1981, Music

Street Songs (1981) by Rick James

What I know about Rick James can basically be summed up in two things: “Super Freak” and Chappelle Show. And I really know “U Can’t Touch This” much better than Super Freak. Oh, I know a third thing: he was once in a band with Neil Young. (That’s actually true.) So I had no idea what I was in for.

James’ songs are all pretty catchy. “Give It To Me Baby” seems to have clearly inspired “Thriller” and the rest of the material is, musically, roughly on par with that song, if not necessarily up to the standard of “Super Freak” in terms of earwormness.

But James’ lyrics are often terrible, depending upon the song. “Ghetto Life,” “Mr. Policeman,” and “Below the Funk” feel like legitimate attempts to write meaningful songs, that succeed to some extent or other. But then songs like “Make Love to Me” reach levels of lyrical laziness that are hard to believe. (That part in “Make Love to Me” where James just repeats “Do Me” a million times feels like a parody of Rick James.)

The positive thing is that James is a much better singer than I ever new. He is a great singer from a technical standpoint. Now, he’s pretty campy and definitely skews more towards a theatrical style than an artsty or interesting style, but he is one hell of a singer.

The music behind him is pretty slick, smooth funk and disco that really isn’t my thing. There’s a lot of stuff going on and not all of it is necessary. I do wonder what a leaner version of this record would sound like. Having listened to a lot of ’70s funk too, some of the arrangements are a little too much like a simplified, safe version of Parliament (and that’s when it’s at its best).

The album pretty well made from a technical standpoint – and is free from ’80s production cliches, though not ’70s production cliches – but I could appreciate some more edge, especially when James is singing about struggles.

I’m honestly surprised at how much I want to like this, at times. He’s clearly talented – though more as a singer than a songwriter – and it’s really easy to understand why he was successful. But his lyrics, when they are bad, are awful. And it’s too slick for me.


PS Does anyone know why he doesn’t play an instrument on this album?

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