Rick James in "Super Freak"
Rick James Is Too Freakin' Cool
Welcome to Forgotten Videos. For some, these videos are forgotten, for others just filed away, and for others still, a totally brand-new discovery. Whichever category you fall into, each week we'll feature a video that's possibly been collecting dust when what it really deserves is a fresh look. Or vice-versa. … We're not here to judge, we just want to take you on a little trip down memory lane. Yep, you'll remember when hair was really that big, when drums were that up front in the mix, when video was young(er) and so were you.
f there is one thing the video to the 1981 hit "Super Freak" illustrates about the late Rick James, it is that he was hardly in denial about his own superfreakiness.
The song alone does little to distill this: its subject, the girl who's "very kinky" (and "the kind you don't take home to moth-ah") is described in fairly explicit detail — she rides in limousines; she likes the boys in the band; she's partial to incense, wine and candles. But what about James himself? If it wasn't for this video, shot well before the public escapades that led to his considerable legal troubles and heightened TV visibility, listeners the world over might never have known they were lending their ears to a bona fide male super freak.
That is not to say the superfreakiness on display in this low-budget video is on par with the superfreakiness with which fans of modern pop music have become accustomed (chances are nobody can out-freak Nicki Minaj nowadays). But check out James in the opening 15 seconds: not only do his hair and outfit announce a super freak — his lion-from-The Wizard Of Oz-inspired mane is doused in glitter and his Kiss-inspired costume features a rhinestone top and lightning bolts down the legs of his shiny black tights — but he appears to be missing a tooth. James proceeds to give the band of female dancers, who collectively act out the role of the titular freak, a run for their freaky money. In the back of the limo, he shares a smooch with one, while nearly taking a bite out of another's knee.
If this was James' way of outing himself as a freak, history proved ready to embrace him. Though 1978's "You And I" (No. 13) charted higher, "Super Freak" (No. 16) arguably became James' signature song and netted him his first GRAMMY nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male. The song is culled from his fifth album, Street Songs, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, his highest-charting album performance. And in true freaky fashion, James would go on to land the sole GRAMMY of his career in 1990 when M.C. Hammer won for Best Rhythm & Blues Song for "U Can't Touch This," a song that heavily sampled "Super Freak."
Are you a super freak? Got a Forgotten Video recommendation? Leave us a comment.
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, and on All Music Guide and Amazon.com.)