James Brown: Hot Pants

Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh hot pants! Nobody but James Brown could make a great song about hot pants. Thing is. James Brown could make a great song about mouthwash or high-heeled shoes or sweet potato pie. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh sweet'tato pie! Gotta have it/in the mornin' uh/late at night/ain't it good to ya. Brown's lyrics are secondary to his sound and their force as words with literal (literary) meaning is negligible compared to their more evocative, allusive, poetic qualities and their power as immediate sounds. Mel Watkins writes in his essay on Brown's lyrics in Amistad 2: "... The artistry of James Brown is epitomized by the guttural grunt (uh, uh) or the equally familiar cry of 'oo-wee' that punctuates practically every song he has recorded. In those simple, primal utterances Brown comes nearer his poetic goal than in any of his more elaborate lyrics. For there, he is not singing about black life he is black life."

So "Hot Pants" (subtitled "She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Wants") begins not only with the image of hot pants (there they are filling up the album's back cover: red knit stretched taut over a plump, round ass) but with JB's double-punch delivery of the words. The gritty relish of his opening shout, repeated with the same sweaty excitement every time hot pants are mentioned, sets the tone and the "sense" of the song. The 8:42 of the extended cut are filled with repetitions both musical and lyrical. There is no lyric line or story, only free-association: "Stand up baby let me see where you're comin' from ... The girl over there with the hot pants on She can do the funky broadway all night long." A lot of the lines are garbled (to me) or completely elude any literal "meaning" or sense. It just don't matter. Hot pants! Smokin' Sizzlin'. This is undoubtedly why James Brown is popular in Africa and many non-English-speaking parts of the world you don't have to understand the words to know what he's saying. It's all right there on the most immediate level.

James Brown, more than anyone else, is about dancing, movement, the body. The other two long cuts on the Hot Pants album make this clear. The "lyrics" on "Blues & Pants" are as arbitrary as the title merely a string of ideas with little or no interrelation except the ejaculation "hot pants!" at the end of every verse. After the first maybe seven minutes, it turns into a series of horn solos and group riffs with Brown's high-pitched exhortations to his musicians knocking them along as steadily as the drumbeat. (At one point he screams repeatedly, "Can we get some bread?" but it seems he only wants some group horn work.)

"Escape-Ism," parts 1 & 2, doesn't even pretend to lyrics much less any relevance to the title. It begins, "I was talking to a cat the other night. He said what everybody's looking for today they're lookin' for escape-ism" (pronounced "ex-cape-ism") and that takes care of the title. JB raps and rambles, throwing out a lot of "unnerstands" and stock phrases; "I'm wonderin' all over the place 'cause we're havin' a good time," he says. He calls in the organist and sax man for solos and gradually the whole thing deteriorates into a number with the band members about where they're from. All the time the bass and drums are chugging along behind you don't never need to stop dancin' and what could be boring drivel from anyone else is somehow great fun from JB and his men: they're not really saying anything (verbally) but how they're saying it is beautiful (especially when they get into a little repetition of "doin' his do," throwing the phrase back and forth for a time).

Typically, the fourth cut is a version of Brown's old "I Can't Stand It." repeated here as a filler. Brown's unaccountably rapid rate of album production seems to far exceed his creativity, resulting in an unforgivable amount of duplicated material. Allowing for a distinction of two periods the early deep-blues and heartbreak stuff ("Please, Please, Please," "Bewildered," "Try Me"). which is still my favorite, and the more recent super-bad message and dance songs ("Say It Loud," "Cold Sweat," "Popcorn") it all sounds virtually the same anyway. Everything blends into one vast, astonishing oeuvre the ultimate, endless dance tape. Much of this is due of course to the constancy and perfection of the James Brown band. They may not be the most inventive in the world, but they can get down with less bullshit and more assurance than any other. Just listen to the horns and you'll forget about Chicago and BS&T and all that stuff. And his drummer! And bass man!

What with the repeat of "Can't Stand It" and the often throwaway style of production (everything seems to drift off rather arbitrarily as if snipped from an ongoing tape; "Escape-Ism" even drifts in), the album "A James Brown Production" with his smiling face on the label even is hard to take seriously. Which is fine. It's one of the most enjoyable albums in years, and I've had a hard time staying seated long enough to write this review. Hot Pants!