Rick James – Super Freak (1981, Motown Records)
Why It’s Perfect: The two biggest novelty pop-rap singles of the ‘90s were (with apologies to Rico Suave) undoubtedly MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This and Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby, both of which cribbed their melodies from dusty hits of the early ‘80s. While Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure has remained at least on par with Ice’s appropriation in terms of general recognition, glittermeister Rick James’ bizarrely captivating funkster Super Freak has been a bit less lucky. This is a crying shame, because as enjoyable as Hammer’s dorktastic rhymes and parachute pants remain, it pales next to the utterly unique shuffle and squirm of James’ signature hit.
Like Under Pressure, Super Freak is built around a repetitive, idiosyncratic bass figure, but where Queen’s John Deacon’s lines have a certain melodic elegance, James’ completely disregard such sophistication. The lurching riff has a little pocket in the middle that stutters a dance step, and its rhythm might best be described as “bouncing.” Rather than downplay the awkwardness of the riff, James chooses to emphasize it with a grab-bag of geekoid synth vamps and scuttling zithers (or possibly marimbas?). As much as Super Freak obviously owes to George Clinton and Bootsy Collins’ space-time continuum funk, it also nabs plenty from glib contemporary New Wavers Devo and Gary Numan. The resulting fusion sounds at least as strange as it looks on paper, but even if it did nothing else, Super Freak would deserve kudos for injecting a little blackness into the almost painfully white complexion of the New Wave movement.
Fortunately, the thing is a veritable smorgasbord of fun, from the hurry-up disco pre-chorus to Danny Lemalle’s flashy sax solo. Add hilarious backing vocals from the legendary Temptations (!) and James’ own incorrigibly outsized boasts, and Super Freak becomes one of the great oddities of perhaps pop’s strangest decade.
[For bonus fun, check out the 12” single version, which jams out to seven minutes and features some delicious guitar work outs and kicking percussion.]
Defining Moment: “That girl is pretty wild now / She’s a super freak! / I’d really like to taste her (*SLURP*) / Every time we meet!” (2:00 – 2:10)
I don’t know how James’ lascivious (and to be honest, pretty gross) ad-lib slipped past me the first forty or fifty times I listened to the song, but when I did, it was like realizing that the bushes in Super Mario Bros. are just the cloud sprites painted green; I can’t not notice it.
Other Great Songs by Rick James: Rick James was pretty much the Commodores with a complete disregard for good taste or restraint (i.e. the Commodores if they were interesting). After playing in the Mynah Birds with Neil Young (!!!) and some of the dudes from Steppenwolf during the late ‘60s, he helped save the venerable Motown Records from bankruptcy with a dependable string of hit singles on the black/R&B charts, and even managed a few minor crossover hits before his career was derailed by substance abuse issues and other crack pipe-related catastrophes. In his prime, though, James was the most lovably lewd rock star prior to Prince, and songs like Cold Blooded, Mary Janes, Ghetto Life, Bustin’ Out and the immortal Give it to Me Baby are as good as funk gets.
[Hey look, no Chappelle’s Show jokes!]