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Five for Friday: Outstanding Blaxploitation Soundtracks

The blaxploitation classic Superfly returns to theaters this week via a modern, hip-hop-inspired makeover fueled by a soundtrack largely overseen by rapper Future. While reviews of the movie have been mixed, to put it kindly, blaxploitation films are often outshined by their soundtracks. Such accompanying music often invited artists to get creative in mixing and matching genres, thereby allowing soul, funk and R&B legends to show what they could do outside of the album-single format. In honor of Superfly's resurrection, we look at five outstanding blaxploitation soundtracks.

The third solo album from Curtis Mayfield serves as a soundtrack to the 1972 film of the same name, with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer using the movie's premise – a drug dealer out to get his life back on track – to go deep on societal ills such as poverty and drug abuse. "His hope was a rope and he should have known," Mayfield sings on the signature single "Freddie's Dead," where funk and orchestral flourishes strive for a low-key, dream-like quality. Even the more aggressive numbers – the street-wise rhythms that lead to svelte guitars on "Pusherman," for instance – philosophize as much as they tell a story. "A victim of ghetto demands" is how Mayfield describes the boisterous dealer. Superfly, then, not only creates character portraits, but meditates on them as well.

The Isaac Hayes-led soundtrack to the classic 1971 crime film still towers as a defining soul, funk, and R&B album. His "Theme from Shaft," for instance, remains one of the coolest, sexiest, and mischievous movie tunes around. The trumpet says this song is refined, while the hip-shaking wah-wah guitar effects imply something more lecherous. Then there's "Do Your Thing," in which Hayes offers a sermon in individuality and confidence – a lecture, if you will, in self-assurance. The latter functions a prime example of what Hayes did best: Devise single-ready songs and extend their lengths by taking us on cinematic, groove-led journeys.

Trouble Man
The tough crime thriller Trouble Man isn't regarded as a genre standout. But musically, the Marvin Gaye-led soundtrack showcases just how expansive an artist and orchestrator Gaye had become. Only a year removed from the landmark What's Goin' On, Trouble Man isn't as explicitly topical but instead sees Gaye experimenting with genre mash-ups and out-of-this-world sounds. Check "'T' Plays It Cool," which launches with a blast of horns that hint at multiple directions. Perhaps a sultry, James Bond-like endeavor will follow, or even something more space age. Neither occur, but it sounds deliciously weird, as late-night bluesy horns, snake-like synths, and a casual guitar provide mysterious shading. Elsewhere, "The Break In (Police Shoot Big)" finds Gaye adopting New Orleans jazz inflections while the title track mesmerizes with sauntering horns and Gaye's dizzying falsetto.

Black Caesar
A showcase for James Brown, 1973's Black Caesar inspired the soul-funk legend to bring a darker, jazz-infused edge to his sound. While the songs seem to only casually nod to the plot of the film, the music endures with a rough-around-the-edges toughness. "You try hard, and you die hard," Brown sings in "Down and Out in New York City," his scratched vocals giving the tune an aggressive edge. Elsewhere, moments such as "Blind Man Can See It" go for a more relaxed and cool vibe, while the keyboards on "Sportin' Life" feels almost psychedelic. A must-own effort for Brown fans – and fans of funk, no doubt – Black Caesar is a joy for how much it allowed Brown to stretch out. Just see the one-two punch of "Dirty Harri," a patiently gritty instrumental, and fiery "The Boss."

Black Dynamite
This 2009 film functions as more of a tribute (or parody of) to the blaxploitation genre. The over-the-top plot follows an ex-government agent out for revenge and setting to rid the streets of a potent drug. The soundtrack, too, remains something of a love letter to the 70s, with producer Adrian Young crafting songs that nod to the giants of the era. It also served as a calling for Young, who would later go on to collaborate with Kendrick Lamar and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Working with a host of vocalists, Young creates retro funk and soul with a modern, hip-hop mindset. These are songs built as much for sampling as they are the soundtrack itself.

June 15, 2018

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