Prince and James’s kinship was most apparent in their various side projects.
Prince’s days as a warm up act were about to end permanently as he briefly opened for the Rolling Stones in 1981. Their fans were shocked by his persona, ushering him off the stage moments after hearing the electro-rockabilly “Jerk U Off”. Prince’s sexual tones became too intense even for his own band mates. Guitarist Dez Dickerson lobbied for “Head” to be removed from Prince’s live set since this rowdy tale of oral bliss embarrassed and offended him. Having failed to change Prince’s mind, Dickerson eventually quit.
At that time, Rick James suddenly went tropical. His vacation in the Caribbean Islands stirred him away from his usual antics. Garden of Love, released in 1980, was a short and laid back suite he recorded while still under the influence of basking in the sun. Songs like “Island Lady” were drowned in the sounds of nature. Only its opening track, “Big Time”, was a typical self-celebratory party anthem. This change of pace wasn’t greeted with a warm welcome by the listening public. Humbled by its commercial failure, James went for broke, following it an offering in the complete opposite direction.
Street Songs, out in 1981, was James’ most powerful record, founded on his renowned merits: glorifying harsh realities, rejoicing in sleaze and playing a mean bass. “Give It to Me Baby” and “Ghetto Life” were thrilling bumpers and the unexpected smash “Super Freak” solidified the album’s success. James was good as ever at exploring urban vitality, catching up on Prince’s foray.
Prince and James’s kinship was most apparent in their various side projects. Feeling in top form, James decided to produce albums for his accompanying Stone City Band. Writing and playing with them enabled him to embark on other musical genres, such as reggae, and spread more strutting freaks and drug songs. Prince set up The Time out of a group of musicians from the Minneapolis scene. In principal, the band was molded in Prince’s lighter and more humorous side. It mainly mixed funk and comedy while turning into a playful nemesis of Prince and the Revolution.
The vast majority of Prince and James’ side-projects involved female artists. It was no coincidence as the ladies were tailored to enhance their own charged sexuality. Composing, playing, producing and sometimes adding vocals to their female protégés’ repertoire shaped Prince and James as men who could articulate women’s most intimate desires. It was also a way to channel more male fantasies than possible on their own albums. Within a few years time, Prince formed Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6, while later establishing the careers of Sheena Easton, Sheila E. and Jill Jones. Meanwhile, James put together The Mary Jane Girls and launched Teena Marie and Val Young.
Prince and James each acted as a kind of musical pimp: flooding the market with their own signature sounds, dressing the girls provocatively in lingerie and other revealing outfits to match the luscious lyrics. The pimping analogy was never lost on either of them. Vanity 6 was originally called the Hookers and Prince argued that lead singer Denise Matthews should adapt the stage name, Vagina. James on his part wanted to have The Mary Jane Girls as The Colored Girls, insisting on a racially diverse ensemble of his own.
Prince and James granted their female clones with the most explicit lyrics they wrote at the time. Evidently, the Parents Music Resource Center picked up on it in 1985, while campaigning for attaching Parental Advisory stickers on “objectionable” music albums. Impressively, Prince and James’ songs and related artists were accounted for nearly a third of the organization’s “Filthy Fifteen” list, which was the core of its claim to action.
Prince’s protégés were also supplemented his own dominant themes, such as car fixation. As Prince was singing about riding with a “Lady Cab Driver” and the implications of a “Little Red Corvette”, Vanity 6 had a motor wordplay in “Drive Me Wild”, and Apollonia 6 were expecting their lover in a “Blue Limousine”. James’ most successful outlet was the Mary Jane Girls, scoring club classics such as “All Night Long” and “Candy Man” and pop hits like “In My House”. The Mary Jane Girls outlived Prince’s girl groups, recording two albums, and in some ways eclipsed their creator’s success, since James was continually struggling to have another hit on his own, past Street Songs.
For better or worse, Rick James was tied to the old fashioned Motown legacy. He composed and produced the Temptations’ 1982 original line-up reunion single, Standing on the Top. It bore his instantly recognizable sound of bass and synth slaps, while James vocally backed the hoarse Temptations. A year later, James charted again on the strength of his mushy duet with Smokey Robinson, “Ebony Eyes”. The slow jam had the two out-singing one another in a friendly manner and they also shot an elaborate video together. Like others James made, he thought MTV was downplaying it in favor of Michael Jackson and Prince’s videos.
Just a few months prior to the blockbuster success of Purple Rain, James was already utterly fed up with Prince. Talking then to NME, James couldn’t stand another comparison being pointed out and ranted: “…Prince deals with sex and sex only. You’ve got love with me, hope, the future. I write about shit the way it is.” Astonishingly quick, Prince proved him and other conservative critics wrong. He started to sing about God and the heavens frequently, while regulating his dwindling explicit songs to a B-side status. Prince’s spiritual journey soon resulted in 1988’s Lovesexy, a concept album of seeking divine guidance and positivity. By the time Quincy Jones invited him to record Jackson’s Bad, Prince was too old for name-calling.
James later admitted to losing his own fight with Prince: “I always felt our competition was healthy, although I was jealous when he started getting big—more than jealous—I was pissed… because I felt his songs… and a lot of his stuff wasn’t real.” Jealousy still prevailed when James left Motown in the late ‘80s. He hesitated in signing to Warner Brothers since Prince was one of their biggest stars. Eventually, James joined in but released just one album under the label. The drug addiction and further jail time derailed The King of Punk-Funk’s career for good. Clearly, contractual-wise, a duet between Prince and James was more feasible than one with Jackson. It may have also been a worthier match. Label them as you wish, Prince and James always knew there’s usually only one spot in the music business for a true super-freak and both aimed to rule it.
// Notes from the Road
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