it's both logical and unfortunate that Rick James may only be familiar to people because of MC Hammer (Hammer rapped over the instrumental track of James' 1981 smash "Super Freak" for his own 1990 blockbuster hit "U Can't Touch This"). It's logical because hip-hop is the son of funk and soul; it's unfortunate because too few people today remember that James himself was the King of Funk between 1978 and 1982. Brash, bold, outrageous and openly horny, James released an album a year during his reign. But at the same time, a young Prince was following closely in James' footsteps, also putting out an album every year. He finally got his groove right in 1982 and took the crown for himself with a double album called "1999." On "The Ultimate Collection," it's easy to see why Prince paid such careful attention.
"Funk is energy with attitude, its arrogance is irresistible, its flavor hotly addictive," writes David Ritz in the liner notes. What's amazing is how addictive writer-producer-musician-singer James was from the start. On the kickoff single, 1978's "You and I," a throbbing love song to his wife at the time, James commands everybody to "dance on the funk" and to "shake your booty down." The last four minutes of the song is a mix of horns and voices, with James demanding "dance ya'll!" over and over again.
With the exception of "Make Love to Me," the five songs from his 1981 album "Street Songs" feature James at a time when his voice, his confidence and his sense of humor were at their strongest. The hilarious "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak" are featured here, as is "Ghetto Life," a song James calls his "straight ripped-from-life autobiography, maybe my most honest song." But the real diamond in this collection is not a funk song, but a ballad -- the passionate, honest and incredibly beautiful "Fire and Desire," James' duet with Teena Marie. Sixteen years after its original release, "Fire and Desire" is the only song in the bunch that doesn't sound dated.
The other ballad in the collection, a duet with Smokey Robinson, is less memorable. No disrespect to Robinson, but he is not needed here -- James'
imitation of Robinson's whispery falsetto just blows him away.
There are some clunkers in the collection. "Bustin' Out," "High on Your Love Suite/One Mo' Hit (Of Your Love)" and "Love Gun" are all dated and
they should stay in 1979 where they belong. James says he was experimenting with textures on "Bustin' Out," but too many textures threaten to drown out his voice. And "Love Gun," with lyrics like "I'm going to shoot you with desire," is just embarrassing.
On one episode of television's "Third Rock From the Sun," Dick Solomon, an alien in a human body, makes out with his human co-worker, Mary
Albright. Overcome with passion, Mary shouts, "Dick! You're a freak!" Dick enthusiastically replies, "The kind you don't take home to MUTHA!"
When an alien from another planet can quote from "Super Freak," it's clear Rick James' legacy as Funkmeister Supreme is secure.