Given how wide-ranging the style and tone of their early albums could be, it’s curious how at home Chocolate City feels in the P-Funk catalog.
Five years and nine albums in, George Clinton’s P-Funk approach was starting to solidify. There was always an oddball sense of cohesion to his work, but every release post-Maggot Brain saw the business/pleasure mix evening out. On Chocolate City, The longest tracks don’t even reach six minutes, and most are tight funk numbers that barely crack three. Right from the opening title track, Parliament negate excess in favor of straight-forwardness. The music is sparse but catchy, and hearing the vocal ensemble cheerily chant “Gainin’ on ya!” is fantastic, especially as the refrain doubles as a prototypical funk hook as well as a call to turn every U.S. city into an all-black neighborhood. It’s silly, but equally powerful in its message of searching for political representation in post-civil rights America.
This feeling of community continues on the standout “Together,” a track which is legibly about a personal relationship but could also be a message of general unity. So too the music, which brings together group vocals and a massive instrumental ensemble, sonically represents the benefits of group cohesion. It switches between major and minor, funk and slick pop, all for a performance that ranks among the best of this iteration of the band’s ever-rotating cast. “Side Effects” is a rocking tribute to cruel treatment from a romantic partner, and hits a sweet spot of humor and sincerity. These tracks show Parliament working like a well-oiled machine, and most of Chocolate City’s first side is a seamless run of successes.
If no Parliament-Funkadelic album would ever leave out these up-tempo funk numbers or a weeping ballad like “I Misjudged You,” equally, no Clinton project would be complete without terrible—terrible—sexual puns, here presented in the brief, eye-rolling “If It Don’t Fit (Don’t Force It).” The song supposes to be about understanding when a relationship works and doesn’t, but it’s clearly toying with double entendre. The track employs similar linguistic and musical trickery as “Chocolate City,” but replaces the racial community-building with juvenile penis jokes. Spectrum Culture writer Daniel Bromfield recently pointed out some of the negative socio-political areas these lyrical perspectives can lead to, and it’s a shame to hear this tendency among otherwise clear-minded political messages.
Chocolate City’s one true outlier is “Let Me Be,” easily up there for the most baffling moment of P-Funk’s short, prolific career to this point. Eddie Hazel drops his guitar in favor of bellowing, off-key singing, and resident keyboardist Bernie Worrell is the only instrumentalist present, assembling an orchestra of pianos and synthesizers. His arrangement is equal parts Bach, Sousa and Kraftwerk, mixing intensive counterpoint with clunky electronics and booming piano phrases. The end result is as unappealing as it sounds, saying nothing of the fact that it’s the longest track here.
Writing “Let Me Be” off as a complete failure, though, would discredit its representation of Clinton’s generally innovative spirit. While he was more than capable of writing straight-ahead funk stompers—“What Comes Funky” would fit nicely on any of the outstanding albums Stevie Wonder was in the midst of releasing—he equally relished strange experiments. The sheer idea of a part-gospel, part-classical, part-synthpop ballad is outlandish, and, even if the execution is lacking, it’s the thought that counts. Sometimes you get “Maggot Brain” or “March to the Witch’s Castle”; sometimes you get a noble dud like “Let Me Be.”
Given how wide-ranging the style and tone of their early albums could be, it’s curious how at home Chocolate City feels in the P-Funk catalog. Everything is delivered like a keyed-in version of a sound or idea the group previously explored, and even its biggest surprises are predictable in their tendency towards novelty. The free-wheeling chaos of Free Your Mind… may have been lost, but this album shows the group tightening its screws and becoming the ever-touring, hit-making funk powerhouse that defined its existence in the second half of the ‘70s.
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