More than rock and its hard-to-budge sense of history, African-American popular music typically concentrates on the present — probably because the past wasn’t such a great place to live in if your skin wasn’t the right shade. Kraftwerk had ranked among the palest dance bands on the planet (a fact accentuated by 1978′s Man-Machine artwork), but on the cover of 1981′s Computer World, the quartet’s faces were as black as a computer screen, and their R&B profile rose exponentially. Nothing but electronic rhythms, multi-lingual counting and ricocheting sound effects, “Numbers” wasn’t even released as a single, but it became a massive hit on WBLS, New York’s pioneering and hugely popular black-owned urban contemporary station. There was rarely a moment during the summer of 1981 when someone wasn’t breakdancing to a boombox blasting “Numbers” and “Computer World.” By the following year, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and his collaborators combined the Dusseldorf foursome’s earlier “Trans-Europe Express” with “Numbers” and came up with “Planet Rock,” one of hip-hop’s most influential early records. Within a few months, R&B and rap alike was synonymous with synths and drum machines.
But if Computer World shaped future R&B, it also suggested Kraftwerk listened to Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and other early black synth adapters. Out went overt references to European classical melodies that shaped albums like Trans-Europe Express, and in came jazzier chords and streamlined melodies. “Computer World,” “Home Computer” and “It’s More Fun to Compute” all evoke the spy movie themes of John Barry and Quincy Jones, while the tricky syncopations and spry contrapuntal synth lines of “Pocket Calculator” nearly swing. “Computer Love,” though, is where Kraftwerk shows its newfound emotional depth. Assisted by spearheading touch-sensitive keyboards, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider make their synths positively sing while percussionist Karl Bartos builds his rhythms in kind. If there was any doubt that synthesized music could have soul, Kraftwerk beautifully refuted it here.