Searching For Rick James

Chappelle’s Show is one of the most important comedy series in television history. This is not up for debate.

It had a superficial humor for everyone to enjoy, but was intelligently designed with a cutting underbelly—subversive humor at its finest.

However, there is one particular sketch that has always left me a bit conflicted.

On February 11, 2004, we tuned in as our favorite show premiered the fourth episode of its second season. We were introduced to “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories – Rick James”

Now, I don’t need to belabor the point. We know the sketch, the (in)famous one-liners, and most importantly, the wholly articulated argument as to why African-Americans should have not, under any circumstance, been given money. I’m not here to contest the hilarity of said bit. I open-hand smacked at least three kids the next day at school (I remember two of the three screaming, “Who is Charlie Murphy?!”). That sketch was an instant classic.

But on what would have Rick James’ 65th birthday, all I can think about is that one time when the poet Rashid hit us with the thought-provoking couplet,

“Why ain’t Rick James remembered for classic hits?
Why do we remember Rick for smackin’ a b—-h?”

From there, we’re left asking ourselves, “What will be the enduring legacy of Rick James?”

Seriously. When our children discuss “Rick James,” will they know him as the the perennial hitmaker or the drug-fueled cautionary tale?

Who he really is, I believe, lies somewhere in between.

I remember hearing “Ebony Eyes” for the first time. Great song. But what stuck with me the most were the accompanying visuals, featuring R&B legend Smokey Robinson.

As with most things of the 80s, the music video is incredibly quiche, positing the two as pilots of some sort, braving an oncoming storm. Left at home are their respective female counterparts. And this is where it gets interesting.

Now, when Smokey leaves home, he hugs his wife and son—the consummate “family man.”

Flash to Rick.

Now, he’s in bed with an equally undressed, intentionally unidentified woman. Entangled in a lustful embrace, Rick opts to leave his partner with .

When the collective is reunited, after a brief stay on Gilligan’s Island, James, collar ajar, is shown as the cigarette-smoking musician who wears his sunglasses at night, barely acknowledging the existence of anything beyond the sheet music in front of him. Meanwhile, Smokey, wearing his finest turtleneck, plays the background, probably whispering endearing thoughts to his wife, just like a real R&B singer’s supposed to. I don’t think the juxtaposition was by accident.

That’s how Rick James was presented. But who was he really?

I suppose he’s somewhere between the mawkishly expressive balladeer (“Fire and Desire”) and the sonic encapsulation of our carnal desires (“Give It To Me Baby”), all of which can coexist on the exact same album (Street Songs, 1981).

And that’s why “Mary Jane” is such a great record. It is Rick James. You have to understand, when I first hear this as a child, my earnest reaction was something like “Man, this is pretty cool record. He REALLY loves Mary Jane!”

See, I thought Mary Jane was just a girl from around the way. It was not until my teenage years that I—with innocence far gone—realize that the apple of his eye was actually ground and tightly bound (but not too tight), for another type of consumption. The subversive genius of Rick James.

He is, was, and will always be a ghetto (life) rock star. There’s no changing that. The caricature displayed on that infamous sketch is not definably Rick, but most certainly captures a very real part of who he was, a part that defined him musically.

Rick James was the complicated product of an 80s urban landscape. His features—the luxurious hair and glamorous outfits—embodied much of the androgynous sensibilities of the era. But his demeanor, as if to purposefully contradict his appearance, was aggressively wild, unbridled by any outward “femininity.” Forget the clothes, Rick James was raised in the streets and never let us forget it. He was the personification of passionate decadence and it fueled every aspect of his life—personally and artistically.

When I tell my children about Rick James, I will show them the sketch, but only when they’re ready.

First, I have to introduce them to a man that reinvented the black music paradigm—fusing punk, funk, and soul to create something rebellious beyond belief. He is an icon. No matter what people say, they can never take that away from him.

That’s Rick James.

Written By: Paul Pennington

Rick James

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