When the four-disc Star Time
box was released in 1991, James Brown's catalog sorely needed an overhaul; much of it was out of print, and what was available was hardly befitting of his magnitude. Star Time
got everything right: it put Brown's hugely influential career into striking perspective, helping to complete his critical renaissance, and the richness of its music set a standard for box sets in general. It was no easy task to balance Brown's lengthy, multi-part funk workouts with the need to include all of his most significant tracks, and the compilers did an excellent job in deciding when and when not to truncate ("Cold Sweat," for example, must
be heard in its entirety). There's nothing from Live at the Apollo
(which should be experienced start to finish), and his last hurrah on the pop charts, "Living in America," is missing, but these 71 tracks cover all the other high points, and make an eloquent case for Brown as the greatest R&B artist of all time. Disc One covers Brown's early R&B years, when his pleading intensity helped lay the groundwork for soul music. Disc Two, however, is where his genius truly crystallizes -- it basically chronicles the birth of funk, as Brown gradually discards song structure in favor of working hard grooves; it also offers a picture of Brown's emergence as a bandleader and spokesman for black pride. Disc Three features Brown's hardest funk, including his much-revered material with the Bootsy Collins
band. Disc Four traces Brown's later creative decline, yet he duplicated his former glories often enough to make this disc a surprisingly solid listen; plus, his massive impact on hip-hop is underlined on the last track, the Afrika Bambaataa
duet "Unity." Star Time
paved the way for several other excellent compilations which highlighted different parts of Brown's vast legacy, but as the definitive retrospective of one of the most important musicians of the 20th century (black or otherwise), it has yet to be equaled.