In Which Prince at Last Wins the Battle Against Evil, and Yet Y'all Still Make Fun of Him
I know Spooky Electric say, till my dying day, but Lovesexy is the one, till my day is done.
Let me hear the choir sing: Hundalasiliah!
And if you weren’t among the chorus of amens just then, you are to be forgiven. It’s been a dark night. Many have strayed from the path. But I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, that the morning light draws nigh. The road was long and, if you got lost along the way, still we arise today to embrace you. Let’s now play in the sunshine! Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down?
We’re blessed to have a leader who can still do as he pleases off the residuals of that 1984 album that opened with “Let’s Go Crazy,” a song he originally wrote as “Let’s Go Jesus” before deciding that wouldn’t sell. (It also would have made for a pretty insipid lyric. This text will not pretend that our leader has always made the best decisions.) Purple Rain, the song, the album, and the movie, continues to be the Prince signature. He not only plays the song at every concert, he revels in it. He plays it like he has no other choice. It’s both ballad and anthem, an uncommon hybrid. And while it’s far from the best he’s written, he continues to make it his best song time and again.
We’re blessed, dearly beloved, to have a leader who has seen us, has seen himself, through the darkness, has battled temptation and sin and corporate ownership, and has come out on top. And over four nights this winter at Madison Square Garden, he hosted a victory party. He needs neither wife nor record label, and those who still joke about the glyph-name a decade after he reclaimed his given one be damned. (My language be pardoned.) Those who still want to call him the “Artist Formerly Known as Popular” can seek salvation elsewhere. Those who mock him for becoming a Jehovah’s Witness can find their own party. His records still sell; we loyal remain faithful. Over four nights in New York City, Prince presided over a celebration worthy of the Jedi defeat of the Dark Side. And he unabashedly played half the songs from Purple Rain at each of the concerts.
It was four years after Purple Rain, however, that Prince released his true work of genius. Lovesexy remains his masterpiece as a writer, arranger, and musician. The album is remembered for its Vargas-styled nude cover (so shocking 23 years ago, so tame now) and its one hit, “Alphabet Street.” But it’s the Rosetta Stone for the battles he’s waged within and without. It was released months after he pulled The Black Album from distribution. The two albums represent his sanctity and his sin. Lovesexy opens with “Eye No,” a remarkably dense song, not polyrhythmic but polymelodic, in which he lays out the battle with the dark side, the devil, the Spooky Electric. The single holds the second place on the track list, and the album reaches a midpoint climax with “Anna Stesia,” a confession that ends in chant: “Love is God, God is love / Girls and boys love God above.” (This witness, who was present at two of three concerts in Chicago on that tour, is not, strictly speaking, a religious person. But when the man at his piano, bathed in gold light, rose into the air as we in the audience sang the couplet, he was not unaffected.) Side two continued the build to the closer, “Positivity,” which ends with the most remarkable 90 seconds in pop history: Passing hints of a half-dozen more songs suggest he was so filled with ideas that he couldn’t possibly develop them all.
Prince took a pseudonym (he’s taken many) to represent the Spooky Electric. “Camille” released a few songs, a few killer tracks—“Shockadelica,” “Scarlet Pussy”—that appeared on the B-sides of Prince singles. But Camille was sure to lead us astray. In the program to the Lovesexy tour, Prince writes “Camille set out 2 silence his critics / ‘No longer daring’—his enemies laughed / ‘No longer glam, his funk is half-assed’ / So Camille found a new color / The color black / Strongest hue of them all.” The video for the subsequent single, “Alphabet Street,” showed Prince dancing against an array of floating letters. Freezing the frame at the right moment revealed the message “DON’T BUY THE BLACK ALBUM, I’M SORRY.”
The key to Prince as recording artist is this: When he had hit singles he was really making albums; now he sells albums but works like a singles artist. Five of the nine tracks on Purple Rain were released as singles. In the age of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and MTV, Prince was inevitably cast into the three-minute market. But each of his records was a guided tour through a different setting. He followed his blockbuster with 1985’s Around the World in a Day, underscoring the importance of the LP format by refusing to allow a single to be released until a month after the album’s release. Even with two of its four singles (“Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life”) making the Top 10 in the States and the album itself going double-platinum, it was seen in some quarters as a fall from grace.
The next year Prince turned away from the psychedelia of Around the World with the starkly snowblind Parade. It made #3 on the album charts and #2 on the R&B charts, but only one of its four singles made the Top 10. It was cursed in no small part by being paired with a critically panned movie (Under the Cherry Moon) in an unsuccessful attempt to replicate the Purple Rain formula. The record’s one hit, “Kiss,” has remained a staple in his concerts. (At one of the MSG shows, he pulled out a Parade surprise with “Mountains.”) But the album is staggering, stripped down, mournful, sometimes painful, and showing him getting past the (fictionalized?) ego problems in the Purple Rain movie with co-songwriting credits going to Wendy & Lisa and to Bobby Z, as well as to his father, the (fictionalized?) antagonist in Purple Rain.
The following year saw a return to the party with the double-album Sign ‘O’ the Times, an epic piece of lust, temptation, salvation, armageddon, androgyny, and domesticity. With three Top 10 singles, this was Prince’s most successful since Purple Rain, and this time came with a stellar concert movie rather than a muddled narrative.
Which brings us back to 1988 and the Black Album / Lovesexy dualism. But let’s fast-forward through the next couple of decades, through and past the Warner Bros. debacle.
Critics had been desperate to dethrone the Prince since his coronation as a superstar, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that he was truly vulnerable. He adopted a symbol as his name and wrote “slave” on his face in a ploy that was better publicized than understood. (The fact that he also put a moratorium on interviews at the time didn’t help him make his case.) The ’90s saw eight new releases, one a three-CD set, plus the official (albeit limited) release of the much-bootlegged Black Album. Five singles made the Top 10 that decade; same for the R&B charts. Personal and legal battles stretched him thin. The recordings suffered. Album sales varied wildly. While six albums made the Top 40, and all got in the Top 100, the poorly distributed The Beautiful Experience only got to #92 and The Black Album to 47. It was becoming apparent that selling albums to the faithful, rather than pushing singles on television and radio, was to be his strong suit.
At the same time, Prince was positioning himself as R&B statesman. He produced Chaka Khan and Larry Graham, and took to covering the Ohio Players and the Stylistics. He made himself into a model of how he should be treated: By celebrating the generation before him, he was reminding us not to cast him aside too quickly. Then he started making better albums. Not like they once were, but still too good to be ignored by all but the (legion of) cognoscenti. The run of The Rainbow Children (2001), Musicology (2004), and 3121 (2006), in a period where there were also three instrumental albums, two respectable download-only albums, and a live triple-CD—all released without major-label backing—marked Prince’s best releases in over a decade. They were good records, each with a couple of great tracks that would have been singles except for the fact that he was no longer a singles artist. The best-ofs released in 1993 and 2001 by Paisley Park and Rhino (both subsidiaries of Warner Bros., the corporate face of the Spooky Electric) dulled the genius of his earlier albums. Now, when he’s acting like a singles artist, his sales are by the album—when he even bothers to try to sell them. Last year’s 20Ten was only available in magazines and newspapers in Europe. Prince doesn’t need the record industry, and it seems he barely needs records.
Space constraints have left many stones untouched in this outline of the battle waged against evil. But there is a final one which, although inconsequential, merits mention. The #1-if-admittedly-incidental “soundtrack” Batman included a staggeringly cold-blooded funk called “Electric Chair,” with the chorus “If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind / Then give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.”
Our hero, at last, has been pardoned from what went on in his mind. And he throws a party like nobody else. Have the choir hit a long note!
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.