He foresaw it in his own public profile, jagged as an EKG, which stretched across nearly 30 years of popular music and eccentric behavior; James had mutated from sing-along '60s folkie to braided-and-spandexed '70s funky to top-of-the-world '80s debauchee. But by 1993, his music career -- one decorated with platinum records, Grammy awards and R&B hits -- had crumbled around him, ruined by a decade-long addiction to crack. He was sentenced to five years, four months for assault and possession of cocaine. The decadent superstar who had strutted across concert stages and contributed the phrase "Super Freak" to pop culture found himself a crumpled convict, strumming his guitar in a yard surrounded by cement and barbed wire.
"It had to happen this way for me," James says. His voice, gentle and a little grainy through the telephone, bears scant resemblance to the suggestive, soaring vocal fountain that gushes from his songs. "Rehab hadn't done any good, and I was too chickenshit to die. The last resort was prison. I had a lot of time to think there, to get introspective about life, and all I had was my acoustic guitar. Someone who worked at the prison managed to sneak me a tape recorder. I wrote over 400 songs in prison. I wrote jazzy stuff, funky stuff and ballads. I wrote spiritual stuff. It was a potpourri of things."
"The guys in the next cell were always playing hip-hop and R&B," he adds. "I'd never heard this stuff -- nor would I have given a fuck. For so long, my life had been dedicated to getting high. But this new music affected me. It made me want to create again."
And now, paroled after serving three years of his sentence, James is in a position to do something about it. He's back from Folsom Prison with a CD, Urban Rapsody, that's due to be released in mid-October and a concert tour that kicked off last week. Urban Rapsody doesn't exactly live up to James's outrageous legend or break any new ground -- in fact, the most surprising aspect of the album may be its lack of pretension -- but then again, this is his first new album since 1988's Wonderful, and it's been 16 years since he hit his artistic and commercial peak with Street Songs (notwithstanding the 1990 revival of "Super Freak" in Hammer's "U Can't Touch This"). So he now faces the prospect of separating the demons from the inspirations and putting everything -- body, mind, spirit and career -- back together with everybody watching.
"That's okay, I don't mind talking about it," James says. "I've always lived under the eye of scrutinization. People have always watched me as if I'm in a fish tank. For some reason, they've always found me interesting to watch. Now they've got more reasons."
James intends to use as many of those reasons as he can to his advantage. His watchability, as well as his listenability, his marketability, his celebrity -- in short, his very ability to make a living as an entertainer -- may be riding on his upcoming CD. The man who almost lost it all may yet do so, though James insists that this time around an entirely different lifestyle is at stake: He's engaged to Tanya Ann Hijazi (who was incarcerated for 15 months for her role in James's debacles), and the couple has moved into a new home in California's San Fernando Valley, where they're raising their five-year-old son.
"I never thought I'd live this kind of life, or that I'd want to," James chuckles. "Being a home person? Staying in and watching movies? Eating popcorn with my son? Being with one woman? Never! But that's the way it is, and I kind of like it. I've lived the kind of life people dream about, the kind they read in Jackie Collins books. But I haven't done this, and it's cool."
James is still confronted with his past every day, though, especially during the current slew of interviews accompanying his CD release. It's no surprise that most people are probably more interested in James's chemical and sexual deviations than, say, his new album. So he faces the wearying prospect of being on the phone all day, for days to come.
"Well, the good news is that we're talking right now," James says with a combination of amusement and gravity. "Three or four years ago, we wouldn't be having this interview -- especially not during the middle of the day. But nowadays I wake up when the sun starts shining. Used to be, that's when I'd start trying to get some sleep.
"Experimentation, that's what it was always about for me -- mind expanding and music expanding. I wanted to do anything that would make me sound better, make me smarter, make me hipper -- hell, make me better-looking. If it was cool, I would do it. The drugs, the women, the sheen, the music, it was all part of the idiom. But it didn't work."