Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Rick James Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Come Get It! (1978, Gordy)

A

Arguably second only to Street Songs as the finest album he ever made, James’ full-length debut – he’d released a now-very-hard-to-find non-LP single (“Funkin’ Around” backed with “My Mama”) for the A&M label four years earlier to little fanfare, but that 45 constitutes his sole solo pre-Motown recorded output – is a true statement record. [James even confidently kicks off the disc with the self-introductory “Stone City Band, Hi!”, as if he knew he had a long career ahead of him.] The album pales only to Street Songs due to its heavier shadings of disco, though James is savvy enough to incorporate a sufficient amount of his self-dubbed “punk funk” – a funk/rock hybrid – to keep the disco influences from seeming too overbearing, which has helped the disc to age better than a lot of other disco-influenced full-lengths Motown and its subsidiaries were releasing around this time. The epic “Hollywood,” the clever “Be My Lady” (a hybrid of styles that fuses club influences – particularly in its backing vocals, which echo Foxy’s controversial hit “Get Off” – with the more lush and melodic sounds of Philly-soul), and the heavily-narrated ballad “Dream Maker” (a cross of sorts between Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” and the Commodores’ “Just to Be Close to You”) are all oft-overlooked gems in the Rick James catalog. But the two biggest showstoppers of all here are the clavinet-driven disco of the Top Twenty smash “You and I” and, even better, the wormy slow funk of “Mary Jane,” the chorus of which employs echo on James’ vocal to absolutely ingenious effect, bringing some real intensity and urgency to what is otherwise a very laid-back groove. Its subject matter – it’s a not-so-subtle ode to marijuana – scared away enough radio programmers to keep the cut from following “You and I” into the Top 40, but the song is nearly every bit as essential to the Rick James oeuvre as “Give It to Me Baby” or “Super Freak.”

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Bustin’ Out of L Seven (1978, Gordy)

B +

Though he’d continue to rack up minor R&B hits, James’ success on the pop charts would wane over the next few years beginning with this disc (he wouldn’t have another Top 40 hit until 1981), but though this album is a bit front-loaded and noticeably tapers off a bit in its back half, it still has its share of minor Rick James classics, namely “Bustin’ Out (on Funk)” (the lone single here to crack the pop survey, peaking at #71 but reaching the R&B Top Ten) and “High On Your Love Suite,” and though it lacks the number of big hits that Come Get It! has and may disappoint some for that reason, it’s still a largely effective album piece. (Rick James was always a bit more conscious than many of his other peers at Motown in terms of creating albums that actually seemed meant to be listened to as albums.) This disc also notably marks the debut of James’ protégé Teena Marie, who provides some of the backing vocals here.

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Fire It Up (1979, Gordy)

C

Like Bustin’ Out of L Seven, this isn’t a terribly easy album to find on CD – in fact, it wasn’t even released on CD in the U.S. until 2010 and, even then, it was still just available as a very limited edition and quickly fell out of print again – and even the original vinyl isn’t as easy to find as some of his other albums. The album is far from his best, though – it’s noticeably a tad less rock-tinged and a bit heavier on the disco, for starters, and for another, he seems a bit short on inspiration here. [Even the best-known cut here, “Love Gun,” is driven by a not-so-subtle metaphor that had already been notoriously used by Kiss on their 1977 album and single of the same name.] But the album still has its moments, and the title cut (featuring some brilliant interplay between the horns and James’ guitar) and the funky “Come into My Life” are both great fun.

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Garden of Love (1980, Gordy)

A –

Fans didn’t quite know what to make of this musical departure, and this disc consequently became James’ worst-selling album yet, but from a purely artistic standpoint, this is James’ most satisfying album since Come Get It! Be forewarned that there isn’t much of anything here that can be called pure funk – even the few up-tempo moments here are more disco per se than funk – but James sounds thoroughly re-energized here creatively, and this is easily his most adventurous outing. The album – if you don’t count the brief reprise at the end – is bookended by two great dancefloor cuts (“Big Time” and the clever “Mary-Go-Round”) but is otherwise completely comprised of ballads. Given that his forte has always been double-entendre-laden dancefloor-filling funk sides like “Super Freak,” the mere idea of a ballad-heavy album by James might seem ridiculous or off-putting to some, but it’s a great move artistically for James, whose brand of funk had started on Fire It Up to become a bit clichéd, and the ballads here – be it the tranquil, sound-effects-heavy “Island Lady,” the deeply soulful “Don’t Give Up on Love,” the lushly orchestrated “Gettin’ It On (in the Sunshine)” or the gentle lite-disco groove of “Summer Love” – are all astoundingly pretty and showcase an appealingly romantic side of James that we don’t see nearly enough of on any of his other discs. Mind you, the album is not at all representative of the kind of music James is most famous for, so this is probably not the best record for the new fan to start their Rick James collection with, but this isn’t merely an underrated Rick James album, it’s easily one of the most underrated albums Motown put out by any artist during the ‘80s.   

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Street Songs (1981, Gordy)

A +

Both his best-selling album and his finest hour artistically, this album is an undeniable funk classic and a must-own for even the most casual Rick James fan. His most famous hit of all, the enduring dancefloor classic “Super Freak” (delightfully featuring the Temptations on backing vocals and later infamously employed by rapper M.C. Hammer as the musical bed for his biggest hit, “U Can’t Touch This”) is here, as is the even funkier “Give It to Me Baby” (technically not all that big a pop hit – it only reached #40 – though it topped the R&B charts for five weeks), which has aged even better and is arguably both the more soulful and easily danceable song of the two. But it’s the high quality of the surrounding album cuts that makes this album superior to Come Get It!, and tracks like “Ghetto Life” (later sampled by rapper Busta Rhymes for his “In the Ghetto”) and “Call Me Up” are underrated in their own right, while the smoldering “Fire and Desire,” a reunion with James’ former protégé Teena Marie, is one of the greatest duets in the entire Motown library.

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Throwin’ Down (1982, Gordy)

A –

It’s not anywhere nearly as famous as its predecessor, nor did it produce any Top 40 pop hits, but this follow-up to Street Songs is nonetheless still a very good and underrated outing from James, who wisely doesn’t deviate much from the winning formula of that album, even bringing back both Teena Marie (on the lovely ballad “Happy”) and the Temptations (on the superb “Standing on the Top,” which inexplicably reached only #66 on the Hot 100 but was easily the best thing the Temptations had done in years and should have been a much bigger hit). Other highlights here include “Dance wit’ Me,” “Throwdown,” the notorious “She Blew My Mind (69 Times),” and the slow jam “Teardrops.” More casual fans of James may not recognize anything here on first listen, but it’s all quite excellent, and it still feels quite fresh and inspired compared to much of what would come later.