Morris Day may not be hot anymore, but he's still sure enough cool.

He rolls up in a white stretch. His small, thin frame -- set off by the bulk of his bodyguard -- is a work of meticulous flash, from the shades to the diamond-studded pinkie ring, from the black tuxedo jacket with its violet floral lapels to the socks that announce their maker (Dior).

You would've expected nothing less from the tongue-in-cheek gigolo who fronted the Time, the Prince-directed funk band that helped make Minneapolis famous, rocking the early '80s with hits like "Get It Up," "The Walk" and "Jungle Love."

Back then, Day was known for his pampered pompadour, archly arched eyebrows and ridiculous squawk of a laugh. In full swagger, he stole the movie "Purple Rain" out from under Prince in 1984, with esteemed critic Pauline Kael declaring: "he does his vain, lecherous routines with the ease of the top vaudeville artists of decades past."

Sheer put-on.

In reality, he used to be a shy teenager deep into learning the drums, and he's now an affable fellow who'll sit and chat about his colorful career without affectation or star-tripping. But it's the Morris Day of song, stage and screen -- the rogue -- who endures in the pop memory. Accent, alas, on "memory."

Now comes his third solo album, "Guaranteed," and we find the peacock persona toned down. The bright, bouncy Minneapolis grooves of the '80s have given way to a harder, post-hip-hop swing (complete with a guest rapper, Big Daddy Kane, a new-school gigolo who takes his strut seriously). The big hair is gone too; Day now wears it short and slicked down.

"If you want to stay competitive, and if you want to sell records," he explains, cooling in the lounge of a downtown hotel, "you have to change with the music."

Upon this occasion, one must wonder about Day's run of bad luck since leaving the Prince camp back in '84 -- with some hard feelings -- to make his own mark as a recording artist and actor.

Nearly five years have passed since his last solo album, "Daydreaming," which sold fewer than half a million copies despite the Top-40 single "Fishnet" (courtesy of Jimmy "Jam" Harris and Terry Lewis, the former Time sidemen turned superstar producers). It's the only album showcasing Morris Day that has failed to go gold.

"Pandemonium" underscored the point. That 1990 Time reunion album, overseen by Prince, recaptured some of the old heat and sold almost 800,000 copies. Yet Day says he was the most reluctant of the original Time to reenlist. "I refused the project a few times. I really felt like there was more ground I wanted to break personally before I started thinking about looking back."

The Hollywood career that seemed so promising after "Purple Rain" has faltered too. Day's only other movie role, besides joining the Time in Prince's "Graffiti Bridge," was as a record producer in "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane," the Andrew Dice Clay flop.

"I think the problem for me is, I have to have things specifically designed for me," Day says. "People have to call with me in mind, because I don't go out and read for parts, because I'm not trained that way. There's a lot of people who do that for a living, every day. So I tend to sit back. ... I figure I'll just take my time and get my own situation happening," by which he means developing ideas through his own production company.

He had a supporting role in the 1990 ABC sitcom "New Attitude," playing a hairdresser with show-business dreams. The show lasted less than a month. Then, in the spring of '91, the Fox network ordered a few episodes of a comedy built around Day and his mirror-toting sidekick from the Time, Jerome Benton. They were to play hotel detectives. The title: "Hotel Dicks." Two episodes were taped, then Fox pulled the plug.

Day still doesn't know what went wrong. "I just know it wasn't me," he says with a sassy smile. (The network, according to a spokeswoman, won't comment on shows that die in development.) "We were off to a great start. Any other network, we wouldn't have even been able to name the show 'Hotel Dicks.' "

Plain bad luck.

Then there was Day's attempt a couple of years ago to launch his own girl group, the Day Zs. He brought together five good-looking white chicks, got them a deal at Warner Bros. Records, and co-wrote and co-produced their album, giving it that old Prince-style sex vibe. ("Cheri, do you think I should wear the pink teddy or the red one?") Sales were minuscule. The girls went their separate ways. Day's optimistic post-mortem: "I think it was a great name, a great concept. I plan on doing it again."

So, you see, it can be harder to stay there than to get there.

Can it happen again for Morris Day? Karen Jones, a Warner Bros. black-music executive who worked closely with him on the new album, says, "It takes a while when you leave a group to find your niche as a solo artist. Sometimes it takes a couple of shots to find what works." She also says, "It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication to make that happen."

Day himself admits, "It takes me a minute just to be motivated to go back in {the studio}. I'm not necessarily a workaholic. I mean, when I do work, I get it done, but -- " The sentence just ends there.

'Those Were the Best Times'

Morris Day was about 8 when his family moved to Minneapolis from Springfield, Ill. A few years later, his mother bought him a department-store drum set. And by 13, he was playing with a young Jimi Hendrix fanatic whom history has since forgot. "We gigged at people's houses, house parties, nothing serious," Day recalls.

The band actually had two drummers, the other being Jellybean Johnson, who would eventually share the stage with Day in the Time. "Morris is a world-class drummer. A lot of people don't know that," says Johnson, now a staff producer at Flyte Tyme Productions, the Jam & Lewis hit factory. While other kids were outside goofing around, he says, "me and him used to line our drum sets up in his house and play. And then we'd come over to my basement and line them up and play. That was fun for us." And serious too. They were heavy into Tower of Power's David Garibaldi.

Later, while attending North High, Day became friends with Andre Anderson, known today as R&B producer Andre Cymone. It was a life-altering association.

"I think we were probably skipping school one day and went over to my house," Day remembers, "and I fired up a few grooves, you know? And he's like, 'Damn, I knew you played, but I didn't know you could play like that.' So he was like, 'We're having problems with our drummer.' " Anderson, it turned out, was the bass player in a band called Grand Central. A band that included a guitar player named Prince Roger Nelson.

Day auditioned and got the gig. "We played a lot of high school dances," he says. "My mom started managing the group, and she got some kind of court document saying she could be our guardian ... so we played a few small night spots around town. ...

"Those were the best times. That was when I really found a circle," Day says with a simple, genuine smile. "Prior to that in high school, I wasn't very popular. It was hard to get the girls. I didn't play sports." Lapsing into playful narcissism, he says, "I wasn't bad-looking, as far as I's concerned. But I just wasn't very popular.

"So once I finally got into the band situation, things picked up immensely."

Grand Central wasn't the only black teenage band in Minneapolis making noise. Its chief competition was a group called Flyte Tyme, led by bass player Terry Lewis, with Jellybean Johnson on drums. From time to time, they would face each other in battles of the bands.

"We were all friends. But the rivalry was there," Day says. "It was like, we'd smile at them -- 'How you doin'?' -- and then, soon as they got out of our faces, 'We {messed} 'em up tonight, man!' Or else, 'We need to go back and rehearse.' "

It was a remarkable concentration of nascent talent. But Prince was the one who set out on his own, leaving Grand Central around 1976 to seek his fortune. Which, of course, he eventually found with Warner Bros. Meanwhile, his old mates, including Day, kept searching for their own recording contract.

When Prince became a hot property, he put together a touring band, bringing Cymone along but not Day. (Instead Prince hired the brother of one of his recording engineers to play drums.) "I eventually got in the mix because Prince would let me come over and work in his {basement} studio," Day says. "So I was trying to get my grooves on tape, and the first thing I was really able to cut there, he wanted it."

That track became "Partyup" on Prince's 1980 "Dirty Mind" album. "{Prince} said, 'Do you want money for the song, or do you want me to help you get a record deal?' " And Day told him, "I'll take the deal." Which meant, he thought, putting together a band that he would control.

But first, Day went on the road with Prince for his raunchy "Dirty Mind" tour. Not as a musician, though. "I wasn't doing roadie work," he says with a touch of mock pride. "But I was doing the odds and ends. I would videotape the shows."

Then, for the 1981 Time debut album, Prince and Day laid down all the music tracks themselves. For the band, they recruited most of the members of Flyte Tyme, including lead singer Alexander O'Neal. Day actually wanted to run the Time from behind his drum kit. "I was not interested in being the front man at all."

As fate would have it, O'Neal and Prince didn't get along, and suddenly the Time was without a lead singer. "When Grand Central was together," Day says, "I would come from behind the drums and sing a song or two. So the other guys were like, 'Why don't you do it, man?' "

He was understandably reluctant. Johnson recalls that Day hadn't been a very confident singer in school. "I think what inspired him," Johnson says, "was that he hung out with Prince on the 'Dirty Mind' tour, and he got a firsthand look at what was out there, the whole music scene. That really changed his whole attitude. And that's what made the {band} get over."

Day recalls one of the early Time gigs, at a Detroit nightclub: "That was the first time that women, like, rushed the stage. Whether management paid for it or not, I don't know. But we were doing a show, and all of a sudden, about 20 women just hopped up ... and were at the bottom {of the stage} partying. And I was like, 'Yeah, that was cool.' But when I think back, you know, these 20 women just kind of came out of nowhere -- " His voice reveals suspicion, even as he smiles. Then, what the hell. "We made it happen on our own merit after that anyway."

Although the Time was conceived as Day's band, and he got producer's credit on the albums, the enterprise was rigorously controlled by Prince. When Jam and Lewis missed a gig because they were snowbound in Atlanta (where they'd been doing some freelance production work), Prince fired them. And he made the rest of the Time go on with the show, despite Day's objections. "If we didn't, the fine was like $20,000," Day remembers. "Prince kept threatening me, saying, 'And you're gonna have to pay it. So y'all better just put something together and go onstage.' ...

"I knew that what {Jam and Lewis} did wasn't necessarily cool, because they left us hanging," he says. But "I really didn't want to see them put out of the group, because they were friends of mine. So I took that kind of hard."

But he stayed around, through the filming of "Purple Rain" and the recording of the third Time album, "Ice Cream Castle." "I was like a company man," he says. "And I was going to stick with it," provided Prince and his then-managers let him write and produce a solo album.

And here's where Day ultimately fell out with Prince.

Day says he met with Prince's managers, played them some of his material, and they told him a solo album was workable -- as long as it was "executive-produced by Prince." "I knew what that meant," Day says. "So I was like, 'No, that's not what I want. Either I do it myself, or I don't hang out.' They called me on that."

The last straw was when "Ice Cream Castle" came out. According to Day, it was supposed to have been labeled "Morris Day and the Time." "When it was printed up 'The Time,' I said it's time for me to go.

"See, it's not that I was getting the big head," he explains. "But the band was no longer in its original form. It had turned into a rock-and-roll motel. We had these kids coming in {to replace Jam and Lewis}. So I said, 'There has to be room for me to rise above this and grow into my own thing.' And that wasn't happening."

Day says Prince's managers even gave him a hard time when he decided, around Christmas of '83, to move from snowy Minneapolis to warm, beachy L.A., where he still lives with his wife, Judi -- a back-up singer -- and his four kids. (A spokeswoman for Paisley Park Enterprises, Prince's current business entity, declined to comment about Day's history with him.)

Of Prince, Day says: "You know, he's a good friend, and he's a real talented musician. One of the best. But the control factor was definitely an overpowering factor. When you feel like your wings have grown to the point where you can fly on your own, you're definitely going to get the hell out of Dodge."

'Hit Me'

"Gimme Whatcha Got," the first single off Day's new album, was written and produced by Bernard Belle, a 26-year-old comer recruited late in the game by Warner Bros. executive Karen Jones to give the project "a street edge and a more hip appeal." It died within weeks.

But just when you're figuring that time has indeed passed him by, Day turns up on "The Tonight Show." "The epitome of show biz," Jay Leno said of him -- twice -- in affectionate overstatement. The performance itself wasn't any big knockout, with Day in a sharp white suit, talking the new talk ("M.D.'s in the house!"), a pair of miniskirted lovelies flanking him (and later obliging his famous demand: "Somebody bring me a mirror") and three fist-pumping young brothers singing out the chorus.

The finale, however, was vintage "Maw-iss":

The band was stretching out its last note as Day walked over to Leno's desk, a portable phone in hand. As the applause died down, Day placed a call and took a seat. Cut to the keyboard player, who picked up his phone and said, real businesslike, "Yeah, whassup?"

With legs crossed and lips pursed, Day told him: "Hit me."

Then -- WHAM! -- the band came in with one more extended blast of end music.

Cool.