Super Squeak

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

"That was just me going through an artistic ego trip," he says now. "I didn't want rappers touching my shit, but a lot of us older musicians felt that way then. I wanted to sue them. But then I saw what kind of money I was making from Hammer and LL Cool J and Will Smith and on and on with the people sampling Rick James music. And I said, 'Never mind.' "

But if James's rap-and-funk approach now sometimes seems derivative, it's worth remembering that he's one of the innovators from whom it was derived. Certainly there is no doubting his technical mastery of the various styles he showcases on Rapsody. His singing has acquired a honeyed richness, and although James has never been an especially inventive lyricist, his sincerity here can be downright disarming. Snoop Doggy Dogg and Charlie Womack contribute star quality to "Players Way," the single that was recently released to radio, but the CD has moments with far more magic. The title track, an ode to the inner city, plays Rappin' 4-Tay's smooth staccato against James's bruising crooning, both vocals folding seamlessly into a tangy backing of warm horns and funky bass. Neb Love, of the struggling rap duo Da Five Footaz, may get her big break with her hauntingly seductive performances on "It's Time" and "Favorite Flava." There's also no denying the earnestness of "Mama's Eyes," a painful recollection of James's mother, who died of cancer while he was in prison. Throughout, the underlying tone of Urban Rapsody is one of uncertainty, both musically and lyrically, and that is its most personal and poignant statement: This is Rick James, circa 1997, vulnerable and bravely struggling for direction and meaning.

"I have to establish myself again, but I have to be careful. I don't want to lose the fans I had, and I want to attract new fans, but I don't want to lose my musical integrity either," he says. "I don't want to make the same mistakes I made before, but I don't want to blow people away with something foreign or alien to what they expect. I have to find a happy medium. The album is out, yeah, but I'm still in search of that happy medium.

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