It’s a stunningly unorthodox book, indifferent to the conventions of biographical nonfiction. It honors its subject by its brave peculiarity, rising (for the most part, but sometimes falling flat) on its own terms. The book is a hybrid of forms, largely a telling of Brown’s life story and partly a telling of McBride’s search for that story, with digressions about the author’s own life, essayistic ruminations on Brown and his music, and free, looping riffs that have the energy of improvisation...With Kill ‘Em and Leave, McBride provides something lacking in most of the books about James Brown: an intimate feeling for the musician, a veracious if inchoate sense of what it was like to be touched by him. He accomplishes this by fairly unconventional means: He introduces the reader to a select group of Brown’s intimates, one at a time, and lingers with each of them before breaking away at unexpected points to veer off on fanciful tangents.
Kill ’Em and Leave turns out to be more revelatory about its author than its subject, although the Alan Lomaxesque 'seeking the subject' aspect is engaging. And the author’s honesty gives the book an authority that is never snobbish. McBride writes well, and the fact that he is also a musician allows him to open up dimensions of Brown’s creativity that a non-musician critic could not ... But the informants here are not particularly forthcoming; indeed, most avoid saying anything especially critical about Brown.
McBride has written a collection of diverse meditations and interpretations in search of James Brown, more than he has written the story of the man. Readers embarking on Kill ’Em and Leave would be wise to bear this in mind. That said, when McBride digs in, especially when describing the music — that massive, unstoppable, titanic, world-shaking accomplishment — by virtue of his own training as a saxophonist, he does so with great warmth, insight and frequent wit.