40 Years Ago Rick James’ ‘Street Songs’ Signaled a New Identity for Motown

Rick James’ ground-breaking Street Songs exposed Motown’s struggle to grow and change alongside the shifting pop music landscape.

Street Songs
Rick James
7 April 1981

In the 1980s, Motown was entering a new era, one that was far less sure. The label—born in Michigan and fathered by Berry Gordy—defined Black pop music in the 1960s. After amassing countless No. 1 hits and a constellation of stars who rivaled MGM, Gordy’s ambition and vision for his project took him from Detroit to Los Angeles in the 1970s. There, he expanded his empire from music to television and film production.

In this period of transition, Rick James’ sound embodied the label’s fractured identity, largely characterized by the innovative, assembly-line sound Motown released in the 1960s. His look and sound were marked departures for Motown, a label whose artists performed in tuxedoes and evening gowns. In 1981, James released his fifth studio LP, Street Songs, on Gordy (one of Motown’s many spin-off labels). It was a revolutionary synthfunk R&B album, and it greatly influenced soul, hip-hop, and rhythm & blues in the 40 years since it was released.

By 1981, James had a storied history with Motown. Before he set out as a solo artist, he was signed to the label in the late 1960s with his short-lived band, the Mynah Birds. Their album was shelved following James’ arrest for deserting the Navy. After recording a single for Herb Alpert’s A&M label, James returned to Motown in 1977 and released his debut album—Come Get It!—which went gold and sported a top 20 hit, “You and I”. From there, he scored three top 10 R&B hits and established himself as a distinctly flamboyant, charismatic, and sexual artist on the Motown label. Unlike many Motown artists (with the notable exceptions of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye), James was a musical auteur who wrote and produced his own work instead of relying on the army of songwriters on the Motown roster.

Street Songs was a revolutionary record because it was a thrilling blend of rock, soul, new wave, and disco. It was a special work that also included contributions from two acts that James nurtured and that would be key to the Rick James lore: Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls. The LP also boasted guest spots from Motown legends The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. Though Gaye and Wonder were complicating Motown’s pristine image, James was a shocking breath of fresh air, bringing in rougher and grittier sounds and images. Because he wore tight leather jumpsuits and bared his chest and long hair, James was a marked change from dapper dandies like The Four Tops. 

The record opens up with a spectacular bang with the funk/disco classic “Give It to Me Baby”. A Top 40 hit (it went to No. 1 on the R&B and dance charts), the song is sonically innovative and interesting, especially regarding the sinewy bass lines that scoot and glide like a dancer at a roller disco. A wall of horns appears about ten seconds in and a squiggly synth inserts itself before James starts singing the sexually frank lyrics (which he sings to a reticent lover who’s turned off by his catting around). Lyrics like “When I came home last night / You wouldn’t make love to me / You went fast to sleep / You wouldn’t even talk to me / You said I’m so crazy / Coming home intoxicated”, as well as “When I was high as a kite / Out all night dancing”, are powerful in their bluntness. Yet, these lascivious lyrics work perfectly by leaning into the sensuality of disco music.

In keeping with his ethos of sex, “Ghetto Life” is an autobiographical song that tells a witty story about a young Rick James who sets his eye on a pretty girl. Though the title may lead some listeners to think the song would be a blistering critique on inner-city blight (akin to Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”), it’s instead a joyful poem to a frisky youth. It’s a song about sexual coming-of-age, in which a young James sings over an assertive bass about making his mark in his neighborhood.

As for “Make Love to Me”, it starts with an epic orchestra, a wailing saxophone, and a swinging beat to unveil a lush, midtempo soul ballad. James’ lyrics are unabashed in their forthrightness; for instance, he professes that his lover “Taste so good to the very last drop / You on bottom and me on top” and brags that it “Feel so good soaking wet like rain”. As the disembodied female voices supporting James urge their nameless lover (“Don’t you dare be nervous / Don’t you dare be shy”), he emotes as he plays the passionate partner, shouting out the refrain with a slight roar to his soulful wail.

James moves from the sensual to the political and switches themes with “Mr. Policeman”, a song that still resonates today (particularly in light of Black Lives Matter and the instances of Black men being murdered by police officers). The song has a clipped beat with a grinding electric bass that reflects the moody lyrics through which James addresses a police officer who kills one of his friends. Wonder contributes to the song with a mournful weeping harmonica, and James is just as candid in penning his rage as he is open about his sexual fantasies. “Mr. Policeman”, he testifies, “I saw you shoot my good friend down . . . / Every time you show your face / Somebody dies, man”. The song is a deep album cut rather than a radio hit, but it nonetheless remains one of his most important and depressingly relevant songs. It’s a grim reminder that Black men like James have been chronicling these social ills for decades.

Because the album was originally released on vinyl, listeners would have to stop the record and turn it over to hear the next song. That act, that break, makes the transition from the urgency of “Mr. Policeman” to the kinky “Super Freak” less jarring than it is when listening on CD or streaming. “Super Freak” is James’ signature song and a funk classic. The instantly memorable hook that jumpstarts the song will be familiar to some because of it being sampled in MC Hammer’s 1991’s pop/rap hit, “U Can’t Touch This”. That’s a shame because it’s an example of a near-perfect synth-funk song; in fact, “Super Freak” would predict some of the pop/funk of Prince’s ’80s output, marrying the hedonistic lyrics with the post-disco dance sound of the clubs.

“Super Freak” is such a towering achievement that the songs that follow on Street Songs seem a bit anti-climatic, which is unfair because Street Songs maintains an excellent consistency. The dance/funk of “Super Freak” steps aside for the slow-burning love ballad “Fire and Desire”, a passionate and soulful song that sees James duet with Teena Marie. Not only is the song is spirited and expressive, but James does some fantastic singing throughout it. He belts out the lyrics and shows off that his voice was supple and forceful, making him well-matched by Teena Marie, a fellow Motown artist who brought funk to the Motown label. (Already an admirer of Teena Marie, James turned down the chance to work with superstar Diana Ross in favor of writing and producing Teena Marie’s debut album, 1979’s Wild and Peaceful). Her light and lithe croon is an ideal accompaniment to his lustful delivery.

From the grand “Fire and Desire” comes the tight-fisted funk of “Call Me Up”, a lean, agile, and uptempo number that has a brilliant breakdown with some frisky horns. Rounding out the album is the brisk “Below the Funk (Pass the J)”, another autobiographical song that’s cool and vigorous. It allows James to tell his story, starting from his roots in Buffalo before outgrowing and outpacing his peers on his way to musical superstardom. Basically, it’s all about how living well is the best revenge. Though the inclusion of the homophobic slur (“They call me a faggot / And me and all my women laugh at it, ha”) is a bit regrettable, it’s still a great song, strutting on a prancing bass and a stuttering guitar lick.

Street Songs is an influential record because it echoes 80s dance-pop, funk, R&B, and soul. Artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and Sheila E have looked to its sound as helpful templates. Likewise, James’ status among hip-hop artists is also legendary. The record was joyful but challenging, and it sought to break taboos. Though innovative and groundbreaking, the Motown sound had crossover appeal baked into its DNA. Even though Gordy didn’t shy away from politics or topical issues (many of his artists, including Gaye, Wonder, Edwin Starr, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, have recorded protest music), his main goal was to create an entertainment empire that reached both Black and white audiences.

Rick James’ openly sexual lyrics and extravagant stage persona highlighted the label’s tenseness in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The ascent of disco, post-disco, rock, new wave, and synthpop meant that Motown had to adapt to pop trends (instead of creating them). It also started to experience a brain drain that saw iconic artists like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson and the Jacksons leave.

Although the label still had Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie, as well as emerging artists like DeBarge and High Inergy, it struggled while entering its third decade. Nevermore has this identity crisis been apparent than in the 1983 special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a TV special that celebrated the label’s history. The biggest names in the special, the Jacksons and Ross, were headliners (although they were no longer Motown artists), and many of the classic Motown artists were relegated to medleys. (Most tellingly, after performing a medley of Jackson 5 hits, Michael Jackson sang his non-Motown hit—“Billie Jean”—and moonwalk across the stage).

As the 80s continued, Motown started to lose money; eventually, Gordy sold it for a reported $60 million to MCA. Thus, Street Songs worked as an important transition for the label, as it straddled its Hollywood ’70s years with its waning ’80s era. It adopted harder beats, taboo themes, and new wave sounds that looked outside Black American pop and embraced modern technology. The groundbreaking work started by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder was picked up by James, particularly on Street Songs, and exposed Motown’s struggle to grow and change alongside the shifting pop music landscape.