Black Moses was the fifth studio album by American soul artist Isaac Hayes. Released in 1971, this double album of mainly covers came on the back of Hayes highly successful soundtrack to the film Shaft and with its release helped establish Hayes at the forefront of 70’s progressive soul.
The first thing I notice about this album is its title Black Moses, which to me sounds like the name of a Kanye West album, while the album sleeve itself is quite cleverly designed folding out into a cross shape of Hayes himself dressed in robes wearing aviators. Hayes was clearly trying to make a bold artistic statement with the title and cover, but would the music match up with the illustrative intentions of the album. Well, the answer to that is a definite yes, with Black Moses possessing some of the most elaborate and sophisticated soul music ever committed to record. The style of this album is what is known by many as symphonic soul, or progressive soul which became quite popular in the mid-70s with artists such as Hayes himself and Curtis Mayfield. This style of soul is heavily produced with layers and layers of sound placing a strong emphasis on instrumentation. The music on here is incredibly slick thanks to some highly skilled session players and does well to show off Hayes ability as a producer and arranger within the soul and R&B styles. In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is what a soul record would sound like if composed by Bach of Beethoven. Hayes made a name for himself at Stax records in the 50s and 60s, playing on more Stax recordings than anyone else and he brings this experience to the fore on the album, with songs often stretched out to the 7-9 minute mark to allow for Hayes to explore and experiment with different sounds and song structures in what are well-developed R&B jams and soul ballads. Hayes even goes as far as to experiment with spoken word in what appears to be early attempts at rapping.
There are fourteen tracks on Black Moses and it comes in at a staggering 93 minutes, meaning I could go on writing forever if I was to chronicle each track, so I will just mention a few standouts for me from across the album. Most of the songs are covers but have been arranged in such a way that the listener has a tough time recognising the original from Hayes version, such is the distinct way that Hayes has arranged the tracks to make them truly his own. The album kicks off with smooth versions of the Jackson 5 hit “Never Can Say Goodbye” and The Carpenters “They Long to Be Close to You” both of which are remarkably different from the more recognisable hit versions. “Part Time Love” is a funk epic coming in at around eight minutes, while “Going in Circles” is a symphonic soul track which encapsulates well the overall sound of the album. Other tracks worth a mention include “Never Gonna Give You Up” which the Black Keys covered on their 2010 album “Brothers”, “Good Love” which is a more up-tempo track, a rare thing amongst all the ballads and progressive symphonies on this album, and finally “Need to Belong to Someone”, a gospel-infused track where Hayes plays up to the Moses idea, preaching from the river as it were.
In conclusion, Black Moses really is a symphony of soul and represented a major artistic statement by Hayes. It probably represented the zenith of his career and helped to preserve his place as a soul great amongst contemporaries such as Gaye, Wonder, and Mayfield. There are a few criticisms I have of the album, notably around its length with many of the songs being a wee bit too long for idle listeners, maybe some thoughtful editing couldn’t have gone amiss, while at times the album can get dangerously close to becoming quite soppy, especially during some of the ballads. However, this is ok when you consider the ambitious nature of this album and the personality of the man on the cover, a man who was as big as the music he produced.