The choice of Curtis Mayfield to score the blaxploitation film Super Fly was an inspired one. No other artist in popular music knew so well, and expressed through his music so naturally, the shades of gray inherent in contemporary inner-city life. His debut solo album, 1970's Curtis, had shown in vivid colors that the '60s optimist (author of the civil-rights anthems "Keep On Pushing" and "People Get Ready") had added a layer of subtlety to his material; appearing on the same LP as the positive and issue-oriented "Move On Up" was an apocalyptic piece of brimstone funk titled "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go." For Super Fly, Mayfield wisely avoids celebrating the wheeling-and-dealing themes present in the movie, or exploiting them, instead using each song to focus on a different aspect of what he saw as a plague on America's streets. He also steers away from explicit moralizing; through his songs, Mayfield simply tells it like it is (for the characters in the film as in real life), with any lessons learned the result of his vibrant storytelling and knack of getting inside the heads of the characters. "Freddie's Dead," one of the album's signature pieces, tells the story of one of the film's main casualties, a good-hearted yet weak-willed man caught up in the life of a pusher, and devastatingly portrays the indifference of those who witness or hear about it. "Pusherman" masterfully uses the metaphor of drug dealer as businessman, with the drug game, by extension, just another way to make a living in a tough situation, while the title track equates hustling with gambling ("The game he plays he plays for keeps/hustlin' times and ghetto streets/tryin' ta get over"). Ironically, the sound of Super Fly positively overwhelmed its lyrical finesse. A melange of deep, dark grooves, trademarked wah-wah guitar, and stinging brass, Super Fly ignited an entire genre of music, the blaxploitation soundtrack, and influenced everyone from soul singers to television-music composers for decades to come. It stands alongside Saturday Night Fever and Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols as one of the most vivid touchstones of '70s pop music.
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This 1972 funk monument, written, produced and performed by Curtis Mayfield, showed just how personal a soundtrack could be. The rueful, first-person street tales paint the film's characters in a more tender light than might ever have been expected. "Child Runnin' Wild," with its dramatic, swirling string arrangements, sets the stage. The funky propulsion of "Pusherman" moves the story forward, but midway through Mayfield employs his exquisite falsetto to bring a more sympathetic understanding to the character: "Been told I can't be nothin' else/Just a hustler in spite of myself." And the beautiful lament "Freddie's Dead" again brings a perspective and force of feeling generally foreign to movie soundtracks. The album's instrumentals, tracks like "Junkie Chase" and "Think," have had their elements stripped over the years and turned into clichés, but here the originals still burst with power and show off Mayfield's skills as an arranger. Add it all up -- masterful songwriting, gritty funk, and socially conscious lyrics that are more nuanced than the exploitative movie that they're based on -- and you have as fine a soundtrack as has ever been recorded.