“Ghetto Life” by Rick James (1981)

“Ghetto Life” was a standout track on Rick James’ best-selling 1981 album Street Songs (an album that will boast four songs on this list when all is said and done). Rick described his lower-class Buffalo upbringing in a way that still feels very real to me, although you will definitely have to read his memoir to get the full story. He did it without pity or scorn, too; “Ghetto Life” feels like a warm remembrance of times past. He sings with joy about playing tag with winos and falling in love with a pigtailed girl named Nancy. Of course, he also has the benefit of having made it far out of the ghetto. By the time “Ghetto Life” was released, Rick had a couple of Gold and Platinum albums to his name. He mentioned many times in interviews how his return to Buffalo to record the Street Songs album was based on feeling like he’d lost his edge. Folks glorify the ‘hood these days, but I feel like the experience of growing up poor and without resources can be easily romanticized by people (like me, if we’re being honest) who only have to go back to the ‘hood if they choose to.

Rick’s singing is undervalued in favor of his instrumental, production and lyrical skills (uh, not to mention his public image), but “Ghetto Life” boasts one of his best vocal performances. He hits a long note at the end of the last chorus that would make Patti LaBelle lose her shit. He’s also joined by Melvin Franklin of The Temptations, who adds his signature bass growl to this punk/funk classic.

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