In 1990, at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, N.Y., Curtis Mayfield was hit by a falling lighting rig, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. New World Order is the soul titan’s first new studio effort since then, and it is a triumphant return. Produced with a cast of contemporary R&B players, the album doesn’t update Mayfield’s style; it underscores where his influence is felt — everywhere. Black music as we hear it today wouldn’t exist without Curtis Mayfield. His ’60s recordings with the Impressions and solo work in the ’70s — rumbling funk jams, incisive songs of protest, divinely inspired ballads, the landmark Superfly soundtrack — prefigure everything from rap to the lush R&B of Babyface. More people know Mayfield’s sound than they do the man himself; perhaps New World Order can change that.
In the past, as a lyricist, Mayfield could seem didactic at times; here, Mayfield never lets his message outshine his melodic gifts. His high tenor voice is intact, and Mayfield’s gospel roots still provide much of his inspiration. When he calls for “a new world order” in the title song, Mayfield’s feel-good optimism is buoyed by faith and the humble fervor of his vocal delivery. Even the dated “right on” clichés in “Back to Living Again” gain authority from Mayfield’s sly, syncopated singing.
Aretha Franklin breezes through an extremely brief guest appearance on that track. Everywhere else, Mayfield guides his younger collaborators to higher ground. Working with producers such as Daryl Simmons and the Organized Noize team, Mayfield brings grace and good taste to the steamy vibe of Atlanta-style ’90s R&B. The haunting tone of “The Girl I Find Stays on My Mind” lingers like an old infatuation, with a bluesy guitar defining the quietly obsessive groove. Mayfield puts over the sweet love-man pleading of “No One Knows About a Good Thing” without being either cloying or obvious.
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The core of Mayfield’s approach is a serene self-knowledge. He never backs away from uncomfortable truths, in romance or politics. “Here But I’m Gone” articulates the stoned insight of a man trapped in the glass-pipe bubble of drug abuse. In a remake of Mayfield’s ’70s epic “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” he sends a message of black unity and self-respect that is even more relevant than it was two decades ago. “Pardon me, brother/As you stand in your glory/I know you won’t mind/If I tell the whole story,” he sings in keening, intimate tones. Never flinching, on New World Order, Curtis Mayfield stands tall.