City Paper is not for tourists
Posthumous albums always risk disappointing fans with leftover tracks the artist may have rejected or left unfinished. But Beautiful Life, purportedly the last album of new music from the late Chuck Brown and his band, largely manages to circumvent this trap. While we’ll never know whether the Godfather of Go-Go, who passed away in 2012, would have been happy with the final product (or how it would have changed had he lived to finish it), the release adds some distinctively Chuck-worthy grooves and lived-in, soulful versifying to his catalog.
There are nine tracks on the album, released by Brown and his wife’s own Raw Venture imprint, though Brown himself only appears on five of them, via recordings made with producer James McKinney in 2011. Three others were recorded more recently by the Chuck Brown Band and produced by Chucky Thompson, who also ran the show for Brown’s 2007 album We’re About the Business.
Most of the songs feature additional guest vocalists—the opening track, in fact, is an introduction by old-school rapper Doug E. Fresh. It’s a slow start to the album, a spoken testimonial to the memory of being on a bill with Brown at the now-gone Capital Centre, with 20,000 fans chanting “wind me up, Chuck.”
The album picks up from there: Next is the title track, with writing credits for Brown and four others, which jumps right into its smooth, tuneful R&B chorus sung by Brown and a chorus of backing vocalists. In Brown’s rap about love and the smiling faces at his shows, the beloved D.C. legend sounds content after weathering his fair share of life’s struggles. What might sound like a clichéd homily in the voice of another works with Chuck’s straightforward delivery, although rapper Wale’s brief contribution at the end of the song sounds tacked on and a tad perfunctory.
Musically, the album stays true to Chuck’s vision throughout—drawing from blues, gospel, jazz, and soul, making it all undeniably funky with polyrhythmic beats, booming horns, and occasional raps. Brown was never a prolific songwriter. He and the band penned the numbers with writers from outside the group or covered others’ work, as on the Edwins Hawkins–associated gospel standard “Oh Happy Day,” sung in a rich arrangement with Y’Anna Crawley and the Howard University Gospel Choir. In his mid-70s, an age at which many musicians have retired, Brown sounds strong. Exchanging verses with Faith Evans on “Best in Me,” he’s as frisky and passionate as ever. Brown’s daughter, KK, proves a worthy inheritor of Brown’s self-assured flow on “Pop That Trunk” (“Maybe I’ll let you ride it/If you can’t handle the curves, you can’t drive it”), rapping with E.U.’s Sugar Bear, who shows off his trademark word-stretching while Brown holds down a hand-clapping background.
The Chuck Brown Band cuts are thoroughly grounded in the musical methods of 2014: beats more electronic than analog, lots of rapping, stylized Auto-Tune on Frank Sirius’ vocals on a cover of Ziggy Marley’s “Love Is My Religion.” Some of the time it works, but often, the vocals lack the range and effortless cool of the guy who has vocalized with jazz singers, funkateers, and the National Symphony Orchestra. KK may spit busy refrains arguing for go-go’s relevance and defiantly noting her family’s roots on “Still Crankin’,” but her dad still closes things out as suavely and sentimentally as ever: The album ends on a relaxed note, with that joyous, insistent D.C.-born beat on the Lou Rawls–associated hit “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” Chuck Brown fans will agree.