Rick James – “Street Songs” (1981)

“I’m Rick James, bitch,” may have been the biggest catch-phrase of 2004 when Dave Chappelle made it famous as part of his Rick James character on The Chappelle Show.  Followed very closely by James’ own actual quote that was part of one of those sketches, “Cocaine’s a hell of a drug.”

Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and James had a reputation for ingesting it in copious quantities throughout much of his life, including smoking it as crack.  He epitomized the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, becoming well-known for his excesses, spending not one but two stints in prison (draft evasion and assault), and being on both the winning and losing side of high dollar civil suits.  When he died in 2004 at the age of 56, the autopsy found both meth and cocaine in his system, along with a number of other drugs, though none deemed to be in quantities that would have been directly responsible for his death.

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1981s Street Songs may very well represent Rick James at his pinnacle as a performer.  Three tracks were later sampled by hip hop artists, including his best-known hit “Super Freak” that MC Hammer rode to the top of the charts with his “Can’t Touch This” (James won his suit against Hammer and got songwriting credit).  The album was his biggest mainstream hit, reaching #3 on the US charts with “Super Freak” stalling out just shy of the Top 10 at #16.  However, his style of funk rock had a much stronger appeal in the R&B world, where Street Songs was just one of seven Rick James album to make it into the Top 10.  In fact “Super Freak” was far from being his highest charting single on the R&B charts, it’s #3 peak falling below his four #1 singles.

Street Songs is all about the sexy.  Sexy sexy sexy.  “Super Freak” isn’t even the only song on the album to have the word “kinky” in the lyrics, and it includes songs with titles like “Give It to Me Baby,” “Make Love to Me,” and “Fire and Desire” just in case you thought it was too subtle.  It’s poppy, highly danceable funk, with those great bass lines offset by James’ high pitched delivery.  Not every song is a winner – the slower tracks like “Make Love to Me” and “Fire and Desire” don’t do a lot for me, though they aren’t bad either.  The magic happens, though, when the tempo is brisk.  Lest you think it’s all about sex though, James does give you a dose of smart street social commentary in “Mr. Policeman” in which he recounts how he saw his friend shot down by the police, providing a moment of seriousness on what is otherwise a very fun album.

If you don’t know the opening bass riff to “Super Freak,” then you probably need to stop reading right now and go listen to it online – it’s one of the most iconic song openings of all time.  If the beat and groove of this song don’t make you want to move your body, you might be dead.  She’s super freaky… yow!  It’s ironic how what was a pretty dirty song at the time has turned into something so mainstream that you don’t even give it a second thought.  She’s a very kinky girl / The kind you won’t take home to mother…  Hell, you’re as likely hear this in the grocery store today as you would be to hear it on the radio.

Street Songs is a true classic, start to finish.

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