the strongest albums of James Brown’s career, and his last truly great musical statement before he went into terminal decline.
Spread out over two LP’s and clocking in at just under 73 minutes, The Payback is a monstrous compendium of dense, super heavy funk workouts, jazzed out instrumental jams and anguished blues / soul laments. It captures Brown’s backing band, the J.B.’s, at the absolute pinnacle of their powers. By the time of The Payback’s 1973 release, they had become an assiduously honed rhythm machine with an almost telepathic understanding. They were capable of amazing feats of instrumental dexterity in the context of an intricate, interlocking groove of impossible polyrhythmic precision. It was the most proficient and hard working band in the business, and James Brown had whipped them into the kind of disciplined mind state that would be the envy of a terrorist cadre.
James Brown comes right out of the corner swinging for The Payback’s title track, maybe the hardest hitting cut in his entire catalogue. It’s seven and a half minutes of taut, mean, rhythmic destruction. Every instrument is struck like a drum in an interlocking groove so heavy it could have been cut from marble. Brown abandons the showmanship and dance floor vibe that characterised much of his earlier catalogue and goes straight up gangsta’ for this outing. He’s been “sold out for chicken change”; somebody “got down with his girlfriend (that ‘aint right!)” and the wrong people have gone and stabbed him in the back. Brown wasn’t so much singing at this point of his career as he was belting out lines in a declamatory style somewhere between a chain gang holler and proto-hip hop rhythmic chanting. It’s funk music as an expression of pure menace, a declaration of revenge against everybody that ever tried to mess with James Brown and piss him off. “I don’t know karate, but I know KA-RAZEY!” he yowls.
The band sets a more relaxed tempo for Doing the Best I Can, which is something of a throwback to James Brown’s early sixties sound of rough hewn soul. It’s a bluesy lament for a down beaten man simultaneously struggling to come to terms with the departure of his woman and the harsh realities of day to day life. By this time most of Brown’s lyrics were carrying an undercurrent of social commentary about the plight of Black America. The band mostly sticks to the same gently swinging blues groove throughout the entirety of the lengthy eight minute track, but there’s also a subtle use of strings in the background, bringing out a melancholic undercurrent. As the track builds to an extended closure it’s stripped down to its most basic elements: just a guitar and James Brown working a call and response chant of “I’m for real” and then “I’m just a man” with his backup singers. It’s a reflective and haunting passage of music with some plaintive saxophone work from Maceo Parker.
Take Some and Leave Some maintains the more laid back tempo but pushes it into considerably more funky and bass driven territory. In the space of about eight and a half minutes the band shifts gradually through numerous rhythmic permutations around the same basic framework, constantly astounding with their ability to collectively turn on a dime. James Brown waxes philosophically about the practicalities of life, about people straining for luxury before their basic necessities are met, and the need to rise above it all by being dependent on yourself.
Abruptly, Shoot Your Shot explodes from the speakers and drives up the tempo again with a rapid fire chicken scratch guitar groove. It’s reminiscent of the Blaxploitation movie soundtracks of the era, but exuding an overtone of meance. The track switches mid flight into a horn driven, raunchily swinging R&B riff, with conga drums furnishing rhythmic texture in the background and a spiralling organ solo pushing the groove into the outermost limits. The track alternates repeatedly between these two sections in a dizzying funk workout, before building up to a stunning finale of call and response horn blowouts amid a seething stew of funky rhythmic tension. It’s an awe inspiring demonstration of the band’s musical dynamism and proficiency.
Forever Suffering is the most mournful and down tempo track on the album. At under six minutes long it’s also the only track to clock in at anything remotely resembling a radio friendly length. It’s a minimally instrumented soul ballad with James Brown’s vocals brought right up to the forefront. And he does actually sing on this one, demonstrating that he was still a pretty good soul crooner when he wanted to be, although Brown’s voice is much more rough n’ raw than anybody to be found on a Motown recording. It’s quite a harrowing listen, detailing the breakdown of a man into isolation and loneliness due to some unspecified mistake in his past. The female backing vocals repeat the word “suffering” endlessly in the background as Brown builds up the song to a heightened evocation of emotional devastation.
The weirdest, most spaced out cut on the album follows with Time is Running Out Fast, featuring deep, hypnotic African percussion with an odd, wordless, gibbering chant acting as counterpoint. Every player in the band gets a chance to really stretch out and show their stuff over the immense twelve and a half minute running time, with some especially lyrical and full throated playing from Fred Wesley on the trombone. Time is Running Out is reminiscent of some of the jazz-fusion experiments Miles Davis was immersing himself in during the same period, with its funky, exploratory probing and endless variations on the same essential groove.
Stone to the Bone offers up the most loose, spastic funk groove of the album with a superbly elastic wah-wah guitar rhythm lick. It’s more of a driving, upbeat affair than the preceding cuts, with James Brown getting back into deep showmanship mode. He repeatedly demands dynamic changeups from the band, who duly oblige him with some of the tightest rhythmic permutations ever committed to record. That’s what this band was all about. Locking you into monster multi-dimensional groove and not letting you go again until they’d smoked it inside and out. Some of the prog rock bands that were beginning to appear at around about this time supposedly had some good players, but quite frankly, the sheer rhythmic dexterity of the J.B.’s kills them all stone dead. James Brown uses his voice as yet another percussive instrument in the attack, superbly driving home the emphasis of the groove with his collection of ragged vocal punctuations.
By this point The Payback has pulled the listener through over sixty minutes of an exhausting, mind expanding soul symphony workout. But James Brown has saved the best until last. When Mind Power kicks in you’re immediately dragged deep down into a lethally evil funk groove. A menacing, staccato guitar riff scrapes over the bone like a knife being sharpened on a rock, while an ominously slow and spaced out bass underscores the rhythm with a periodic boom. The sense of rhythm and space here, with the band creating a taut, minimal groove from the barest of essentials, is breathtaking. It’s funk music as sinister and sinuous as any ever committed to record. Brown lays down an all out rap over the top of the groove, expanding from commentary on ghetto life to a statement about harnessing the power of your mind to rise about it all. It’s an absolutely lethal album closer – ten minutes of some of the most hypnotic, straight to the bone funk laid down on record.
With eight densely extended cuts, most of them running anywhere from eight to twelve minutes in length, The Payback is a demanding album that will undoubtedly test the stamina of many listeners. As such it’s probably not the most suitable introduction to the music of James Brown. For the uninitiated, one of the numerous compilations of the better known hits will probably serve as a more friendly entry into James Brown’s vast back catalogue of material. But if you’re interested in listening to a set of supremely proficient musicians pushing funk music as far and as deep as it could go, then The Payback fits the bill perfectly. It’s a mammoth slab of hard driving rhythmic density, served up by the Godfather of Soul himself at the absolute summit of his powers.