Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stuff I Like: Prince

Having been fortunate enough to miss the '80s and unfortunate enough to grow up solely on classic rock radio (home of the Eagles catalog and five played-to-death Zeppelin songs), Prince flew under my radar for many years. I believe the first real exposure I had to him came in the form of the Chappelle's Show sketch making fun of his weird personality. Shortly thereafter, I heard Kevin Smith's epic account of briefly working for the diminutive pop star in which every facet of an obvious Napoleon complex came to the fore. Content to let these less-than-flattering portraits make up the entirety of my awareness of His Royal Badness, I never thought twice about him until, on a whim a few years later, I listened to Purple Rain to see what the fuss was about.

By the time that deliriously glorious opening speech, half-cheesy and half-earnest, melted into the crunchy riff of "Let's Go Crazy," I was rewriting my simplistic, uninformed assessment of the man. By the time the album came to a close on its anthemic title track, I was a fan.

Moving deeper into Prince's discography, I found a series of albums that could drive the careers of several pop stars. Not only was he damn good, he was prolific. During his gold run through all of the '80s and the first part of the '90s, he put out double albums the way some release singles, and damn near everything he touched turned to gold. Sure, Diamonds & Pearls and Around the World in a Day weren't masterpieces, but he had four classics in the '80s alone and another two or three in the '90s.

For me, Prince is by some degree the most notable mainstream musician of the '80s. Every decade has one defining pop star, and the all tend to follow a pattern. The stars who send the fans wildest tend to be the ones to unlock the most inhibited sexuality. Elvis' gyrating hips gave way to the more socially rebellious Beatles, whose long hair perhaps informed David Bowie's androgyny, which in turn undeniably influenced Prince's full-on embrace of sexuality. Prince has a bit of all of them to his act, from Elvis' dancing to the Beatles' immaculate pop taste to Bowie's experimentation and constant reinvention. The next generation always builds off the previous ones, and Prince threw it all into one dripping stew.

He was sexually liberating, if you use "liberating" in the same sense that the US government did when we invaded Iraq: Prince tore down the infrastructure of sexual propriety and left people to pick up the pieces. His sleaziest material, released at the start of the '80s, epitomizes the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDs state of sex in America: Bowie played at being bisexual, but Prince never disguised being straight. It didn't matter. What he represented was boundless sexual euphoria, in which any form of human contact was sex. He left a clue for his unifying concept of love, lust and art on his second masterpiece, 1999 in the song "Dance, Music, Sex, Romance." It's all the same for Prince, and that energy makes his best work so enduringly fresh and wild.

It was only a matter of time before white Christian America caught wise to what he was doing, and when Tipper Gore heard her child listening to "Darling Nikki" she launched a crusade to protect America's parents from the horrible scenario of having to talk things out with their children. Imagine if she'd overheard "Sister" or "Jack U Off." Amusingly, in the endless debates the PMRC held with rock stars who generally acquitted themselves better than the would-be avatars of taste, those defending the PMRC routinely cited the Rolling Stones as an example of an edgy band from their childhood that wasn't as bad (and therefore it was OK for them to listen to then). Prince broke into the spotlight opening for the Stones on their Tattoo You tour in 1981, where he showed up in bikini bottoms and fishnets and was promptly booed off the stage. Before the PMRC cemented the dichotomy, Prince proved how tired and boring the Stones had become and how he'd come to embody all the roiling sexuality of their early, fierce work. Now it had its true outlet.

At his height, Prince's music aligned with his outrageous live presence: biracial and androgynous, Prince filled his bands with members of both genders and all races, and the music blended race music and white noise like no other. He embodied everything in himself, which is probably why he made so many of his albums practically alone, capable of playing any instrument and too egomanical to suffer anyone's opinion anyway. When he did bring players in, he drilled them as much as any jazzbo: the Revolution and the New Power Generation may not be as talented, but in terms of professionalism I would pit them against any of Zappa's lineups. The regulation and modulation of the band at Prince's every gesture can be heard even on scratchy bootleg audio, bands the size of a P-Funk house party at once loose and taut, capable of snapping to attention at a moment's notice before splintering off into conflicting yet united riffs and beats.

Trying to describe the effect of a great Prince song (especially a live one, as I've assembled a nice collection of bootlegs) can be tricky. After Elvis, Prince is the only male star who can effortlessly embody a Madonna/whore complex. Elvis stopped gyrating and glutting to sing some gospel, and Prince found the spiritual line underneath his sex long before he became a Jehovah's Witness. He finds a religious experience in that split-second after orgasm in which all control is lost and the brain just slacks before snapping back to attention. Every great Prince album builds to that climax then revels in the euphoria until worship and lust become the same thing: either way, you're on your knees.

Where the two previous entries of my Stuff I Like series have entertained me for the totality of their careers and can still be expected to produce quality work, I'm sad to say I can no longer depend on today's subject to rock out. During his heyday, Prince blew everyone out of the water, not just live but in the studio. Sadly, after fighting to break with Warner Bros. throughout the mid-'90s, during which time he pulled such eye-rolling bullshit as changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled "Slave" on his face. Once free from the major labels, however, Prince demonstrated that his genius needed a third party to separate the wheat from the chaff. Since 1995's The Gold Experience, Prince has not released a truly great record, though Musicology and Planet Earth are solid and 3121 comes so close to classic status that part of its maddening, alluring tease is that it never quite reaches that level. Furthermore, for all the forward-thinking techno savvy of his records, Prince has proven to be something of a curmudgeon regarding the Internet, first attempting to break ground with a pioneering Web-based distribution service and perhaps growing bitter from the backlash he received over the disastrous results. Recently, he's hired representatives to troll the Internet ripping down all photos and videos of himself by claiming copyright, which stands as one of the most boneheaded artistic decisions ever made: it's as if he feels we collectively missed our chance to appreciate him so he won't let us figure it out now.

Nevertheless, the man still tears it up on stage, even if it may or may not be true he needs a double hip replacement and he no longer swears or slinks around like an animal in heat. Prince fought hard to be the next Hendrix, and he had the chops to pull it off. But it never quite materialized: people got tired of him before he got his dues or he let his image overshadow his considerable music skills. Either way, it's a damn shame one of the few great mainstream acts of the '80s got discarded when people pretended that decade never happened. Prince's recent efforts to concentrate on his guitar-playing abilities and live presence have reminded people of what a dynamic performer he is, though little in the way of studio gold has come from his efforts. Perhaps some day soon he can let loose again, not inhibiting his funk for the sake of Jehovah. But even if he doesn't, he'll still be one of the greatest showmen who ever lived, and the most underappreciated giant of late-20th century pop. It may be in the past now, but sometimes you just have to party like it's 1999.

Top Five Albums

1. Sign 'O' The Times

The spiritual successor to David Bowie's Station to Station, Sign 'O' The Times is apocalyptic robo-funk that only just manages to stay one desperate step ahead of the doom it portends throughout. Stripped of the Revolution, Prince returns to his one-man band ways, not just slinging the axe but laying down stiff but funky keyboard riffs as only he can. When he does invite the players back to help him out, he successfully condenses the manic energy of his stage show to the studio, from the rave-up "Housequake" to the actual live cut "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night." The album is certainly disjointed, and it's strange to think this double album is actually the focused condensation of the planned triple album Crystal Ball. Where else could a song about AIDs, the Challenger explosion and nuclear war rub up against a tune as joyous and bizarre as "Starfish and Coffee"? But it's all unified by a common idea: we could die any second, so dance and fuck until so you can go happy. W.H. Auden later rejected the idea behind one of his most loved poems, "September 1, 939" and wanted to change its most famous line, "We must love one another or die" to "We must love one another and die." The latter informs the mindset of Prince's greatest masterpiece. Question: anybody know about the quake?

2. Dirty Mind

After his eponymous second album yielded the disco leftover hit "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Prince had enough of a foothold to do a proper album but still needed to prove himself. The result was a scuzzy masterpiece, an icy-hot combination of over-processed but under-played digital noise and sultry analog funk. Sweat practically rolls out of your speakers when you play Dirty Mind. The stylistic evolution from the previous album is immense, introducing a number of hallmarks of Prince's sound (New Wave funk, poppy punk rock and burnin' hard rock) while still leaving space for all the exploration Prince would do over the next decade. The twin attack of "Head" and "Sister" are so tasteless they burn the buds off your tongue, but that just prepares you for what will come down the pipe in years to come.

3. Purple Rain

It's strange to think how much tinkering Prince did with the track listing, ordering and even individual track lengths for this album considering how the final product is so cohesive it sounds as if always planned to be one giant party song. (Having heard it, I do wish the full version of "Computer Blue" might have made the cut, though with an old vinyl another one of the record's perfect cuts would have had to be sacrificed.) From the fiery guitar work of "Let's Go Crazy" to the pleading "I Would Die 4 U" bleeding into the triumphant ode-to-self "Baby I'm a Star," Purple Rain covers so much ground but spotting the breaks not only between songs but during them is a near impossibility. If you're not a fan by the time the guitar solo in the closing track morphs into a sing-along, you have no soul.

4. 1999

Dirty Mind was Prince's first masterpiece, but 1999 is his first truly definitive album, collecting the steamy, hissing, cum-drenched funk of Dirty Mind and mixing it deftly with the confrontational but awkward politics of Controversy. Prince works best when he uses politics as nothing more than the reason to keep dancing, and this is the first of his attempts to dance his way through the End of Days. The first LP in the double album is perfection, the title track giving way to the mega-hit "Little Red Corvette" (to date, the best musical metaphor for a vagina) and the aptly named "Delirious," which digitizes rockabilly and proves Elvis rubbed off on Prince in the most unexpected ways. On side two are the terse manifesto "D.M.S.R." and the half-gorgeous, half-filthy "Let's Pretend We're Married," with a catchy chorus and verses that actually seem least dirty when the word "fuck" is used; at least it's more direct than the mental images Prince conjures elsewhere. The second record doesn't reach the same heights, but once again the tracks are all great. The anti-hispter "All the Critics Love U in New York" and claustrophobic "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" still bite, while the elegiac "Free" is as rousing as any of Prince's finest gentle anthems -- think "The Cross" and "Purple Rain." Proof Prince could do quantity and quality at the same time.

5. The Love Symbol Album

These days, seeing 18 tracks on a Prince album would fill me with dread, as I would anticipate the artist's lack of self-restraint and quality control. But the Love Symbol Album, announcing Prince's change of name and serving as the precursor to his open warfare with his label, carries the same quality/quantity mix as Prince's finest overstuffed '80s efforts. Prince dabbles in hip-hop for the first time (on a record he actually released, anyway) on the opening "My Name is Prince," which distills the self-aggrandizing nature of rap into a fine gin. "Sexy M.F." plays like a sultry, vulgar bit of lounge jazz. "The Morning Papers" is one of Prince's finest (and most neglected) love songs, and the Biblical "7" offers one of his most appealing visions of a heaven on Earth. The album's half-executed conception as a "soap opera" hinders the cohesiveness of the whole, but when the annoying segues drop out of the picture, the incredibly varied styles work together as well as the impossible contradictions of Sign 'O' The Times.

HM: The Black Album

Originally slated to be the follow-up to Sign 'O' The Times, The Black Album wound up in that massive vault of unreleased Prince goodies just before release when the artist had a vision of the record containing a great evil. For a record to scare Prince at the height of his powers speaks to the impact of the tunes, and The Black Album does not disappoint. Sandwiched between two of Prince's solo efforts, The Black Album is perhaps Prince's most straightforward band album, 8 slices of hardcore funk that can compete with Dirty Mind for sheer partyup bump-'n-grime. The experimentation with hip-hop precedes Love Symbol Album by four years. "Bob George" viciously attacks the glorification of violence creeping into mainstream black music to Prince's chagrin, while "Rockhard in a Funky Place" surfaces from the detritus of the Crystal Ball sessions and is one of the few tracks cut from Sign 'O' The Times to be as good as anything on the final product. Profane, sneering and sinister, The Black Album is also rollicking and primal in manners both joyful and fierce.

Best Bootleg: Den Haag, August 19, 1988

The obvious choice, yes, but this recording of Prince's aftershow in The Hague not only boasts superior audio quality but features the best demonstration of Prince's ability to make even a small nightclub into a space open enough to unleash his talent. The guitar solo of "Just My Imagination," the jazzy organ and early-'70s Miles brass of "Cold Sweat" and the final jam "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" are explosive, tailored to the switch from stadium to club but also transcendent of time and space. "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" may be the shortest 20-minute jam ever performed, free-flowing enough to alternate between instrumental showcases and driving grooves but always focused to prevent the more beleaguering aspects of excess. God I wish Prince would release some of these things as live albums. He and Springsteen just sit on gold mines.


  1. For whatever reasons I have been thinking a lot about Prince lately -- and, wow, I have to say that this is a really great overview, just spot on and a lot of fun to read. Thanks for this!

  2. Thanks, JPK. I've been binging on him lately and had to bump up the inevitable tribute. He's just better than anyone when he's on, and it's a shame he's been off for about a decade now save for the excellent 3121.

  3. I need to listen to more Prince. He kicks ass. Solid post, man.

  4. Thanks, Aiden. I wish more people of my generation would give him his dues. It's a shame he let himself fall by the wayside through weak albums and touring plans that restricted his magnificent stage presence to one venue at at a time. Considering how many great Prince bootlegs were recorded in Atlanta (City Lights '85 would be my no. 2 choice after the Small Club show I mentioned), I wish he'd come back down to these parts. If he would actually tour properly he could easily rebuild his rep.