With his bald head, stylish duds, and basso profundo voice, Isaac Hayes cuts such an iconic figure that people forget he contributed more to modern pop than just "Theme From Shaft." Hayes was arguably R&B's first "album artist," starting with his landmark 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul, which consisted of only four songs, all stretched out well beyond single-length. On successive albums through the early '70s, Hayes infused slow-jam soul with elements of acid rock and orchestrated pop, forging a unique sound that was quickly copied by contemporaneous R&B singers and TV cop-show-theme composers.
The nearly essential two-disc compilation Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It? collects the tracks that made Hayes a star, in mostly uncut versions (with a couple of unfortunate exceptions, where the single version or a newly shortened version appears instead). In their extended form, the semi-improvised "raps" that open his covers of "I Stand Accused" and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" take almost as long as the original songs; they feature Hayes grappling humorously but sincerely with his romantic troubles. His cover of "Walk On By" takes a similarly dramatic turn. Hayes keeps Burt Bacharach's melody and Hal David's words, but between the lilting verses and choruses, he lays in sinister fuzz-tone guitar and a symphonic maelstrom, making simple heartbreak more apocalyptic.
Two discs of Hayes' eccentric pop alchemy is too much to take in one sitting, but listeners not completely wrung out by the epics will be rewarded with some zippier non-LP singles and live performances, including Hayes' charming duet with Dionne Warwick (he sings the lines to "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," and she answers with "I Say A Little Prayer") and Hayes' instrumental version of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," released the same year as Green's, as a kind of thank-you for creating a new classic. Throughout Can You Dig It?, Hayes expresses his love of pop in all its forms by remaking it as he hears it, as the soundtrack to life's most significant and only seemingly significant moments.