Sunday, September 18, 2011

September 18: Rick James, "Super Freak"

Artist: Rick James
Song: "Super Freak"
Album: Street Songs
Year: 1981

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In a number of cases throughout the course of music history, and artist has become far larger than their musical persona due to a wide range of external incidents and influences.  There are a handful of such performers that have also managed to write songs that have fallen victim to a similar fate, and in these situations, one can often forget just why the artist or performer was so respected and revered in the first place.  Though one can cite a few musicians who fit this description, there are few that better define the idea than Rick James, and yet one cannot deny the fact that on many levels, he saved the style of popular music.  As the 1970's began in wind down, a number of iconic record labels began to suffer due to not being able to properly "update" their sound, and this was certainly the case with the legendary Motown Records.  Truth be told, it was the efforts and musical talents of James that revitalized the label, giving them new life throughout the 1980's.  Finding a number of creative ways to blend funk, rock, blues, soul, and disco all into some of the most unforgettable and musically brilliant compositions in history, James scored a handful of chart-topping hits, cementing his legacy as one of the most talented performers in all of music history.  However, it would be his own 1981 album, Street Songs, that would yield his definitive moment, as their are few songs more iconic than Rick James' unforgettable disco-funk single, "Super Freak."

The very moment that "Super Freak" begins, the level of worldwide fame that the core riff has achieved becomes instantly clear, and there are few musical progressions in history that are as instantly recognizable as the one found here.  Though it is not the most complex, it is the deep groove that James deploys via his bass that grabs the listener and pulls them into the song.  Truth be told, even after hearing "Super Freak" countless times, the bassline is just as exiting and appealing, and this in itself cements the songs' place in history.  The way that the progression slides up and down is a perfect compliment to the lyrical tone of the track, and yet it is also the fact that there is an unquesitonably "disco sound" on the track that makes it even more unique.  By 1981, one can argue that disco was gone, if not dead, and it is "Super Freak" that bridges the gap between that sound and the rising "club" sound that would dominate the dance scene of the 1980's.  However, one cannot overlook the way that the keyboards punctuate this amazing bassline, presenting yet another rhythm within the song.  In fact, it is the multiple keyboard progressions one can hear on "Super Freak" that make the song so fantastic, as the track bounces and moves in different directions simultaneously.  This rhythmic complexity is finished off by an almost restrained drum track, and yet it is the way that all of the instruments come together that makes the music on "Super Freak" absolutely iconic.

However, while the musical arrangement alone would have easily made "Super Freak" a classic, the vocals and lyrics from Rick James push the track into a category all its own.  There is an attitude and swagger within James' singing that match the lyrics perfectly, and it is also this singing style which defined him as an artist.  Managing to become one of the most lavish stage persona's in history without becoming a caricature, James achieves a rare balance in personality and style.  It is this almost pompous attitude, mixed with the extremely suggestive tones of the song that make "Super Freak" one of the finest party anthems in history, and yet there are few songs as lewdly misogynistic as one finds here.  From the opening lines of the song, James spins the tale of a woman of ill repute, claiming that, "...she likes the boys in the band, she says that I'm her all-time favorite..."  While James does not explicitly state exactly how much she "likes' the other members of the band, the rest of the song seems to suggest that she is the more modern representation of a "groupie," and as the song progresses, James continues to paint a rather unflattering picture of the female in question.  Strangely enough, it is this "bad girl" image that he unapologetically creates which pushed the song to such heights, as even with these rather questionable traits, the music and vocal performance seem to overcome what could have resulted in great controversy.  This fact alone solidifes what a special moment one can find on "Super Freak," and James vocals throughout are nothing short of perfect.

In reality, there are few songs that have delievered as much of a "total package" as one can experience on "Super Freak," and it is due to the perfecton in every element that has enabled the song to become one of the most heavily covered and sampled in all of music history.  One can look to almost every musical trend that has occurred since the songs' release and find the track either being sampled, covered, or referenced in some manner.  In fact, one of the biggest selling tracks of the decade that followed was based around the musical arrangement found on "Super Freak."  Selling more than ten million copies across the globe, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" remains one of the definitive songs of the 1990's, and almost every moment of the music on that track is the core riff of "Super Freak."  Furthermore, since 1981, the song has been re-recorded by heavy metal bands, folk groups, and there is even a bluegrass rendition of the song, and combining these with the myriad of instances where the track has been sampled, and one can argue that there are few songs that have achieved as wide-ranged an impact as "Super Freak."  Even more than three decades after the song was first released, "Super Freak" can still easily light up a room, as the music and lyrics are upbeat and fun, regardless of the musical trends by which they are surrounded.  Taking this all into account, while his persona may have become larger than life, there is simply no question that when one discusses the most influential songs in the entire history of music, few can compare to the timeless perfection found on Rick James' legendary 1981 single, "Super Freak."

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