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What time is it?

Detail from an editorial illustration, 1984

The latest issue of Wax Poetics focuses on Prince and the birth of the Minneapolis sound during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The interviews with various Prince affiliates, including Morris Day, Jesse Johnson, and Andre Cymone, offer some insights into the interpersonal dynamics of the scene’s early days. Of course, I picked up the issue for its coverage of The Time, the best funk band of the 1980s. But I especially appreciate the magazine’s attempts to clear up one of the more irksome misconceptions about the group. Many people believe Prince wrote and performed all of The Time’s material. In fact all of the band’s albums were collaborations (the first one primarily between Day and Prince) and, while Prince did write much of The Time’s early work, their two biggest hits, “Jungle Love” and “The Bird,” were actually penned by guitarist Jesse Johnson. Prince probably should’ve loosened the reins a lot more. After all the band did include Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who, of course, together went on to become the architects of New Jack Swing after Prince fired them for missing a show. It’s also worth noting that much of the band’s success can be attributed to its longstanding reputation as one of the greatest live R&B acts of, well, all time. Back in the 1980s, when they were Prince’s opening act, they were known for giving audiences the better show.

The group, probably for legal reasons, is now known as the Original 7ven and released an album of new material last year. Personally, I think Johnson is the group’s most interesting success story. In the Wax Poetics piece he talks about how Prince derided his songwriting efforts during the band’s early days:

“I played tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing,” Jesse says. “He’d call Morris over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this,’ and they both laughed. When I bought him the music for ‘Jungle Love,’ he wasn’t laughing anymore.”

Johnson got the last laugh in more ways than one. He enjoyed a successful solo career during the 1980s after writing the aforementioned Time hits, but what’s more his most recent album, Verbal Penetration, is easily one of the best R&B albums of the preceding decade, right up there with Teedra Moses’ Complex Simplicity, Raphael Saadiq’s Instant Vintage, and Kem’s Kemistry. That’s a hell of a lot more than one can say about Prince’s latest work.

Unfortunately, the Wax Poetics article doesn’t touch on Verbal Penetration at all, so I’ll just say a few things about it. The album is far from perfect. It has several unnecessary extended interludes. I say that immediately because its scope and musicianship invite hyperbole. Johnson wrote all of the songs, and they are, for the most part, beautiful. Indeed Johnson has improved on his songwriting skills tremendously since the days of “Jungle Love.” The album is primarily made up of protest songs, love songs, and funk-rock workouts. The lyrics are subtle, well-constructed, and occasionally profound. For an example of the latter see “Love Letters,” the ballad of a soldier who proposes marriage to his girlfriend while away at war. The tune calls to mind the best of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Likewise “Propaganda” is a clever attack on black stereotypes and crime that, perhaps because of Johnson’s cool delivery, doesn’t seem preachy. The love songs are especially tasteful and catchy, particularly “Sheila Rae,” an ethereal nod to Quiet Storm. Johnson nails it with the chorus:

Forever I’m your baby
Sho’ nuff, ain’t no maybe
I’m your man, will you be my baby?
(Sheila Rae)
Lovin’ you so crazy
My torch is burnin’ lady
I’m your man, will you be my baby?
(Sheila Rae)

Johnson is one of the last great funk-rock guitarists in the tradition of Eddie Hazel, Ernie Isley, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. He has said that he vowed not to play the same chord twice on this record, a constraint that required him to develop a greater understanding of his instrument. It paid off. Johnson now knows his way around several black American musical traditions. “Merciful,” my favorite tune on the album, is an extended Hazel-style solo over a deep funk groove, an old school b-side that sounds like something Pimp C would’ve paid top dollar for. “Beautiful Sadie” and “Peace Be with You” are more bluesy. But the technical knockout here is “Ali Vs. Frazier,” a straight-up jazz number in the swinging, bop-inflected style of Wes Montgomery. It’s clear from these cuts that Johnson can play circles around the purple one.

I’d love to say that Verbal Penetration, which actually came out three years ago, is the future of R&B, but this is the kind of album that requires a certain pre-digital knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, Johnson employs all sorts of modern technology on the album (one reason comparisons to D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which you come across here and there, miss the mark), particularly state of the art synthesizers and drum machines. But Johnson was able to produce this incredibly textured album in large part because he learned his craft the old-fashioned way. Far too many artists and producers in the world of contemporary R&B only know how to use high-tech samplers. Unfortunately this leads to the abandonment or at least the attenuation of black America’s rich musical heritage in today’s pop world.

““If you really love your babies, then people show your pride,” Johnson sings in the album’s opening. I love that line because it seeks to bridge the gap between the past and the present. He entreats the old to show the young just what it means to appreciate their history and themselves. A deep cultural consciousness—in terms of both form and content—animates this record. That is why I must echo New Yorker critic Ben Greenman’s comment that it “would be a shame if it were overlooked.”

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