Spotlight On: Prince in the ’80s

Prince - Dirty Mind

In 2013, I compiled a package for Rhapsody on Prince’s 80s oeuvre.  Unfortunately, that material is difficult to access online now — not least because he removed his catalog from all streaming services except for TIDAL, so my reviews attached to those albums disappeared as well — so I’m reposting it here in honor of the late funk genius.

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This spotlight only covers Prince’s 1980s recordings because, well, it’s nearly all we have. Longtime Rhapsody listeners will be grateful – until around 2011, all we had was his 1993 greatest-hits collection The Hits/The B-Sides. Sadly, most of his output in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as side projects like Vanity 6’s 1982 debut, remain unavailable on streaming services.

Despite those omissions, our tight focus works out well because Prince’s reputation as a musical genius largely rests on his 1980s output. From 1980 to 1982, he wrote, performed and produced three albums by himself – including the double-album 1999 — each more successful than the last. Then he created a concept piece, Purple Rain, that not only made him the biggest pop star in the world, but generated one of the highest-grossing music films of all time. A resulting frenzy of activity yielded both platinum, critically-hailed work like Sign O’ The Times; and dozens of unreleased songs that made him the most widely-bootlegged artist since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. His 1987 funk excursion The Black Album, has been called the most bootlegged-album of all time. Throughout this period, Prince wrote hits for himself, like “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss”; and for others, including Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” and Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back.”

With an evocative sense of fashion that often involves high-heel boots, masks and frilly shirts unbuttoned to reveal his hairy, muscular chest, Prince remains a magnificent sex symbol. Even at the age of 54, his brief appearance at the 2013 Grammy Awards as a presenter for Record of the Year was enough to send Gotye, the award’s winner, into an effusive speech of praise while Kimbra trembled visibly, trying hard to keep herself from squealing with delight.

Prince is one of the greatest pop idols of the past three decades, but his music would function as pure nostalgia the way we might cue up, say, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” if not for his frequently tortured bouts with the meaning of sex and religious faith. These issues continue to resonate with us. We might not have the same drive as the self-described “Horny Toad,” but we’re all sexual beings. In his best work, he wrestled with his essential humanity, and often seemed torn between making love for the sport of it or as a holy endeavor. Perhaps that’s why his music seems so taboo – and yes, making songs about incest (“Sister”) and masturbation (“Darling Nikki”) don’t help. Ditties about fucking are a dime a dozen on the radio, but few artists explicitly draw the connection between sex and God.

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Remembering James Yancey, 10 years later

jdilla_by_b-plus

It’s been 10 years since James “J-Dilla” Yancey died on February 10, 2006 at the age of 32. I have written about him many, many times since. However, my initial reaction to his death remains my most honest and personal Dilla piece. So in honor of his impact on my life, I’ve decided to re-post my piece on what would have been his 42nd birthday.

I originally wrote my memoriam for freerap.blogspot.com, which I maintained from 2005-2006. The blog no longer exists on the web, but you can view a December 2, 2005 snapshot on the Internet Archive.  When I launched a second and more ambitious website, plugonemag.com, I re-posted that item along with a fresh introduction on February 6, 2007.

Now that my focus is Critical Minded, my first tribute to J-Dilla deserves placement here.

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The Black Box

How to reduce the errata of summer 2015 into a signal moment? There was Drake vs. Meek Mill, which was quickly subsumed by Dr. Dre’s Compton, Straight Outta Compton and, according to a deliciously provocative Byron Crawford e-book, Beatings By Dre. There was Vince Staples, Boogie, and the new wave of West Coast street rap. There was the rising tide of novelty rap, which initially felt refreshing and charming (hi, Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen”), but now feels increasingly noxious and cynical (thanks, 300 Entertainment).

There was the #FutureHive, which proved to be substantially smaller than the #BeyHive, but at least helped Future snag a number-one chart position for his DS2. There was the industrious Mello Music Group, and the indefatigable Adrian Younge. There were plenty of “surprise” albums, some widely discussed (Lil Wayne’s FWA), others barely noted (B.o.B.’s Psycadelik Thoughtz). And there was the usual slow bleed of fuckery: Action Bronson “dissed” Ghostface Killah, Nicki Minaj “tone policed” Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne vs. Birdman & Young Thug, Kanye for Prez, Troy Ave’s album sales, blah blah blah.

Sadly, a few of our voices didn’t make it through the season. RIP to Pumpkinhead, Hussein Fatal of the Outlawz, Capo from Chief Keef’s Glo Gang crew, Sean Price, DJ Swiftrock, Joey Robinson Jr., and Japanese producer DJ Deckstream.

The wonderful world of rap felt relevant, in a way it hasn’t in some time. Some fans have giddily claimed that this is the best year the genre has ever had, but given its forty-year history that’s entirely implausible. (Please refer to the years 1988, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998…) Still, it’s clear that it is bouncing back from a creatively fallow 2014 that neither Run the Jewels nor YG could rescue, and a four-year drought of black stars in the top tier of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart that, intentionally or not, often appeared like a whitewash.

Yet as rap increases its presence, we continue to invest in assumptions about how the industry works, how the music is produced, and how it eventually reaches our ears. When Meek Mill revealed that Drake used a ghostwriter for his guest verse on Meek’s “R.I.C.O.,” some websites were quick to follow-up with listicles, as if the practice has been completely aired out. But more remarkable was when Funkmaster Flex played a few reference vocals made by Quentin Miller for Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. He turned corporeal rumors into undeniable facts…or were they? Drake has yet to directly address the accusations, and his longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib as well as Miller categorically denied them.

A similar quandary faces Dr. Dre’s “legendary” career. He’s never commented on evidence, compiled over decades of sundry interviews and rumors, that Warren G, Daz Dillinger and Colin Wolfe produced large chunks of The Chronic. Yes, much of his talent lies in weaving strands of music, from beats made by others to interpolations of samples (some of which he claimed was original music, only to be sued later on), into a patented Dre sound through console mixing and other engineering tricks. And since Timbaland, Kanye West, and other mainstream brands are known to outsource their actual music making, perhaps we don’t need the hoary hip-hop myth that the producer makes the beat, and the rapper writes the rhymes. The first part of that is easy to let go of, but what about the second?

With little hard evidence, inconsistent liner notes, and sometimes nonexistent ASCAP and BMI credits, any number of self-promoting types that claim to scribble lyrics for the rich and shameless can attempt to sway us with unverified tales. Remarkably, and in spite of our inexhaustible appetite for any morsel of celebrity news, we’re collectively resigned to the fact that the question of authorship in mainstream rap may never be settled. We continue to imagine that rap music hails from a singular (and usually male) voice rising from the urban wilderness, speaking truth to power, even though the reality is that the genre is a black box, powering a complex and rancorous multi-billion-dollar industry, yet itself sealed from outside view. All we can do is enjoy the finished product.

Snoop Goes Pop

Two decades ago, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s ascent from Long Beach Crip to number-one debut album with a bullet and a murder charge was the target of a Newsweek cover story that asked, damningly, “When is Rap 2 Violent?” Today, he’s known as Uncle Snoop, and his wink-wink naughtiness seems harmlessly all-American. His youth football league warrants regular coverage on ESPN, while he costars with his UCLA college football-bound son, Cordell Broadus, in the documentary Snoop & Son: A Dad’s Dream. He makes regular appearances on WWE Raw, and bro comedies like Old School and Entourage.

Perhaps the most remarkable transformation lies in Snoop Dogg’s music. For millennials, he’s the dogg buried in the sand, cornrowed head wagging about, as Katy Perry sings about “California Gurls.” Smoker icons in training like Wiz Khalifa are his “nephews.” He makes EDM bangers with David Guetta and Afrojack, and offers his imprimatur to everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Dam-Funk to K-Pop stars Girls’ Generation and Psy (the “Gangnam Style” guy). His just-released album, a full-length collaboration with Pharrell Williams titled Bush, barely has any rapping at all, just Snoop crooning blissfully about big booties and THC edibles over a light disco-funk beat.

How did Snoop grow from the man who rapped on “Deep Cover,” “It’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop,” to singing duets with Willie Nelson? Perhaps the turning point was his 2004 album and arguable highlight of his post-Death Row career, R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece. Or maybe a bit earlier, when he and Pharrell cavorted in Rio De Janeiro on the video clip “Beautiful.” Ever since then, his biggest moments have had a decidedly pop tone, whether it’s hanging with Wiz on “Young, Wild & Free,” or singing in auto-tune on “Sexual Seduction.”

Nowadays, he’s everyone’s favorite uncle, the young-at-heart OG who gets a little too drunk at the family barbecue, is probably too old to know the latest rap hits, and is definitely too old to be flirting with the young ladies in the backyard. Who doesn’t love that guy?