Tuesday, June 11, 2024

CD Odyssey Disc 1743: Rick James

I’m back at work after a lovely week off spent doing fun things and generally recharging the batteries. I was so chill that I haven’t reviewed a record in almost a week. Sincere apologies for that, dear readers, and let me remedy that without further delay.

Disc 1743 is…Bustin’ Out of L Seven

Artist: Rick James

Year of Release: 1979

What’s up with the Cover?  Comic Book Art! A triumphant Super Rick bursts through the walls of the L7 penitentiary (aka “Squaresville”) with the power of his mystical, magical Guitar of Groove.

I’m not sure about the superpower of his fellow heroes here. We know they aren’t werewolves, given the full moon in the background. If they were on the inside with him he might want to reconsider bustin’ out. Or maybe they were waiting for him on the other side of the wall, in which case I get it. Or maybe they knocked the wall down and he just ran through the breach.

This comic clearly needs a few more panels.

How I Came To Know It: I have been digging through Rick James’ discography since 2021. This particular album is hard to find on CD, but I was able to snatch up a used copy at my local record store. The store also knew what they had, and as a result I paid a fair bit for it, but it was worth it.

How It Stacks Up: I have four Rick James albums (plus a “Greatest Hits” compilation, but that doesn’t count). Of the four, I put “Bustin’ Out” at #4. Hey, something had to finish last.

Rating: 3 stars but almost 4

If the only thing you’ve ever heard by Rick James is “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak” you are missing out. “Bustin’ Out of L Seven” doesn’t have either of those classic hits, but it has all of the things a Rick James album needs to be great.

First and foremost of these is funk, a genre where Rick James has few equals. Parliament, sure, and Prince but there aren’t many artists that can hold a candle to that Rick James groove. When he decides to get you moving, expect no half measures. These songs are loaded with groovy guitar, horn sections, hand claps, and random people going “whoo!” in perfect time. A Rick James banger is a party in a box.

It will take a while to fully groove you out – five minutes is common and seven or more not unheard of. Worry not, though – you will not at any time get bored.

On “Bustin’ Out of L Seven” the signature songs hit you 1-2 right out of the gate. Track One is the jab - “Bustin’ Out” – is a sinful dance about having a good time and doing it with no regrets. Track two is the haymaker – “High On Your Love” - seven and half minutes of musical excess. You won’t be able to tell if James is more excited to be getting high or getting off. He says he’s high on love, but with Rick the two topics are often intertwined.  

A Rick James album is a lot like a Cypress Hill album in that the topics are limited, but brilliantly explored. For Cypress Hill the exploration is smoking dope, killing folks, and killing folks trying to take your dope. Rick James is the friendly party version: smoking dope, getting laid and…parties! If James deviates from these three themes on this record it happened so fast I missed it.

A Rick James album is all about excess. Excess in how he approaches his chosen themes, and excess about how he approaches his music. There is a LOT going on in these arrangements, but it is all meticulously tied together to create a single groove. It being 1979, there is some disco adjacent funk, but Rick James is such a force of nature he makes disco adjacent to him, not the other way around.

The excess doesn’t always work, unfortunately. Weird filler tracks like “Love Interlude” are supposed to be sexy but are just kinda…gross. “Spacey Love” is supposed to be a slow dance, but James is not as natural in slow motion. He needs frenetic energy to excel.

Side Two’s longer tracks (“Jefferson Ball”, “Tool on the Street”) are a case study in kitchen-sink composition, where James throws every musical construct he can into a both songs. Does it always work? No, but you will always admire the effort, and as these two seven+ minute behemoths move through different musical concepts they will positively catch your attention at least half the time. It is like Rick James is to funk what Rush is to Prog – never content with a single funky groove for a whole track, he's gotta change it up just so he can.

In the end, even when I was saying “what the hell?”, I was saying it with a smile. This record is, simply put, a great time. It’s too crazy in places, yes, but I can’t think of how toning it down even slightly would make it any better.

Best tracks: Bustin’ Out, High on Your Love Suite, Cop ‘n’ Blow

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