Melvin Van Peebles

Brer Soul

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Melvin Van Peebles' debut album -- presenting Van Peebles as a recording artist, it should be emphasized, and not a soundtrack to one of his films -- doesn't sound as radical now as it did when it was issued in the late '60s. In the context of its time, however, it was certainly different. Van Peebles doesn't exactly sing, instead speaking with a rhythmic lilt as basic soul-jazz grooves bash away behind him to accentuate his lyrics. While his compositions aren't exactly poems, they aren't conventional songs either, Van Peebles declaiming observational snapshots of streetwise African-American life. There are portraits of romantic losers, a women's house of detention, and admiring the neighborhood foxes, all delivered in Van Peebles' brand of hipster jive. It might be going too far to view this as pre-rap; the music, while constructively used to complement the words, is far jazzier and less beat-conscious. It's also lacking the brashly political dimension of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron; though social commentary isn't entirely absent, it's really more a reflection of man-on-the-street stream of consciousness than rebellion or activism. It's nonetheless an interesting antecedent to the use of spoken prose in African-American R&B-derived music. The 2010 CD reissue on RPM is a recommended edition, as its liner notes include extensive comments, both on the album's history and the individual tracks, by Van Peebles himself.

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