To be completely fair, he had his moments, commercially speaking, though they were few, far between and, well, too few. Only two of his singles made it to the Top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100 (1978's "You and I," which peaked at No. 13, and 1981's "Super Freak," a No. 16 hit), and he had only one blockbuster LP (1981's triple-platinum Street Songs). Even his best-known single ("Super Freak") became a classic only after MC Hammer sampled it for his 1990 Top 10 hit "U Can't Touch This," for which James had to sue to get a songwriting credit.
I've always wondered what would have been for James had Prince not come along. The two toured together in the early '80s, and Prince was considered the likely James successor until he overshadowed James completely. The comparisons between the two were legitimate, and it gives James more credit than those unfamiliar with his entire body of work probably would.
But that credit was hard earned, over and over. As a singer, songwriter, musician and producer (of himself, the Temptations, Teena Marie, Smokey Robinson, the Mary Jane Girls and Eddie Murphy, the latter two of whom scored bigger pop hits with James-produced singles than James ever did on his own), he covered much of the same creative ground that Prince did, and his music, which he called "punk funk" was similarly far-reaching, blending disparate genres into a cohesive whole.
With his 1988 single "Loosey's Rap," a coda to his early '80s heyday featuring Roxanne Shante, James became one of the first R&B singers to incorporate rap into his soul, something Prince never managed to do with complete success (unless you count "Housequake," which I don't because it was the one blemish on 1988's otherwise perfect Sign of the Times double LP).
Perhaps James's legacy would be healthier if he had been. By the end of the '80s, drug abuse had destroyed his career, and it eventually landed him in prison, where he spent several years on an assault conviction in the '90s. By the time he died in 2004 at age 56, he was best known as the guy MC Hammer once sampled, or as the punchline to one of comedian David Chappelle's popular routines: "I'm Rick James, bitch!"
Sadly, it was a reminder that, in reality, was probably necessary all too often.
6 Other Rick James Songs That You Need to Know
"You and I"
"Give It to Me Baby"
"Fire and Desire" (with Teena Marie)
"Standing on the Top" (with the Temptations)
"Ebony Eyes" (with Smokey Robinson)