With Give, Get, Take and Have, Curtis Mayfield has fashioned the apotheosis of a musical genre he has just invented. That genre consists, skeletally, of the interaction between disco and the Sixties soul-music sensibility. It also places far more importance on wordplay than most current disco. It is, bluntly, unique, and this album is Curtis Mayfield’s masterpiece.
From its initial song, “In Your Arms Again (Shake It),” we are thoroughly insinuated into Mayfield’s environment: erotic, eloquent, black. The music is smooth, catchy, repetitious, and yet different enough to be both eminently danceable and sit-and-ponderable. Mayfield’s impossibly high, quintessentially slinky voice is, of course, ideally suited to the moaning of sexy dance-floor exhortations, but placed between these solid dance chants are equally wonderful lines like “It’s a sizzlin’ romance, when I kiss your finger … From my heart on to my feet are temperature and heat.”
So to the matter of lyrics first: on this album Mayfield sketches black people and their situations in such unorthodox, funny and affecting ways that the only writer to whom he can be compared is novelist Ishmael Reed.
Throughout his solo career, Mayfield has always dealt with current events and fads, and those subjects have provoked both his best music (the Superfly and Claudine soundtracks) and his worst (the laborious pickling of gung fu, Sweet Exorcist, and a Reverend Ike-ish spiritualism on his last two efforts). His conscience is still working overtime on GGT&H, and with good results: “Soul Music” describes a storefront discotheque that is obviously meant to be a joyful oasis in its ghetto desert. His remake of “Mr. Welfare Man” is sensibly different from Gladys Knight’s version — Mayfield’s version centers on the rueful powerlessness that can make a man, desiring to support “a woman true and a baby too,” feel strangled.
Mayfield’s verbal dexterity is expressed in several ways. For example, while revitalizing what from anyone else would be tired slogans (“Hustle party down…. Groovin’, everybody was movin'”), he employs nearly nonsensical but perfectly expressive quasi chanting, as in the repeated line from “Soul Music”: “Shucky, shucky, funky set your baby on fire.” And black street poetry — fusing, as it does, popular slang, euphemisms and black syntax — becomes for Mayfield a most effective shorthand for telling complicated stories. The most obvious example of the latter on GGT&H is “Party Night,” but it is a strength common to all of Mayfield’s recent songs.
As a producer, Mayfield uses well-oiled disco music as a centerpiece and embroiders around it horn breaks, choruses and punctuational riffs that strongly recall classic Sixties soul singles by people like the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and Mayfield’s Impressions. Nearly as important as Mayfield’s vocals are Kitty Haywood and the Haywood Singers’ backup voices, which provide a passionate female counterpoint to Mayfield’s aroused male posturing.
Throughout, the blatant, omnipresent rhythm of disco is equated with physical love. Mayfield is both earthy and subtle: moans and cries and lines like “The natural smells of love are strong/Fingers all in your hair, fruit to bear/Need your lovin’, baby. Do! Do! Do!” In the recent past, Mayfield’s literal approach to his subject matter has been so obvious as to be embarrassing; on GGT&H, however, it is perfect, because everything else is so well constructed and spare that the thematic simplicity glides dreamily into Mayfield’s overall plan and creation.
With Give, Get, Take and Have, Curtis Mayfield has looked disco in the eye and blinded it. We, in turn, are dazzled.