Still 'Wonderful': Rick James in the Late '80s

Rick James' 'Wonderful' and 'Kickin''
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Warner Records

Rick James was a powerful force in the late '70s and early '80s with his unique and influential sound, which he dubbed "punk funk." But even when he stopped being a regular presence on the pop charts, his music still made a big noise.

READ MORE: April 1981: Rick James Gets Super Freaky on 'Street Songs'

James - a Motown journeyman who'd been in a band with Neil Young in the '60s - really came into his own with 1981's Street Songs, his highest-charting album boasting the hits "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak." While he continued to excel as a solo act - recording eclectic tracks with label mates from the funky "Standing on the Top" (featuring The Temptations) to the sweet ballad "Ebony Eyes" (a duet with Smokey Robinson) - he also branched into production, writing and producing hits for white soul singer Teena Marie and his own backing trio the Mary Jane Girls. Most famously, when Eddie Murphy decided to crossover from Hollywood to the clubs, it was James' "Party All the Time" that earned him a massive hit. (Those stories on Chappelle's Show were true, after all.)

WATCH: Rick James Heats Up "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" 1984

But the streak couldn't last: 1986's The Flag, his final album for the Motown-owned Gordy label, wouldn't yield a pop hit at all - only the Top 10 R&B hit "Sweet and Sexy Thing." Undeterred, he took his talents elsewhere - to the Warner-owned Reprise label - and set about crafting some new funk with a twist. Acts like Prince (who opened for James on an early tour) and Janet Jackson were working to strip down soul to its component parts: brash, electronic beats and layers augmented by taut guitar and bass spikes. While it may have looked like playing catch-up to some, his first single for Reprise did something not all of his peers did by embracing hip-hop. "Loosey's Rap," a slinky strutter of a tune, was livened up by rapid-fire verses from Roxanne Shanté. Barely 18 at the time and made famous as the emcee in the center of an "answer record" to UTFO's classic joint "Roxanne, Roxanne," her upbeat come-ons complemented James' classic low-hanging howls perfectly.

"Loosey's Rap" would top Billboard's R&B charts - James' first to do so since 1983 - and helped his album Wonderful outpace The Flag on the soul album charts. James would soon run into a spot of controversy for the "Loosey's" video, which featured some slightly risqué content in the form of scantily-clad women cavorting backstage at a fashion show. James was no stranger to butting heads with MTV - he was one of the first Black artists to criticize the lack of artists of color on the channel - so he continued undeterred. ("So what?" James retorted at the time. "You're too straight for it? Don't watch it!") But the decade ended on a wobbly note: his 1989 follow-up album Kickin', set to add a little more rock to the funk, only saw a few promo copies squeak out in England before being shelved. (It finally saw release in 2014, a decade after James' passing.)

It would be the last anyone heard of James on record for nearly a decade, with the ensuing years marred by drug problems and resulting legal woes. But the early '90s did feature a shining example of what made Rick James such a powerhouse: in 1990, rapper MC Hammer sampled "Super Freak" extensively for his signature song, "U Can't Touch This." Hammer earned two Grammy Awards for the track: the first-ever trophy for Best Rap Solo Performance, and one for Best R&B song - shared with James as co-writer.

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