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.


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.

One of his lasting symbols is the color purple. On “1999,” he sings, “the sky was all purple and people running everywhere”; then on “Purple Rain,” he sings, “I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain.” For him, purple is a sign of God’s divine grace, whether it’s destructive or healing. No matter His/Her choice, it’s for the betterment of man’s souls, which is why in “1999” Prince literally dances his life away amidst a nuclear apocalypse.

Musically, Prince was one of several R&B artists that adopted New Wave pop-rock tropes – staccato keyboard lines, arch and sarcastic vocals — influenced by the likes of the Cars, Devo and Blondie. And he could crank out a funk party hit like Cameo and Midnight Star, too. His foray into purely electronic dance music dovetails with other innovators like Cybotron, Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Roger Troutman and many others. Of course, he’s a spiritual heir to funk’s holy trinity of James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton.

Eventually, he grew into a peerless artist that represents his own universe. Just like Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey and Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shaolin” Staten Island, Prince’s Uptown Minneapolis – later to be called Paisley Park and the home of the New Power Generation — is a real place and a figment of his imagination brought alive through his music.

Prince’s adventures in the 1980s led him down many avenues. There are the muscular guitar heroics of Purple Rain, the psychedelic pop of Around the World in a Day (inspired by LA’s Paisley Underground rock scene and bands like the Three O’Clock and the Bangles), and the comely jazz-pop of Parade (inspired by the UK jazz and nu-soul revival and bands like Sade and the Style Council). On his last great album Lovesexy, he expanded James Brown’s big band soul workouts into a new kind of funky gospel.

Since those, Prince has slowly receded from pop’s cutting edge into jazz-inflected blues, funk-rock and adult contemporary soul. Some of his stronger albums in recent years include 1992’s Diamonds & Pearls, 1995’s The Gold Experience and 2004’s Musicology. It’s unfair to dismiss these later works, as they have key moments worthy of comparison to his golden era. Even Chaos & Disorder, his much-maligned 1996 album, has the quirky “Dinner with Delores.” And this year brings a new album that is preceded by two promising singles, “Screwdriver” and “Rock & Roll Love Affair.”

But if you’re looking for the essentials from Prince’s golden era, this spotlight has them. I also included two playlists. One, “Prince Favorites,” is simply that. The second, “Written By Prince,” includes songs he’s penned for other artists as well as cover versions. Sorry, the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” and Celine Dion’s “With This Tear” are unavailable.

Prince, For You

On For You, Prince Rogers Nelson only barely resembled the purple tyro we know and love. The kittenish “Soft & Wet” portends his mastery of sexual metaphor, but with none of the humor or spiritual angst. “I’m Yours” is a great funk rock cut and maybe the best thing on the album, and if you’re in a disco mood then “Just As Long as We’re Together” ain’t bad. It’s worth remembering that he was 19 years old when he wrote, recorded and produced his debut album (with help from since-forgotten mentor Chris Moon). He was a prodigy who’d soon achieve bigger and better things.

Prince, Prince

The headliner on 20-year-old prodigy and future superstar Prince’s second album is “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” his first pop classic. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” is a likable funk rock cut, but “Bambi” is crushed by wailing electric guitar. “Still Waiting” sounds naïve, but he conjures real emotional pain on “It’s Gonna Be Lonely.” Prince is drenched in Seventies disco tropes, and the glossy studio overdubs turn it into the aural equivalent of soft-focus photography. The appealing funk grooves of “Sexy Dancer” and “I Feel For You” complete this sophomoric yet likable release.

Prince, Dirty Mind

When critics called Prince a “punk rocker,” they could have been swooning over a young tyro clad in a trench coat and black underwear. Or they could have been dazzled by a fearless lyricist that sings affectingly about a broken ménage-a-trois (“When You Were Mine”), claims he had sex with his “Sister,” and turns a song about fellatio into an R&B hit (“Head”). This is brilliantly perverse funk from “Uptown” Minneapolis, but what’s really impressive is its primitiveness. Nearly every guitar scratch and synthesizer squiggle was made by him, and there are no filters to his imagination.

The Time, The Time

The Time has lowly origins. Svengali-in-training Prince assembled these ace musicians from Minneapolis’s Uptown scene, and then played most of the music himself on their debut album, with Morris Day handling vocals. Worse, The Time included flaccid ballads “Girl” and “Oh Baby,” and the lame New Wave cut “After Hi School.” However, Prince wrote two stone-cold synthesizer-funk classics in “Get It Up” and “Cool,” and they were all the Time needed. Soon, they would turn these humble beginnings into an incendiary concert experience that rivaled the Purple One himself.

Prince, 1999

Emerging naked from satin sheets with a mascara-eyed gaze, Prince was an erotic sylph trapped in cold synthesizer revelry. No one before or since has merged funk so convincingly with technology, sexual fantasy, and existential despair. He turns into a robot on “Automatic,” sheds tears as women torture him on “Something in the Water,” and cures his depression by humping “Lady Cab Driver.” On “1999,” the sky turns purple and God rains hellfire on dirty-minded heathens, but he doesn’t care. It’s still a party, and even the rock dudes who love “Little Red Corvette” are invited to the apocalypse.

The Time, What Time Is It?

“We don’t like New Wave,” laughs Morris Day on “OnedayI’mgonnabesomebody.” So forget about calling the Time black punk-funkers; What Time Is It? is hardcore R&B from start to finish, from the in-jokes about teenage bait (“Wild And Loose”) and camisole lingerie (“The Walk”) to the pimp’s ballad “Gigolos Get Lonely Too.” Rumors swirl that it was all Prince and Morris Day behind the scenes. But who cares? What Time Is It? was a classic outing that sparked careers – including soon-to-be production stars Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis – which lasted far beyond the electro Eighties.

Prince & the Revolution, Purple Rain

How does a funk artist crack notoriously segregated rock radio? Make a pop album better than anything Huey Lewis & the News has done. That’s one story behind this wildly orgiastic soundtrack to his hit movie. It has innovations – “When Doves Cry” was the first number-one hit without a bass line – and lots of Hendrix-like guitar flash. Then there is Prince’s struggle to resolve the freakish carnality of “Darling Nikki” with his Jehovah’s Witness faith and a desire for true love expressed on the epic title track. He found peace with these contradictions as his career evolved, but on this magnificent provocation, they seem as wide and alienating as the stadiums he would soon conquer.

Sheila E, The Glamorous Life

Percussion virtuoso Sheila Escovedo was the first Prince protégé he actually respected, so she got to make The Glamorous Life with no Svengali strings attached. But…damn the 80s! In another era she might have cut the excess from this mix of neo-Romantic dance-pop, funk and Latin jazz. Every song seems too long – the classic title track is a nine minute jam session – and her whisper of a voice teeters between wry amusement and bland disengagement. But even when her songwriting can’t sustain the ambitious “Belle of St. Mark” and “Oliver’s House,” her perseverance shines through.

Prince & the Revolution, Around the World in a Day

Around the World in a Day is partly inspired by L.A.’s Paisley Underground bands like the Three O’Clock and the Bangles, leading to “Paisley Park” (the name of Prince’s then-new record label) and “Raspberry Beret.” But Prince also deepened his Jehovah’s Witness faith, resulting in the nakedly religious “Temptation” and “The Ladder.” Add in an inevitable comedown after the world-beating Purple Rain, as evinced by the exhaustion of “Pop Life,” and it all made for a scattershot album. Through it all, the Revolution still had the funk, from “Trampoline” to the accusatory “America.”

Prince & the Revolution, Parade

The Revolution was evolving into a true band with Parade. Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman’s interest in Parisian chanson and UK jazz-pop pervades “I Wonder U,” “Do You Lie?” and “Under the Cherry Moon.” Then the group added R&B to the excellent singles “Kiss,” “Girls & Boys,” “Mountains” and “Anotherloverholenyohead.” Some critics found Parade pretentious, but Prince’s fanatics heard it as a beguiling and rewarding hybrid of jazz and funk. Unfortunately, this stylistic departure is an anomaly: Shortly after its release, Prince reasserted control by breaking up the Revolution.

Prince, Sign ‘O The Times

This embarrassment of riches culls from three unreleased projects, Dream Factory, Crystal Ball and Camille. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” may be as disturbing a view of relationships he’s ever made, but it’s an exception amid bright and hooky pop-rock and funk tunes like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” “Forever in My Life,” “Housequake” and the rapturous torch ballad “Adore.” His optimism can’t be dimmed — even on the title track’s blues about nuclear war and heroin junkies he sings, “Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby/ We’ll call him Nate/ If it’s a boy.”

Prince, Lovesexy

After Prince’s traumatic experience with 1987’s The Black Album, a legendary bootleg of raw, nasty funk, he envisioned himself as a nude child sprouting in God’s garden. “I know there is a heaven and a hell” he sings on “Eye Know,” asks the Lord to liberate his mind on “Anna Stesia,” and exhorts us to accept our savior before it’s too late on “Positivity.” Lovesexy was both musically stunning and eerily inhibited, as if he suppressed his dirty past for a new funk-pop gospel. It was also a commercial flop, making it the last of Prince’s classic struggles with sex and religion.

Prince, Batman: Music from the Motion Picture

Can you imagine Prince, of all people, singing ditties about the Joker as the “Partyman” and the Batman as keeping “Vicki Waiting” while he saves Gotham? Thanks to the blockbuster movie and Prince’s superstardom, Batman sold over two million copies. Today, it’s an Eighties pop curio that sounds really dated. The epic love ballad “Scandalous” and the throbbing pop beats of “The Future” and “Lemon Crush” hold up best. However, nothing exemplifies its strangeness quite like “Batdance,” a “megamix”-styled cacophony with cameos from Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger.

Prince, The Hits/The B-Sides

Don’t worry about the hits you know by heart. The best thing about this comp is that it collects his fantastic 80s B-sides. “Erotic City” may be his nastiest, most enduring testament to sex and funk, “17 Days” is a too-pretty pop melody, “God” is a haunting benediction to the “dance electric,” “Gotta Stop Messin’ About” is the best song Devo never made, and “Power Fantastic” is an excellent demo from his mythic Dream Factory sessions. On the wackier end, “Scarlet Pussy” features Prince’s evil twin Camille; and on “I Love U In Me” he sings, “when we make love it’s like surgery.”

(March 13, 2013 – Rhapsody)

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