On first impressions, this is just another Fela Kuti compilation, albeit an extensive one. Dig a little deeper, though, and spend a bit more time with the music and, like any good art retrospective, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Badu’s own sensibilities shine through with her penchant for something on a more eccentric tip and a little bit left-of-centre. “Johnny Just Drop”, with its percussive conga intro and jumpy horn riff lasting close to three minutes, then explodes into a high-octane funk groove. All the original hallmarks are there, only this feels much pacier. “Army Arrangement” is another selection that feels a touch unexpected. Still underpinned by a majestic groove, this feels more thoughtful, more meditative.
Badu’s predecessors in this series have chosen classics such as “Zombie”, “Roforofo Fight”, “Upside Down” and “Expensive Shit”. One might suggest that she’s had less to choose from, but, with the exception of the incendiary “No Agreement”, the entire collection is less than obvious, even to the most discerning Kuti disciple.
One of Badu’s favourites is “Coffin for Head of State”. The occupant of the coffin, Kuti’s mother, can be heard banging rhythmically on her tomb’s lid as her coffin is left at the gates of Nigeria’s dictator; both along to the music and also in protest at the regime’s overt role in her death.
The highlight of this box set for me is the epic “No Agreement”. Bouncing along in classic Fela style, an elongated groove underpinned by a delicious organ goes into a succession of stabbing horn lines, before Kuti gorgeously embraces his saxophone to add his signature tones. This music has such undeniable power. Brutally funky, this is quintessential afrobeat.
Badu has delivered an anthology for the connoisseur, if not the purist. Studio recordings are grouped together with live experiences so we are not only treated to the music itself, but also given a glimpse of Kuti the man, as well as a sense of the world – and Africa – during the 1970s and ‘80s.
On the intro to “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power)” recorded live in Berlin, Quincy Joppes tells the audience: “You will see something very original politically, religiously and musically.” We might not have been there ourselves, but we get to hear all of that ideology and much, much more.