This is the conclusion of the Funkadelic that sounded this good, looked this good and were this committed to a musical and political cause.
After the unifying funk of One Nation Under a Groove came the call-to-arms of Uncle Jam Wants You, as if the politics of Funkadelic’s music had become so urgent that any appeals to calm collectivity had to be thrown out in favor of a frantic sweeping-up of human resources. To assume that the music followed this increase in aggression, however, is erroneous, as the album retreats further into grooving pleasantry. There’s little here in terms of raucousness—instead, the band continues to refine the slickly interlocking, group-oriented approach that they had been circling around with their past few releases.
The first side of Uncle Jam Wants You is practically flawless. “Freak of the Week” is a sultry funk number dedicated to the then-vibrant disco scene. From the track’s opening notes, the lush production and perfectly-pitched group vocals set up the core feeling of this album: suaveness. “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” interestingly the longest studio track on any core P-Funk release, is a testament to the unmatched greatness of this group at this time. Aside from being sampled on more classic hip-hop tracks than anyone can bother to count, the track showcases the nuance and subtlety that marks Funkadelic’s best material. What sounds like a homogenous funk jam on first listen reveals itself to be a multi-faceted suite that shifts through different grooves, solo sections and vocal passages.
It’s precisely this ability to balance cohesion with experimentation that has kept Funkadelic’s Warner Bros. albums from losing their potency over time. On “Not Just (Knee Deep),” the nearly imperceptible group movement between contrasting figures that, by all accounts, shouldn’t fit together is a living example of the control that these musicians had over technically demanding and structurally slippery music. The successes continue on the title track, which takes on the same campy folk qualities as “Grooveallegiance” while shifting the main focus to the expert twin drumming.
After this group of extended jams, the album closes with three shorter curios. “Field Maneuvers” is the best of the bunch, moving away from delicate ensemble playing towards a showcasing of the technical skill of the musicians. The legendary rhythm section rips through an awkward, time-displaced groove with the jovial fluidity characteristic of this era of Funkadelic, turning what could have been an indulgent prog instrumental into a hard-rocking jam. It’s the briefest track on the album, and one of the shortest in the group’s entire catalog, but the sheer joy of its tightly managed chaos makes it equally one of the most memorable.
“Holly Wants to Go to California” strips away all instruments save piano and a single vocal line. Plenty of puns are made about what “Holly would” do or about how her “heavenly body” will make her a star. Like “Jimmy’s Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him” or “No Head, No Backstage Pass,” the straight-faced, contextless presentation of “Holly Wants to Go to California” makes it difficult—if not impossible—to garner a true political angle. Whether Funkadelic are lamenting the sexist tendencies of the film industry or giggling at the double-entendres while they flip through Hustler is unclear. Still, when delivered through such a devasted voice and surrounded by otherwise revolutionary political messages, the benefit of the doubt rests with the band.
Unfortunately, Uncle Jam ends on a sour note. “Foot Soldiers (Star Spangled Funky),” like “Field Maneuvers,” is a show of virtuosity and instrumental poise, though that track’s cleverness is traded in for something that is at best obnoxious. Between the kitschy interpolation of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and the juvenile “doo-doo-doo” vocals, “Foot Soldiers” is three-and-a-half-minutes of grating music on the level of “Mahna Mahna” or “Baby Shark.” Funkadelic’s notorious implosion following Uncle Jam Wants You gives the record an unconsciously ominous feeling, as it marks one of the last instances that this core group would ever record a studio album together. Both P-Funk groups had solid-to-great releases on the horizon, but this is the conclusion of the Funkadelic that sounded this good, looked this good and were this committed to a musical and political cause.