Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Rick James, Street Songs (1981)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Fourteen. Archive here.]

Before he was a punchline, Rick James was an amazing funk musician. That much is clear from the first seconds of Street Songs opener “Give It To Me Baby.” It's a masterclass in soul, insanely generous in its blend of angry bass, wild synth, rubbermouthed vocals, prancing guitar, and the Temptations’ Melvin Franklin (the narrator’s lady love doesn’t feel so generous, after Rick comes home unashamedly intoxi-caay-ted).

It’s an attack plan James draws on often during Street Songs, whether he’s dishing on ghetto realness (“Ghetto Life”) or complaining about how boring his hometown of Buffalo, New York is (“Below the Funk (Pass the J)”). Street Songs is proto-gransta rap, with its pounding rhythms, anti-police screeds, inner-city sleeze, emphasis on Rick's sexual prowess, and craven pop moves.

The tempos vary, but these are all vivid songs. They’re lascivious, mostly, but the musicianship and songwriting have a professionalism that befits James’ corporate home, on Motown Records. James’ expressive, elastic vocals match his funky creations. Even the slow jam, a duet with Teena Marie, manages to twist what was essentially a bone thrown to Quiet Storm radio into a compelling and genuinely emotional eight minutes.

Street Songs also contains one of the great New Wave singles. I’m guessing you’ve heard that one, and it’s no joke either.

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