40 years ago: Rick James put some “Street” on the charts…and dominated in a tricky crossover market

(August 21, 2021).  Some records were made to be tied (and later broken).

In 1976-77, Stevie Wonder’s iconic album Songs in the Key of Life spent a then-record 20 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart (then known as Top Soul LPs).  Songs was also a pop chart juggernaut having become only the third album in history to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart (known as Top LPs & Tape in 1976) and the longest-running No. 1 of all the albums that debuted at the top in the pre-SoundScan/Nielsen MRC era. 

The 20-week R&B chart record stood for nearly five years…until another Motown star released his own set of Songs in a much tougher market.

”Rick James’ platinum No. 1 album “Street Songs”

The more flamboyant Motown singer/songwriter/producer Rick James released Street Songs in April of 1981 and watched it slowly become not only the top R&B chart album that year, but also the highest-peaking album by a Black artist on the pop chart.

Street Songs spent an incredible 20 weeks at No. 1 on the R&B albums chart – the first album to do that since Stevie’s Songs.  It also peaked at No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200 in August, matching the peak of Wonder’s Hotter Than July that January. 

The success of Street Songs was somewhat of an anomaly in 1981.  In the four years after Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life triumph, from 1977-80, music by Black artists had continued to fare well on the pop charts.  

But soul-to-pop crossover was a very tricky business in 1981.  As one radio executive put it in a Billboard article on August 1, 1981, there were essentially two top-40 formats by then.  There was “AC top 40,” which only played Black records that were ballads, and “rock ‘n’ roll top 40,” which didn’t play any Black records.

The proof was in the charts.  After Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” – a holdover from 1980 – fell out of the pop top ten in March 1981, there wouldn’t be another uptempo song by a Black artist in that region until August when the Commodores’ “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” moved in.  There would only be two more for the remainder of the year: Diana Ross’ remake of Frankie Lyman’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove.”

That’s it: four uptempo songs by Black acts that reached the top ten of the Hot 100 in 1981.  And, worse, there wouldn’t be another uptempo No. 1 by a Black artist on that chart until March 1983 when Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” ended a two-year drought. 

Undaunted by the state of affairs in popular music and what was one of the lowest periods for edgier Black musicians in modern music history, Rick James released what was easily his – and perhaps Motown’s – most ambitious, most revolutionary album since Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On ten years earlier.

Street Songs was a masterful blend of straight-up funk (the punk funk variety James had already mastered), disco, soul and new wave.  It was less a concept album and more a collection of songs loosely related to the streets.  The ballads were bedroom burners – the kind no pop station would touch in 1981 – and one in particular, “Fire and Desire” with one-time romantic partner and musical protégé Teena Marie, still stands as one of the quintessential R&B duets of all time.

In fact, “Fire and Desire” was to R&B radio what “Endless Love” – the No. 1 duet between fellow Motown artists Diana Ross & Lionel Richie – was to pop.  The only distinction – besides the obvious difference in tone and lyrical sentiment – is that “Fire and Desire” was never released as a commercially available single (a chart requirement at the time), and so it never made any of Billboard’s singles charts.

Rick James and Teena Marie

It was a dubiously clever decision for Motown not to release the highly popular “Fire and Desire,” as it might have become James’ third No. 1 soul single (and Marie’s first) after he had topped the soul chart with “You And I” (in 1978) and “Give It To Me Baby” in June and July of ‘81.  Perhaps Motown’s brass didn’t want “Fire” to compete with Marie’s own “Square Biz,” which had been released that summer as the lead single from her It Must Be Magic album.  

Besides, the absence of a commercial single for “Fire And Desire” surely stoked sales for the Street Songs album, which eventually went platinum in the U.S. and sold four million copies worldwide. 

It was “Give It To Me Baby,” however, that slowly got things started for Street Songs.  Released in March just before the album came out, the song began a slow climb on the charts, not reaching the Soul chart’s top 40 until a month after its debut.  It would take another month to reach the top ten and three weeks after that before it finally reached No. 1 (in its 12th week on the list).

“Give It To Me Baby” itself would settle in for five weeks at No. 1 Soul, and also topped Billboard’s disco list.  It contained all the hedonism James was known for, with sexually assertive lyrics in which the song’s protagonist tries to convince a reluctant lover to “give it to me,” despite his drunken state and after having been out all night.

It was totally in character for James, who was about as real as any Motown artist was at that time.  For him, it was all about the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, and he offered a sharp contrast to Motown’s much safer, far more established roster of names like Ross, Richie, Wonder, and Smokey Robinson (all of whom hit the pop top ten in 1981).

But it was James’ edginess – and pop radio’s lack of tolerance in 1981 for anything from Black artists but safe, middle-of-the-road fare – that prevented “Give It To Me Baby” from achieving the same success on the pop chart as it did Soul.  The single only reached No. 40 on the Hot 100, where it stayed for two weeks before beginning its descent that August.

It was the album’s second single that finally returned James to the upper reaches of the Hot 100.  Whereas “Give It” was more of a disco-funk groove, the new-wavy “Super Freak” was Rick’s 1981 punk-funk entry.  Containing background vocals by his label mates the Temptations, the song clocked at 132 beats per minute and was more synth and guitar-driven than its predecessor.

It was that musical signature that made “Super Freak” not only one of the highest-charting uptempo songs by a Black artist on the Hot 100 in 1981 (peaking at No. 16 that October), but also one of the most successful new wave singles on the chart since Devo’s “Whip It” a year earlier.

“Super Freak” established another first for James the following year when he became the first Black male to be nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Male Rock Vocal Performance (a category since won by Michael Jackson and Lenny Kravitz and later Gary Clark, Jr. after the Grammys removed gender-specific references from its awards).

That “Super Freak” only peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 (and No. 3 Soul) is still a slap in the face, especially given how iconic the song has since become.  It is easily James’ signature tune (despite “You And I” being bigger on both the pop and soul charts), and it was immortalized as a sample for MC Hammer’s blockbuster “U Can’t Touch This” nine years later.

The third single released from Street Songs was “Ghetto Life,” another uptempo number that was closer thematically to the album’s title than any of the other tracks.  It chronicled James’ coming-of-age on the streets of his Buffalo, NY hometown where he ran with the fellas looking for trouble and met a cute girl – creepily donning “pigtails” – who “taught him what he had to know.”

“Ghetto Life” was a respectable continuation of the horn-and-synth-and-guitar-driven funk that James was perfecting at the time, but – as third singles usually went – it withered on the charts.  It barely made the Soul Top 40, peaking at No. 38, and failed to make the Hot 100 altogether, reaching No. 102 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under list in early 1982.  

By that time, Street Songs had already run its course.  It had begun its inevitable descent down and eventually off the charts.

But – like Stevie’s Songs before it – James’ Street Songs was clearly his magnum opus.  Aside from the four most popular tunes mentioned already, the album included four other tunes that didn’t receive nearly as much attention but were respectable nonetheless.

The sultry and lushly arranged ballad “Make Love To Me” was a straightforward request by James for his lover to do just that, with all the innuendo that you’d expect from punk-funk’s chief balladeer (and the Mary Jane Girls providing their signature detached background vocals).

On “Call Me Up,” James keeps the sex-request theme going – albeit in more of his signature uptempo punk-funk style – as he sings the verses in a much higher register.  The groove takes an interesting turn during the bridge after the second chorus before returning to the main funk arrangement.  Some serious funk indeed!

“Mr. Policeman” is this album’s “Living In The City” meets “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” with its lyrical references to corrupt policing in the ghetto (a la “Living”) and its reggae-pop arrangement (courtesy of “Master”).  It even boasts harmonica accompaniment by Mr. Wonder himself.  With one of the earliest known references to “hoes” in the song’s second verse, it presaged what has certainly become an unfortunate hip-hop staple in the 40 years since. 

And finally the album’s closer, “Below The Funk (Pass The J),” was another nod to the city – specifically Buffalo – where James was born and bred.  Clocking at just over two-and-a-half minutes, the most notable aspect about the song was James’ use of a homosexual slur in the second verse (yes, the “f” word).  Parental advisory labels didn’t exist for albums in 1981, but Street Songs might have been that year’s leading case for one had they been around.

Also worth noting were the bevy of big-name musicians who performed on the album with James.  Aside from Wonder, the Temptations (including deep-voiced Melvin Franklin), the Mary Jane Girls and Teena Marie, were names like Narada Michael Walden (drums), Ja’net Dubois (“Willona” on “Good Times” and singer of “Movin’ On Up” – “The Jeffersons” theme), actor Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (backing vocals), and Gerald Albright (flute).

In many ways, even with just eight songs on the original LP (as opposed to the 21 that appeared on Stevie Wonder’s Songs), Street Songs was Motown’s most ambitious album at a time when the label was at a crossroads with the changes that had occurred in the music industry.  Disco’s meteoric rise had done a number on soul music by the late ‘70s. Then disco’s burnout of 1979 meant that Black artists now had to plow new ground musically in order to be noticed.

Motown was still the top Black-owned label in the game in 1981, but it was no longer the trendsetting launchpad of smash hits it had been in the 1960s and early ‘70s.  Since the mid-1970s, the label had begun following trends – like disco – sometimes being embarrassingly late to the party.  

Street Songs changed all of that, at least for a moment, giving Motown its most critical and commercial triumph at a time when pop radio simply wasn’t cooperating.

No matter, the lack of crossover radio play didn’t stop millions of people from buying up copies of what is still today a classic by one of the most legendary artists on Motown’s roster, or anyone’s roster for that matter.  

Forty years later the funk-and-roll lives on!

DJRob

Postscript:

Just two years after Street Songs tied Wonder’s record No. 1 run on the Billboard Soul albums chart, Michael Jackson’s Thriller broke the record with 37 weeks at the top.  Three other albums have since surpassed James’ and Wonder’s 20-week run and one other album – earlier this year by the late rapper Pop Smoke – has tied it.

The Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Albums No. 1 leader board (since the chart was launched in 1965):

37 weeks, Thriller, Michael Jackson, 1983-84

29, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, MC Hammer, 1990

26, Just Like the First Time, Freddie Jackson, 1986-87

23, Can’t Slow Down, Lionel Richie, 1983-84

20, Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder, 1976-77

20, Street Songs, Rick James, 1981

20, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, Pop Smoke, 2020-21

19, Purple Rain, Prince, 1984

18, The Temptations Sing Smokey, The Temptations, 1965

18, Bad, Michael Jackson, 1987-88

17, Aretha Now, Aretha Franklin, 1968

DJRob

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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