Without fail, every time a major-label rap star releases a record these days, there’s at least one song where they attempt to turn off the thug and ramp up the emotion in somewhat of a misguided bid to recapture their fleeting female audience. It’s a bad move either way you look at it; those women who do listen to this dreadfully misogynist rhymefest out of choice are usually there for the same reason their boyfriends are, they like the production and it helps them get amped up in the gym, and if they’re not, segregating them by gender won’t particularly work either (unless you’re Drake.) And yet it’s an angle pushed again and again, by every short man whose last name is Carter and happens to have millions of dollars sitting in the bank. Aurally, it’s the equivalent of trying to fool a woman into having sex with you because she believes that you know how to listen and moreover, speak her language. But in reality, the only way to do that is to talk straight.
James Brown, may he rest in eternal Brand New Bag in the sky, knew exactly how to do this sort of thing right. Or wrong, depending on who you ask. ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ – yes, there are that many ‘men’ – has variously been described as an ingenious praise of women and ‘biblically chauvinistic’. It’s been covered and answered by almost every longstanding, mononymous pop artist worth their salt, from Cher to Seal, and continues to endure. Assuming one takes the favourable view, which is ideally the same Brown had when recording it and not when allegedly beating the life out of one of his innumerable ex-wives, ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ brilliantly captures and builds alpha male braggadocio before reducing it to rubble with the high-pitched scream that accompanies the penultimate last line of each verse: “But it ain’t nothing without a woman or a girl.” That’s an intentional build-up, the whole tension and release thing that would make any Female Eunuch-lover reach for their nearest pitchfork, like an argument that reaches it’s height before the offending party admits the other was right all along. Sure, offers Brown, man makes cars and money and toys and other things that fill up the bars between bombastic choruses, but the foundation is women. That’s a lot more convincing than slowing down a beat and telling one’s honey how great she looks in them jeans and even better without them on. Really.
Even if that’s not a convincing enough argument, the harmonic material does the job all on it’s own. This is a classic ballad which would provide the template for every single R&B songstress from 1992 onwards, like Alicia Keys who does a dead-on impression of the groove and chords in ‘Falling‘. But unlike a lot of those 6/8 impostors, here’s one that really cooks. The guitar spikes out on the one and four while the violins lay on the chords thickly overhead. But really, it’s the double bass part, which seems unassuming at first but actually walks the listener through Browns’ possibly unsound dissertation on the fairer sex with panache and subtlety that just isn’t apparent in a good eighty percent of tunes made by people of Brown’s complexion in current pop. The whole thing sounds fresher than a pair of brand new sneakers, which is rather admirable given that it’s forty-five years old.
Every woman or girl can appreciate that, right?
James Brown – ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’