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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)

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.

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