At the peak of its powers, Parliament-Funkadelic seemed capable of anything: scoring radio hits, crafting visionary best-selling albums, spinning-off successful solo acts and satellite groups, even producing an unparalleled live show that climaxed every night with an onstage spaceship landing. Yet leader George Clinton believed that P-Funk still had unfinished creative business. Since Parliament’s 1975 album Chocolate City, as he recalled in his 2014 memoir, he’d been working toward, “a complete, comprehensive funk opera.” Having witnessed rock’s conceptual and narrative breadth evolve with The Beatles, The Who’s Tommy, and the musical Hair, he wondered: “Why couldn’t soul or funk music be just as sophisticated, just as wide-ranging, just as artistically successful?”
At the heart of his answer would be the philosophical concept of entelechy – i.e. the realization of one’s potential – as introduced to Clinton by his then-business partner, Nene Montes. In the spirit of his mad scientist alter ego, Dr. Funkenstein, Clinton merged the word “funk” with “entelechy” and came up with “Funkentelechy” – i.e. the realization of one’s funkiness. If “Funkentelechy” represented a force of good through a commitment to the purest music of all, funk, its opposite force would naturally (or unnaturally) be any kind of short-term artificial simulation of such, “The Placebo Syndrome.” Clinton had found the basis for his opera: a battle between funk’s interplanetary emissary/hero, Starchild, and a non-dancing villain, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk. And with Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, Parliament self-actualized one of its greatest achievements.
Of course, the album’s conceptual framework wouldn’t be nearly as impressive without consummate funk in execution. Fortunately, P-Funk was still the tightest band on this or any other planet. Lyrically, “Bop Gun” and “Flash Light” celebrate the space-age weaponry Starchild employs to make Sir Nose dance; musically, they proved equally potent. The latter classic single in particular – with Bernie Worrell’s ever-fluid Moog supplanting Bootsy Collins’s space bass – still sounds as futuristic as it likely did when it shot to #1 on the R&B charts back in the day. “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk,” a slinky bad guy theme, flaunts plenty of menacing cool via Fred Wesley and Worrell’s jazzy horn arrangements. And in a bit of playful irony, “Placebo Syndrome” couches its lament of modern life’s empty synthetic pleasures in a dazzling symphony of Worrell’s synthesizers.
“Funkentelechy” is the album’s sprawling centerpiece. A collection of chants (“When you’re taking every kind of pill/Nothing seems to ever cure your ill”) peppered with Clinton’s comical advertising catchphrases, it gleefully takes aim at quick-fix consumerism and cultural vacancy. As with the rest of this genius album, though, it’s the music that encodes the message. Clocking in at over 11 minutes, it’s one of the longer P-Funk studio tracks on record, yet somehow wastes no notes. Halfway through, the band goes to the bridge turning the groove meditative, everyone repeatedly harmonizes “Funkentelechy” as a spiritual mantra, and you realize the song’s other main refrain – “Where’d you get your funk from?” – is the only question that really matters.