On the 10 year-anniversary of Rick James' death, VIBE remembers how our favorite Super Freak went out with a bang.
For years, the name Rick James was synonymous with self-implosion, a cautionary tale about the dangers of excess. He was a superb musician who created hits with everyone from The Temptations to Eddie Murphy, introduced Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls to the public, and kept Motown records afloat with little push from MTV. However, his lust for life occasionally outshined his aptitude for music, derailing his success and eventually landing him in prison. To James, life was a never-ending party. Sadly, the celebration ended on this day in 2004 when the legend was found dead in his Los Angeles home, the victim of a heart attack. Various ailments associated with his hedonistic lifestyle finally caught up with him at the age of 56. But prior to his death, James enjoyed a six-month return to pop culture pertinence, thanks to a moment forever inscribed in the minds of both longtime fans and those previously unaware of his existence.
The power of a catch phrase is like that of an appealing chorus, sticking to the mind like some sort of artistic adhesive. In February 2004, James’ resurrection was launched by a verbal open-hand slap orchestrated by Dave Chappelle. During the fourth episode of Chappelle Show’s brilliant second season, the ingenious comedian introduced the Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories” skits, where Eddie Murphy’s gravel-voiced brother spun riotous tales of early 1980s encounters with James. The scenes, which played up the eccentric star’s vice-fueled self-aggrandizing, reached peak hilarity when the expression of the year was uttered.
"I’m Rick James, bitch!" Chappelle exclaimed, donning the extensions and flamboyant wardrobe that James famously wore more than two decades prior. With that statement, the viral sensation was born, Chappelle became a superstar, and Rick James’s faded star was illuminated once again.
By that point in 2004, Rick James’ legacy was being carried by his catalog. He had more than 25 years worth of hits, many of which echoed his tendency to overindulge. "Mary Jane," from 1978’s Come and Get It!, was his marijuana love song. His 1981 breakthrough, Street Songs, featured a shamelessly intoxicated James trying to coax his lover of the moment into sex on "Give It to Me Baby." "Super Freak," his signature record, is loaded with references to threesomes, groupie trysts, and a covert reference to quaaludes.
What’s more, James was living his music. Its eccentricity defined the era, and his defiant charisma somehow allowed him to get away with the sticky sexuality of "She Blew My Mind (69 Times)" and the downright inappropriate "17." But as his popularity soared, James’ dependency on drugs grew as rapidly as his addiction to life’s thrills. He was drowning in 'ludes and pussy long before they nearly submerged the wolf of Wall Street himself, Jordan Belfort.
The toxic decadence eventually caught up with James. "I’ve smoked half of Paris and most of Russia. And I’ve shot up Puerto Rico and drank up Mexico," he told KING Magazine in one of his final interviews. "I [went through] five yachts, three planes, 17 cars, four mansions, any bitch I wanted, and had $30 million in the bank. People were disgusted with how I lived. Let’s talk real. I was a dumb motherfucker."
The gross superfluity boiled over during the early 1990s, when James and a female friend were convicted for assaulting two women during cocaine benders. James was eventually released from prison in 1996, but his comeback album, 1997’s Urban Rapsody, was a resonant brick. By the time the millennium arrived, he had essentially become a joke. Remarkably, it was Chappelle’s stream of jokes that revived him.
In the wake of the post-Chappelle’s Show resuscitation of his career, the final six months of Rick James’ life served as an unanticipated comeback tour. Aside from being the focal point of a slogan that spread like an inextinguishable wildfire, he began penning an autobiography, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak. He also toured with Marie, his protégé, in support of her first album in a decade, La Doña. The album included "I Got You," a duet between the two that was more on par with the playful "I’m Just a Sucker For Your Love" than soaring previous collaborations like "Happy" and "Fire and Desire." Though less significant, it struck a sentimental chord with fans who never expected to hear the two on a song again.
James’ resurgence reached its pinnacle in June 2004 when he and Marie brought everyone in Los Angeles’ Kodak Theater to their feet with an over the top performance of "Fire and Desire." His obvious loss of a step or three and Marie resorting to flat-out screaming at one point reinforced the fact that 1981 was many, many years ago, but those in the building and viewers at home alike were high on nostalgia as pure as the cocaine James snorted like a vacuum. The masterpiece of a ballad is about the resounding explosion of passion triggered by the collision of rival forces, and James and Marie turned it into an eruption of extravagance. James was the reigning king of doing too much, and he brought the same out of Marie throughout their 25-year relationship.
After the two presented an award together, James seized the spotlight with the obnoxious assertion that had rekindled public interest in him. In what would be his last performance, he stole the show one final time. A little over a month later, he was gone.
Rick James was never truly irrelevant. His influence on pop culture remained strong, even after his fame waned. Prior to his own plummet from grace, MC Hammer built a hit on the backbone of "Super Freak." "Fire and Desire" soundtracked one of the many great moments in Martin’s history. "Mary Jane" appeared during a pivotal montage in the cult classic, Friday. Both "Ghetto Life" (which was revamped for Busta Rhymes' The Big Bang album in 2006) and the Mary Jane Girls’ "All Night Long" were included on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, proving that James’ sound helped define a decade. The Chappelle’s Show skit gave James an entertaining last hurrah, though he joked to KING that it "ruined [his] life."
"I plan on moving out of L.A.," he admitted wearily. "Somewhere I can be at peace."
Hopefully over the past 10 years, his soul has found the peace he could never attain in life. But with his final moment of glory, Rick James went out on top, living life with a vigor that only he could sustain. —Julian Kimble
Julian Kimble still has Rick James’ catalog in regular rotation. Follow him on Twitter here.