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Young & Crazy: Rick James’ Street Songs

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Be it the stunted Prince rip-off that’s still dope last hurrah of “Loosey’s Rap” featuring Roxanne Shante, or samples as outright as the “Superfreak”-freaking “Can’t Touch This” and as solemn as the wizened raps from James’ “Hollywood” (Three-Six’s “Da Summa”, Devin the Dude’s “Anythang”) to Chappelle Show’s forever-classic “Rick James, bitch!” skits, Hip-Hop kept Rick James alive a long time before he actually passed on.

But it was only right because Street Songs would provide the blueprint and attitude for so much rap to come a decade or so later. This point, Rick James’ influence on rappers, isn’t anything new, but it’s the sort of thing that can’t be talked about too much. Part of this constant “this is really good, no like, really good” meme has to do with Rick James’ image and reputation.

A parody of himself even at his peak of popularity, as James’ music and well-being declined, he made himself real easy to dismiss. And you know, burning a chick with a crack-pipe didn’t help either. By the time the 90s rolled around, the sloppy reputation and a guffaws saved for any and everything “eighties”–something shocking now that all things 80’s are in–made James’ knowing goofball meets novelistic realist funk easy to misinterpret as straight “corny”. “Superfreak” became definitive of outdated, very un-cool 80s slang and everything else.

Rick James though, doesn’t need to be “saved” from this image, rather it should be properly forged onto his goofball jheri curl “Rick James bitch!” persona most people know about. One way to begin to do this is to just think of Street Songs as a rap album. It’s often celebrated as a “concept album”, especially the kind of concept album tradition Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, but it’s also a concept album like say, Mr. Scarface is Back is a concept album: A solid group of songs, based around an outrageous persona that’s rooted in truth. And that’s also most rap albums, even fairly or entirely commercial ones, but like Mr. Scarface or I’m Still Livin or (give it a few years) Starshipz & Rocketz or Illmatic, Street Songs is both calculated fiction-y “truth”-telling and raw, uninhibited emotion.

Rather than try to explain or apologize for Rick James the fuck-up who acted crazy and did some horrible things, it should just make sense because that stuff’s running through Street Songs. Start with “Give It To Me Baby”, a song we all know, but a song that’s basically about coming home drunk, wanting to fuck and your girl being like “You’re messed-up, get outta here.” In this Yahoo Music interview from 2005, James says “I don’t think I could’ve gotten more honest than a record like that”. What’s interesting about “Give It To Me Baby” is that it’s got the energy and bassline and horns of a dance song and so that hook, “Give it to me baby”, just sounds like the kind of quasi-aggressive come-on we hear in pop-dance tracks from “Shout!” to whatever vaguely sexual thing’s shouted out in the chorus of the most-downloaded on iTunes this week. “Give it to me” though has all this loaded, uglier, way more honest detail to it. Rick doesn’t come out of the song looking good and he plays into it even further by shouting out and squealing through it, as unaware vocally as his drunken, boner-wielding Frankenstein character is mentally.

The album’s closer, the manic punk disco of “Below the Funk (Pass the J)”, is basically a speedier version of “Give It To Me”, half the length, twice the speed, and twice the desperation too. That he’d end his album shouting out “Pass the joint!” between pieces of dismissive autobiography (about hometown Buffalo, how his Mom couldn’t hack it, and other street–or once rap came along, we’d call them “hood”–realities) and start his album trying to bone a disinterested girlfriend is crueler and more critical than any obnoxious eulogy or snark from a rock critic.

But right there, even as he’s making addictive dance music out of his addictions, he’s laying-out this really worked-on, thought-through piece of art. The album starts and ends with a shout-out to addictions (drugs and women), and there’s a pairing of street-detail based autobiography going on between the second track “Ghetto Life” and final track “Below the Funk” in terms of giving you a series of ugly scenes from his Buffalo youth.

“Call Me Up” just slows down the tempo (and everything else) of “Give It To Me Baby”–it basically has the same horns and bassline–and is a courtship joint, or as close to courtship as Rick James is gonna get. The ballads “Make Love To Me” and “Fire and Desire”, double each other like that too (one on each side, third track from the beginning, third track from the end), as “Make Love” is just a nice sex jam, while “Fire and Desire” like “Give It To Me” sounds like something to categorize (slow jam, complete with spoken intro) but it’s a song of heavy, palpable regret about being an asshole playboy…the kind of guy Jay-Z raps about (and embodies for the verse) in his Rick James interpolating “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It To Me)”.

It’s also though, a joke on the spoken-word wizened soul of something like “Facts of Life” by Bobby Womack. Rick’s having fun talking like an all-too sensitive, caring changed man and mocking all that because it’s in part, just a whole different kind of player talk. It’s wrestling around in the same weird sincerity and shithead mockery that David Lee Roth–maybe the person closest to James in terms of persona–has on “Jamie’s Cryin” or Devin the Dude or ODB–who writer Jamie Lowe connects to James numerous times in her slept-on Digging in the Dirt.

Street Songs truly succeeds in this weird, grey area between personality and parody and not coincidentally, this is also the point where James’ multiplicity or really, duplicity, makes people think it’s all a lark. That the known by everybody “Super Freak” kicks-off Side B after Side A’s ended with a totally sincere and truly frustrated anti-police song “Mr. Policeman” is either conveniently ignored/just plain not-known or framed in opposition, Tupac or “but there’s a song about feeling bad for selling crack” style, is telling. Rick’s point is that personal-is-political outrage and being really into threesomes and shit are all wrapped up in the same confused person. This is the plurality of hip-hop, especially Southern Hip-Hop, a couple years early.

James jokes when he wants to and confesses when he feels like it too. He knowingly croon-shouts self-critique throughout “Ghetto Life”, punctuating Goines-ian detail with reminders that he was “young and crazy” and “dumb and oh so lazy”. Especially effective is late in “Ghetto Life” when he sets-up what sounds almost like modern-day hip-hop brags about his hustle (“Knew all along that my game was strong…”) with “But I was wrong that time.” Palpable in its use of voice and curt phrasing the same way Deck messes with expectations: “A man with a dream with plans to make C.R.E.A.M/Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen.” (Deck basically raps a semi-colon, there!). Unlike most of the kind of concept rap I’ve compared James’ work to (even though it’s vice versa), James never really sounds sad or depressed on the record. Sure, there’s a ton more to “C.R.E.A.M”, but that maudlin piano and upset vocals sell the sadness, Rick’s rushing through it all with a smile in his vocals, whether it’s about superfreaks or a damned sad childhood.

Even the aforementioned “Mr. Policeman” has Rick cackling into the void. There’s a touch–the right amount once you really get the album–of sad anger to the vocals, but he’s still wrapping it around up and down party music, so his vocals gotta sound ready to party too. He performs the same lack of self-knowledge that you get from the beginning in “Give It To Me Baby” just the stakes are even higher and uglier. And by performing that lack of self-knowledge, he’s making listeners aware that he at least knows about his own potential for cruelty and selfishness or maybe just doesn’t care or can’t get it together. His later life is the struggle he’s working out on Street Songs spiraled totally out of control and beyond record grooves. This isn’t anything new, but it’s still an interesting paradox: The impulsive, self-destructive artist that can never get his life together, makes a pretty much flawless and harmonious piece of art about the self-destruction and inspires nearly three decades of rappers to do the same.

Written by Brandon

March 11th, 2009 at 7:49 am

Posted in Rick James