By Fahad Khan, Dinar Khayrutdinov and Roland Bruynesteyn
One of the hardest things to writing about Prince’s music is in knowing just where to start, after all, the fecundity of the man’s creative faculties can very often leave you at a loss: I can’t tell you how hard it’s been to try and describe his music, and the effect that it’s had on me, in the space of just a few paragraphs here. The purple one’s talents, extravagant as they were, tended to manifest themselves as a super-abundance, not only in terms of the prolific nature of his output — and in later years, or so it’s claimed, he suffered from an inability to edit himself, his compulsion to producing music far overtaking his judgement and paralysing his sense of quality control — but also in terms of the multiplicity and diversity of the sources of his inspiration, all of which he managed to yoke together to make a seamless whole. You see, the man had a fantastic disregard for the whole plethora of conventions and (binary) norms that had grown up around popular music in the post war era — with the boundaries between different genres like soul, funk, rock, jazz, and the blues, with what is white music and what is black music, essentially — but not just: he also was more than happy to play around with racial and sexual preconceptions and fixed notions as well (which open mindedness around sex he was later to repudiate almost totally after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness). Those types of rules and conventions were all well and fine, insofar as they enabled lesser mortals to orient themselves this hostile, essentially alien existence of ours, but for Prince they just got in the way of his muse.
At the end of the day, Prince’s genius — what it was that lifted his status as a musician a rank above that of the merely outrageously talented — lay in his ability to make it all look so ridiculously easy, that musical high-wire act of his, like complete child’s play in fact. The fact is that regardless of just how far Prince may have pushing the envelope from a musicological point of view, he was still composing pop music: and pop music which the wider public consumed rapturously in its millions. That singular and prodigious gift of his would lead him on to release a series of dazzling pop masterpieces that not only allowed him to dominate the mainstream musical scene of the 80s — and in this his only real peers back then were Madonna and Michael Jackson, neither of whom had anything even distantly approaching Prince’s musical chops — but he also made drooling fanboys out of serious music critics and pop culture intellectuals too and won him the acclaim of chin stroking musos everywhere.
Listening to some of Prince’s best stuff now, you want to ask yourself why it still sounds so vital and urgent, why it is that more than 30 years on it still sounds so fucking futuristic? Prince may have prematurely ended his earthly (purple) reign but the freshness and vibrancy of his music is undimmed and testament to the vigor and intensity of his talent.
Starfish and Coffee
Prince’s genius at its most effortless. ‘Starfish and Coffee’ is brittle and shiny and achingly soulful all at the same time: a joyous ode to non-conformity, eccentricity, and the spiritual necessity of embracing otherness, it represents just one of the numerous career highlights that Prince’s legendary double album, ‘Sign O’ the Times’, has to offer — standing for the moment in his career where his manic prolificacy managed to temporally attain a state of complete and perfect equilibrium with his extraordinary pop nous. The brief trrrrrrrrrrrrrrilling of the alarm clock immediately sets the scene and you’re back in the schoolyard, ready to go off and pull some wee girl’s hair. Prince, sincere and wide eyed, is completely at his ease in this adolescent milieu. The vulnerability in his voice, the delicacy and the tenderness of sentiment, are accentuated by the repetition of the bluesy piano figure and the whooshing backward-drums, the backward rush of nostalgia.
Let’s Go Crazy
The opening song to what everyone says is Prince’s greatest album — and for once everyone is completely right — Purple Rain’s mushrooming reputation allowed it very quickly to outgrow its original, slightly utilitarian, status as the soundtrack to a fairly dull and unremarkable film. ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, an electrified fusion of gospel, rock, blues and soul, serves as the perfect entrée to this revolutionary suite of songs dedicated to the redemptive power of sex and sex and rock and roll (yeah you read the right, the drink and the drugs, it seems, were completely out of the picture). Make no mistake Let’s Go Crazy is a call to arms: it’s all about sensuality and the libido as a means to personal and social liberation, or at least that was the thinking way back then. That kind of utopianism never lasts long anyway, but the music and the art endures. Really I could have picked almost any song from the album as one of my six, since Purple Rain has a pretty much peerless selection (Take Me With You, Darling Nikki, When Doves Cry). In the end though, Let’s Go Crazy wins just because, being the first song on the first Prince album I ever bought, it was the beginning to my appreciation of the great man.
Kiss manages to be simultaneously the cutting edge of funk, the cutting edge of soul, and the cutting edge of rock — not bad for what is, in the end, really ‘just’ a pop song. Kiss’s jagged, juddering Princely minimalism sounds like a reinvigoration, or better still a purification, pop music pared down to its most ritualistic — that little judder you hear repeated throughout the song is the shudder of orgasm. Sparse in its instrumentation but utterly impeccable in its elegance and urbanity. Because it’s one thing the irresistible momentum and poise of the rhythm, but Kiss also gives you Prince’s voice at its most delicate and seductive, that quiet serenade, scarcely more powerful than a breath and delivered with an remarkable degree of intimacy.
A perfect example of Prince’s all out fearlessness (not to speak of all out freshness) when it came to putting his songs together. The rhythm is breathtaking in its audacity, and the guitar line, especially, is off the scale: play this song a few times on a loop a few times just to get the full how in the fuck did he think of that effect. And best of all, as the engorged, horny pony squeal that kicks off the song testifies, it’s remarkably perverted too, even for Prince — in the most wholesomely hedonistic sense of the word of course. I mean, come on, how often do you see such flamboyance and charisma wedded to such jaw dropping musical virtuosity? The occasions are few and far between, although Hendrix comes most readily to mind. If the true genius of pop is to teach you to never ever settle for the mediocre, the commonplace, then Alphabet Street is shockingly, disarmingly effective.
An all conquering, stomping, candy pop juggernaut of a song. Raspberry Beret wins you over right from the very first pulse beat of the intro, and from then it doesn’t take long for the song to finally explode into full iridescent life, transitioning into the aural equivalent of a peacock’s train. Although it’s driven on by the urgency of lust and an all-embracing hunger for sensory pleasure, Raspberry Beret’s core is a bittersweet one: pangs of tenderness and nostalgia and perhaps also that thing called regret, an acknowledgement that the hunt after novelty comes at the expense of having to always start over again.
Diamonds and Pearls
I went for one of Prince’s dreamiest, most gorgeous ballads as my final choice. To hear people talk sometimes you’d think that Prince was some kind of debauched idiot savant completely out of touch with everyday reality: that he was only capable of dealing in the most far out and deviant feelings and emotions. And it’s true that he did sing about those quite often, but he sung about normal stuff too, even if it was often in the most special way. In Diamonds and Pearls he takes on the role of indigent lover, unable to offer his beloved anything beyond the purity of his devotion and his promises for the future; strange that one of his most magical, sumptuous songs came with such an ostensibly humble message.
Prince is quite possibly one of the most underrated artists in pop music. A great songwriter, an amazing multi-instrumentalist musician, an unbelievably productive entertainer, a fantastic singer and a godlike guitar player. He is often compared to Michael Jackson and I do see some grounds for that; however, a much better comparison would be David Bowie or Jimi Hendrix. Though he made unquestionably mainstream music, Prince rarely followed trends, instead preferring to set them for other artists to follow. His absolutely unique music blended R’n’B, funk, synth-pop, soul, rock and blues in a way nobody had ever tried to blend these genres before. Not to mention that he was so musically talented that he would often record albums ALL BY HIMSELF, by literally playing every fucking instrument available. Frankly, Prince is just so HUGE that for a long time I did not know how to approach this review at all, let alone single out six (only six!) songs out of his enormous catalogue (which I haven’t even yet heard in its entirety).
But anyway, here is my humble take on Prince’s career (mostly the 80s part of it) in the form of my top 6 Prince songs. Mind you, I had to limit myself to not more than one song per album, otherwise I would have never been able to do this. And I also allowed myself to cheat just very slightly and in each case name several other tracks I like from the albums I mention. I can’t resist it, sorry, I just love the man’s music so much.
6. Dance On (Lovesexy, 1988)
This song amazes me just for the sheer amount of things going on in it – all the insanely weird sounds, changes of melody, complex drumming and production gimmicks that make your head twirl when you listen to this. It is sort of industrial rock meets dance pop, if you can actually imagine such a thing. The evil menacing synth riff suddenly turns into shiny poppy chorus, then back to menacing grinding, then turns into a whirlwind of sounds. It’s absolutely crazy but it somehow works for me. Other highlights of the album: “Eye No”, “Alphabet St.”, “Glam Slam”.
5. Slow Love (Sign o’ the Times, 1987)
This great soul ballad is my pick from Sign o’ the Times – the most epic of Prince’s releases. It’s rather conventional but it’s absolutely inspired and has tons of feeling. Love the vocals, love the jazzy horn section and the beautiful atmosphere. ‘Nuff said. Other highlights of the album: “Sign o’ the Times”, “Starfish and Coffee”, “Strange Relationship”, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”, “The Cross”, “Adore”.
4. Do It All Night (Dirty Mind, 1980)
Prince’s third album is arguably his first truly great one and very possibly his most groundbreaking album, because it was here that he introduced that classic ‘Minneapolis sound’ – Prince’s own brand of synth-heavy pop-funk with the amazing use of bass and occasional Satriani-like guitar soloing. This song is one of the best examples of this style, with an infectious synth riff that you won’t be able to get out of your head soon, a cool bass-driven rhythm, some soulful singing and of course Prince’s gloriously lewd lyrics. Other highlights of the album: “Dirty Mind”, “When You Were Mine”, “Uptown”.
3. Little Red Corvette (1999, 1982)
Pop, soul and funk are great, sure, but personally I am a rock guy. Did Prince have rock songs as well? Sure, and what rock songs! This amazing track from Prince’s first double album, 1999, is one of his (not so numerous) straightforward rock songs but GOD DOES IT DELIVER. The atmosphere, the imagery, the fantastic guitar tone, the wonderful double-entendre filled lyrics – and we have us an all-time classic. Not to mention that the guitar solo here is to die for – that part of it that starts at 1:55 is among my all-time favorite moments in the entire rock history. This is no joke. Amazing song, full of unmatched passion and pure sexual energy. Other highlights of the album: “1999”, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”, “Lady Cab Driver”.
2. I Wanna Be Your Lover (Prince, 1979)
An early hit, but what a great one. This one is at the same time a heavenly pop song and a heavenly funk track (if you listen to the album version). It begins with some amazing synth/guitar interplay (again, good luck getting this hook out of your head) and exactly halfway through turns into a killer funk jam! Groovy as hell, the musicianship is a real highlight here. Play this song at a party and you get six minutes of fantastic dance music. Other highlights of the album: “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, “Sexy Dancer”, “Bambi”.
1. Purple Rain (Purple Rain, 1984)
Whoa, the big one. Seriously – how could ANYTHING BUT this song take the No 1 spot? It might not be the most quintessential Prince song music-wise (cause it’s not funky), but it is an anthem to everything Prince stood for – sexual freedom, music, beauty and courage of being different. ‘Gorgeous’, ‘epic’, ‘majestic’, ‘transcendental’ are the words that don’t even begin to describe this song but that’s the closest I can come up with to what I feel when I hear it. It closes Prince’s greatest album on a triumphantly satisfying note. This is his “A Day in the Life”, his “Bohemian Rhapsody”, his “Stairway to Heaven”. His “Purple Rain”. Other highlights of the album: EVERYTHING on it, literally. “Purple Rain” is a perfect record if there ever was one.
Prince is to disco and funk what Steely Dan is to somewhat jazzy pop music:
- intricate rhythm charts
- somewhat sleezy lyrics
- technical virtuosity by (all) musicians
- revered by colleagues
- writing, arranging, performing and production all done by the artist: independently pursuing his vision
- a level of sophistication that makes for repeated listening, even if the actual melody seems perceptively simple on first hearing.
On top of that he’s an outstanding guitar player and he’s very productive. Whatever he sometimes lacks in quality control, he more than makes up for with the amount of good ideas and his sheer output of good dance pop that more or less defines the genre for the last thirty years.
Disco and funk is not my preferred genre, and one thing I don’t like about his music is his signature synthetic hand clap (to my ears even more annoying than the typical Phil Collins drum break in most of his hits from the 80’s and 90’s). Still, when he’s good, he’s very good. Parliament/Funkadelic mixed with Jimi Hendrix is one way of putting it, and it has been put like this often…. Although he peaked in the 80’s, most of his later work is interesting, if you allow for his chosen genre.
Temptation (Around the World in a Day, 1985)
Prince does blues! The handclaps and his singing may make you recognize it as a Prince song, but otherwise this is totally unlike him. Paradoxically, this goes for many of his album tracks, that often differ greatly from the hit singles. Ruining his vocal chords, driving bass, soaring guitar (and sax).
Sometimes it Snows in April (Parade, 1986)
You have to have a ballad in your list of great Prince songs, and it might as well be this one. Nice melody, great use of acoustic guitar and piano (always better in ballads I think) and stunning vocal delivery. It’s simple, comforting and sad in a not too depressing way. Try to listen to this somewhere, or rather buy the album. If you buy the cheap 5cd set (Original Album Series) you only need Sign o’ the times, and possibly Musicology as a later work.
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (Sign o’ the Times, 1987)
How could one not include a song from Sign o’ the Times, his early career high, and probably his White album in terms of variety in song writing. This song just sounds so happy and energetic, white at the same time somewhat sad, considering the theme. The song more or less condenses all the lyrics of all his songs in the whole of his career, set to a great tune and with great guitar work. After grudgingly admiring his singles off Purple rain, and much preferring him over Michael Jackson in the 80’s, this was the song that more or less made me a fan, or at least someone who followed his career. The album version has a long outro that shows his production skills and his guitar work.
Strollin’ > Willing and Able (Diamonds and Pearls, 1991)
These two songs again show his great command of different musical styles and his great arranging and production skills. Strolling is a romantic jazzy number, complete with walking bass, Fender Rhodes, subtle electric guitar and jazz drumming, sung with a falsetto voice. Willing and able is partly exuberant gospel (mainly because of the great backing vocals) and partly a typical Police song, as redone by Prince.
A Million Days (Musicology, 2004)
This song has somehow always seemed to me to be a better version of Nothing Compares to U. The song sounds completely different, with less synthesizers, more guitar, heavier (it’s hardly a ballad), but there you go. And whenever you think it moves into Bruce Springsteen territory (and Bruce could do justice to it if he covered it), Prince has some weird production tricks up his sleeve, elevating the song above your ‘ordinary’ rock song.