“Street Songs” by Rick James
What the…is this guy really reviewing Rick James? The Super Freak Guy? The Crack Pipe Prostitute Burning Fellow? The Dave Chapelle Lunatic Who Was Merciless Mocked for Years and Probably Rightfully So?
Sure am! Why? Because this is a good album. A great album actually and very influential to hard rock freaks after its released (hell, it influenced James so much he tried to remake it for the rest of his career).
I don’t feel like flying off the handle into the history of Rick James, partially because I don’t know it that well. James is a bass player (multi-instrumentalist, really but bass is his main thing) who had been kicking around the scene for decades. He was friends and roommates with Neil Young. He played in a lot of go nowhere bands. And then he started his solo career with a few solid but not high selling albums until “Street Songs” hit it big based off the success of the two hit singles “Give It To Me” and “Super Freak,” which was infamously sampled by MC Hammer for his biggest hit “You Can’t Touch This.”
These songs tell you a lot about the album and are indeed the two high points, musically: “Give It To Me” boasts an energy and drive that throws it nearly into a rock and roll camp. The intricate arrangements are quite clever with instruments seemingly answering each other and the chorus is unforgettable once you’ve heard it even a single time.
It’s also about doing it, a thematic concern quite dear to Mr. James throughout this album.
“Super Freak” has exactly the same ingredients as “Give It To Me”: a rock and roll drive, intricate arrangements centered around the unforgettable, immortal bass riff and another tale of wanting to do it. In this case, with a “super freak” who is so damn kinky you wouldn’t even want to take her home for a visit.
The songs may seem like cliches (and have kind of become jokes through the years due to James failures as a human being later in life) but they were something really new in funk. Early funk, such as that practiced by James Brown and the George Clinton gang was a jam heavy medium that often found songs stretching out past all realms of reasonableness to the average listener.
Of course, to the true funk believer (like yours truly) the repetition of those grooves is part of the appeal to funk: it sets up a mantra, meditative feel that feels truly liberating.
There was also an occasional looseness to early funk that was relaxing and fun but which often became meandering in the wrong circumstance (too many drugs, for instance).
James’ songs aren’t short but they aren’t set up for “jam” mode either: they’re wound up lean, mean and tight and rarely burst over the five minute range. They’re also highly composed: they aren’t simple “vamps” repeated ad nauseum while the singer improvises gibberish: these are composed songs with verses and choruses that are so efficient it’s hard to forget them even years later.
Basically, it is a form of “pop funk and R&B” that still maintains all of the positives of “real” funk while minimizing the negatives and compensating for a lack of “instrumental fireworks” with arrangement tightness that makes the mind boggle: these instrumentalists may not be soloing like maniacs but holding down these grooves in such a tight interplay was probably even harder than soloing.
What makes the album stand out even further, for me, is its focus on the dark and dirty side of life. After all, it’s not called “Street Songs” for nothing: James was very serious about documenting the rough, seedy side of the city and especially but not exclusively the African American experience. It’s not always successful (especially on the ballads, which are usually pretty dull as James doesn’t quite have the pipes to pull them off) but the faster paced songs are thrilling.
Yes, James Brown explored the grittier sides of reality at his artistic peak but he seemed more concerned with having a good time and celebrating the African American experience. He would occasionally delve into the crimes perpetuated against African Americans but generally his message was “Say it out…I’m black and I’m proud!”
And while Brown did indeed wax poetic about sexuality (“Sex Machine” after all) he wasn’t quite as lewd or…specific as James. Neither approach is superior but both are different.
Furthermore, James stands out from the George Clinton crew as he generally didn’t sing about science fiction and fantasy themes. Yes, Clinton often set up apocalyptic funk grooves and sang about end times but it seemed more literary minded (i.e. stuff he was making up) rather than based in the actual reality of the African American.
James stripped back all those pretenses and false poetics to explore his personal experiences and beliefs in simple yet evocative ways.
For example, “Mr. Policeman.” James sets up another tight funk grooves and preaches out against the institution of police brutality which he felt was holding he and his friends, neighbors and family firmly in place. It may feel like he is overreacting (and blaming the entire institution of law enforcement probably is overreacting a little) but his sincerity and dedication to the message helps it feel more “real” than it has any right to feel.
There are faults with the album, of course: James funk arrangements often become much too similar to tell songs apart even though they have distinctive melodies and riffs. Plus, his ballads are truly unengaging and don’t really hit any of the emotional areas for which they strive with so much strain.
But “Street Songs” is a serious statement made by a serious artist and it deserves consideration and respect, as silly as “Super Freak” may sound on the umpteenth listen.
Note: I don’t mean to insult either James Brown or George Clinton’s music in my comparisons to Rick James. I love both of those men and their music and find them to be more important than Rick James in general. I only compare to illustrate that he was truly a new voice in funk and is undeservedly ignored.
Songs to YouTube:
Anything but the ballads qualifies.