THE COVER of Rick James' new album, "Throwin' Down" (Gordy 60056L), depicts the singer as a funk version of "Conan the Barbarian." Standing on castle steps amid bones and torches, the loin-clothed James balances an electric bass shaped like a bloodied battle-ax. The cover of Kid Creole & the Coconuts' new album, "Wise Guy" (Sire/Ze, SBK 3681), depicts the group as a calypso version of the crew from "The Odyssey." Their sailing ship aground on a reef, the bedraggled crew staggers ashore, eyes bulging at some unseen Cyclops or Siren.

The songs on "Throwin' Down" are no more subtle than the meat cleaver on the cover. Rick James--who headlines an all-day funk festival at RFK Stadium July 24--writes the funk equivalent of pulp fiction. His songs are populated with voluptuous women eager to bed down with the singer. The musical settings are clumsy reworkings of Parliament's funk and the Temptations' psychedelic soul. Seemingly incapable of writing an interesting melody, James imitates the riffs and arrangements of his betters but omits the harmonic bases for these arrangements.

If "Throwin' Down" marks the lowest common denominator for dance music, "Wise Guy" represents the genre's highest ambitions. August "Kid Creole" Darnell has been the best lyricist in rhythm & blues since his days with Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Kid Creole and the Coconuts--who appear at the Wax Museum Wednesday--have often fit their songs inside an "Odyssey"-like musical narrative. Darnell's songs on "Wise Guy" are filled with the irony of betrayed expectations. Playing both the betrayer and the betrayed, Darnell intensifies the irony by singing his dagger-sharp, dream-deflating lyrics over the sunniest, most encouraging dance music imaginable. Drawing on both Caribbean and urban American styles, Darnell creates the catchiest dance tunes and richest arrangements of his career.

Rick James has become quite popular in recent years for what he calls his "punk-funk" music. Yet his grandiose pomposity has nothing to do with punk, and his form of funk is so fraudulent that funk master George Clinton calls him "Trick James." Clinton is justifiably miffed that James steals so often and so openly from Clinton's Parliament and Funkadelic. For example, James' recent single, "Dance wit' Me," owes more than a little to Funkadelic's "(not just) Knee Deep." The James single has a very similar rhythm guitar pattern and synthesizer riff, but still lacks the complex arrangement and quality singing of the Funkadelics' single. Similarly "Money Talks" tries to recreate the psychedelic soul sound of the 1969-73 Temptations, but stumbles over an uninteresting melody and falls completely when James' shouts of protest are utterly unconvincing.

James' weak singing undermines every cut. "Standing on the Top" was a hit he wrote and produced for the Temptations' comeback. He includes the song on his own album with the Temptations backing up his lead vocal. The contrast between his flat, characterless singing and the resonant backing is too obvious to miss. The contrast on the vocal duet between James and his former prote'ge', Teena Marie, on "Happy" is just as unflattering. When James attempts a ballad, as on the mawkish "Teardrops," he loads the song with female singers, horns and strings to disguise his shortcomings. As the star, he is able to hire some costly camouflage: vibist Roy Ayers, guitarist John McFee and top L.A. horn players. They add some nice touches but can't hide the basic weakness of the songs.

August Darnell's seven songs and Andy Hernandez' "I'm Corrupt" achieve a unity on "Wise Guy" with their themes of betrayal, their irresistible dance tracks and their high level of accomplishment. Darnell has taken advantage of new studio techniques to fatten the drum sound, so the primary beat sounds like a series of electronic crashes, while the secondary rhythms skip around the edges. With the help of co-arranger Carlos Franzetti, Darnell harnesses a full big-band sound to his big-beat dance numbers. Tremendous horn solos on the tags often extend his lyrics to their wordless implication. Not a great natural singer, Darnell handles the sly ironies of his songs with dramatic effectiveness.

The album's richest song is "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy," which opens with a mesmerizing synthesizer and horn intro. Over this captivating melody, Darnell tells his step-daughter her true paternity with a bluntness that borders on cruelty. Darnell's biting lyrics are ironically echoed by Hernandez' happy-go-lucky vibraphone. "Loving You Made a Fool Out of Me" features a vocal duet between Darnell and former Dr. Buzzard colleague Cory Daye. They play two spouses trading blame as they break up. The music escalates as the barbs do. The intoxicating blend of swing jazz orchestra and New York funk recalls Dr. Buzzard at its best.

The album's most bitter song is "Imitation," where Darnell vents his spleen at all the musicians and record companies who have exploited the ideas of himself and his brother--Dr. Buzzard leader Stony Browder, Jr. Even as Darnell comments acidly, the song boasts a memorable melody and a slow soul groove reminiscent of Booker T. the MGs. "Stool Pigeon" could be a black radio hit with its judicious balance of rap, synthesizer vocal, funk beat and Latin horns. Darnell's tale of a Mafia squealer is a thinly disguised critique of the back-stabbing music industry. The album's first single, "I'm a Wonderful Thing, Baby," co-written by Darnell and keyboardist Peter Schott, is a likable mid-tempo boast by an exiting lover. Yet it is perhaps the weakest cut on this surprisingly strong and consistent album.