Rick James has become more recognized as an icon than he has been as a musician, especially thanks to a certain sketch comedy show. I decided to investigate the musician, so I got his debut album, Street Songs. First things first, the front cover of this album is no where near as awesome as the back cover, with a still frame of a police officer with his hand on Slick Rick’s rear, Rick’s eyebrow raised, during an arrest.
The first thing that surprised me was Rick is a very capable bassist, something I greatly appreciate. The famous bass line of “Superfreak” is a good example, but it is fairly simple. Other good bass lines appear in “Give It To Me Baby” and “Ghetto Life” where the bass intertwines with the funky brass section. The result is a couple of very danceable funk numbers. Street Songs has some good fun funk songs. The beat and rhythm are infectious, highlighted by claps, Rick’s distinctive voice, and of course his bass lines. The songs are deceptively simple. The bass holds each of these together, the brass spice things up, and Rick’s fun voice turns the songs like “Give It To Me Baby” and “Below the Funk (Pass the J)” into funky masterpieces.
Special attention must be paid to the mega hit, “Superfreak.” I’ll admit, I recognized this song from MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” But this is one great, great song. It’s so much fun listening to, and it’s great dancing like an idiot to it, all thanks to that simple little bass line. There are so many funny little things going on in the song. From Rick calling “Temptation sing!” before the deep voiced back up singer comes in to him setting up the sax solo with “Blow Daddy!” it’s such a cool song. This brings up the deep voiced back up singer. If you pay attention, he comes up in “Give It To Me Baby” repeating certain lyrics. He also shows up in “Ghetto Life.” He reminds me of George Clinton, and I’ve come to the conclusion that every decent funk song should have a deep voiced black back up singer inserted randomly. James Earl Jones does not realize the untapped market.
With songs like “Mr. Policeman” and “Ghetto Life,” Rick tries to inject some political message into his music, but the efforts seem half-baked. “Ghetto Life” illustrates…living in the ghetto. It was hard. Okay. “Mr. Policeman” has some more feeling in it, but it’s a little simplistic. I don’t know, with bands like the Clash, Rage Against the Machine, or albums like Maggot Brain, that’s when I expect and welcome some politics with my music. But politics and Rick James" It’s a little hard to juxtapose a political song like “Ghetto Life” next to a song titled “Make Love to Me.” Luckily, “Ghetto Life” makes up for everything with funky bass, decent singing, and hot brass. “Mr. Policeman” misses the mark in that respect. It’s an average song, but there’s no fun, and not that much interesting musically.
There are two ballads in Street Songs, “Make Love to Me” and “Fire and Desire.” These rely a lot less on the explosive qualities of the brass and the funk of the bass, and a lot more on Rick’s merit as a singer. This was the biggest surprise for me: Rick can sing. On “Fire and Desire” he really showcases his singing as he belts out his tale of his misguided past. “Make Love to Me” is a lot less successful as a song. It goes on and on, not really doing much. In the same way “Mr. Policeman” is all (simplistic) politics, “Make Love to Me” is all seduction. There’s little interesting musically going on. The duet between Rick and Teena Marie in “Fire and Desire” is entrancing simply because of the quality of each singer’s voice.
Street Songs is a good funk album. Toward the end of the little booklet that came with my CD, Rick James gives a friendly warning that his music may be harmful to our feet. But his music strives to be more than that, in the way Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone changed how we view funk bands. Though not as successful as those two, Rick James still made some funky music. On an aside, what the hell is “Motown"” I really feel I should know this. Street Songs was labeled a Motown classic. I’ve heard the term before, but I’m hoping someone can explain it to me. Back to Rick. At turns fun, sentimental, and smooth, Rick James makes some good music. This “Motown classic” Street Songs is a testament to that.