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Rick James: 10 Essential Tracks

The punk-funk king gets freaky on everything from a 1966 Neil Young collaboration to a groundbreaking 1988 rap duet

During his five-decade career as a pop libertine, singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist, James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., a.k.a. Ricky Matthews or Rick James, was reportedly more of a superfreak than any very kinky girl he didn’t take home to mother. When Dave Chappelle and Charlie Murphy hilariously characterized “Slick James” (nickname courtesy of P-Funk’s George Clinton) as a goofball with a mean streak who spouted koan-like non sequiturs (“I’m Rick James, bitch!”) and pithy reflections (“Cocaine is a hell of a drug!”), there was little need for hyperbole. Yet despite all the decadence, James was an undeniably formidable song-maker who created hits for others, scored six Top 40 albums and seven Top 10 R&B singles as a solo act and spawned two deliriously iconic songs (“Super Freak” and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”) with just one devilish riff.

On the 10th anniversary of James’ death at his Los Angeles home, let’s dig out our glittery braids and space boots and celebrate some of the greatest musical moments of this street-song eccentric.

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Mynah Birds, “It’s My Time” b/w “Go on and Cry” (1966)

After going AWOL from the Navy and fleeing to Toronto, Canada, James "Rick James" Johnson eventually ended up in a local rock group called the Mynah Birds, which featured future members of Buffalo Springfield and Steppenwolf. After the group signed a deal with Motown, the label discovered that James (working under the Matthews alias) was wanted by military authorities and terminated the band's contract. James served a year in jail, but when he got out, he was arrested again and deported. At some point, he traveled to Detroit with a reformed version of the Mynahs and recording this single. The A-side, co-written by ex-Mynah Birds member Neil Young, was a stirring garage-soul nugget that showed the group's unique mix of grit, shimmy and twinkle. The flip is a James rarity in more ways than one – a tender ballad that actually sounds sincere of heart.

rick james

LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Rick James, “My Mama” b/w “Funkin’ Around” (1974)

In the decade-plus between the Mynah Birds and his first solo album, James moved to California, got a gig as a Motown staff songwriter (Spinners, Marvelettes, etc.), reputedly worked as a drug courier, recorded an album with a group called the Great White Cane (get it?) and cut one-off deals to make singles. These included this snappy revelation for A&M, of which one YouTube commenter muses, accurately: "It's almost like [Lenny] Kravitz's entire music career can be traced back to this one track." A bubblegum rocker that floats along on an electric harpsichord and taut horn section, "My Mama" quickly downshifts into a Betty Davis-style nasty-funk suckerpunch. The vampy, Blaxploitation-influenced B-side instrumental, meanwhile, is the most free-flowing, no-nonsense workout that a James band ever put to tape.

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rick James, “You and I” (1978)

Finally finding redemption at Berry Gordy's personal Motown imprint, Gordy Records, James unleashed his brash "punk-funk" movement with this gloriously strutting single, which boasted a colossal synth-bass groove, James' boa-tossing vocal panache and double-entendres directed at his ex-wife. Off the platinum album Come Get It! and featuring the ace musicians who would make up his Stone City Band, "You and I" was a Number One R&B hit, reaching Number 13 on the pop charts and later being sampled on albums by Monie Love (1990's Down to Earth) and Candyman (1990's Ain't No Shame in My Game).

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rick James, “Mary Jane” (1978)

The second single from Come Get It! was a tour de force of everything that permitted those Prince comparisons and earned James the cachet to walk his dirty boots into Eddie Murphy’s house and proclaim, “Fuck your couch, nigga!” The pointillist string arrangement, the moody/swaggy guitar runs, the perfectly placed bass plucks, the heavenly flute and back-up coos, the squishy space-jam synth, James’ tripped-out rap-yowl, the reverbed “do ya do yas,” the bonus Steely Dan interludes, how the song could’ve just strolled its fly ass along for 25 minutes and nobody would’ve minded. Of course, during the ensuing decades, it’s lived on in zillions of rap samples, from EPMD’s “Jane” to J. Lo and Ja Rule’s “I’m Real (Murder Remix)” to Kanye West’s “Runaway,” which started the trend of nicking James’ shouts from the “Mary Jane” live version. To wit: “Look atcha!”

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Teena Marie feat. Rick James, “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” (1979)

James actually passed on producing Diana Ross to work with his bold-voiced, then-unknown and unnamed Motown labelmate Tina Brockert, who settled on the moniker Teena Marie for her debut album Wild and Peaceful. This almost frantically flirty duet kicked off with an everybody-in-the-pool wink – "Well, all right, you freaks, give it up, for Lady T" – and just kept on funkin' up the P-Funk with wiggle-worm bass and relentlessly horny horns. "Come here, sucker, make love to me, right now!" shouted Marie at one point, amid giggles. Although the song became a Top 10 R&B hit, there were no photos of Marie in the album art or circulated in the press, so her skin color wasn't revealed until the duo appeared to perform "I'm a Sucker" on Soul Train, making her the show's first white guest.

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rick James, “Super Freak” (1981)

After Come Get It!, James knocked out three albums in two years, enjoying relative commercial success but flatlining creatively, largely due to his chemically enhanced lifestyle. That drought ended with his career-defining triple-platinum album Street Songs, which put the punk back in James' funk on manic, lasciviously tipsy first single "Give It to Me Baby." Though a Number One R&B hit, "Give It to Me" simply set the stage for "Super Freak," the ur-Rick James manifesto: Druggy superstar elicits fetish hijinks from DTF girl, plus New Wave keyboards, palpitating bass and silly vocal trickeration (in this case abetted by the Temptations, whose Melvin Franklin was James' uncle).

A suggestive quickie video was shot for the still-new MTV, which was yet to play a clip by a black artist, but James got smacked down by the channel's head of talent and acquisitions, Carolyn Baker: "It wasn't MTV that turned down 'Super Freak.' It was me," she stated flatly in the book I Want My MTV. "I turned it down. You know why? Because there were half-naked women in it, and it was a piece of crap. As a black woman, I did not want that representing my people as the first black video on MTV." Noble sentiments, but the song still went Top 20.

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rick James feat. Teena Marie, “Fire and Desire” (1981)

James not only mentored Marie, the two had a torrid affair during a debauched era when the star bought a Hollywood mansion and an immense ranch near his Buffalo hometown, which became a crash pad for his band, back-up singers and anyone else who got sucked into their orbit. In other words, it was complicated. By 1981, the couple had broken up, but this seven-minute slow jam – meandering, rousing, awkwardly intimate, painfully honest, in dire need of Auto-Tune, 100 percent autobiographical and 100 percent full of shit – forever entwined the duo. James talked mad game, Marie wailed like a banshee and they both unspooled a narrative whereby love changed their cold-blooded ways. Of course, this was post-game positive spin of the highest order, but it's probably better that way.

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Mary Jane Girls, “All Night Long” (1983)

The Mary Jane Girls' first two albums contained the most consistent, tuneful and least problematic work of Rick James' career, and the immaculately slinky, heavily sampled, not-quite-slow jam "All Night Long" was his greatest composition. From the pillowy bassline and get-comfy "Hey, boy" come-on to the cozily melodic vocal touches, tinkly synth sprinkles and masterfully laconic production, the whole song flowed with a river-y certainty. Basically a solo project for main Stone City back-up singer JoJo McDuffie and whomever tagged along, the MJGs' image was similar to James', but less kooky and crude. Basically, it's the only Rick James music that doesn't sound like everybody's on drugs. A third MJGs album was recorded but never released, due to James' legal and contractual issues with Motown (not to mention growing crack habit).

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rick James, “Glow” (1985)

Amid the dark free-fall of 1985, James' most high-profile creation was Eddie Murphy's execrable synth-pop hit "Party All the Time." "Glow," on the other hand, was an unexpected burst of light, reaching Number Five on the R&B chart despite the album of the same name fizzling and James becoming increasingly notorious for his antics. In this context, the song feels like a last gasp of self-will, an effort to put a more heartening spirit into the world, even if that spirit is still delivered with James' typical lip-licking tics. It's a moodier, limo-lusting version of MFSB's "Love Is the Message," with James yearningly asking, "Don't you know you are beautiful?"

The video, likely in reaction to Prince's Purple Rain, is a mini-film with a wasted James, all golden locks and ruffled shirt, having an existential crisis in his dressing room, screaming at his girlfriend and manager ("I'm Rick James, I don't need nobody!"), busting ass onstage but then rising above to rock the world. Whew!

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LOS ANGELES - CIRCA 1981: Rick James poses in his bedroom at home circa 1981 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rick James, feat. Roxanne Shanté, “Loosey’s Rap” (1988)

Though objectively laughable and James' official tap-out as a hitmaker, this was one of the first proper rap and R&B collaborations (if not the first) and somehow hit Number One on the R&B charts, which was certainly a nice look for one of the dopest female MCs ever. Sadly, her rhyme is hot garbage – "They call me Loosey, 'cause I'm so loose," really? – and Shanté gets implicated by James' increasingly disturbing world of objectification. The video, in which she did not appear, was a seamier version of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" featuring an array of scantily-clad models wandering around a bathroom/dressing room/shower/soundstage in lingerie, leather and latex, along with a tiger on a chain. The remix by Juice Crew producer Marley Marl shapeshifts the track's clunky thud into a funky, stuttering SP-1200 marvel, with Big Daddy Kane elevating the proceedings by simply dropping a couple of lukewarm 16s. Here, Shanté finally cuts loose, even playfully taunting James. Clearly, it was time for the King of Punk Funk to surrender his throne.

In This Article: Rick James

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