The corners and borders of the cover of George Clinton's recent solo album are filled with cartoons that viciously satirize black musicians who cross over to the pop charts by denying their own roots. One cartoon, called "Capt. Crossover Presents, 'What to Drop to Go Pop,' " advises against ghetto looks, ghetto slang and ghetto references if one wants to be accepted by "Apartheid-Oriented Rock" radio. A justifiable bitterness seeps into these cartoons, for Clinton has been making great rock, funk and soul records for 19 years now and has never enjoyed the kind of popularity attained by many of his imitators.
So it is with vengeful glee that Clinton, the founder of Parliament and Funkadelic, reminds these processed crossover artists of their "R&B Skeletons in the Closet," the title of his fourth and newest solo album (Capitol ST-12481). The album's seven extended songs are filled with the kind of lusty music, jive slang and savage rhythms that the album cover proudly describes as "jungle music." It is a welcome antidote to the limp pop-soul coming out of L.A. these days.
For example, "Do Fries Go With the Shake!?" refers not to milkshakes but to the movement of a young woman's pelvis. What follows is a hilarious cascade of double entendres lasciviously sung both by Clinton and cowriter Sheila Washington and set to Stephen Washington's electric drum groove. This song is the second half of a 12-minute medley coproduced by Clinton and Washington that begins with "Hey, Good Lookin'," performed by Clinton, Bootsy Collins and the funky Miss America herself, Vanessa Williams.
The whole medley is a welcome fusion of rap and funk styles. The beat is built on the ghetto-blaster, hip-hop percussion mixes that the rappers use, and the vocals seem to burst out with a bragger's swagger. At the same time, there's a whole lot more melody than you ever find in rap, more guitars and horns to provide musical relief and a more personal, conversational tone to the lyrics. In the same vein are "Intense" and "Electric Pygmies." The latter mixes Hollywood jungle cliche's on the order of "the natives are restless tonight" with the forceful funk invitation, "Do you wanna party down?"
There are other ghetto cliche's that Clinton has no use for, and "Cool Joe" exposes the neighborhood pimp with the Cadillac and the cocaine as a vampire destined to become a loser. A deadpan vocal traces Joe's rise and fall to a shuffling tempo with Memphis chicken-scratch guitar and unison horns. Another song, "R&B Skeletons in the Closet," tries to embarrass a crossover pop star by reminding him how he used to get down with his street corner friends to James Brown's "Sex Machine." If the sassy lyrics don't remind him, the lean groove will.
Though Clinton's new album is one of the year's best dance party records, it's not one of his best records. Clinton has lost many of the big guns from his halcyon P-Funk days: Absent from the new LP are such alumni as Bernie Worrell, Mike Hampton, Junie Morrison, Eddie Hazel and Rodney Curtis. As a result, the hooks lack the galvanizing focus of the P-Funk chants.
To hear Clinton at his best, you have to hear him on "The Mothership Connection" (Capitol 4LP-15021), the sound track album from a video of Clinton and his various bands performing live at the Houston Summit last year. As Clinton calls out to musicians to join him on the stage, he identifies the milling assemblage by different names: Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band, Sly & the Family Stone and, finally, the George Clinton Band. Regardless of the names, it's basically the same band, one of the best to ever play American dance music, and this live album catches them on a particularly hot night.
Mtume, a funk band named for leader James Mtume, has been one of Clinton's most successful imitators in recent years. Taking the same irreverent lyrical approach and a stripped-down version of the same funk grooves, Mtume has scored such hits as "Juicy Fruit" and has clearly stolen some P-Funk songs outright. Apparently believing that thievery is the sincerest form of flattery, Clinton and his sidekick, Bootsy Collins, have teamed up with Mtume on a new album, "Theater of the Mind" (Epic, FE 40262). The result is Mtume's most adventuresome album, featuring both the group's best and worst moments.
Collins and James Mtume cowrote "New Face Deli," a fantasy about a plastic surgery parlor for nonwhite artists seeking crossover success. Obviously echoing the themes of "R&B Skeletons in the Closet," the song is a funny joke but not much more. Much better is "I'd Rather Be With You," a love ballad written by Clinton, Collins and Mtume. Mtume member Tawatha Agee's gospel-fired voice delivers the romantic melody as an unsparing confession.
The rest of the album is marred by soap opera talk-overs, sophomoric philosophizing and silly jokes. The best bet is to put the best cuts on a casette with the top Clinton tunes, slide the tape in your boom-box and hit the streets.