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Mention the name Rick James to someone today and chances are the first thing you’ll hear in response is “I’m Rick James, bitch!” If their memory is a bit more expansive, they might remember the sex/drugs/forced imprisonment scandal that landed James in stint in prison.  He was a classic casualty of the music business, a talent whose desire to be the most outrageous figure in his scene led him down some dark, sordid paths.  Your Humble Reviewer isn’t suggesting his crimes should be excused – but it’s a shame that his negative public image outshines his musical legacy because he recorded a string of classic albums between the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that deserve a place in any funk fanatic’s collection.

Fire It Up was James’ third album and a good intro to his style for anyone who wants to explore his sound beyond hits like “Mary Jane” or “Super Freak.”  James playfully referred to his sound as “punk funk,” a typical example of how he courted a bizarre public image.  The music he created under this moniker is far more impressive than that description hints at: it mixed rock-tinged funk with pop elements in the songwriting and a dash of jazz, particularly in his use of horns and the elaborate vocal harmonies that act as counterpoint to the main vocal melody.  It’s also worth noting that James worked with a large musical canvas, utilizing the full-time services of a large-scale backing outfit (the Stone City Band) to create a big and indulgently lavish sound.

James’ sound has coalesced by this time and Fire It Up is an archetypal example of his formula: two-thirds funk tunes, one-third impassioned jazzy balladry and everything arranged in grandiose style.  The title track kicks things off nicely, with the horn section firing off ornate riffs that weave in and out of the rhythm section’s pounding groove while James trades lines back and forth with his backing vocalists.  It’s lavish yet it hits hard, a duality taken even further on “Love Gun.”  This throbbing funk rocker has a Latin touch to it (dig those staccato horns) and it’s none-too-subtle lyrics and relentless arrangement give it a rocked-up disco feel.

The other uptempo fare on Fire It Up follows the example of these two tunes.  “Lovin’ You Is A Pleasure” is a more explicitly disco-inspired outing, complete with a insidiously bouncy beat and a thick layering of glossy analog synths, while “Come Into My Life” is a pounder that shows of James’ penchant for cheeky double-entendre (bordering on single-entendre) sex lyrics and a bassline that forecasts his more influential future hit, “Give It To Me Baby.”

However, Rick James the artiste really shines on the ballads used to close each side.  James had a passion for the slow songs – the more anguished in tone, the better – and the two on Fire It Up are intense and ornate affairs.  “Love In The Night” is as steamy as its title suggests, a plush tune built on a careful ebb-and-flow between soft verses and the operatic chorus they ascend to.  It also has some surprising psychedelic elements to its arrangement (phased guitars, Beatles-esque horn obligatos) that show off James’ 1960’s roots (don’t forget, he started his pro career with Neil Young in a band called the Mynah Birds).  “When Love Is Gone” is even bigger and moodier, starting with a hippie poetry-ish recitation called “Stormy Love” before drifting into a heartbroken a velour-soul groove laced with plenty of jazzy saxophone and an unexpectedly intense guitar solo from Tom McDermott.  Both are over-the-top and self-indulgent, but in the best possible sense that such phrases can be used: each is a glorious slow-jam epic whose lush sound rolls right over the listener.

Fire It Up ended up being a minor item in the James catalog, despite producing some killer staples of his live act, but it proved he was in full control of his newly-minted trademark sound because he produced it by himself (a first for James) and did it all in 13 days while simultaneously working on an album for the Stone City Band.  In a few albums, he’d create a masterpiece with Street Songs but Fire It Up remains a strong example of the chops and the advanced musical skill set that made such greatness possible.

Collector’s Note: any funk fans interested in checking this out are directed to Hip-O Select’s recent reissue of the disc, which offers a remastered version of the album plus a promotional 12-inch version of “Love Gun” and an interesting set of liner notes by Michael Veal.  The “Love Gun” remix is disappointingly basic (the song is essentially looped to justify the 12-inch length) but the nice sound and the liners make it worth the investment.