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Rick James

Reviewed on this page:
Come Get It! - Bustin' Out Of L Seven - Fire It Up - Garden Of Love - Street Songs - Throwin' Down - Mary Jane Girls - Cold Blooded - Starchild - Only Four You - Glow - Too Sharp - The Flag - Wonderful - Urban Rapsody

Never an innovator, borrowing heavily from P-Funk and later Prince, but in his prime Rick James came up with some excellent funky tunes, several of which hit the charts again after being sampled by hip hop artists. James grew up in Buffalo, and after a brief 1960s stint in a Byrds clone, the Mynah Birds, with Neil Young, he resurfaced in the late 70s as a funkateer. During his peak years he also produced big hits for other artists, including Eddie Murphy, Teena Marie, and his creation, the Mary Jane Girls. He didn't last at the top too long, and since he's not particularly gifted as a singer or instrumentalist, and didn't have an individual production style, that's not too surprising. Personally James was thoroughly reprehensible, making Ike Turner look like a great humanitarian, and it's hard to laugh off the relentless sexist and pedophilic imagery in his music after his prison term for abduction and sexual assault (which he tried to blame on his girlfriend). After getting out, he denied most of the charges and blamed the rest on his cocaine abuse. But whatever you think of him, the grooves still hold up.

I caught his 1997-1998 tour - after prison, but before a stroke that curtailed his comeback efforts - and reviewed it on our no-punches-pulled concert reviews page. He shot back into the public eye after a lengthy piece mocking him appeared on TV's Chapelle's Show, which he took in good humor, before his death in 2004. The official Rick James site has interviews and other good stuff; for the latest on the Mary Jane Girls, check out Yvette Barlowe (formerly Marine)'s personal site. (DBW)

The Stone City Band - Daniel Le'Melle, saxophone; Levi Ruffin Jr., keyboards; Tom McDermott, guitar; Erskine Williams, keyboards; Oscar Alston, bass; Lanise Hughes, drums.

Mary Jane Girls - Joanne McDuffie, lead vocals; Candice Ghant, Kim Wuletich, Yvette Marine, vocals.

Come Get It! (1978)
James got off to a fast start with this release, which soared up the charts behind two singles - "You And I" and "Mary Jane" - which illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the disc. "You and I" has a terrific funk riff (later sampled by Salt-N-Pepa) attached to a pop-sounding chorus, and the tune is padded out to eight minutes with an intermittently interesting jam. "Mary Jane" is a funk ballad - a genre James perfected with "All Night Long" - with a magical vocal hook in the chorus, but the verses are boring, and again it goes on way past the point where you're paying attention. Also on the disc are two versions of "Stone City Band," which is the most blatant P-Funk imitation you'll ever hear, but is still fun; the dull overlong ballad "Hollywood"; and another ballad, "Dream Maker," which is notable for the faked female orgasmic moans which would later become a Prince trademark. Produced by James and Art Stewart. (DBW)

Bustin' Out Of L Seven (1979)
I'll give James credit for stretching himself here: he throws in a lengthy jazz fusion jam ("Fool On The Street"), an atmospheric link track ("Love Interlude") and a ballad suite ("High On You Love"). Then there's the usual P-Funk ripoff ("Bustin' Out") and light funk ("Spacey Love"). The problem this time is no great tunes - everything's listenable, but there's nothing that digs itself into your head and keeps you coming back for more. Produced by James with Art Stewart; the musicians are the Stone City Band plus Wali Ali, Dorothy Ashby, and a high-powered horn section including the Brecker Brothers. (DBW)

Wild And Peaceful (Teena Marie: 1979)
James's first outside production venture was for soul singer Teena Marie. James wrote almost everything here, aside from a disco cover of the
Temptations' "Don't Look Back," and he sings most of the vocals on the opening duet "I'm A Sucker For Your Love." Half the tunes are dull love songs ("Turnin' Me On") while the rest are light funk (almost disco), all with his usual absurd sexual licentiousness, but without any of the variations or killer hooks that make his better albums irresistable. Teena Marie gives the material everything she's got, but her over the top emotionalism can't disguise the fact that her voice is rather thin. All the songs run far too long (the shortest is the pseudo-torch jazz "I'm Gonna Have My Cake (And Eat It Too)" at 5:30), confirming the hypothesis that James just didn't have a lot of ideas here. The last James/Stewart production; Teena Marie soon parted ways with James and began producing her own records. (DBW)

Fire It Up (1979)
Art Stewart had disappeared; from this point James produced all his own work. All the experimentation of the previous release is gone, but the P-Funk ripoffs continue: the title track is a shameless knockoff of Bootsy's Rubber Band, right down to the distorted bass licks and sped-up children's voices. The album's best tune, "Love Gun," manages to rip off Parliament conceptually, KISS lyrically, and Wild Cherry musically, while "Lovin' You Is A Pleasure" borrows from the Ohio Players. Side two looks ahead to the next two albums, with the lengthy riff-filled "Come Into My Life" a precursor to "Give It To Me Baby" and the endless ballad "When Love Is Gone," which would have fit right in on Garden Of Love. It's all listenable enough, but with no irresistable hooks, James couldn't deliver the lascivious good time he was promising. This was a relative flop, barely cracking the Top 40; it was also Daniel Le'Melle's debut with the band as sax player, arranger and musical contractor. (DBW)

In 'N' Out (Stone City Band: 1980)
Written and produced by James, this includes three versions of the title track, plus more hedonistic tunes like "South American Sneeze." (DBW)

Lady T (Teena Marie: 1980)

Garden Of Love (1980)
This missed the Top 40 altogether, and it's not hard to see why: for some reason, James eschewed funk in favor of incredibly dull ballads ("Island Lady"), and there aren't even any duets to liven things up, just minute after minute of Rick's overdone emoting ("Summer Love"). He'd already shown he was capable of creating masterful slow tunes, but there aren't any here. The album is bracketed with dance tracks, a lame overlong "I'm a star" tune James didn't even write ("Big Time"), and an even lamer, even longer "She's a freak" tune he did write ("Mary-Go-Round"). Don't say I didn't warn you. Personnel is the Stone City Band with no notable guests. (DBW)

Irons in the Fire (Teena Marie: 1980)

The Boys Are Back (Stone City Band: 1981)
Again, James produced and arranged; he also wrote three tunes while band members contributed the rest (aside from the gimmicky light-funk cover of "All Day And All Of The Night"). Thanks to the spread of sources, though, there's more range than on most of James's own albums: reggae ("Ganja," "Funky Reggae" - both by James), ballads (Levi Ruffin Jr.'s "Lovin' You Is Easy"), steel guitar (from Buddy Cage) on Oscar Alston's "Keep Love Happy." There's even full-bore jazz fusion on guitarist Tom McDermott's "Tin Soldier," featuring Larry Hansen on violin, Narada Michael Walden on drums and Lenny Pickett on lyricon. All of which just makes Rick's usual hard-edged funk stand out more than ever ("Freaky," Ruffin's "Feel Good About Yourself"). Definitely worth checking out for fans. (DBW)

Street Songs (1981)
James rocketed to his commercial and artistic peak here, with his two biggest and most memorable hits: "Give It To Me Baby" and "Super Freak," both raunchy midtempo funk with killer bass lines and catchy vocal mannerisms. ("Super Freak" was later absorbed into MC Hammer's massive hit "U Can't Touch This.") He overuses the formula a bit ("Below The Funk") but also stretches himself: "Mr. Policeman" is convincing reggae with a streetwise political message and Stevie Wonder on harmonica; "Fire And Desire" is a ballad worthy of Barry White, performed as a duet with Teena Marie. Other guests include the Temptations, Gerald Albright on sax (though Le'Melle plays all the solos, including the memorable "Blow Danny!" on "Superfreak"), and Narada Michael Walden on drums. The Rick James album to have. (DBW)

It Must Be Magic (Teena Marie: 1981)

Throwin' Down (1982)
James decided to see how far he could push the formula: all six pop/funk tracks feature the same artificial handclap sound from "Super Freak" - "Hard To Get" is practically a note-for-note copy - and the three ballads all sound alike (but "Teardrops" is the corniest). It sounds like it was cut in a hurry and there's not a satisfying riff on the entire record. The Temptations are back on "Standing On The Top," which was released as a single under their name; Albright, Walden and Grace Slick all drop by. (DBW)

Mary Jane Girls (1983)
This was James' version of a female funk act: he either stole the idea from Prince's Vanity 6 or the other way around, depending on who you believe. James hit the jackpot in commercial terms - this sold far better than Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 or either of George Clinton's girl groups (Parlet and Brides Of Funkenstein) - and it's a pretty good album. The hit was the slow, funky "All Night Long" which was later sampled on LL Cool J's "Around The Way Girl," and two catchy dance/funk numbers, "Candy Man" and "Boys," also got Urban Contemporary airplay. The rest of the material is fair to poor: "Prove It" has a sinister funk bassline but doesn't go anywhere; the ballads "Jealousy" and "You Are My Heaven" are painful, and the slow "On The Inside" has a fine vocal performance from JoJo, but no melody to speak of. (DBW)

Out from the Shadow (Stone City Band: 1983)

Cold Blooded (1983)
Mostly this the same mix of "punk funk" and ballads as the previous two records, but James brings in a ton of guest artists to obscure that fact: Billy Dee Williams adds bedroom patter to "Tell Me (What You Want)"; Smokey Robinson duets on the fine love song "Ebony Eyes"; Grandmaster Flash raps on the embarrassing Don't Be A Ho PSA "P.I.M.P. The S.I.M.P." The big problem, again, is a lack of great hooks or clever arrangements: James relies on the same programming tricks and synth patches, as on the dull title track, the silly "U Bring The Freak Out" - both were singles - and the simply dull "Doin' It." If you're into his sleaze factor, "1,2,3 (U, Her And Me)" has plenty of it... Rick's version of David Crosby's "Triad," you might say. The closing "Unity," with James backed by only a piano, is inane, vapid and self-congratulatory in that classically 80s "We Are The World" way. (DBW)

Reflections (1984)
A greatest hits, the source of the terrific riff tune "17." (DBW)

Starchild (Teena Marie: 1984)
Several readers have told me to give Teena Marie extra credit because she was the best white soul singer of her era, which seems bizarre to me: should I rate Ray Charles's 80s records higher because he was the best black country-western singer of his era? A race-blind comparison to her contemporaries - Angela Winbush; Patrice Rushen, whose 1984 Now is an exact genre match for this disc - shows Teena Marie behind in every area. Heck, for what it's worth, Jill Jones, who sings backup here, is a better white soul singer. Anyway, by now Teena Marie was writing, arranging and producing by herself, and this is synth-heavy dance funk recalling Prince's 1999 - the hit single "Lovergirl" is a careful copy of his "I Wanna Be Your Lover," right down to the ending pseudojam and trademark "girl/world" rhyme. She has a good ear for arrangements - sturdy bass underpinning "Youngblood"; a terrific guitar solo closing "Alibi"; the patchwork of Marvin Gaye quotes on the tribute "My Dear Mr. Gaye" - but comes up short as a singer and songwriter. As before, her vocals are enthusiastic but erratic, and full of annoying affectations (the "lips-uhhh!" on "Jammin'"), and her tunes are just dull (the overlong James-style duet ballad "We've Got To Stop (Meeting Like This)," featuring Ronnie McNeir). So unless you're big on early 80s nostalgia, you won't get much out of repeated listens. She played some parts herself, but there are a ton of backing musicians; the big names are Narada Michael Walden, Ernie Watts, Walter Afanasieff and who else but Paulinho Da Costa. (DBW)

Only Four You (Mary Jane Girls: 1985)
Damn, this is good stuff. James put a lot into this project, which has more variety than most of his own releases. And it doesn't hurt that supple-voiced lead singer Joanne "JoJo" McDuffie is a better singer than James will ever be. Side one kicks butt, with the Top Ten hit "In My House," the funky "Break It Up," and the ballads "Shadow Lover" and "Lonely For You," all sung by McDuffie, who also starts off side two with the excellent, riff-filled "Wild & Crazy Love" (with a nod to rap). Unfortunately, James lets each of the backup singers take a turn at the mike: Yvette "Corvette" Marine and Kim "Maxi" Wuletich can't sing at all, and though Candice "Candy" Ghant seems to be capable enough, her tune "I Betcha" is a lame crossbreed of New Wave and funk. This sold better than the MJGs' first effort, and it's worth a listen; from this disc, you'd never guess that James was about to slide completely off the map. A third MJG album titled Conversation was recorded, and even assigned a catalog number, but was never released. Also this year James produced the major hit "Party All The Time" for Eddie Murphy's debut album - it rocketed to #2, higher than any of James' own singles ever went. (DBW)

Glow (1985)
Sales fell off sharply with this one, but it's not a bad outing at all: the title track brings together great riffs, heavy guitars and soft synths; the ballad "Moonchild" has a fat, grinding bassline; "Somebody" (complete with a James timbale solo) and "Rock And Roll Control" are fun if typical funk numbers; and "Melody Make Me Dance" is a worthy though obtuse experiment with angelic backing vocals and stuttering drum machines. The weak points are the first two tracks, both horrible flirtations with corporate rock and the Phil Collins snare sound ("Can't Stop" and "Spend The Night With Me"), and the atrocious ballad "Sha La La La La." Still, this is a listenable record that should have sold better than it did. (DBW)

Too Sharp (Process and the Doo Rags: 1985)
In theory this spinoff was James's take on doo wop ("Daddy's Home"), though it plays more like his answer to the self-parody of The Time... He borrows "Jungle Love"'s sustained keyboard washes and chants ("Stomp And Shout"), and James Hawkins (aka Process) goes straight after Morris Day's oblivious would-be ladies' man persona (title track). The best tune, though, comes when they drop all the pretense and just sell a solid 80s urban love song ("Searching For Love"). Apart from a couple of covers (Marvin Gaye's "The Bells"; "Thin Line Between Love And Hate") everything's by James, and he and his band laid down the instrumental tracks as well. (DBW)

Emerald City (Teena Marie: 1986)
I often see this loose concept album cited as an unrecognized classic, but in truth it's exactly like Starchild, only heavier on Minneapolis Sound borrowings ("Once Is Not Enough," a close cousin of "The Glamorous Life") and a touch of jazzbo pretension ("Sunny Skies"). As before, the basic problem is a lack of solid tunes, once you strip away the production gimmicks and goofy, overdone vocalizing ("You So Heavy"). (DBW)

The Flag (1986)
With James standing in front of a red, black and green flag, and song titles like "Freak Flag" and "R U Experienced," you might expect a Hendrix-influenced Black Power record. But it's just a routine collection of boring love songs ("Slow And Easy") and riffless funk jams ("Forever And A Day"). Like Throwin' Down, he's reusing his formulas (MJG-type ballads, the same programmed drum sound on every track), but doesn't come up with any of the solid-gold riffs that are all over his better work. The only nod to social consciousness is the anti-arms race "Funk In America/Silly Little Man," which starts with a recitation that's clearly modeled on "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." The one stylistic development is a brief dalliance with Indian music ("Rick's Raga"); the high point is "Free To Be Me," a funk tune with a fine piano solo and (I think) Maceo Parker on sax - I have this on cassette and personnel aren't listed. Even fans should probably steer clear of this one. (DBW)

Colorful Changes (Process and the Doo Rags: 1987)
James produced most but not all of this followup: The Aleem twins, best known to Hendrix maniacs as The Ghetto Fighters, produced four cuts including their own "Change Your Name To Mine." (DBW)

Wonderful (1988)
Not exactly. Aiming for a comeback, James started imitating Prince in earnest here, draping the album cover in purple and flowers, and posing in a bright red outfit with a Hendrix-style ruffled shirt. He drops his earlier bass, horn and guitar driven sound for a synth-heavy approach reminiscent of the Time ("Judy," title track), also finding time for a blatant ripoff of Cameo ("So Tight"). He tries to draw in hip hop fans with "Loosey's Rap" featuring a guest rap by Roxanne Shanté, but without any decent hooks, the record never really gets off the ground. (DBW)

Urban Rapsody (1997)
James' first album after his jail sentence, and he sounds like an artist with something to prove: the grooves are hardhitting and scrupulously up to date, with tons of hip hop vocabulary ("ain't nothin' but a West Coast thang y'all") and Snoop Doggy Dog brought in to add credibility. James covers as much ground as he can: bass-heavy funk with riffing horns (title track, "Good Ol' Days"), New Jack Swing ("Back In You Again"), nasty love songs ("So Soft So Wet"), a tender ode to his mother ("Mama's Eyes"), you name it. Enough tracks work that it's a good value, despite some weaknesses ("Favorite Flava" uses a very familiar bass line; "Bring On The Love" is a lame Stop The Violence tune; the overwrought torch number "Never Say You Love Me" wastes JoJo's still considerable talents). Though he's still putting down Prince, he's not above reusing the melody from "Gett Off" in "Somebody's Watching You," a slam against his prison guards. Produced with Daniel LaMelle; other guests include Charlie Wilson, Bobby Womack, and rappers 4-Tay and Neb Love. (DBW)

Deeper Still (2007)
A posthumous collection, including a cover of David Crosby's "Guinnevere." (DBW)

Gimme that sweet, funky stuff.

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