Give It to Me: Rick James' 'Street Songs' At 40

Rick James in 1981
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Mark Weiss/WireImage

On April 7, 1981, after decades of finding his way in music, Rick James released Street Songs, the album that forever defined his sound and established him as a master of funk and soul for generations.

The Buffalo, NY-born singer/bassist had some wild run-ins in the rock world: after fleeing to Toronto in the '60s to escape a stint in the Navy, Rick made friends with artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, even forming a group, The Mynah Birds, that would at one point include Young. Later in the decade, he moved to Detroit to work as a player and writer for Motown; while there, Stevie Wonder suggested he shorten the name he was known by at the time, Ricky James Matthews, to just two names.

A decade later, Rick was an artist for Motown's Gordy label, becoming one of the company's top acts as well as shepherding other up-and-comers like Teena Marie. (He was also one of the first people to hire a little-known Prince as an opening act.) But Street Songs, James' fifth record, was unlike the others. While still steeped in soul, he also found himself embracing pure rock and roll - an attempt, he later said, to get white audiences to pay attention as intently as Black audiences had. "I was told I needed something white folks could dance to, so I came up with that punky-funky sounding line," he later said.

Indeed, the "punk-funk" of Street Songs - wrapped around a concept album of songs that were sensual ("Give It to Me Baby," "Fire and Desire") and serious ("Mr. Policeman," "Ghetto Life") - became intoxicating for audiences of all stripes. "Super Freak" and "Give It to Me Baby" became smash hits on the R&B charts even as they only performed modestly on the pop survey. (James was openly critical of the disparity in years to come, becoming one of MTV's early critics for not playing enough videos by Black artists.) The album itself reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200, selling more than a million copies and earning him two Grammy Award nominations.

Rick James' influence would only grow in the years to come: MC Hammer's signature "U Can't Touch This" extensively sampled the groove of "Super Freak," and the singer's outlandish persona would be immortalized for laughs on Chappelle's Show. Catchphrases aside, Street Songs remains an artistic watermark, not only for the late artist but for a decade of

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