Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.
To best understand where Prince comes from, it helps to start almost at the beginning, with his first crossover hit, 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Take a moment to revisit the song that kicked off his second album—titled simply Prince—and helped introduce the then-21-year-old Minneapolis native to an audience beyond the R&B charts that made a 1978 hit of his debut album’s “Soft And Wet.”
It’s easy to hear how it became a hit. Playing all the instruments himself, Prince created a track that fits right into the disco-influenced Top 40 moment that made a smash of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. The sentiment begins simply, a come-on made all the more urgent by Prince delivering it near the top of his range. It’s catchy, too, showing off a gift for hooks that would only get stronger over the next few years. But there’s more going on than first meets the ear. Did he really just sing “I wanna be the only one that makes you come”? Sure, Prince adds some lyrical fig leaves (“only one that makes you come running,” etc.) but he isn’t fooling anyone. And what about that second verse? He doesn’t just want to be your lover, but your brother, mother, and sister, too. It’s a message of desire shot through with anxiety and kink. Then the song ends with a long instrumental passage—not quite funk, rock, or the then-nascent new wave, but with elements of each—as if giving listeners time to think about what they just heard.
Many were no doubt wondering “Who is this freak, and where can I buy his album?” But that hit was just a prelude to what was to come with Prince’s third full-length, 1980’s Dirty Mind. A breathless, 30-minute statement of purpose, its eight tracks acknowledge no musical boundaries as they layer piercing guitars and funky basslines across a bed of keyboards and pulsing beats. He again plays most of the instruments himself, though his songcraft and his taboo subject matter make a deeper impression than his versatility. The plea of a cuckolded lover, “When You Were Mine” leaves out no unsavory detail of an affair gone wrong (“You didn’t even have the decency to change the sheets”), which doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. The one-two punch of “Head” and “Sister”—one celebrating oral sex, the other incest—helped attract attention, but the album would still sound like one long, polymorphously perverse house party even without the eyebrow-raising lyrics.
While sex remained an abiding Prince obsession, future albums had even more on their mind. Prince spent much of the ’80s working through thoughts on earthly desire and heavenly obligations. But where soul men like Al Green tended to view the two as an either/or proposition, for Prince, the need to seek a higher power and the need to get freaky tended to get tangled together. “Let’s Go Crazy,” the opening track to the 1984 soundtrack to Prince’s semi-autobiographical movie Purple Rain, opens like a sermon, then crunches into abstract images of phone sex and “pills and thrills and daffodils” before circling back to insinuations of a looming apocalypse and a guitar solo that would put any ’80s metal god to shame. It’s a peculiar, infectious song from a peculiar, infectious album. And it became, like the album itself, an inescapable blockbuster that sounded like nothing else on the radio in 1984. (Or any other year, for that matter.)
Though the movie played like a self-addressed valentine, the soundtrack remains one of the high points of Prince’s career. Since the late ’70s, Prince had been assembling a peerless backing band for his live act, if not always his albums. They got a more front-and-center role and credit to match on Purple Rain, the first album billed as the work of “Prince And The Revolution.” (Admittedly, 1999 featured a teasing credit—if you looked at its fine print with a mirror.) Still, the songs are unmistakably Prince’s. “When Doves Cry” loses its bassline and puts the emphasis on a nakedly pleading vocal about a love gone wrong, the legacy of a difficult childhood, and an absence even sex can’t fill. (And, of course, crying doves.) The passion carries over throughout the album before emptying out in the epic title track, a slow-boiling ballad on which Prince seems to find some peace with what’s been troubling him over the last eight tracks.
No Prince album quite matches Purple Rain for wall-to-wall greatness, but the 1987 double album Sign ‘O’ The Times comes close. Something of a one-man White Album—Prince was working without most of the just-disbanded Revolution, apart from one live track—Sign features a dizzying array of material ranging from the spare, foreboding title track to gospel (“The Cross”), frisky synth-pop (“U Got The Look,” a duet with Sheena Easton), and alternate-universe James Brown funk (“Housequake”). But much of the album is hard to classify, musically or lyrically. “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Strange Relationship,” and “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” all take sideways looks at difficult love affairs. And while “Slow Love” and “Forever In My Life” (the latter as much about God as any human relationship) reestablished that Prince could slow-jam with the best of the quiet-storm crowd, most of the album lives in a musical universe of Prince’s making. He began his career looking to Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Joni Mitchell for inspiration. For this album, he fused those influences and a decade of his own ideas into a sprawling vista of soulfully executed songs that break up wrenching emotion with playful humor. It remains an astonishing place to visit.
Sounding like a contemplative flipside to Dirty Mind, the 1981 album Controversy returns to sexually explicit themes (“Do Me, Baby,” “Jack U Off,” “Sexuality”) but breaks up the sex talk with spiritual contemplation and pointed, though vague, political statements. The title track features the Lord’s Prayer, while the title of “Ronnie, Talk To Russia” pretty much speaks for itself. It’s a terrific album, and while it doesn’t offer anything as breathtaking as its predecessor, it now plays like a logical bridge to his 1982 masterpiece 1999.
Prince’s first double album, 1999 frontloads a bunch of future hits (“1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”), then transitions into experimental tracks like “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)” and “All The Critics Love U In New York,” which find weird grooves all their own. Not that the songs Prince sent up the charts were exactly standard radio fare. “1999” partied in defiance of the apocalypse and became a signature song. But it’s “Little Red Corvette” that best captures the turmoil driving Prince’s best ’80s songs. The lyrics cut sex with neurosis, lamenting that getting off simply isn’t enough, and that something else—real love, spirituality—will have to take the place of fleeting pleasures. At the same time, it makes that fleeting pleasure sound pretty irresistible. The whole album sounds like it comes from the future, but its most effective cuts stay grounded in the here and now.
Though Prince often does his best work drifting from style to style, his heyday albums still always felt focused. Sometimes that focus fell tightly on a single sound. The soundtrack to the little-loved 1986 movie Under The Cherry Moon, Parade uses skeletal beats and rococo flourishes to create an unabashedly romantic set highlighted by songs like “Mountains,” “Girls & Boys,” and the tragic ballad “Sometimes It Snows In April.” (No songwriter from L.A. would have ever dreamt up that last title.) “Kiss” became a huge hit, overshadowing both the film and an album that, like its 1985 predecessor, Around The World In A Day (more on that one later), failed to match Purple Rain’s sales. The downside to having one of the bestselling albums of all time: It’s a tough feat to double, and tougher still when you’re more interested in redefining pop music than trying to fit into others’ idea of what a hit sounds like.
On the other hand, even visionaries have trouble deciding what to do next. Sign ‘O’ The Times began as an overstuffed Revolution album called Dream Factory before morphing into a triple-length album called Crystal Ball (no relation to the album later released under that name), then getting slimmed down to its final form. Around the same time, Prince began to conceive of an album for “Camille,” an alter ego he used for tracks featuring sped-up, sexually ambiguous vocals. Most of the Camille project has officially surfaced in some form—most notably “Housequake” and “Strange Relationship” on Sign ‘O’ The Times. Prince rescued another Camille track, “Rockhard In A Funky Place,” for what was to have been his 1988 follow-up to Sign, The Black Album. Then that got scrapped as well, thanks to—as the story goes—a message from God, who apparently objected to its dark tone and hard grooves. It was widely bootlegged prior to its official release in 1994, however, and often used as a stick with which to beat the album Prince did release, the upbeat, day-glo Lovesexy. A great album could be made by combining the best parts of the two. The Black Album would lose the unfocused jams and tone-deaf putdowns of hip-hop—Prince has had a difficult relationship with that genre—but keep the Cindy Crawford mash-note “Cindy C.” and the violent fantasy “Bob George.” Lovesexy could stand to shed the dippy “Positivity” and “Glam Slam,” but retain the celebratory single “Alphabet St.” and the sweet “I Wish U Heaven.” (And if Prince really wanted to explore the dual nature of an artist capable of creating such diverse music, he could split the project between two sides.)
The 1990 soundtrack to the Purple Rain sequel Graffiti Bridge, on the other hand, emphasized unity and diversity. The movie stiffed, but the album helped remind straying fans why they liked Prince so much in the first place, while showcasing his enduring ability to craft music for others. The double-length release featured Mavis Staples of the famed Staple Singers, a duet with major Prince influence George Clinton, and contributions from The Time and 12-year-old sensation Tevin Campbell. And it featured a major hit, “Thieves In The Temple,” that recalled the dark-night-of-the-soul intensity of “When Doves Cry.” But there was a problem, too. “Thieves” was one of only a few new tracks on a set of older songs that dated back as far as 1981. The brushed-off leftovers sounded good but not great, and a new coat of paint couldn’t hide that Prince wasn’t dispensing new ideas with the old frequency. The world around him, however, was. Hip-hop, one of the few styles with which Prince never seemed particularly comfortable, had entered a golden age. Perhaps sensing a wolf at the door, Prince moved from mocking it to incorporating scratching, the occasional rap interlude, dancer-choreographer Cat on Lovesexy, and the soon-to-be-forgotten T.C. Ellis on Graffiti Bridge. The touches never quite fit, but they seemed required to keep up with the demands of the record-buying public. The question of what to do next loomed.
It wasn’t the first time Prince faced that question. It’s strange to think of an album that spawned a perfect pop hit (“Raspberry Beret”) and helped make the ’80s safe for psychedelia as a disappointment, but Around The World In A Day, the 1985 follow-up to Purple Rain, puzzled critics and fans alike. Purple Rain was always going to be a hard act to follow, which might explain why World hit stores with no advance warning. Or maybe it was just to give a soft launch to a radical shift in sound. Where every album from For You through Purple Rain follows its predecessor logically, World hits a bunch of notes Prince had rarely hit before, dragging Summer Of Love sounds and Sly Stone paranoia into the Reagan era. It isn’t a through-and-through success, but it’s daring, and it sounds much better than its reputation suggests.
Prince’s 1991 album Diamonds And Pearls, on the other hand, sounds like a different sort of shift. For the first time, Prince sounds like he’s trying to keep up with the times rather than define them. Much of the album, attributed to Prince And The New Power Generation, sounds airless and fussed-over, while the contributions of dancer/rapper Tony M sound like a bone tossed to hip-hop fans. And not much of a bone, either. Tony M sounds like a steroidal MC Hammer; his shouty delivery can’t hide the corniness of his rhymes. The gambit worked, however, and the hits (“Gett Off,” “Cream,” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” the title track) still sound great, even surrounded by filler. Even though it opens with the hokey, Tony M-plagued “My Name Is Prince,” the 1992 follow-up album is even better. Officially titled after the unpronounceable combination of male and female symbols that Prince took as his new name, but usually called Love Symbol (or some variation thereof), the album follows a vague storyline—Kirstie Alley provides some spoken-word segues, for some reason—filled with abstruse symbolism seemingly left over from Around The World In A Day. But unlike on Diamonds And Pearls, Prince sounds comfortable bringing sounds from the then-young decade into his music, even gamely rapping here and there. (Well, it’s more like speak-singing, but it works as well as it needs to.) The album’s high points are truly remarkable, especially “The Morning Papers” and the smash “7,” and the album as a whole finds Prince sounding well-positioned to remain a force in the ’90s.
So what happened? It depends on who’s doing the talking. Prince changed his name to the love symbol and became widely referred to as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.” The shift stemmed less from a spiritual awakening than a dispute with Warner Bros. Records, which was taking an unwelcome hands-on approach to his career. Clearly hoping to finish out his contract and move on, Prince started to appear in public with the word “Slave” written on his face, and he used the new glyph moniker to release the hit single “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” while releasing increasingly indifferent-sounding albums for Warner. The one relative gem from this period is 1995’s The Gold Experience, home to “The Most Beautiful Girl,” the spirited filth of “P Control,” and the long goodnight kiss “I Hate U.”
The triple-disc Emancipation was supposed to be the album that changed everything forever. Freed from his contract in 1996, Prince could now release what he wanted when he wanted, and in whatever form he wanted. But what should have been a grand milestone just wasn’t. Which isn’t to say it’s bad. But its three hours and 36 tracks proved exhausting. It might have sounded better in the iTunes era, but though it boils down well to a tight playlist, the pruning can’t hide his unwillingness, or maybe inability, to push things forward.
That’s the problem that’s plagued Prince ever since. While it’s almost always worth picking up whatever he puts out, his best albums look back to his glory days, while his worst sound like a collection of familiar parts that don’t quite fit together. Still, even second-tier Prince can’t be easily dismissed. Prince’s latest, the triple-length Lotusflow3r/MPLSOUND/Elixer (the last a debut from protégé Bria Valente) is more hit than miss, but it was preceded by a run of pretty strong efforts: the solid-though-overrated Musicology (2004), the better 3121, and Planet Earth (2007). The lattermost’s “Future Baby Mama” sounds seductive enough to spark a baby boom amongst fans, not that Prince needs to breed fans to ensure his music will be played in the next generation and beyond.
Prince’s 1978 debut For You gave him his first R&B hit with “Soft And Wet,” but otherwise sounds like a warm-up. Later, he was plagued by material that sounded warmed-over. A product of corporate synergy more than artistic inspiration, the Batman soundtrack rescued a few Black Album-like bits of funk despair from the vaults, but otherwise sounded tossed-off. (And the less said of the patched-together single “Batdance,” the better.) Prince’s Warner-baiting days began with the undistinguished, though not horrible, 1994 album Come and ended with the forgettable, but aptly titled, 1996 album Chaos And Disorder. Both can be skipped. Prince sounded like he was trying again, maybe too hard, with his 1999 album Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, but a host of guest stars (Sheryl Crow! Chuck D! Ani DiFranco!) couldn’t hide a lack of inspiration or an excess of interchangeable ballads. (The album’s best song, the title track, had been kicking around for more than a decade.) The 2001 album The Rainbow Children suggested a dim future playing lite jazz-funk, which Prince seems to have thankfully sidestepped.
Prince is so famously prolific that he seems to stash three songs for every one he releases. Exploring Prince bootlegs is like entering an alternate universe in which “High Fashion” and “Moonbeam Levels” became hits, while “Pop Life” and “Delirious” moldered away unheard. Go far enough down the rabbit hole, and you’ll find a version of “Computer Blue” that pushes the 15-minute mark, a 30-minute-plus version of “I Would Die 4 U,” and an astonishing after-hours set recorded in Amsterdam in the late ’80s.
A lot of discarded tracks did see the light of day, only in the hands of other musicians. For a while, Prince had a cottage industry of related artists, and the Minneapolis sound practically became a genre unto itself thanks to followers and imitators. Prince’s most successful disciples were The Time, though the band’s albums practically qualify as consumer fraud. The cover to The Time’s 1981 debut features lead singer Morris Day surrounded by band members that include future super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They played during the live shows, but almost every sound on the band’s first three albums, apart from Day’s vocals, belongs to Prince. Those albums—The Time, What Time Is It?, and Ice Cream Castle—don’t leave a lot of room for complaint, however. Day plays the perfect vamping frontman for hard-edged funk tracks too straightforward (relatively speaking) for Prince’s own albums.
Prince scored more indirect hits with Vanity 6, a female trio whose sole, self-titled album earned a lot of attention, and some minor hits, thanks to catchy, smutty songs like “Nasty Girl.” Vanity 6 was supposed to have a supporting role in Purple Rain, but Prince and Vanity parted ways before the film began. Prince solved the problem by rechristening Patricia Kotero with the name “Apollonia” and changing the band name to Apollonia 6. One unfortunate co-starring turn, a single Apollonia 6 album, and the minor hit “Sex Shooter” followed.
The Time fractured shortly after Purple Rain, with several members reconstituting as The Family. Their single album, released in 1985, once again features Prince as chief architect (though not officially a member), but it’s worth seeking out if only for the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” later a hit for Sinéad O’Connor. Also worth a listen: Prince’s collaborations with Sheila E. Her 1984 debut The Glamorous Life is another Prince production, albeit a more collaborative effort than some of other acts he’s worked with. Sheila E. would later play drums and serve as a musical director for Prince after The Revolution dissolved. Prince had a hand in her next two albums, too, the second of which yielded the hit “A Love Bizarre.”
1. Purple Rain
As with Born In The U.S.A.—which charted at the same time—it’s hard to stress just how popular and unavoidable Purple Rain was in 1984. That’s at least partly thanks to Prince reaching out to R&B, pop, and rock fans with music that didn’t fit into any genre. But it’s mostly the strange, passionate music itself that made the album the rare blockbuster that could double as a diary entry.
2. Sign ‘O’ The Times
This generous double album points in directions that Prince’s followers, and even Prince himself, have had a hard time following.
3. Dirty Mind
Nearly three decades haven’t shed the edges off an album that sounds like a party about to take a dangerous, possibly delightful, turn.
An ambitious outpouring of anxious pop and soulful experiments, 1999 continually dares listeners to follow it to the edge, then pushes them a little further.
Dismissed at the time, the romantic, psychedelic, ultimately tragic Parade now sounds like the sort of disappointment every artist should aspire to make.