While the untimely passing of musicians is always painful, the loss of Rick James is particularly troubling; not simply because he was a rare talent, but more so because he is destined to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Despite his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer, James will forever be associated with the larger-than-life image he created, a cartoonish alter ego fueled by the clichéd trappings of sex, drugs and rock’n'roll. His name remains synonymous with a single song recorded a quarter century ago, and a lurid court case which exposed his inner demons to a perversely fascinated public. Yet beyond the Super Freak mask, James was a brilliant innovator and artist, one who broke down barriers by melding the past with the present so as to create a unique future for popular music.
To better understand James’ legacy, it is necessary to briefly revisit his pre-Freak days. James’ sensibilities were originally grounded in ‘60s rock, as he shared time with Neil Young in the Toronto band, the Mynah Birds. Bouncing from Canada to Detroit to London and back, James embarked on various musical journeys, cutting and pasting as he went in an effort to establish himself. Through his affiliation with Motown as a writer and recording artist, James incorporated R&B into his repertoire, subsequently conjuring an aural hybrid he proclaimed to be “funk’n'roll”. The significance of this cannot be overstated, for James had followed the rhythmic lead of the Chambers Brothers, Sly Stone and George Clinton before him, blending nuances from different genres and making the final product sonically and visually attractive. Eventually James surpassed his predecessors by way of accessibility: His most successful work, 1981’s Street Songs, (the album that spawned “Super Freak”), enjoyed tremendous cross-over appeal at a time when punk and disco were waning, new wave and rap were in their infancies and arena rock was catching its second wind. Rick James exploded onto the scene in a cloud of thumping bass grooves, leather platform boots and shimmering costumes, platinum records and funked up braggadocio. He was everything from Ziggy Stardust to Earth, Wind and Fire, and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, he had created a masterpiece and a monster all at once; so successful and intoxicating was James’ super fly, super freaky, super hero persona, that he soon stopped playing the role and actually became the role
Commercially and creatively, the magnitude of “Super Freak” is astounding. Not only did it garner critical acclaim and million seller status after its original release, but it was reborn a decade later as the foundation for the most successful rap song in history, MC Hammer’s smash “U Can’t Touch This”. As a complete composition or simply a looped sample, “Super Freak” became one of the rare tracks to transcend musical boundaries; it grew far larger than a chart topping hit, evolving further into a piece of music’s collective consciousness. Ironically, the song’s impact was so great that all of James’ subsequent efforts were destined for second place status. Perhaps the burden of this realization was the impetus for his descent into personal and professional hell, perhaps not, but “Super Freak” provided James with the financial latitude to immerse himself into depths of destructive hedonism that would have felled mere mortals.
At his best and most creative, James was the consummate showman. Oozing the raw sexuality of James Brown, the confident cool of Jimi Hendrix and the intergalactic style of Bootsy Collins, James took his Super Freakishness to a new level of performance art. Appealing to an impressively diverse audience in concert, on radio and video, Rick James became the supreme ambassador of funk for the masses. As a result, he opened the door to mass market acceptance for Prince and later, Lenny Kravitz, and paved the way for the remarkable mainstream triumph of OutKast. Offstage, James lent his often underestimated studio expertise to acts ranging from the Temptations and Smokey Robinson to Eddie Murphy. Even James’ work with the Mary Jane Girls merits mention as it closely resembles Frank Zappa’s creation of the GTO’s and predates Prince’s efforts with Apollonia and Sheila E.
Critics will say that James was a victim of his own addictions and appetites, surviving far longer than he should have. That may be true, but it still doesn’t ease the sting of James’ passing. The saddest aspect of the Super Freak saga is that after years of debilitating health and legal problems, James had seemingly found peace as a husband and father, and was performing and recording up until his death. The shame is that he was deprived of enjoying more of life’s highs as Rick James, having finally put his Mr. Hyde to rest.
Ultimately it is best to look at his career beyond the scope of Super Freak, and acknowledge that Rick James was an artist blessed with as many creative gifts as he was cursed with human flaws. That said, the most fitting tribute might be to balance the positive and negative aspects of his life, then smile and think “you can’t touch this”.