Super Squeak

Rick James comes clean on the past, the present -- and the CD he hopes will revive his career

Both during and after his massive chart successes, James lived a life of hedonism and paranoia fueled by a flamboyant personality, a swollen bank account and a riveting addiction. Then two especially out-of-control incidents brought it all crashing down. In the first, in July 1991, 26-year-old Frances Alley (who was smoking crack with James and Hijazi) alleged that James burned her leg and knee with a crack pipe, poured on alcohol, pistol-whipped her and burned her groin and torso with a hot knife. There were also allegations that James forced Alley to perform oral sex on Hijazi. Then in November 1992, a woman named Mary Sauget alleged that she got high with James and Hijazi at a swanky Sunset Strip hotel during a meeting to discuss a record deal. When the mood turned argumentative, Sauget said, she tried to leave but was held against her will and slapped unconscious by James and Hijazi. When the cases against James reached court, the charges against him included aggravated mayhem, torture, forced oral copulation, false imprisonment by force, sale or transportation of a controlled substance and terrorist threats. James's rosy demeanor begins to reveal some thorns when this legal litany is mentioned.

"I was acquitted of nearly all those charges," he points out sharply. "I didn't go to prison for kidnapping or rape or torture or any of that, but I see people writing that and hear them saying it all the time. I don't mind people talking about me and what I went through, but at least tell the truth: I went to prison because of cocaine and assault. I'm not minimizing, just clarifying."

James won't delve into details about the incidents. He knows he's walking a narrow line between being cooperatively honest about his past and calculatingly exploiting it. Besides, telling his substance-abuse history in the media conflicts with the principles of anonymity suggested by the 12-step program that James is using to save and redirect his life. Not that he's the first celebrity to face this dilemma.

"If you're a drug addict, whether you're Darryl Strawberry or Robin Williams, there's always a chance of relapse. I'm only a drug away from going back myself. Or dying. That's the bottom line with addiction," James recites, as though reminding himself. "That's what I know. That's what I need to know.''

Then there's the opposite proposition, that James's past mistakes will forever overshadow his recovery, that he'll be doing a kind of time for the rest of his life.

"I don't need the opinions of all kinds of knuckleheaded, stupid-assed people,'' he says. "My past is behind me. The past is behind all of us. If I have to concern myself with little-minded motherfuckers, I'll get high. But I don't. So I'm moving on."

Perhaps, but exactly in what direction he'll be moving is difficult to ascertain. James's career has been a tribute to musical flexibility and concoction. He began as a jazz-and-blues-schooled guy from Buffalo, New York, and made his first noteworthy music as a sort of hippie soul man with the likes of Neil Young (in an electric folk doppelganger called the Mynah Birds) and Joni Mitchell. After evolving toward funk, signing with Motown and swimming upstream against the disco deluge, James's fifth album -- 1981's Street Songs, the one with "Super Freak" and "Give It to Me Baby" -- made him a superstar. In the process, he also became a high-powered producer. His most famous protegee was Teena Marie, a waif he rescued from Motown's compost pile and transformed into a popular blue-eyed soul singer. He assembled the Mary Jane Girls, for whom he produced several mid-'80s hits ("In My House," "All Night Long"). James even coaxed a number-two hit out of Eddie Murphy ("Party All the Time"), wrapping the comedian's whine in appealing hooks. So when it came to selecting a sound for his own comeback, James had lots of options.

"I thought about doing an acoustic album, to pour out my heart, to get all self-indulgent," he says. "But that would have been too soul-searching. It might have been a downer."

Swaggering decadence had been the essence of his image for so long that he wondered whether the public would be ready -- or, more important, willing -- to accept a Rick James whose concept of touchy-feely no longer had anything to do with an orgy. Ultimately, James decided not to ask them to. "I said, 'Fuck this, let's get back to the roots,' " he recalls, "and I wrote some new songs."

So instead of looking ahead, Urban Rapsody takes a long look back. James has attempted a concept album, an audio movie of his life; he compares the recording process to "recreating Frankenstein." And the record is something of a monster -- a sprawling, 70-minute, 15-track catharsis. If the CD has a problem, it is the obviousness of its intent, which is to appeal to the broadest audience possible. James enlisted a wide assortment of stars, from hip-hoppers (Snoop Doggy Dogg, Neb Love, Rappin' 4-Tay) to rhythm and blues legends (Bobby Womack, Charlie Wilson) to another of his protegees (Joanne "JoJo" McDuffie, of the Mary Jane Girls) to help out. Occasionally, the music sounds as though James has traveled to his collaborators' ground instead of staking out his own. The sly spelling of the album's title, Urban Rapsody, also carries the scent of concession, given the vehemence with which James used to rail against rappers.

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