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He also emerged with a passel of 300 new songs and an uncertainty about what to do with his newfound freedom. "It's easy to sit with one guitar and write all this introspective, esoteric music when you've got nowhere to go and nothing to do," he says. "But when I came out, there was this fear when I walked out of those bars, because it'd been years since I'd done an album, and it'd been years since I'd been in front of an audience. I didn't know if I had the timing, or if they were going to like me, or if they were going to believe the hype. So I was very hesitant." But after huddling with Hijazi (who served fifteen months in the pokey for the part she played in James's transgressions), James decided that he wanted to make a new long-player--his first since Wonderful flopped in 1988. As James puts it, "I had some things I needed to get out, and this was a way to do it."
The result of his efforts, Urban Rapsody, was better than many observers anticipated, but it remains an awkward attempt to update the James sound for the hip-hop era. Virtually every tune has a persuasive groove (always a James specialty), and although the production, by James and cohort Daniel Le'Melle, is a little slicker than necessary, the arrangements are, for the most part, catchy and clever. But in an effort to seem in touch with the trends, James embraces loads o' rap stereotypes, to his detriment: The spoken segment that concludes "Somebody's Watching You" ("All right, 'Super Freak,' grab your shit. You made parole. We'll be watching you, boy") is flat-out embarrassing, and lines like "Ain't nothin' but a West Coast thang" (from "West Coast Thang") aren't much better. Likewise, cameos by Rappin' 4-Tay (on "Urban Rapsody"), Snoop Doggy Dogg ("Player's Way") and Neb Love ("It's Time") seem pasted in for commercial appeal--they don't rise organically from the numbers.
James, meanwhile, seems a tad wary of diving too deeply into his old persona. The CD booklet includes shots of scantily clad gals looking hungrily at middle-aged Rick, and "So Soft So Wet" (which James says he wrote about Tanya in lieu of masturbating) sports couplets such as, "Girl, I'd die and come alive/When I'm between your soft and creamy thighs." But strangely enough, James doesn't go all the way. His latest hump songs are surprisingly tasteful--pleasant, but not nearly as lascivious as you'd expect coming from a sex junkie just out of jail.
Upon the CD's release, James received writeups in prominent publications such as USA Today and People, but this publicity didn't translate into all that many purchases--and for that, James blames the men behind the Private I imprint. "I had program directors and DJs tell me that the reason they weren't playing it wasn't because of me, but because of the people I was involved with," he says. James also feels that he went too far in trying to work hip-hop into his repertoire. He emphasizes that there will be "no rap at all" on his next disc--a move he feels he can make given the resurgence of interest in Seventies funk.
"There's a renaissance happening right now," he says, "and it's really beautiful, because it's given the opportunity to young kids who never got the chance to see George Clinton or Prince or the Ohio Players or Rick James or whoever to check them out in clubs and concert appearances. People are respecting this thing, and they're supporting it. It's been a mighty, mighty surge, where you've got old-school radio stations in certain cities that are becoming bigger than the hip-hop stations. In L.A., we've got two of them, and they're two of the biggest stations in town. To me, the message that's sending is, hey--people in their thirties and forties and even their fifties are tired of hearing this bullshit. If they're going to have to hear music that's using the music they grew up on, then fuck it, they want the real shit--and I'm with that. I'm like, don't water down my funk."
In the midst of a five-month tour in support of Urban Rapsody, James began to wonder if he'd be in good enough condition to capitalize on the funk revival. Performing caused him "excruciating pain. I'm talking about pain that I can't even describe. Sometimes on stage, I'd be ready to black out because the pain was so intense. So I had it checked out, and they told me I had 'rock-and-roll hip.' At least that's what the doctors are calling it. The Van Halen brothers got it, and a lot of other people in the entertainment industry are getting it, too. It's just because over the years I used my right leg a lot, kicking and doing stuff on stage, and after a while, it was just bone on bone."
Originally, James had planned to take his 1997 tour straight through to the end of 1998, but his physicians insisted that he receive hip surgery no later than February--and he admits that it was a struggle simply making it that long. He wasn't worried that he'd wind up hooked on the painkillers he was given to gobble: "Downers were never my thing," he says. "Cocaine was always my drug of choice." But he was unsettled by the medications' side effects. "Sometimes the pills would do something to my vision, where it felt like I was going blind. I hated taking them, but there were times when I had to do it. It was either that or not walk."