Melvin Van Peebles

What The... You Mean I Can't Sing?

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Almost 30 years after the fact, the Water Records reissue of Melvin Van Peebles' What The....You Mean I Can't Sing?, originally issued by Atlantic, is a breath of fresh air. Forget all that blaxploitation jive (the way this record gets labeled in the revisionist 21st century), a categorization white people use to make themselves feel better about something they can't understand or explain. There isn't anything kitschy about What The....You Mean I Can't Sing?. It's hilarious in places, but those parts are intentional. Van Peebles' record, his first on which he sang rather than spoke, is as essential to listen to as Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. It was meant to be popular art that never got popular. Recorded at the height of Watergate madness, it is a deeply musical, funky masterpiece of rage, righteous indignation, and soulful killer grooves. Van Peebles has no less a voice than Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and it can be argued that on tracks such as "A Birth Certificate Ain't Nothin' but a Death Warrant Anyway," "Save the Watergate 500" ("If the Lord's eye is on the sparrow/What's wrong with Big Brother watchin' you?"), and "Come On Write Me" ("I've been cool all that I can stand/I don't wanna be, hee hee/Who gives a damn? No more...."), he gets into the gut and gets what's in the lyric across. That's what a singer is supposed to do, right? Interpret the material. And Van Peebles, with a requisite sense of prophecy, humor, and an uncanny historical accuracy, gets down and does it. There are two sets of liner notes in the Water reissue set, one by Chicago critic Mitch Myers and one by Van Peebles himself where he tells it as he sees it on this album itself. There is only one problem with this amazing, wooly, greasy, funky record: there are no musician credits. Normally this might not be a problem on a little-known reissue, but the grooves and riffs here are so gritty, in the pocket, and sweaty that it would be nice to know who made them. This is urban music about race and class that pulls no punches and gives nothing away for free. Highly recommended.

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