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Prince will not be understood or appreciated in our lifetimes. Whether he'll be understood in any other lifetime or by any carbon-based lifeform is anyone's guess, too, but the man's got only himself to blame for that. Prince (yes, that's his real name) is a diminutive Minneapolis-born black gentleman who dances like James Brown, plays guitar like Jimi Hendrix, sings like Eddie Kendricks, dresses like Brooks Brothers' and Divine's illegitimate love child, allegedly plays some mean hoops, definitely plays some mean ladies, and probably has more raw musical talent that 99% of the people reviewed on this website. The man has gone from being a teenage phenom, the heir apparent to Stevie Wonder's one-man-bandism, to a freakadelic sex-and-punk-funk alien freak, to a bizarre and self-indulgent superstar on par with Michael Jackson, to a bizarre and self-indulgent weirdo far beyond Michael Jackson's worst nightmare, to a cult-artist who looks like the paragon of normal human behavior compared to the Takishi Miike blood-spattered horrorshow that is Michael Jackson in the 00's. All the while, the man's been a regular material generating machine, right or wrong, churning out new albums with the regularity of a new fall television season and with about as good of a batting average. Apparently, despite all the rich fop trappings, Prince lives and breathes for his Paisley Park home studio, locking himself away for days with nothing but his synthesizers and digital recorders for company. He'd be considered a typical studio recluse weirdo except for the fact that he plays some of the most entertaining, energetic, and tight live shows ever put forth in the name of pop music, pulling on an extroverted stage persona that is not one Tina Yothers similar to the spineless lilting violet one he puts on for interviews or normal everyday activity. Seeing Prince in concert is like watching the history of black music unfold before your very eyes - one second he's two-stepping and mashed-potatoing to a bouncy, elastic disco groove, the next he's crooning a bloody-heart ballad with all the mushy grandeur of a Marvin Gaye performance, then he's turning aerial backflips on his knockoff Tele, channeling Eddie Hazel by way of Ernie Isley by way of Eddie Van Halen. The thing is, part of what makes Prince Prince is that whatever he plays, it sounds like him. The man has a definite style, even when he's incorporating outside influences into his cosmic funk soup he still manages to follow his Prince Credo and make a song liquid, funky, and somewhat obscene.
The main problem with Prince's career is that he did all of his groundbreaking surprisingly early on - his For You, Prince, and Dirty Mind albums demolished more soul and R&B stereotypes than any album since Stand! It's no surprise that these were also the records he wrote, performed, and produced almost exclusively by himself. In his earliest incarnation, Prince was a teenaged studio wiz with little or no stage experience, but audience demand forced him to band together with some old pals and local musicians to form the Revolution, his crack backing band that was to follow him through the late-80's. The Revolution, like most of Prince's bands, was an awesome force to behold live, a bullet-tight funk unit full of interesting players, many of whom could have (and most, in fact, did) spun off into notable solo careers. His success was somewhat long in coming, but it was massive - Prince, along with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and maybe Bruce Springsteen, were the pop artists of the mid-80s, at least in the United States. Like Jackson, Prince helped break black artists onto the hitherto negrophobic MTV, like Madonna he made a (poorly advised, it turns out) attempt to break into acting, and like Bruce Springsteen he...umm...also has a functioning penis. But I think Prince's is tattooed with paisley squiggles and peace signs and shit.
Prince had been stalking major success for more than 6 years by the time Purple Rain made him the biggest thing since naked boobies, but it wasn't long before 'normal people' put two and two together and realised Prince wasn't, and never was gonna be, a populist, kid-friendly, mother-approved, desexualized, Pepsi-shilling pop-product-machine like Michael Jackson. He was bizarre, given to lyrics about dirty sex with his sister and nuclear armageddon, moved like a runwaymodelsexmachineonavaselinefloor, and generally seemed like a horny little bastard that you wouldn't leave your kids with. Hell, Tipper Gore's PMRC record censorship witch hunt machine was dreamt up after the ol' Tipster found her junior-high school aged daughter listening to Prince's 'Darling Nikki', a song which mentions 'masturbating with a magazine'. Pretty shocking to former Deadhead Tipper, who apparently never listened to all the Grateful Dead songs about VD-infected prostitutes ('Scarlet Magnolias'), backstage groupies ('Sugar Magnolias'), or men so desperate for pussy they're forced to murder a jewelry store clerk ('Dupree's Diamond Blues'). Anyway, before 1986 was up, the backlash was on, and Prince had to release his biggest artistic statement yet (Sign O the Times) just to keep the torches and pitchforks at bay.
While his public persona had its ups and downs, Prince's control over his artistic direction never seemed to waver. He retained a lot of his loner personality since then, and has never let his grip slip so much as to allow his band to steal much of the spotlight away from the main attraction (as soon as Revolution members Wendy and Lisa's onstage lesbian act got to be a bit too popular in the mid-80's, Prince showed them the door). As far back as the mid-80's, and definitely as of the 1990's, Prince's golden touch has been sporadic at best. His second and third films tanked faster than a new Tara Reid/Rob Schneider courtroom melodrama, and the white retard jock contingent of his fanbase crawled back under their respective rocks and discovered Bon Jovi. His string of massive hit chart singles didn't quite dry up, though, and he had considerable sucesses through 1991's Diamonds and Pearls, but as the man changed his name to an ornate flower hanger (aka , pronounced as 'W.Axl Rose') in 1993 people began to fall off the bandwagon in earnest. His ongoing feud with Warner Brothers distracted him and caused him to denounce his past, going so far as to declare Prince 'dead' on the 1995 contractual obligation album Come. Many of his other efforts around this time felt like obligations or toss offs as well. Though he had finished open warfare with WB as of 1997's three-CD Emancipation, by the late 90's, Prince was nothing more than a cult artist. He was married, looked great, his band (the New Power Generation) was spectacular, but his success never quite returned. He became a Jehovah's Witness a few years back (indicating that, yes, sometimes he does open the door to his house), and has reformed his previously perverso Madonna/Whore worldview somewhat, and caught a bit of fire with the success of his Musicology tour and (though somewhat sneakily) album in 2004. He's now busily sorting through stacks of archive releases to shill on a regular basis through his website, and releasing a forgettable new album every two years or so, but his live shows are still required attendance for anyone who cares anything about dance, music, sex, or romance.
I want to make it clear here that while I'm going to probably slam 80% of Prince's albums as being not up to his standard, especially 90's and afterwards, I still consider the man to be an awesome talent and some of his work to be the best of the last 25 years. He just hasn't ever had anyone to bounce his ideas off of and therefore considers just about any old thing to be suitable for release. I'd also like it if he shut up and played his guitar a little more...his soloing on the performance of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' at the Rock and Roll Half of Fame ceremony a couple of years back has to rank as one of my favorite pieces of axe-work I've seen recently. Once a poster-boy example of the New Age, Prince is now oddly in the position of representing one of the few remaining links with old-school musicianship in pop music. You can be sure that whatever Prince is singing, good or bad, came out of him without too much interference from samplers, ProTools, or other such studio crutches. And that's what's scary about him, too.
- Warner Bros. 1978
The first couple of Prince albums sound shockingly meek compared to his 'classic' mid-80's sound, and are nowhere near as sexually or intellectually charged, but the heavy use of keyboards, stripped down arrangements, and twee, adolescent falsetto vocals sure as shit don't sound like what everyone else was putting on the radio in 1978, either. Granted, what Prince created in the first decade or so of his career has since been so ingrained in the modern R&B sound that it's impossible not to hear echoes of stuff like 'In Love' (New Edition and millions of other prefab sprout boy bands) or 'Crazy You' (Babyface...remember him? He and any other sensitive black man with an acoustic guitar and a slow jam beat gets his start here) or, hell...anything else on this album, but I'll trundle out the old cliche about sections of this record sounding fresh enough to have been released 10 or 20 years later. As for 1978, the man really did help to invent 'punk funk' (along with Rick James, later Kool and the Gang, and others) - black music that took the mantle of New Wave minimalism and efficiency (and, at least in Prince's case, the D.I.Y. approach and fierce independence) and applied it to R&B. Let's not forget that by 1978, most R&B artists were either 60's and early 70's holdovers, or they were irreparably associated with the then-current disco boom. To release an album that sounds like Earth, Wind, and Fire performed by Kraftwerk is a pretty daring move for a nineteen year old. It'd be a whole other year before Motown would put out Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and solidify the new sound of black music, and by the time most people had caught up, Prince had already conquered the armies of Mount Nastypants using only his favorite lance, some Extra Small Calvin Klein bikini shorts, and a Linn Drum set on 'stimulate'.
Like I said, he was still keeping it mostly in his pants as of For You, and therefore most of the songs are pleasant, but far from particularly exciting. Lots of this album sounds like he was attempting to make radio-ready chart hits, but suppressing his inner Super Freak had the effect of emasculating a lot of these songs. As far as pop goes, however, Prince was bright and talented enough to avoid the specter of disco...even in his most danceable of tunes, he avoids laying on the 2/4 kick drum lead-the-white-man-by-the-hand disco beat in favor of more challenging grooves. He's nowhere near as funky as, say, the Sly and the Family Stone records he worshipped, mainly due to the fact that Prince was never much more than serviceable as a drummer, and hadn't yet discovered how to make his electronics throb quite like the Family had been able to do, but there are moments on For You ('Just as Long as We're Together', 'Soft and Wet') where he pulls together some fairly impressive grooving. Even 'Soft and Wet', probably his most suggestive title ever, doesn't ever go into any detail about what might, in fact, be soft and wet, leaving the possibility open that he's actually talking about John Goodman in a wet t-shirt contest. Hey, if you're not going to go ahead and admit you're talking about a pussy, you're leaving it up to us to fill in the blanks, man. We can't be held responsible for your vagaries!
There's even one track ('I'm Yours') where he gives Funkadelic a run for its money in terms of acid-drenched heavy guitar rock funk dominance. He may not exactly be Clyde Stubblefield on the skins, but the man is at least Michael Hampton on the electric guitar - unfortunately he'd only give us this one single taste just as a teaser (and would continue to ration out his headbanger performances for several years), but its enough to flatten a listener just before the album enters its runoff groove, and brush out any lingering memories of forgettable, underwritten tunes like 'Baby' and 'So Blue'. Hell, after my first listen to For You, I thought the thing was flawless....it really just turns out that my selective hearing is better tuned than what I give it credit for.
Capn's Final Word: It's not really Prince as we know him, but without For You, I doubt we could've gotten to where we ended up. Still a teenager, Prince is already busting up the established order.
Okay, so 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' is the mid-level hit single that ensured Prince would be given the chance to record a third and fourth album, 'Bambi' is even more gloriously sinister an acid-funk Hendrixoid guitar jam than 'I'm Yours', and 'I Feel For You' is just a fantastic song (done better when covered several years later by Chaka Khan, incidentally), but there sure is a lot about Prince (the album, not the person or the insufferable short-legged dog my friends own) that bores the hell out of me. He's creeping ever-closer to adults-only territory, but there's still way too much of that fake-ass teenage goin' steady love song crap here, which sounds about as convincing coming from 'Dirty Mind' Prince as Jars of Clay doing Slayer covers. I mean, who can believe a sweet, tender song of devotion like 'Still Waiting' after he's just tried to convince a hot Lez that fucking men is better than other hot bitches in 'Bambi', or that he really put his best effort forth on 'When We're Dancing Close and Slow', when the only between-sheet activity a song like this might inspire is a long, deep sleep. 'Sexy Dancer' is standard Off The Wall-style post-disco electrofunk, meant to be panted along with on the dancefloor, preferably whilst rubbing one's overdressed hindquarters akimbo with a softer, wetter, and rounder companion's underdressed ones, but it's just a thump tune...there's not much to listen for other than the variations Prince comes up with on his 'scratch' guitar rhythms, and how many different ways he exhales into the microphone before you begin to forget this is a pop song and start to maybe think you've stumbled along some sort of weird voiceless a-capella album, the kind of thing with the picture of a water lily on the cover that's sold in candle stores next to the Fimo clay and the glass vases that look like kaleidoscope dildos. 'With You' competes the dead-zone trilogy with yet another too-slow ballad that's far too close to Jackson 5-era Michael's creepyass little-kid voice love ballads.
That said, the album opens and closes a winner, as 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' is a sweet, Motown-influenced, innocent little hip-shakin' dance tune perfectly fitting for 1979 black radio - organic, driving, and rubbery, but not too weird or risque, with the possible exception of the line - 'I wanna be your lover, I wanna be your mother and your sister, too.' Considering how he apparently feels about siblings (see Dirty Mind's 'Sister'), he may be imagining a whole damn new dimension of sick and depraved. Prince Rogers Nelson - the Ferdinand Magellan of sexual deviance. 'Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad' is bright and glammy, a pop funk song in hard-rock clothing that lays the groundwork for a lot of 1999 and Purple Rain's similar black/white hard/soft fusion exercises, but as a song it's not much more than a good chorus and a lot of waiting around for the chorus to get played again. Good solo, though - Prince sounds a lot like Brian May here, and shows a lot more sense of melody and cohesion than he does the whole rest of the song. 'I Feel For You' is silly fun, and the synths are just cringe-inducing, but the hook on the chorus is a true winner. Plus, I can always dream about Chaka's prodigious drummer bootie when I hear it. 'It's Gonna Be Lonely' scores his first great ballad by drawing back on some very well-coordinated smoooooooth production and a feel that comes from way back in the Gamble and Huff days. Forget for a moment that it sounds like whatever Lenny Kravitz was fumbling around with last week - this stuff is good, the dynamics, the way lines from the chorus aren't sung as lines, they're sung as outbursts - it's all a bit frustrating when he's doing so much growing on one hand, and so much stubborn self-suppression on the other. I, for one, want Prince to forget about radio, forget about losing his record deal, and just pop that fucking cherry once and for all. I believe my prayers are about to be answered.
Capn's Final Word: Still way too much fence-sitting, and the worst gets worse even as the best gets better. At least it sure as shit doesn't sound like Prince is standing still.
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- Warner Bros. 1980
Something filthy this way comes. On face, this album isn't nearly the moral corruptor its reputation would have you believe - overall, the grooves are light and sunny, underproduced in such a way as to make them almost dismissable. This is supposed to be revolutionary? A couple of drum machines, some wiry jankle guitar, and the same synthtones Prince has been using all along, all glossed over by Prince's twee/soulful falsetto that makes every lyric sound as pure as the driven snow? I guess it was, but on the surface I don't quite get what all the fuss is about. People try to call Dirty Mind Prince's move towards rock rhythms, but I certainly don't see that, not in light of real rock tunes like 'Bambi' or 'Little Red Corvette' from a few years later. This is pop all the way, from here down to the corner porno mag store. Hell...'Gotta Broken Heart' is doo wop. What does make Dirty Mind interesting is its very stealth. The subversion of this record, the madonna (as in Virgin Mary, not pretty-fucking-far-from-virgin Ciccone)/whore disconnect between music and lyrics is like nothing I've ever come across since Shirley Temple's Let's Get in the Tub and Play With Your 'Good Ship Lollipop' album from 1938. Try a little trick: put on Dirty Mind in the car with your mother or an unsuspecting first date (hopefully both aren't the same person. but if so, Prince might be interested in talking with you). I bet you can almost definitely make it through the drive without being slapped and/or enrolled in psychotherapy. Just don't try this with Purple Rain or Controversy and expect to get by unscathed.
Oh, but Dirty Mind is naaaasty. By now, the denizen's of Prince's befouled imagination are well known - the bride-to-be who doesn't want to fuck Prince because she wants to be a virgin on her wedding night (married to someone else, obviously). So she blows him off instead and he pays her back by splooging on her wedding dress and stealing her for his own. Or when he jealously agrees to a threesome ('When You Were Mine'). Or when he learns all the bedroom tricks from his sister, who then turns around and pimps him out ('Sister'). He spends two other whole songs just expressing how much he likes to bump the wild pumpkin ('Dirty Mind' and 'Do It All Night'), and hell, even admits he's an equal opportunity hornball in 'Uptown'. Yup, listen close to Prince's often indecipherable falsetto and you'll be rewarded with the kind of lyrical gems that never, for some reason, make it onto your average Thursday night Karaoke selection. Still, each song is delivered in such an unassuming, poppy, positive manner that the only time anything comes right out and grabs you lyrically is when he chants 'You're gonna have to fight your own damn war, 'cause we don't wanna fight no more' during the coda of 'Partyup'. What? A political message in a song called 'Partyup'? Evidently. Prince's worldview, at least at the time he recorded this album, was a fiercely individualistic one...he rejects the world of politics and (sexual) morality for one he calls Uptown (also the name of the club area in Minneapolis where he played many of his early shows and built his fanbase), where sexual freedom, self-expression, and a vague subservience to God seem to be the driving forces. 'Cum on Wedding Dress' may not jibe very well with religion in most people's eyes, but it does for Prince, apparently. Go figure. Oddly enough, when listening to Dirty Mind with your ears turned on, I wouldn't necessarily call it a perverse experience. He may call his mind 'dirty', but for the most part sex/love/affection/lust isn't presented as something evil or shameful. It may be disgusting and devious ('Head'), it may be obsessive ('Dirty Mind'), and it may cause heartbreak ('When You Were Mine'), but he never stoops to the thinly-veiled woman-hating abusive lyrics that are so prevalent in a lot of rock music. Personally, I'd rather have my kids learn that sex is powerful, interesting, and fantastic rather than learn that it is used as a weapon against poor, unsuspecting boys by horrible 'debbil-wimmens' to destroy their manhood. Not for at least 12 years, though.
Music-wise, Dirty Mind is a consistently good, but not always great record. The thinness of the sound is mostly due to the fact that Prince was unable to record studio versions of the songs that satisfied him, so he simply used his home demos instead. For homemade demos, they're fantastic, and it's interesting to hear the man so stripped down to his core, but I'd still have preferred a thicker drum and bass guitar sound to give these grooves some, well...flesh. As if there isn't enough of that on this record already. Whatever. The hit was 'When You Were Mine', also a hit for Cyndi Lauper, and sounds like it was made for the Go-Go's. 'Head' has probably the best dance groove, a bass-poppin outro that provided one helluva road map for the Talking Heads to follow on their Speaking in Tongues album three years later. 'Sister' almost certainly was intended to be the 'Bambi' of the record, as the jankly guitar and the driving rock beat is foremost here, but apparently Prince's home studio doesn't include a distortion pedal, so he ends up flailing around on a thread-thin clean guitar sound that I suppose some people classify as revolutionary. Not me, natch - I think the effect is muted by its sketchy production rather than enhanced by the unique sound. Not so with 'Partyup', which once again makes clear that no one funks with his own bad self better than Prince. Can you imagine how hard it must be to record a funk jam and make it play convincingly as a live-band performance, all by yourself? No wonder the guy fell in love with drum machines...it prevented him having to play a funk drumbeat into a blackhole of blank tape every single track just to get started. I don't blame the guy one bit.
Capn's Final Word: Ground-breakingly smutty, and certainly more fit to be the best example of 'punk funk' than anything else in his catalogue, but it doesn't hit in the gut quite how people say it does.
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- Warner Bros. 1981
The longstanding critical view of this album is as the forgotten, 'difficult' fourth record between the pioneering, minimalist Dirty Mind and the crossover breakthough 1999, Controversy is far more impressive to me as an advancement in Prince's career arc than either of those two albums are. Prince dives ever deeper into his sound as dance music, increasing his use of synthesizers as his primary melodic instrument and drum machines as the rhythmic driver. All this is happening back in the day when all of this stuff was still relatively new in the world of black music, remember - even more than Dirty Mind, Controversy is defining how pop music in the 80's is supposed to sound. He's showing his instrumental chops off less often than before (like Dirty Mind, the guitars are kept reigned in), but his ability to create a one-handed groove is ever-advancing. 'Controversy', for one example, thumps like nothing he's created yet, recalling Sly and the Family Stone with the perfectly-timed squeals and whispers, yet firmly in step with early 80's post-disco dancefloor culture with its proto-house beat and panting synths. Prince has also become political, not that he's turned into Phil Ochs or anything, but he's come around to explicitly answering critics who want to paint him into a corner ('Controversy', which sums up Prince's views by use of the line 'I wish there was no black and white, I wish we were all nude'), and 'Sexuality' expands on his 'Uptown'/'Partyup' alternative universe where sex-loving, velvet-suited, blow-dried pompadour-sporting artists rule the night against warmongers and 'tourists', or outsiders who come to 'Uptown' merely to gawk at the weirdos. Imagine that - people viewing Prince as mere spectacle...perish the thought! His railing against the faker tourists is especially funny ('What, no flash again?' is such a great bloody line...), but his more universalist songs are either too silly to take seriously ('Ronnie Talk to Russia' is merely a cute little rock song that happens to mention the Cold War. He might as well be singing about Coke vs. Pepsi or clean shaven vs. Hitler 'stache pube topography). For the most part, the opinions are pure Prince, and only the truly disturbing 'Annie Christian' seems to exist only for the purpose of poking a sharp stick at his audience. This frighftully sketchy, unfinished rant about, well...Satan, I suppose, somehow hinges on the line 'Annie Christian, Annie Christ, until you're crucified, I live my life in taxicabs'. Right, and the man wearing the Mets cap in the third row is actually a robot spy working for the CIA, as are Larry King, and the Austrian midget that lives in Anna Nicole Smith's lady business. Riiiiight, Prince. He may make perfect sense with his music (well, not this song, which sounds like Devo crossed with porno while drinking Drano), but sometimes his symbolism can be a little, you know...peculiar. Like how people who jam bottle rockets into their urethra are a bit, you know...peculiar.
The thickness of the sound on this record is definitely notable - for the first time it's possible for me to be fooled into thinking he's already recording this album with the Revolution on songs like the punky 'Ronnie Talk to Russia' or the smart funkster 'Let's Work'. 'Do Me Baby' is another milestone - Prince inventing the modern slow jam and spinning out conventions that are still being raided, 25 years after the fact, by newfangled 'soul' ripoff artists like Usher. Hear that slight piano right at the beginning of the verse? That's shits's been worn through more times than Brittany Murphy's druggie giggle, cochese! No one's ever done a song quite like 'Jack U Off', though, which has to be the most joyous, uninhibited ode to manual stimulation since Little Stevie Wonder's #1 hit 'Fingertips, Vol. 1' and probably Prince at his most light-hearted and, at least when compared to the often self-consciously 'shocking' lyrics on Dirty Mind, his most unabashed. He's not trying to say something profound here, make some political-via-graphic-sexuality statement, he's just trying to say he wants to jack you off, ma'am! And who doesn't like that?
Capn's Final Word: The thickness of the funk on Controversy is where the real pleasure lives, and as much as Prince's head is trying to get in the game, it's his booty that still rules.
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- Warner Bros. 1983.
He says it right there at the beginning, his apology for the perceived excesses of Dirty Mind and, to a lesser degree, Controversy...'Don't worry, I won't hurt you, I just want you to have some fun'. He may as well have said 'Get over yourselves! Shut up and dance!', because this record is intended to do not much more than that much - a double record with four songs over the magical 7-minute mark, 70+ minutes of Prince flexing his synth funk muscles to his now rapidly expanding audience. Prince realises that he's never gonna make it with anyone anyhow if he doesn't curb his mouth somewhat, or at least make what he's peddlin' a bit more suitable for the budding teenage Uptowners out there who are the real keys to his success. For a long time, Prince was a regional phenom and a critical darling, but his disastrous attempt to open a couple of shows for the Rolling Stones in 1981 was all the proof he needed that Middle America was not quite as willing to accept him on his own terms. The fact that he wore nothing but a pair of black bikini shorts while playing his light electro-funk come-ons in front of a stadium audience who just wanted to hear fucking 'Satisfaction' was probably not the brightest of ideas, either. The bottles flew, and Prince retreated back to his Fortress of Solitude to create his biggest, widest reaching work yet. 1999 is the first Prince album with appreciable contributions from members of his live band - Wendy and Lisa are here (It's Wendy, I think, who actually gets to sing the first line on the album), as is that guitar-player dude who always wore the Rising Sun headband like he's about to face Knee-Sweep Johnny in the Karate Kid, but strangely enough, 3/4ths of the album is given over to electronic funk that Prince could've just done himself anyway. After four albums of painstakingly crafting one-man grooves using (mostly) organic instruments, now that he's using sequencers and drum machines all the time, now he needs help? Bizarre, innit?
Now, 1999 is most definitely designed and arranged to be used as a party record, to be put on during the kind of cheap, gloriously fun house parties I used to host in the cheap apartment I had in college - hot, no lights, swill booze purchased from the bottom shelf of the local Spirit Shop mixed with Kool Aid and not near enough ice, and about 50 uninhibited and questionably exposed European and South American coed exchange students wiggling in the 10'x15' exposed-brick front room. For that kind of party, all you really care is that there aren't too many stylistic turns to navigate, and that the beat keeps on whompin' until the girls get too tired and have to find someone's lap to sit on (hint hint). I don't have enough data points yet to prove or disprove whether Prince makes decent sex albums (Marvin Gaye is still the Grand Wizard Champion of Orgasmic Narration, as far as I can tell), but he certainly does make fantastic fucking party records. Like this one.
As usual, Prince is not so poorly mannered as to drop us into his particular underground disco fantasy without easing us in first. He wants to check if the water is warm enough before he figures out what in it doesn't compute, if you can 'suckle' my 'neon pacifier', and I think you do. He spends the first side expertly sliding us into the groove thang before launching us at the wall strapped to a Linn drum set on 'booty destroy'. '1999' and 'Little Red Corvette' were his first major singles, the first ones that were inescapable on the radio back in those dark days of 1982 and 1983, when a Prince song sounded like instructions for interstellar craft beaming in from the Crab Nebula compared to Top 40 crap like Hall and Oates or whatever. '1999' is Prince's best apocalyptic fantasy, a party at the end of the world punctuated by the childish chanting of 'Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?' something that was definitely missed by all the dipshits out there who thought this was just another 'Celebrate good times...YAHOO!' sort of mindless dance song to be covered by KC and the Sunshine Band on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. Nope, Ronnie didn't talk to Russia as he had recommended, and the countdown has begun as far as Prince is concerned. 'Little Red Corvette' is an odd duck, a running narration of the thoughts playing through the mind of a man about to engage in some hot sex with some slut, who is apparently compared to a Chevrolet (granted, it's a more flattering comparison, and a more musical title than, say, 'Big Fluffy Buick'). Ever catch the 'pocket full of horses' line (condoms), and how its tied into lines about 'jockeys' and 'where horses run free'? That's some very thorough use of a metaphor, Prince. I heard that Native Americans use every part of a metaphor, even going so far as to use it in puns and political advertisements. Chief Blackhawk would be proud.
'Little Red Corvette' is also notable for being one of the first black songs played regularly on MTV, which prior to that time had been a total whitewash marketed towards suburban teenage male hard rock fans. It wasn't long until they realised how much most white people like stealing their style, mannerisms, and artwork from black people, and that was an oversight corrected quickly and completely in the years to come. It's also a great pop-rock song, and the one place on 1999 that uses guitars much at all. Yup, guitars and basses were pretty much sacrificed to the synth gods by Prince from 1980-1983, but somehow I just don't care. Prince is equally adept at all of them, anyway.
Side 1 completes its brilliant descent into the technoid with 'Delirious', a giddy hop tune that's descendant from 'Ronnie Talk to Russia', except with a goofy grin slapped across its face (and with no guitars). 'Let's Pretend We're Married' is a minimalist uptempo drum machine tune that easily could have come from Dirty Mind, except all he's proposing is an extended fuck session, nothing kinky - no sheep, no Miami Dolphin linebackers, no dentist drills and giant vats of gherkin pickles. The vibe that we've stopped messing around with singles and silly rock songs is overwhelming here - 'Let's Go All Night' is an invitation to the rest of 1999 as well as into Prince's bedroom.
As of Side 2, things begin to sprawl and the sense of time is lost. Does the heavy Parliament funk of 'D.M.S.R.' last for five minutes or fifteen? Who cares? If you're not lost completely by the time the jerky 'Automatic' is mostly done, that's it...go home. You need a James Taylor record and a cuppa chamomile tea, not a dose of what Prince is trying to sell you. And you better be prepared, because 'Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)' is like 'Annie Christian' on trashcan acid. Again, if you've been following the story so far, you should be immune to its affects, but lo to the man who uses the 'random' button on the CD without due care.
Even Prince can't figure out how to deconstruct himself more than 'Something in the Water', so the ballad 'Free' consciously pulls us out of the spin, but I'm afraid that's all it can do. Someone told me today that Prince pretty much didn't learn to write ballads until Purple Rain, and I'd say that's pretty much true outside of 'Do Me Baby', which was more of a slow fuck jam than a ballad, anyway (and is pretty much repeated by 'International Lover' here, except less successfully other than the fact that if you've made it through all of 1999 at a drinking and dancing party, by the time you get to this track you're already either making out with abandon or passed out on the floor with your head in a puddle of sick that isn't yours). 'Lady Cab Driver' brilliantly returns us to earth again with a street-level gutbucket funk beat and stoned, passive lyrics - he's brought us through the funhouse, but he still, goddamn it, wants us to dance. There isn't a moment on 1999 that will hurt you less than shaking ass to 'Lady Cab Driver'. Unfortunately, thus ends Prince's mastery for this album, for the last two tracks are anticlimactic at best, bored throwaways at worst. 'All the Critics Love You in New York' is most notable for containing Prince's first attempts at rapping, after a fashion. Marrying rap to a way-too-fast house beat and some squalling feedback is maybe not the right foot to step out on, possibly. Could we hear, maybe, a 'Hip, hop, hippity hip hop a-ya don't stop' instead? Or at least a 'My name is Master Rapper and I'm here to say, I love Fruity Pebbles in a major way?'
1999 is monumental, in my book, and once again as good as anything Prince had put out yet. I do have to disagree virulently with people who'd like to cut the thing down to a single disc would have improved it - they're just idiots with the attention spans of garden squirrels who can't fathom getting it on the get down for almost 80 minutes straight. If that's what they want, they can have Purple Rain. Me? I want the full treatment, Prince. You didn't hurt me one bit, and I sure did have some kinda fun.
Capn's Note: The original CD version of this cut out 'D.M.S.R.' so it would fit on one disc (like it wouldn't have otherwise?!?), which is less like cutting 'Revolution 9' out of the White Album and more like cutting 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' out of Sergeant Pepper's. Make sure you don't get this version.
Capn's Final Word: Bigger than it says on the label, and as psychedelic and twisted musically as you can hope for. Prince is one helluva premium guide through this particular trip.
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- Warner Bros. 1984
Ostensibly, this is the soundtrack to Prince's debut semi-autobiographical film, a piece of timeless cinema magic that features one hot-ass female lead (Apollonia) and some of the worst acting by a pop star since Elvis strapped on his lei in Blue Hawaii, up to and including Prince brooding in his bedroom, Prince brooding in his dressing room, and Prince brooding on his big purple Harley. Luckily, the fact that most of these songs are presented in the movie as nothing more than excuses to show Prince and the Revolution's stage act sorta nips the usual soundtrack curse right in the cradle - there's no instrumental score music here, no stupid clips of crap-ass dialogue, and in fact hardly anything that couldn't be considered seriously as a radio single. Actually, most of these songs were singles, come to think of it, and huge ones at that. For a short while in 1984, Prince seriously challenged Michael Jackson as the most popular pop star in America based on the success of this album and film, and even yours truly had a cardboard cut-out of Prince on his motorbike hanging by a string from the ceiling of my 7-year old bedroom, right in front of my poster of Duran Duran's Seven and the Ragged Tiger album cover and my picture of the 1982 Kansas City Chiefs cheerleaders. Yup, baby he's a star, and rightfully so - Purple Rain, with Thriller (albeit to a lesser extent) are the grand, 300-ton exceptions to the grand plastic bombastic wasteland that was early-80's pop music. Prince retreats somewhat from the mechanistic dancefloor meltdown of 1999 and focuses on making two sides of excellent, universally embraceable 4-minute pop songs. Even more than 'Little Red Corvette' or '1999', the songs here are band creations, and sound like they were recorded as live as possible. Hell, I've heard shows from Prince's 1984 tour and what you hear on songs like 'Let's Go Crazy' or 'Baby, I'm a Star', what you hear on the record is what they sounded like in concert - except Prince goes 10 times as nuts on his cheap little knockoff Tele than he does in the studio. Like I've referred to before, Prince took an old-school, James Brownish approach to how he trains his bands, so there's no laziness, no crutches. Despite all the electronics, somehow the Revolution makes this stuff sound like a hot live band simply using different timbres and tones than a bank of preprogrammed synths and drumboxes clicking through a stack of MIDI commands - and very, very few musicians of their generation were able to achieve that. Hell, can you name any others? I'll just have a smoke and wait here until you get back to me on that.
Songwise, this is Prince's strongest effort by far. The songs are melodic, tough, and highly textural, yet somehow balance things out with a well-considered emotional and intellectual content that's somehow above and apart what is usually considered pop fare. Like '1999's apocalypse, the opener here is simply astounding - Prince's spoken-word into to 'Let's Go Crazy', invoking the rewards of heaven and how 'in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld - in this life, you're on your own' is his most explicit (and coherent, I'm looking at you, 'Annie Christian') spiritual message yet. And Prince makes following the good path and resisting 'the elevator' (the temptations of Satan) sound like a great fucking time - and punctuates it with his best, wailingest guitar solo yet. 'Take Me With U' (yes, here begins Prince's infamous alphabet soup shorthand) is a stately, understatedly heated, relentlessly sexy groove duetted with Wendy and Lisa and a rather psychedelic string section, and leads into the semiconductor slow jam of 'The Beautiful Ones', which indicates that he was, in fact, not taken with her. People like to pile criticism on this song as the album's sole mistake - at 5 minutes plus of nothing-special synth doinking and limp beats, it's easy to make that mistake - but for me the payoff comes with Prince's singing. His falsetto of 'the beautiful ones...you always seem to lose!' is positively pregnant with loss. 'Computer Blue' sounds like a Controversy cast-off, a one-man jam married to the hard, straight ahead beats Prince preferred on that album and Dirty Mind. It's also paired with a partner, the sleazy pole-grinding, 'Darling Nikki', the deep-funk S&M tune that got Tipper's cotton grandma panties in a huge, uncomfortable bunch up around her neglected, forgotten middle aged reproductive organs. I guess Prince was as obvious a target as any, especially since 'Nikki' sticks out on Purple Rain as being the only tune that seriously threatens to be dirty. Hell, I find the devil to be more in the heaving funk beat than in anything Prince obliquely mentions about 'devices' and 'grinding' - that groove is enough to pop a fresh cherry right on its own and leave the recipient heaving on the floor in a puddle of sweat and juices. The bizarre, backward-recorded coda section is a tad bit inexplicable, but so it goes with this guy.
'This guy' is the same guy who created 'When Doves Cry', an achingly gorgeous, heart-torn out half confessional/half comeon that ranks as one of my top few favorite Prince songs of all time. Prince had the bright idea to remove the bass from the song completely, thus transforming it from a baldfaced Cameo ripoff to something more exotic and extreme - something a band like the Eurythmics would spend most of the Eighties trying to recreate. I love the relentlessness, the way the whole song crescendos to the wordless sobbing before the guitar solo, which ranks as one of Prince's most dramatic and controlled. It's the 'Kashmir' of synth-soul.
Things roll on from here to the end with not nearly the number of twists and turns that we've encountered so far - 'I Would Die 4 U' is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, an uptempo plead, and 'Baby, I'm a Star' is just a shot of pure live adrenaline. I'm not sure about how this builds up to the supposed emotional peak of the record, the centerpiece title track which I'm sure most people would probably call the 'Stairway to Heaven' of synth-soul, except nowhere does Prince invoke either arcane metaphors for mestruation or exhort you to be a mineral, and not to be like a bread product. He just, you know, acts all dramatic and such for several minutes while you're supposed to raise your lighters above your head and weep along with his really, really well-calculated chord sequence. Then he rips into another brilliant guitar solo and codas with a chant-along as good as the one on 'Hey Jude' and what-the-fuck-can-you-say-this-guy-is-as-good-as-the-goddamn-Beatles-on-this-record.
Capn's Final Word: I can't recommend this album enough. It is the way to make a modern pop record. Sure, it takes itself a bit seriously at times, but the baroque details and the organic flavor despite the microprocessors to me makes it unquestionable. A great, great pop record that should be heard by everyone. Even Tipper Gore's 12-year-old daughter.
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Around the World in a Day
- Paisley Park 1985.
Received with a deafening collective 'wha fuck?' in 1985, Prince's baroque, ditsy-brained pastel followup to Purple Rain isn't awful, but it's his first album to feel mostly pointless. The singles, however, can be counted out immediately as absolutely worthwhile and fun - 'Raspberry Beret' is the lightest and most adorable of Prince's singles so far (to be topped only by the hilarious 'Kiss' from the next year), and the remarkable clockwork funk of 'Pop Life' is as sharp as a pen-knife blade, a murderous bit of trash-talk that probably refers to one of the infinite numbers of Prince's protégés. Talk about 'giving back'...whether it's Andre Cymone, Morris Day, Vanity 6, Appolonia, or Sheena Easton...the man's done more charity work in his time than Mother Teresa. Even if most of the time it's just because Prince was either out to score pussy or he wanted to see if he can write anyone a number 1 single, no matter how hopeless they were, Prince has been extremely generous in spinning some of his best single material into hits for otherwise nobodies. (Don't take that as a swipe against the Time, who were pretty good for a short while, but once their relationship with Prince dried up, their hitmaking ability withered and crumbled faster than Emperor Palpatine's reproductive equipment). Around the World in a Day is the first Prince album where his direction seems muddled - it's obvious he'd been listening to a crapload of 60's music, beit Sly ('Paisley Park'), Jimi Hendrix ('Raspberry Beret'), Stax/Volt Soul ('America', the bluesy 'Temptation'), dub reggae ('Tambourine', which should actually be called 'Sample'), and gospel ('Condition of the Heart' and 'The Ladder'), and it's all filtered through a particularly acidic filter where the tempos drag and lounge lizard textures trundle in and out of the mix. Baroque, psychedelic Prince sounds like a brilliant idea, It's just that it doesn't work nearly as often as I want it to on this album (in fact, it'd be reworked much better on his next two or three records). 'Temptation' degrades itself from a nice blues into an aimless bit of ear-humping, complete with P-Funk-y spoken word bits and some truly disgusting sax chomping straight out of 'Wars of Armageddon', something no one needs. And I'd rather hump a beehive than attempt to wade through 'Condition of the Heart' again - this is the kind of Muzak bathwater that made mid-80's David Bowie one of the biggest minefields in pop music history. I'm sure 'America' is trying to say something, but I'll be damned if what it's trying to say is that Prince is gonna be one disappointed motherfucker if those nuclear warheads don't start dropping from the sky sometime soon - no one's made more of a career out of forecasting nuclear apocalypse since Joan Baez.
That said, no one wants to be without 'Pop Life' or 'Raspberry Beret', and 'Paisley Park' and 'Around the World in a Day' do the weird textural tribal hybrid thing correctly, and most of the time the album at least has a good beat to it, which isn't always the case for the next album.
Capn's Final Word: Anyway, Prince reminding us that he's a man and not a one-man chart-destroying machine. Perhaps it'd have worked better if he'd actually taken some drugs.
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Paisley Park 1986..
Parade is a rather weak album, to be honest, and what else can you expect from something associated with what is usually reported to be Prince's worst movie ever. (Choosing which one is actually the worst is sort of like choosing which brand of razor blades you would like to line the insides of your boxer shorts with tomorrow, but hey...Apollonia is still hot). Parade is yet another wide right turn from the screeching left turn that was Around the World in a Day - instead of burbling, psychedelic, orchestrated funk, Prince is now working with a minimalist, lounge-y sound that plays off neither of his main strengths - his playing or his ability to arrange 'big' sounds. Large swaths of this album are based around tinny, over-reverbed two-thumps-and-a-whack drum figures with either a random horn sample or synth sigh hissing around overhead. Literally, the first four songs on this record are variations on exactly that same claustrophobic, unsatisfying sound - 'Christopher Tracy's Parade' has better vocals and more horns, and 'Under the Cherry Moon' is a nauseating cabaret ballad, but they're all essentially written and performed the exact same way. 'Girls and Boys' is the first song that shows any life, and though it's still thinner than Teri "Skeletor" Hatcher's Botox-decimated forehead skin, it's got a nice backbeat and a few snazzy runs through the blues scale to give it some, you know...personality. 'Life Can Be So Nice' piles on the samples with abandon, and works simply because it's so relentless despite the same over-echoey, gated snare drum that dominated the first section of this record. 'Mountains' sounds like a Purple Rain outtake and sticks out like Shane McGowan at a dentist's convention, and does so with a glorious mid-tempo rock groove that is obscenely absent from the rest of this record. Same with 'Kiss', the big hit from this record and one of Prince's most fun and cheerful moments. The song's really just one big scratch-guitar hook, sung in the man's old-style falsetto and culminating in the classic line "I just wantcho extra tamm n' yo *jinglejingle jinglejingle jingle...kiss". It coulda come out in 1979, 1999, or 1986, and it woulda been a hit. It's so far and away the best thing on Parade, and so far from the somewhat bleak and moody feel of the rest of the album it sounds as if it was put on out of spite. 'Anotherloverholeinyohead' is also slightly less detached and, again thanks to a bluesy melody, has some soul, but it still ain't nothin' to be goin' and running up to your CD player to give it a big, juicy soul kiss over. And who wants all that dried spittle and old, cemented breadcrumbs on their laser lens, anyway? That just makes everything sound like High Infidelity, except played only on autoharps and sung in Esperanto.
Capn's Final Word: About as bad as we can expect a fully operational Death Prince to be, which is cold, dry, and oddly insincere. 'Kiss' is fantastic, though.
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Sign O' the Times
- Paisley Park 1987
Ahhh....yes, Prince ditches the crusty Revolution, which by 1986 was running on fumes with several departed members and a general sense of malaise falling over everyone, and records his second two-fer LP by himself. Thank God, because Prince operating in his own head is far more controlled than his last two Revolution outings, and because it feels like here Prince has something to prove. With Parade, especially, he had begun to slip commercially and critically, writing nowhere songs about nobody for a film that played to houses full of nothing, unless you count the hordes of cockroaches who live out their life licking spilled Dr. Pepper and squashed Jujubes off the floor. Sign O' the Times was the big return of the Controversy Prince, writing, arranging, and solo-performing a huge variety of songs: personal-sounding political meditations (title track), skeletal porno funk ('If I Was Your Girl Friend'), pure soul ballads ('Slow Love'), colossal, near-perfect mid-tempo pop hooks ('I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man', which sounds like the best song never released by Prince in 1982. He even lets the thing spin out into a bluesy coda with a guitar figure that almost sounds like Eric Clapton after awhile. It's been so long since Prince showed off his guitar talents I've almost forgotten what a soulful, heated player he can be, even when pretty much just fucking around (like here). It's also pretty funny that he count's down 'One! Two! Three! Four!' right before the final bar, considering he's playing everything himself. Who's he yelling at, exactly? Isn't it only him in there? OR HAS PRINCE CLONED HIMSELF TO MORE EASILY PERFORM ASTOUNDINGLY AWESOME FUNK JAMS? And if so, would he please find out which clone recorded the first side of Parade and put a bullet in his skull? It's okay, he's only a clone, and not a primary....and hell, that album was so bad it may have been a clone of a clone who did it. You never know what kind of quality you're going to get if you don't use Dolby noise reduction during the duplication process. Sooner of later you'll have Princes coming out so hissy and boomy you don't even want to put your name on them anymore - you just want to give them some symbol or something.
Now, I've heard people complain about the cold, dry production on this album, but I just don't hear it . You want dry production? How about Dirty Mind, or the octogenarian pussy dryness of Parade? Yes, Prince uses drum machines and synthesizers as much on this album as he ever did before, and since most of the time he's employing them in the service of vocal pop tunes rather than mostly-instrumental dance tracks like on 1999 their inherent coldness is slightly more apparent than they were on his older albums, but this album is far more connected and embracing than people give it credit for. Perhaps it's the title track, an intentionally sparsely arranged song that could be considered hip hop except for the fact that Prince doesn't rap and the song has some prominent blues guitar lines backing it up. Is 'Housequake' any colder or dryer than any other funk song from 1987? What about soulful stuff like the uber-hip 'Starfish and Coffee', that sure sounds warm and inviting to me. People need to stop bitching about the production on 20 year old Prince albums for long enough to realise this crap is astoundingly well-made. The early Prince never would've attempted these sorts of vocal arrangements, but here he is, taking everything he learned from working with the Revolution and applying it to his own stuff.
Sign O' the Times hearkened in a new era of Prince popularity (on the strength of the undeniably classy model-worship dance single 'U Got the Look', primarily) and patched up his relationship with the critics. He'd attempt bigger albums in the future (the three-hour Emancipation set makes Sign O the Times look like Surfer Girl) and some of his material would come close to this in quality, but never again would he impress quite as completely as he does with this album. The commercial, artistic, and experimental sides of Prince wouldn't ever come together in close balance quite as well as they did here.
Capn's Final Word: Alone again, Prince regroups and runs down his strengths one by one, and invents some new ones. The range of emotion and maturity on display here would make Meryl Streep take a step back.
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The Black Album
- Warner Bros. 1987
Just like Dylan's Basement Tapes, it's amazing how this album went from being astonishingly brave, relentless, profane, dark, and vicious when it was an illicit bootleg to being mediocre and frightfully inconsistent once it was released officially. Prince recorded this in 1987 as the intended follow-up to Sign O' The Times, to be released with no artist or title designation and only monolithic black cover art for identification. A single-color cover, no album name apparent on it? Does that REMIND you of something, possibly? A certain classic record released several years prior by four of the most famous and beloved musicians this world has ever known? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
That's right...Smell the Glove. Hell, Prince would put even out a song called 'Big Bottom' if you gave him half a chance. It'd suck, and therefore it'd probably belong here.
The Black Album was evidently recalled by Prince just days before it's intended release, to great expense and frustration by Warner Bros., because ol' Paisley Pants allegedly took some Ecstasy (one of his very few drug experiences, by all accounts) and had a religious experience that hinted at his soul's imminent damnation if he were to release an album as raw, decadent, and lustful as this one. It seems Prince's conscience was bothered that the Black Album was so obsessed with sex as a bodily function rather than as a function of love and spirit. Now, I'm no expert on the specifics of a lot of religious thought, much less what sort of twisted, guilt-ridden horrorshow of a belief system that goes on within Prince's head, but I'd have thought that songs like 'Sister' and 'Lady Cab Driver' and 'Head' would've gotten you a confirmed reservation to the Motel Hades far quicker than some tame panting for Cyndi Crawford. Well, whatever...to each his own. Prince yanked the Black Album, released the far more disturbing (at least cover-wise) Lovesexy in its place, and went on to record the following morally upstanding, lyrically unassailable songs in the upcoming years which show his newfound devotion to the straight and narrow to be a pure change of heart that will result in his everlasting salvation:
'Push it Up'
Okay, so he didn't turn from Andrew Dice Clay into Mahatma Ghandi, exactly. What did happen was The Black Album became the most famous album nobody owned, shooting with a bullet straight the top of the Hyperbole, Hype, and Shockingly Uninformed charts for 1987. People salivated at the thought of what might be in that dark-jacketed little den of sin. Was it so obscene not even Prince could handle it? Was it the work of Satan? Whatever it was, it was sure to be the most amazing music of Prince's career, that much was for certain. I remember some jerkoff critics even putting the damned thing on their year-end Best Of lists (above Sign 'O' the Times, no less!), no doubt just to appear cool and cutting-edge. Plus, no one was able to argue that some asshole critic is wrong that the Black Album is the best thing to come down the pike since Hendrix traded in his bagpipes for a Stratocaster, because no one had heard the damned thing! I mean, what's more unassailable than the statement, 'Man, have you HEARD this thing only I have ever heard? It's FUCKING FANTASTIC!!! You'll NEVER HEAR IT, THOUGH, SO JUST AGREE WITH ME AND LOOK UPON ME WITH AWE!!' That's some classy journalism, right there. Makes Geraldo Rivera look like Walter Cronkite.
The Black Album is none of those things it was purported to be. Okay, it was a bootleg, and it was finally released officially in a limited run in the mid-90's, but it is not the best-album-since-anything, it's not fierce, it's not revolutionary, and it's not even very listenable. It seems that Prince was more embarrassed to put his name on it than anything else, and sounds a lot like a demo a rich cokehead would toss together over a month in his home studio rather than the serious follow-up to one of the best Prince efforts ever. It's a half-assed come-on to the urban black fanbase Prince hadn't had since 1999 and hadn't given a shit about since 1979, with tracks with names like '2 Nigs United 4 West Compton', which has got to be one of the most simultaneously embarrassing, distasteful, and misguided titles to ever touch a song. In reality, that song is just an awful instrumental funk jam, but that title was a hint that Prince was just a couple of tokes out of his element here. In general, the songs are just grooves of the sort that Prince is probably able to crank out while taking his morning kick-off dump using nothing more than the whistling of his anus and the slapping of his palms against his thighs. The songs drag on and on, relying far too much on contemporary cliches (Michel Jackson's Bad album seems to be a big influence here, as is New Edition and awful mid-80's junk like Atlantic Star. If Prince ever stooped to sounding like a second-line artist instead of a groundbreaker, it's here.) of the sort Prince was thousands of miles beyond the minute he recorded Dirty Mind. Granted, Prince closing his eyes for five minutes and randomly honking out a drumbeat is still better than what most people can do with six months of intense training, but this crap is pretty lame for him. When he's not lusting after an overexposed supermodel ('Cindy C'), he's reciting some godawful stupid jive through a vocal pitch shifter to make him sound like that big black dude with the halitosis in The Green Mile. 'Dead On It' has some cool Run DMC influences, but in terms of rap, Prince still needs full pads, some training wheels, and Grandmaster Flash running behind him with one hand on the banana seat. The best two tracks are the heavily Parliament-influenced 'Rock Hard in a Funky Place' (more goofy vocal effects abound, as do kids chanting 'rock!', but there's also a slinky guitar solo and some horny horns to add muscle) and 'When 2 R In Love', a pillow ballad that, like a softer and more seductive 'Slow Love', could probably have held its own on Sign O the Times. As it was, it was rightfully deemed to be the only Black Album song 'moral' enough to be included on Lovesexy. It also fits about as well on this nihilistic beat-salad as a training bra on Shaquille O'Neal, so it was probably a pretty thoughtful salvage job.
The rest of this, truly, should be forgotten. Did you know Prince actually flashed 'Don't buy the Black Album, I'm sorry.' on his video for 'Alphabet St.' the next year? Is it not enough that he tells you not to buy it, and it's only finally released at all because Prince wants out of his Warner Bros. contract in the mid-90's. The only way Prince could warn you any more about how substandard this album is would be to belch it into the microphone on Times Square during a nationwide New Year's Rockin' Eve telecast. Now that the cat's out of the bag and the mystique is gone like a bad set of beer goggles and we're stuck in bed with this overweight, pasty beat album, it might be time to beat a hasty exit and rethink our life strategy.
Capn's Final Word: The only mystery that that black cover holds is that there are no mysteries to this album, Just a bunch of aimless, patronizing beat music.
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- Paisley Park 1988
Well, I'll give The Black Album one thing...as bad of an album as it is, at least there's something to talk about there. Lovesexy was rushed out in the wake of the 11th hour recall of Black Album, and while it's a far better album overall, it's not a particularly memorable outing and garnered only polite respect upon release. It did spawn, like, 6 singles or something like that, 'Alphabet St.' apparently being the biggest of those, but I fo' sho never heard that on the radio back in 1988 when I was desperately trying to pull in the heavy metal AM station from Topeka that used to play Metallica and Saxon all the time. Lovesexy is probably more worthy of praise than I feel like giving it - the funk is natural and played by human beings again, retreating from the exploding plastic unlistenable that was the Black Album. For example, 'Alphabet St.' is probably a better-feeling groove song than anything off Times other than 'Housequake', and 'Lovesexy' is a welcome return to the pseudo-psychedelia of Around the World in a Day. Adding to the old-school feel are the liberal quotes Prince makes to old Sly Stone and James Brown licks on the guitar part, and even old Bob George makes a quick cameo from his crap-assed Black Album song.
Otherwise, it sounds a whole lot like Sign O' the Times, subtracting that killer hook that each song on that album had, and adding in a poorly formulated concept about new power generation love children or the 1983 Green Bay Packers linebacking corps or lead paint chips with salsa or some such shit. Don't ask me, 'cause the only concept album I every truly understood was Kraftwerk's Computer World, which was about the growth of a child into a man and the Lost Chord and psychedelic exploration of innerspace with Timothy Leary. Sheeit...I don't listen to Prince for the concepts, but I do listen to him for the lyrics, and these here don't grab me worth box of used snot. Sign lyrics made me sit up and listen - what was he talking about on 'Starfish and Coffee'? Did he really have a brother that became a junkie? Did everybody really say 'Yeah' and 'Hell yeah'? These are important points to consider on that record! Here, it's just a bunch of soft-skulled paisley horseshit about 'love'. Not the kind of love Prince usually talks about, the sort of heavy-breathing, torn satin, wet spot on the mattress, ohmigodImissedmyperiod Dirty Mind sort of love, but rather a cult-centric Universal Mind spiritual rebirth kind of 'love'. The creepy kind. The kind of love that makes you shave your hair into funny shapes, eat tasteless kasha three meals a day, sell-your-belongings, and move to a compound in the jungles of Angola to hoe lima beans fourteen hours a day. That kind.of love. Luckily, it seems to be a lyrics-only issue, and he doesn't get as crassly mystical as he would on some of his glyph-boy and Knock Knock, Want Some Religion? albums in the 90's. Still, Lovesexy has a definite dearth of memorable tracks despite it's frequent listenability - it's a hackwork by a decided non-hack, a 10-page essay written the night before the class that still manages to pass, but not something he should rely upon doing over and over again.
Capn's Final Word: Tossed off and messy, though some of the grooves still have that thang. He can keep his 'love' and his 'sexy' to himself, tho.
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- Warner Bros. 1989
Now, don't get me wrong...in 1989 when the first Batman movie came out, I was 13 years old and a prime target for that movie's grimy, shadowy, sleazy charm. I think I even had a Batman t-shirt (luckily, a tasteful one with just the symbol on the front, not one of those horrid all-over print monstrosities that kids always seem to wear). Even today, it's still a fairly decent movie (despite Jack Nicholson devouring the scenery like it's his job to scream out 'HEY, MOTHERFUCKERS!! I'm JACK NICHOLSON and not only am I IN THIS FUCKING MOVIE, I'm also FIRST ON THE BILL, EVEN BEFORE THE GUY PLAYING BATMAN!! SWALLOW THAT DOWN WITH A BUCKET OF VOMIT, WILL YA?)', bit it always boggled me to no end how Prince did the soundtrack for it. It's either way too referential to the film for it's own good (what's 'Batdance' but just a bunch of sound bites?), or it has nothing to do with it at all. I can see songs like 'The Future' or 'The Arms of Orion' being used to create a mood, but what's 'Lemon Crush' but just a weird Parade outtake-sounding thing? Plus, considering Prince has made a soundtrack album that has no, you know, incidental soundtrack instrumentals on it, most of this stuff never even got put in the film in the first place. It ends up sounding like a bunch of half-written Lovesexy outtakes and 'Batdance', which is about what it is.
Enh...being that, in a lot of cases, it's either too close to or too far removed from the source material to be any good, listening to Batman now is not too fun an experience. Prince's half-efforts are still better than half-efforts by, say, Madonna (I'm thinking of the accursed Dick Tracy soundtrack right now), but they're disappointing as hell coming from someone as talented as Prince. The clip-and-snip samplefest instrumental 'Batdance' - still the only thing I can ever remember from this thing five seconds after it's over - could have just as easily been made by the guys who wrote that 'Oh Yeah' song for the ending credits of Ferris Beuller's Day Off, except there's an oddly defiant-sounding Hendrixoid guitar solo that tears through the heart of it like Prince was exorcizing the experience from his soul. Unfortunately, it goes on for another 3 minutes or so from there, and like painful foot bunions or the Wendy's Triple Deluxe, no person needs that.
I swear the rest of it sounds like a terrible rewrite of Purple Rain - he attempts to keep the variety coming, but each of the songs is roundly awful, unfinished, and totally lacking in ideas. One seems to be enough, even if that decision seems to be the choice of tempo on the drum track and whether he's going to sample his piggy squeal or steal some wholly inconsequential sample from the movie. 'The Future' is the worst of the unfinished tracks - it sounds like a demo, with undersung vocals and the same Linn drumbeat Prince has been in love with since 1983, the Sheena Easton duet 'The Arms of Orion' features neither artists' strengths - Prince's knack for snappy, tough songwriting, or Easton's talent at keeping her trap shut. Batman is now the second straight rushed-sounding Prince product (third if you count the Black Album), although a large number of people still bought it off the strength of the movie. I feel for those folks, because one thing that Batman doesn't make me want to do is see the movie again...as a cross-media advertisement it fails miserably. If Batman himself had been this distracted and unengaged, Vicky Vale would be at the mercy of the Joker's sick mind right now. Hell, with that tongue of his, she might still want to consider that.
Capn's Final Word: I'd slam it for being a soundtrack, but it's not even good at doing that much. A bunch of throwaways and side-efforts, here.
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Graffiti Bridge - Paisley Park 1990
An album I've dreaded reviewing since the beginning, and have spent 2 entire weeks putting off, delaying, putting on the back burner, and generally kicking down the curb like a rusty old coffee can, Graffiti Bridge is just not the type of album a person like myself enjoys talking about. It's another film soundtrack (to Prince's third, and mercifully last, attempt to outdo the King himself in lame movie roles), shared with semi-talented Princteges like the Time and Tevin Campbell, as well as Prince career restoration projects like Mavis Staples and George 'Star Child' Clinton (who, admittedly, gets a mere vocal cameo on the lame collaboration 'We Can Funk'), it's godawful long (17 songs and 68 minutes is just right...if you've just taken a handful of Quaaludes to help you through), and Prince seems to be using this primarily as a place to dump some tunes he's had knocking around his notebook for a decade. I'll admit that, outside the Time, I'm pretty fucking far from interested in these guest stars - Staples has a great voice, but it was probably better served on her early 70's Stax/Volt recordings rather than these Who's Zoomin' Who knockoffs, and Tevin Campbell never quite took off as the Keith Sweat II he was undoubtedly slated as becoming. Not that Keith Sweat was much for very long, either...can you imagine a soul singer named after a repulsive bodily reflex? Lionel Sputum, maybe? What about Darrell Vaginal Secretions? Usher!
Anyway, the speed by which I have resorted to making jokes based on the names of long-forgotten R&B artists should show you the amount of interest I have in this album. Listen, Prince's tracks are mostly great - 'Can't Stop This Feeling I Got' sounds perfectly like it belongs on Controversy, and 'Joy In Repetition' makes a point that there is such a thing. Prince also makes his first serious forays into experimenting with rap music on Graffiti Bridge...but all that needs to be said about that is that as an Ice Cube, he's quite a sucker. I put P's flow abilities somewhere between Debbie Harry and Fred Flintstone. At east his backing tracks are as luscious as usual - Prince has a way of cascading you with drum machines such that no matter which way you look, the groove is barreling straight for your forehead. His work for the Time ('Shake' and 'Release It' in particular) and his own funkiest tracks ('Tick, Tick, Bang!') at least justify the release of this album. The Clinton collaboration shows an alarming lack of detail and input from George, and the Tevin Campbell tracks are roundly awful. For me, listening to some 14-year old kid boast about his lady skills ranks right up there with watching the Senior Women's Golf Tour and entering a competitive tattoo removal tournament as things I'd like to do on a sunny weekend afternoon.
So the Prince tracks are at least acceptable, and the main reason this album fails is due to sheer suffocating poundage rather than a lack of effort or some obviously wrong steps, so let's just credit Prince for continuing to try his darndest to spread his success around the table a little bit. They're a fine band, but doncha think that after 10 years he might consider not propping up the Time anymore? Is he paying some penance or something? Did he run over Morris Day's mother with his purple Harley, or what?
Capn's Final Word: Diffuse and overstuffed Prince 'n' Friends collection that again survives mostly on professionalism. Some pals are better than others.
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Diamonds and Pearls
- Paisley Park 1991
The 'Cream' single sent Prince back to the top of the charts where he hadn't really had much of an impact since around the time of Parade, and I distinctly remember the video for that song being on MTV all the time while I hung out over at this girl Jennifer Estes' house smoking cigarettes, nipping Peach Schnapp's from the liquor cabinet, and watching Amanda whats-her-face make out on the floor with her skater-hood boyfriend. At the time, 'Cream' seemed somewhat cheap and obvious ('Cream! Get on top! Cream! You will cop!') compared to the earlier Prince stuff I liked so much. It was Prince 1991 doing an homage to Prince 1981, as if he was looking back nostalgically at when he used to feel free to write songs about cum stains and becoming a whore because your sister is such a good bone. Today, 15 long years later, where Jenn Estes probably has four scummy kids, lives in a run-down Kansas City, Kansas ranch house and weighs 250 pounds, and Amanda is probably a militant Lesbian vegan eco-warrior doing time in a Uruguayan mental institution, this album still feels like a cheap and manipulative attempt to return to the radio. It's all party-hardy anthems filled with high-hip-hop breakbeats and crowd-pleasing 'positive' rapping by New Power Generation member Tony Mosely, who sounds like Dr. Dre holding his severed nuts in a glass. Definitely a slow and lethargic bird. 'Diamonds and Pearls' was the second big single, a very polished slow-jam ballad with Rosie Gaines filling the Sheena Easton/Apollonia/Lisa/Wendy duet spot. 'Cream' itself relies on trashy, glammy music backing that Prince no doubt meant as an homage to T. Rex, but never rises to the heat of that band.
Though he's definitely made his share on unchallenging pop music, Prince has never put so much of it together in the same place as he does on this record. It's jarring to make your way through 3 or 4 Diamonds and Pearls songs in a row and feel next to nothing besides a small buzz of admiration at his continued high level of professionalism and calculation, but no. emotional. involvement. whatsoever. I literally have nothing against songs like 'Strollin', 'Willing and Able', 'Honey Don't Matter 2 Night', or the drooling groove-me ballad 'Insatiable' as they go down smooth, but it's smooth like a glass of warm milk, not a 30-year single malt scotch. And it's not like Prince has become kiddie-friendly or anything, he's simply made this music as run-of-the-mill as possible. The only parts I truly object to are the faster songs, because those always have that rap guy pop out at totally inappropriate moments (like during Prince's guitar solos) to spew some dicksnot message that would better fit on a Madonna record. Hell, maybe Mosely and that simmering mountain of bat guano that ruined every Sugarcubes song ever made should form a duo. They could call themselves Sugar Diamond. Or Square-cut Diamond. Or Pearl Jam. Or Fucking Shut the Fuck Up and Let the Good One Sing, You Little Pissant Sideman! (hell, it flows better than 'Minus the Bear', doesn't it?) Then I can detonate a pound of plastique under their tour bus and send their atomized remains into a high atmospheric orbit where they'll be pounded with radioactive sun rays for all of eternity.
Capn's Final Word: Prince light! All the beats, but with 50% less bizarre! Feel it run right through you.
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