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Richard Pryor 

The Anthology 1968-1992 (Rhino/Warner Bros.)

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The funny thing about Richard Pryor was that he wasn't that funny a lot of the time. Pryor could make folks laugh as surely as his Super Nigger character could outrace a bowl of chitlins, but his vulgar wit was really just a dash of sugar to make his medicine more palatable.

Sure, it may have been entertaining to hear Pryor talk about having sex with white women and how even Dracula got guff in the 'hood ("Why don't you get your teeth fixed, nigga?"), but such unfiltered expressions of black culture were shockingly political in the late '60s, when Pryor's career began to take off. Moreover, it was between guffaws where Pryor really worked his magic; as audiences struggled to catch their breath, Pryor worked to knock it right back out of them. "You know where black humor started?" he asks at one point on this superb collection. "It started on slave ships. A cat was on his way over here, rowing. Dude say, 'What you laughing about?' He said, 'Yesterday, I was king.'"

What made all this so powerful, so effective, was that it never felt like an act. Hearing Pryor perform, one doesn't get the sense that he's simply working his way through a routine as much as he's struggling to come to terms with his own fear, anger, and inadequacies. Even as he battles multiple sclerosis, Pryor jokes about his loss of bladder control and his inability to maintain an erection -- "It looks like my dick get scared every time it see some pussy."

Few artists have ever used as much candor when speaking about themselves and their people. By bringing the African American experience into millions of black and white households without any restraint, Pryor helped both parties understand what it really means to be black in America.

"I ain't never had a hero, a black hero," Pryor said at the onset of his career. "I always wanted to go to the movies and see a black hero."

He would soon become just that.

More by Jason Bracelin

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