by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Cold Blooded (1983, Gordy)
Much too spotty for its own good but boasting some truly first-rate highlights, Cold Blooded is where James truly began to start feeling like a self-parody and repeating himself just a bit too much (although “U Bring the Freak Out,” redundant though it is, is still pretty great and gets the album off to a fine start). Once again, he’s got some high-profile guest stars, but “P.I.M.P. the S.I.M.P.” (featuring rap pioneer Grandmaster Flash) and “Tell Me What You Want” (featuring Billy Dee Williams – yes, the same Billy Dee Williams who played Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars movies) are experiments that don’t quite work, and to say James doesn’t really expand his horizons as a lyricist here is a bit of an understatement. But the album boasts a knockout single – one of James’ most infectious – in the synth-heavy, Linda Blair-inspired title track, while the Smokey Robinson duet “Ebony Eyes” – which bears much more in common with Smokey’s quiet-storm ballads of the ‘70s than your average Rick James song – is an outright masterpiece and one of the most underrated sides that either gentleman ever made. You’re not likely to listen to the second side very often, but the first half is fantastic.
Glow (1985, Gordy)
James followed up Cold Blooded with the hits package Reflections (which included three new cuts, including the minor Top 40 hit “17,” which was mildly infectious but had the unfortunate effect of making James look all the more one-dimensional). Perhaps in reaction to the increasing criticism that his music was becoming clichéd, James took a noticeable detour on this album, dialing back considerably on his double-entendre-lyrics of the past several albums and incorporating a slightly heavier rock influence, resulting in both a more tasteful and a more interesting album than Cold Blooded. The album unfortunately sold poorly and yielded no hits, so only hardcore fans are likely to recognize much of anything here with the possible exception of the minor hit “Can’t Stop,” but it makes a more appealing album piece overall than its predecessor and boasts many an overlooked gem, particularly the aforementioned “Can’t Stop” (which recalls a rock-tinged spin on the synth-pop of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time,” which James had written and produced for the former SNL star the same year), the infectious jazz-funk of the title cut, and the slinky R&B of “Moonchild.” Some fans may miss the more hardcore-funk sounds of the earlier albums and the more outlandish elements of Rick James’ personality (this is certainly as close as Rick James ever came to emulating the smoothed-out, adult-contemporary R&B of the likes of Jeffrey Osborne or Luther Vandross), but James is clearly trying to grow here as a performer and his gift for crafting a solid melody is still intact at this point, resulting in his finest platter since Throwin’ Down and one of the most underrated albums he ever made. Sadly, Motown has never bothered to issue this disc on CD, so you’ll likely have to seek out the original vinyl, but for ‘80s R&B aficionados, it’s worth the hunt.
The Flag (1986, Gordy)
More than likely a response to the poor commercial performance of the more mature and criminally-ignored Glow, James wholly reverted on this disc to his funk-heavy sounds and outlandish personality of old, but you can sense his bitterness over Glow not faring better on the charts by just how completely calculated and phoned-in this material feels, especially such clichéd fare as “Sweet and Sexy Thing,” “Funk in America,” and “Freak Flag.” It’s not a complete waste of time – “Painted Pictures,” for one, is fantastic – but the few decent songs here are all buried towards the back of the disc, which will test the patience of most listeners. This is easily the worst album James ever made for the Gordy label.
Wonderful (1988, Reprise)
After The Flag, James bolted the Motown family to join the roster at Reprise (which, up until this point, had never really been known in the past for R&B, though that would change slightly with the signings of James, Atlantic Starr, Al Jarreau, The Time, and Roger Troutman), but the label change doesn’t seem to have helped James get any clearer a handle on how to move forward amidst the changing musical climate, and he’s still succumbing to the same clichés of The Flag the bulk of the time. There are some decent cuts to salvage the disc, namely “Loosey’s Rap” (a duet with rapper Roxanne Shante that topped the R&B charts yet strangely missed the Hot 100 entirely), “So Tight,” and the title cut, but while the album is a more appealing listen than The Flag, it doesn’t feel either as warm or as essential as even Fire It Up, the weakest of his early albums for Gordy.
Urban Rapsody (1997, Mercury/Private I)
His first album in nine years (Wonderful’s proper sequel, Kickin’, had been shelved and would not see any type of commercial release until decades later, and even then only in digital form; James himself, meanwhile, was sidelined for much of the ‘90s by drug addiction and a brief jail term) and the last Rick James disc that would be released during his lifetime, Urban Rapsody is unfortunately no better than Wonderful, though it’s still more appealing and more sincere than The Flag. James still sounds in fine form, but as a writer, he still seems lost in the wilderness and unsure of where to go artistically, and the disc ends up being a fairly predictable mix of funk jams (but with the slight twist of boasting the occasional guest rapper like Snoop Dogg or Rappin’ 4-Tay) and old-school ballads. Nothing here is exactly bad per se like the worst material on The Flag was, but nothing here exactly feels either fresh or particularly critical, either, resulting in a disc that’s slightly more graceful than either of its two predecessors but still ultimately forgettable.
Deeper Still (2007)
Recorded shortly before his death in 2004 but not released until several years later, Deeper Still stops well shy of being as essential a disc as most of his output for Motown, but to James’ credit, he was finally starting to figure out just prior to his passing how to gracefully forge forward as a musician, and though some fans might becry the lack of especially deep funk here (the ballad-heavy album has more in common with, say, Glow, than it does Come Get It! or Street Songs), this was not only a much more tasteful way for James to bow out on record than the contrived Urban Rapsody, but it’s also the finest album he had made since Glow almost two full decades earlier. The mildly-cliched “Funk wit’ Me” might not be the best choice of closer for a disc that otherwise largely eschewed the stereotypes of prior Rick James albums, but cuts like “Do You Wanna Play,” “Taste,” the surprisingly heavily-smooth-jazz-tinged “Sapphire” and “Maybe” are his most appealing songs in years, while the disc also contains an unexpected but surprisingly good cover of “Guinnevere,” a David Crosby-penned song from the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album.
James’ best-known hits package of the vinyl era was 1984’s Reflections, but it’s rather unsatisfying, containing just seven back-catalog items alongside three new songs (highlighted by the minor hit “17”); though it naturally contains such big hits as “You and I,” “Super Freak,” “Give It to Me Baby,” and “Mary Jane,” it’s strangely missing “Cold Blooded” and also lacks such unforgettable all-star duets as “Ebony Eyes” and “Standing on the Top.” The 1986 package Greatest Hits is an improvement on its predecessor and is your best vinyl option; though there’s a great deal of overlap with Reflections, “Oh What a Night (4 Luv)” and “Fire and Desire” are dropped in favor of “Cold Blooded” and “Ebony Eyes,” both very welcome substitutes. As far as single-disc packages available on CD go, your best option by far is Motown/Universal’s 2006 The Definitive Collection, which includes a generous seventeen tracks, including all five of his Top 40 hits and an extremely well-chosen assortment of lesser-known hits and album highlights that incorporates not just “Mary Jane,” “Ebony Eyes,” and “Fire and Desire,” but also “Standing on the Top,” “Can’t Stop,” Glow,” and Garden of Love’s “Big Time.” [Be sure to avoid 1997’s The Ultimate Collection, which suffers from some very odd song choices, inexplicably leaving out “17” and ignoring Garden of Love and Glow entirely while somehow finding room for “Make Love to Me.”] If you don’t mind springing for a double-disc compilation, you can’t do any better than to pick up Motown’s 2002 top-notch package Anthology, which includes all the hits and highlights from all of his albums for Gordy (even including such criminally-overlooked sides such as “Fire It Up,” “Island Lady,” “Happy,” and “Moonchild”) and even unexpectedly tosses in James’ biggest hit for Reprise, “Loosey’s Rap,” at the end of the collection; it’s easily the most complete James best-of out there.
If you can’t get enough Rick James, there are quite a few other studio albums out there that Rick James not only appears on but had a very large hand in making, whether as a writer and/or producer, including Teena Marie’s much-recommended debut album Wild and Peaceful, as much a showcase for James’ own talents as it is for Teena’s; the Stone City Band albums In ‘n’ Out, The Boys Are Back, and Out from the Shadows; and the Mary Jane Girls’ Mary Jane Girls and Only Four You, the latter of which includes the Top Ten smash “In My House,” arguably the best song that Rick James ever gave away to another artist.