Super Squeak

"I saw it coming," Rick James says, "and subconsciously, I asked for it."
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."

Not by 1993, anyway. Much of what James has to say about his rise and fall has been revealed before in tabloids and on talk shows (and, yes, he'll show up on Oprah this season). In that sense, he's just the latest in a procession of celebrities who have used the protections of the First Amendment to confess their perverse violations of the Ten Commandments.

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.

"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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Dave Wielenga