Rick James used to be a flamboyant king in the funk universe. But the king was dethroned long ago, and now he's looking for a new place to sit.

Starting over again, at age 49, James has transformed himself into a kind of urban philosopher, eager to expound on his wild ride through life: The music. The fame. The drugs. The sex. The crimes. The imprisonment. The rebirth.

It's part of his master plan for a master comeback.

He's just concluded a 25-city tour -- earlier this month he played Constitution Hall -- in which he entertained hip-shaking audiences with the same raunchy, rebellious "punk-funk" he pioneered in the late 1970s and early '80s. Hits such as "Super Freak," "Give It to Me Baby" and "Mary Jane."

He has reunited with his Stone City Band and JoJo McDuffie-Funderburg, lead singer of the now-defunct Mary Jane Girls, whom James created in his heyday. He has a new CD, "Urban Rapsody" -- a so-so work even by his own admission -- that nonetheless suffices as his reintroduction to the public. His memoir, "Confessions of a Super Freak," awaits a publisher. VH1 is doing a documentary on his rise and crash. On Christmas Eve he married his longtime girlfriend, Tanya Hijazi, and they live with their 5-year-old son in a new home in Los Angeles. James wants "to be the best father I can be" and to lecture to schoolchildren about drug abuse.

He wants to act in movies and record more CDs and produce other acts. Rick James wants to blow up again.

"There's so much I can do now," he says, "because I'm not hiding in the morning. I'm not paranoid, running around, up three, four weeks out of my mind, calling drug dealers all night. . . . I got this big picture window and overhead all I see is mountains when I wake up. And the sunshine. It's a groove to me, 'cause I'm not used to that. . . . My life has changed in so many ways. God has blessed me again."

During his golden years, James had the hot groove, but his life was a mess. He came to epitomize the excesses of the music world, adopting the same get-high, get-sexed lifestyle that many of his songs glorified. And then a career that already was faltering flat-out collapsed.

On Sept. 13, 1993, the Grammy Award winner was convicted of assaulting and imprisoning a woman at a swank West Hollywood hotel. He was sentenced to 5 years 4 months in prison, but jurors either deadlocked or acquitted James on more serious charges that could have landed him in prison for life. The judge called the shorter sentence "a gift." James quickly turned into a joke on the talk show and comedy club circuits. He ended up serving two years in California's Folsom State Prison and was paroled Aug. 2, 1996.

Today, he joins a long list of old-school R&B performers who have returned to the stage: Cameo, the Bar-Kays, Graham Central Station, Lakeside, the Gap Band, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. Together they are leading a funk renaissance.

"Rick James might have been the icing on the cake," says Rickey Vincent, who teaches a course on protest music at San Francisco State University and is author of "Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of The One." "No one expected him to come back. I had my doubts. You never know what jail's going to do to someone, particularly someone who celebrated a carefree, irresponsible lifestyle."

Then Vincent saw James's high-energy concert in Oakland, Calif.

"It was one of the best pieces of entertainment I've seen in years," Vincent says. "Rick is definitely back."

James is no longer the lean, toned performer he once was, though he still wears tight leather pants. A sizable paunch protrudes from his black velvet shirt. His boyish, cleanshaven face is much fuller now. He has brown braids that hang to his shoulders, and hands as beefy as an offensive tackle's. A bad hip limits his movement onstage; he will have surgery later this month to replace it.

But that can wait.

Three hours before his Washington concert, he has plopped himself in an easy chair backstage at Constitution Hall and is settling in for a long rap. What James dispenses is a potent blend of social criticism, musical analysis, reflection and bitterness. All the while, he makes prodigious use of a particular four-letter word and its multiple variations.

It has been a decade since he last took his act on the road and much longer since he was a big commercial star. When he left prison and wanted to record again, many music labels wouldn't touch him. Others provided the ultimate insult: Before he could land a recording contract, the great Rick James would have to produce a demo tape. Yet kids who weren't even born when he cut his first album in 1978 are making money off the music from his era.

"The majority of them don't have an idea of what it is to entertain a crowd," he says. "Holding on to your {anatomy}, walking back and forth with your baseball hat turned backwards, throwing your hands up. . . . That ain't {expletive} entertainment. Today's music just makes me want to go out and buy old-school music even more. Today's music makes me more appreciative of what I did in the '80s, what George Clinton did, what James Brown did, the Gap Band . . . because right now, a lot of these youngsters, all they're doing is taking our stuff, sampling and putting a bunch of rap on it."

How many groups have "sampled" James over the years?

"Hundreds. I got a printout a month ago or something," he says. "It was so many I couldn't even read it."

The good news, James says, is that the residuals from remakes done by the likes of Mary J. Blige and Puff Daddy have been lucrative for the artists of his period. The bad news, he says, is that some of today's rappers are killing black music.

"We wish that they would take the time out and learn some new grooves," he says. "Walk on the wild side a little {expletive} bit. Stop staying so safe. . . . A lot of them will say, Well, I'm going to the bank and {expletive} you.' Well, that's a {expletive} attitude. {Expletive} your peo ple and {expletive} your music and {expletive} your history just because your punk ass is going to the bank. Well, in a minute you won't be going to the bank."

It's odd watching James position himself as a black music historian, an arbiter of good taste and the proper aesthetic. His own latest CD -- he eventually signed with Private I, a new label distributed through Mercury Records -- includes a track, featuring rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, that honors the lifestyle of pimps, macks and players. Another track, about missing sex while in prison, contains these lyrics: "I got a real down girl and she's on my side. You ought to see her dance with her legs butt wide."

Though James's old tunes had a crude quality to them, he is insulted by any comparison between his lyrics and the hard-edged rap of today. He has dubbed his 1981 hit "Super Freak" -- about "a very kinky girl" you wouldn't take home to mother -- a standard.

"We used entendres or innuendos," James explains. He ticks off a number of graphic sexual images that some of today's performers use that he "never ever" used. "You might have me confused with Prince."

No confusion.

James is the one who helped to redefine funk in the 1980s before drugs destroyed his mind. He is eager to talk about his addiction.

"You never know that it's happening. It's a very subtle, almost subliminal attachment."

During his hit years, James would cloister himself at his ranch in Buffalo, where he grew up as James Ambrose Johnson Jr. He'd get blitzed for weeks. "I spent most of my time there in my bedroom with aluminum foil all around the windows, isolated from all my friends."

"The hideousness of my addiction really started in '81," he continues, "when I started smoking cocaine. When I was snorting, I was in trouble but I wasn't in that much trouble." He went from spending $200,000 a year snorting cocaine to spending $7,000 a week smoking it. "Which is a big difference. It was a slow capture. But once I was captured, it was a fast bringdown."

And a public bringdown.

During a sensational three-week trial in the summer of 1993, two women portrayed James as a vicious, out-of-control druggie. One woman testified that after a few days of smoking cocaine and having sex with James at his Hollywood Hills home in July 1991, the artist became angry, accused her of stealing his drugs, tied her to a chair, doused her with alcohol and burned her legs and abdomen with a hot knife and cocaine pipe. He then forced her to have oral sex with his then-girlfriend, Tanya Hijazi, while he watched, the woman alleged.

A second woman testified that during a long business meeting with James and Hijazi in a West Hollywood hotel room in November 1992, Hijazi suddenly got mad and started slapping her. James then joined in the beating, the woman testified, and for nearly 20 hours she was held prisoner.

James was found guilty of some charges in the first incident and later pleaded no contest to assaulting the second woman as part of a plea bargain struck after allegations surfaced that a district attorney's investigator had supplied drugs to a witness who testified against him. The judge called this James's "continued good luck."

James, however, continues to claim his innocence -- with a vengeance.

The first woman, he says, was actually tortured by her "pimp," who was upset that she had spent weeks at James's house getting high and partying. James says he and his housekeeper sent her to the hospital when they discovered burns on her. As for forcing her to have sex, James explains there was never a need for that. "If anything there were six and 10 of them in my living room waiting in line and my security man would bring them in one by one."

The second woman, James admits, got what she deserved. "Her and my old lady got into this physical fight," James says, and then "she tried to kick my old lady in the stomach." This enraged James, he says, because that morning Hijazi was found to be pregnant and the woman knew that.

"I whipped this girl's {expletive} for the nerve of trying to kick a baby out of my old lady," he says. "Yeah, I put my foot up her {expletive} and I'd do it again."

The woman filed a civil suit and was later awarded $1.8 million, which James says he gladly paid. "It was well spent."

While in prison, James wrote more than 300 songs, played his acoustic guitar and read W.E.B. Du Bois, Anne Rice, Robert Ludlum and Maya Angelou. He reflected on all that had been squandered.

"To come out of that $10 million house on Mulholland that used to belong to Mickey Rooney, to one day have all of that removed and to be in a 6-by-7-foot cell in which you could touch the walls with your hands, and a nasty toilet and bars and a flimsy little mattress and a pillow which you had to make.

"Being stripped of everything I love and told when to eat and when to {expletive} by some minus-IQ redneck {expletive}. That was the low for me. See, I never would have been a good slave. I would have been like Nat Turner."

Initially, prison left him angry. And there is more than a trace of that anger left. He calls the predominantly white staff of correctional officers at Folsom "just a gang of {expletive} racists." (A Folsom spokesman says James is just "trying to seek sympathy or something.")

But as James neared his release, he says, he tried to calm his bitterness. He started reading books about positive thinking.

"I knew I couldn't walk out of there with hatred and I couldn't walk out of there angry because I really had nobody to be angry with but myself. I put me there. Nobody else put me there."

And that's as close to repentance as Rick James will get for now.

It's minutes before James is supposed to take the stage at Constitution Hall. His throat has been bothering him, so he's chugging honey from a plastic bottle. He surveys himself in the mirror. He preens. The all-black ensemble is quite fly, he decides. He slips on his long captain's coat and the dark shades, then gathers the 12-piece Stone City Band into his dressing room for a prayer, which is led by soloist JoJo McDuffie-Funderburg.

Now, it's show time.

When James bolts onto the stage, he lifts his hands to the sky and screams: "It's going to be a {expletive} reunion!"

He does all his dance hits, he does ballads, he does classic soul. It's sometimes easy to forget he has collaborated with Smokey Robinson ("Ebony Eyes"), the Temptations ("Standing on the Top") and Teena Marie ("Fire and Desire").

For two hours, the crowd is loving him. Forty-something black businessmen. Reformed hippies. College students. Loyal funkologists. And Barbara Dorsey, a white homemaker from Greenbelt, who was among the lucky ones plucked from their seats to dance with James onstage as he closed the concert with his signature song, "Super Freak." This concert is the first time that Dorsey, 37, and her husband have been out since their toddler was born more than two years ago. She's wearing an elegant evening dress.

Up onstage, Rick James tosses off his hat, sheds his coat. He shimmies for the audience.

"I'm feeling pretty {expletive} good for an old man." CAPTION: Rick James during a recent visit to Constitution Hall, above and left. In an expletive-free moment, he says, "There's so much I can do now because I'm not hiding in the morning. I'm not paranoid, running around, up three, four weeks out of my mind, calling drug dealers all night. . . . My life has changed in so many ways. God has blessed me again." CAPTION: Rick James and Tanya Hijazi, above, at their arraignment in 1991. CAPTION: James, in suit, left, leaves Folsom State Prison with other former inmates. CAPTION: A lean, boyish-looking James in 1981 during his funky prime, below. CAPTION: Backstage before his recent show at Constitution Hall, Rick James selects his jewelry for the night, left, and joins members of his band and entourage in a prayer.