Shake the Gate’s stylistic experiments are most successful when Clinton finds a way to make the borrowed sounds his own.
Before First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, there hadn’t been a new studio album released under the Funkadelic name for over three decades. During that time, the group’s erstwhile leader George Clinton overcame a crack addiction, got married and divorced, took his former record labels to court and generally transformed himself into a jovial elder statesman of funk: a man more likely to perform in a church suit than his once-customary rainbow-colored extensions. So it was something of a welcome surprise that when Clinton resurrected Funkadelic in 2014, it was with an album every bit as weird, indulgent and downright excessive as any in the group’s venerable catalogue.
It was also, without doubt, the longest. Shake the Gate sprawls out over 33 tracks—one for every year since Funkadelic’s last official album, 1981’s The Electric Spanking of War Babies. That’s almost three and a half hours of music: three stuffed-to-the-gills discs in physical form. And like basically every triple album you might care to name, a lot of it is less than essential. Opener “Baby Like Fonkin’ it Up” sets the tone with a minimalist drum machine groove, over which Clinton and company (including Garrett Shider, son of the late Garry) deliver some of their trademark chants. It sounds like vintage P-Funk—particularly with veteran Horny Horns leader Fred Wesley in the mix—but it overstays its welcome by at least a third of the song’s nine-and-a-half-minute runtime.
Indeed, all three discs of Shake the Gate suffer from an overabundance of meandering, loop-heavy jams: from the six-minute “Radio Friendly” to the 11-and-a-half-minute (!) “Roller Rink.” Repetition and tensility have always been key to the P-Funk experience, and Clinton is still capable of mesmerizing with only a few simple elements: the title track, for example, opens disc two with some funky incantations (“Fuck gettin’ bit, bitch you ‘bout to get ate”) over ominous synthesizers and didgeridoo. It probably doesn’t need to go on for over nine minutes, though. Meanwhile, at just under eight minutes “Jolene” barely cracks the top 10 longest songs on the album; but the endless call and response of “We got that doo-doo/ We got that shit” makes it feel like a small eternity, even with a posthumous guitar solo by Shider to enliven the proceedings.
More intriguing, if not always better, are the moments when Shake the Gate abandons the classic P-Funk sound to embrace more contemporary styles. It’s a credit to Clinton’s enduring ear that, aged 73 at the time of the album’s release, he only occasionally comes across as the proverbial old man in the club—though when he does, he does so with gusto. “Get Low” fumbles, not because of its pop-trap production so much as its forced 21st-century references (“When we go to Mars, got me feelin’ like Bruno”) and the fact that it came a decade after not one, but two prominent club bangers with “get low” in the hook. Elsewhere, “Dirty Queen,” a feature for Clinton’s grandson Traf Lewis’ band God’s Weapon, answers a question no reasonable person ever asked—“What would Funkadelic sound like as a rap-metal band?”—but its eclecticism is hard to begrudge.
Shake the Gate’s stylistic experiments are most successful when Clinton finds a way to make the borrowed sounds his own. The affecting Auto-Tuned vocals on “If I Didn’t Love You”—featuring none other than Sly Stone on bass and keyboards—resemble Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak with an infusion of vocal jazz. Another highlight, “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?” takes Parliament’s storied influence on West Coast G-Funk and reflects it back, with Danny Bedrosian’s meandering keyboards offering a convincing approximation of Bernie Worrell’s Moog wizardry. The jazz-funk-rap fusion of “Fucked Up” even manages to predict the future, foreshadowing Clinton’s work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly the following year.
There is no doubt that Shake the Gate is an overwhelming album, from its baroque personnel—including multiple generations of the P-Funk extended family, both living and deceased—to the sheer heft of its track list. Clinton, ever the trickster, followed up a 33-year drought of new Funkadelic music by offering fans a sip from the firehose. As a result, listening to the album in its entirety can be an onerous task. But its excess is inextricable from its design: it’s a defiantly unwieldy, indigestible summation of everything Parliament-Funkadelic has been and can be in its 60-year history. We said we wanted our funk uncut; well, here it is, as raw and nasty as it gets. Be careful what you wish for.