Brown made new shapes for American music, but they were shapes that moved the body and massaged the id. How much they touched the heart is another matter. Brown’s best music is an electrifying flare of movement, power, and hunger, but it’s not music you play at home to lose yourself in. When Smith says the music of Brown’s contemporaries “sounds finished, whereas Brown’s still mystifies,” it seems to me that he has things exactly the wrong way around. Brown’s music does a lot of things, but it never mystifies. (It never reaches into the mystic, either.) It is profoundly anti-mystification: with a bit of practice, any listener can hear the rig under its highway grind. There’s a lot of showbiz cheek and feint going on, too, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. You can’t expect any man to scream and plead and cry, authentically, night by night, tour by tour, year on year, for a lifetime—even if that’s precisely what many Brown fans would love to believe.
As funky as those bands were, it's pretty cold music on the whole. "Cold Sweat" is a great song, but an odd one to just listen to, and an odder one to dance to, which is emblematic of the problem of James Brown on the whole. The songs are designed to be performed, and so they have many spots at which Brown can direct the band to improvise, or he can dance, but the central piece is Brown, who directs all the motion (almost all his songs have dramatic pauses; "Sex Machine" and maybe "Funky Drummer" are the only ones I can think of with no discernible change in rhythm). When you're listening to the song, or attempting to dance to it, you can't be Brown, and so the effect is always somewhat ruined. There's no similar problem with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder or Prince.