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The archetypal mystery wrapped inside an enigma, PRINCE has delighted and confounded the world of popular music for nigh on four decades. Although a passing celluloid phase enabled him to kick-start his illustrious but controversial career, the “Purple Rain” man done much the same thing with film, albeit not to the same extent. And if his acting had never been much cop, his soundtracks stand, at best, as career highlights, and at worst, glorious failures. If his ever more unfathomable behaviour and record company problems haven’t exactly boosted his career, PRINCE remains an important Afro-American icon and a hugely influential musician and songwriter.
Born Prince Rogers Nelson, June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he was named after his father John, leader of the Prince Rogers Trio jazz band, which featured his mother Mattie Shaw on vocals. One of the young PRINCE’s earliest musical experiences was witnessing JAMES BROWN in concert at the age of ten, a performer whose approach to music would heavily influence the boy’s future career. By 1972, the teenager was invited to play in his cousin Charles Smith’s high school band, Grand Central, alongside Andre Anderson (by whose family PRINCE had been adopted when his parents divorced); by which time the musical prodigy had already mastered guitar and piano, in addition to writing his own material.
The following year, the band morphed into Champagne, as PRINCE became the leader following the replacement of the aforementioned Smith, by Morris Day. Being in control was something PRINCE would make central to his steep career trajectory as he grew older, although he was wise enough to learn the ropes first. His initial studio experience came when he played session guitar for Sound 80 studios’ Pepe Willie, subsequently cutting a demo with the help of Chris Moon, who guided him in the ways of recording. Moon also introduced him to Owen Husney whose hustling negotiating skills eventually secured PRINCE a ground-breaking solo deal with Warner Brothers in 1978, allowing him comprehensive creative control over every step of the process. If this was something pretty much unheard of for a young black artist, the company’s faith was rewarded in the early 80s when, together with multi-racial backing band the Revolution, this voraciously talented musical polymath opened up both the white and black markets with his patented blend of risque pop, synth-heavy new wave, post-funk R&B and HENDRIX-influenced rock.
PRINCE’s debut effort, FOR YOU (1978) {*4}, was a fairly conventional collection of slinky soul that spawned an American R&B hit in `Soft And Wet’, the lewdness of the lyrics fairly tame in light of what was to come. While the main man played all the instruments and produced the record himself, for the eponymous PRINCE (1979) {*6}, the diminutive one brought in a cast of musicians for a more rock-based approach; namely guitarist Dez Dickerson, keyboardist Gayle Chapman, bassist Andre Cymone (aka Anderson), drummer Bobby Z and Matt Fink on more keyboards. The result was a Top 20 single with the playful funk-pop of `I Wanna Be Your Lover’, a song addressed to singer PATRICE RUSHEN, while it marked the inaugural appearance of `I Feel For You’, later a smash for CHAKA KHAN.
Following the album’s relative major success, PRINCE took his new band out on the road for the first time (in support to RICK JAMES), meeting with consistently positive reviews. Gayle was soon ousted in favour of Lisa Coleman, as the band previewed songs from third album, DIRTY MIND (1980) {*9}, the first PRINCE release in which he was given free rein to explore his frequently sexually explicit lyrical muse. `Head’ was self-explanatory, while `Sister’ rather clumsily put forward the case for incest; the music moving ever further from the R&B of the debut and flirting with synth-heavy new wave. The album’s lyrical frankness precluded any mainstream coverage although The ROLLING STONES were impressed enough to invite PRINCE to support them in ‘81. In the event, the shows were calamitous, the Stones’ infamously partisan crowd not taking too kindly to PRINCE’s soulful androgyny. That November saw the release of CONTROVERSY {*7}, an aptly-titled near Top 20 album which divided the critics. While PRINCE once again dabbled with different styles and explored human desire on the likes of `Jack U Off’, the record lacked the melodic immediacy of its predecessor. On a more positive note, PRINCE embarked on his most successful tour to date, building up a grassroots fanbase that would help make 1999 (1982) {*8} the biggest album of his career thus far. By the time of the record’s release, PRINCE’s backing band had evolved in to The Revolution (as yet uncredited) with a couple of personnel changes along the way; the questionably named Brown Mark replaced Andre, who’d departed for a solo career, while Wendy Melvoin was recruited in place of Dickerson. The set’s synth-throb of a title track gave PRINCE his first real UK success, while the infectiously commercial `Little Red Corvette’ (his first native Top 10 hit, boosted by heavy MTV rotation) proved PRINCE could write top pop material to rival any stars of the day.
While the album’s best moments could’ve probably been squeezed on to a single record, there was a marked maturity in the songwriting which reached fruition for PURPLE RAIN (1984) {*9}, arguably the most fully realised record of his career. Having already capitalised on the emergence of MTV, PRINCE and the Revolution duly went the whole hog and essentially made one long, extended music video in the form of the near-autobiographical movie. If the film’s plot and premise were fairly dubious, the soundtrack was world beating, scaling the US chart itself and spawning two No.1 singles in the loose-limbed soul-rock of `Let’s Go Crazy’ (complete with a searing HENDRIX-style guitar climax) and `When Doves Cry’. With the title track also hit No.2, the album became one of the biggest selling discs of the decade, and, if it rendered PRINCE a genuine global phenomenon, it also presented a hell of a challenge in following it up.
As well as furnishing CHAKA KHAN with her first hit in years (“I Feel For You”), PRINCE also authored the controversial “Sugar Walls” for Scottish-born SHEENA EASTON, a US Top 10 hit which further incensed the moral minority. In the event, and as contradictory as ever, the diminutive genius shunned the limelight; instead he went to ground in his Paisley Park studios and furthered his mystical musings with AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAY (1985) {*6}. Never the most communicative of stars, the mystique surrounding PRINCE grew deeper with its release, a largely esoteric collection of psychedelic pop interspersed with the melodic brilliance of `Raspberry Beret’, possibly the finest song PRINCE has yet penned. This was also the album upon which PRINCE began attempting to reconcile the carnal with the spiritual, a preoccupation which would dominate his music in the years to come. Built around a “Magical Mystery Tour” structure, albeit with funk at its crux, `Pop Life’ secured the man his next Top 10 entry.
Concentrating on his new project, PRINCE announced, BEATLES-style, that he was retiring from live work, only to later backtrack on his decision and undertake a tour in support of the PARADE (1986) {*7} album. Another soundtrack, this time for the man’s derided “Under The Cherry Moon”, the music stood apart from the movie, taking the blueprint of its predecessor as a starting point and embroidering it with pop nous (notably on the sensuous `Girls & Boys’). The record also provided PRINCE with his third No.1 single in the shape of `Kiss’, a supple, teasing funk workout later famously covered by Welsh voice, TOM JONES. All in all, the album actually contained only a handful of songs featured in the film; itself PRINCE’s unfairly slated directorial debut and not one which improved his acting chops.
SIGN “O” THE TIMES (1987) {*10} was the maestro’s most thorough exploration of sex and religion, a satisfyingly diverse double set that marked the maturation of everything the artist had been working toward up to that point. While the gloriously dirty funk of the title track incorporated a comment on the degradation of the social fabric, the muted musical foreplay of `If I Was Your Girlfriend’, and indeed the vast majority of tracks found PRINCE back on familiar lyrical territory. A pertinent one this, given PRINCE’s position at the centre of a depressingly contemporary sign o’ the times, when a tabloid newspaper takes the place of a record label. Back in 1987, tabloids stuck to lurid stories and PRINCE wrestled with his habitually competing demands of the sacred and the secular, the creative and the commercial and the popular and the P-Funk. Despite being cobbled together from no less than three abandoned projects (“Camille”, “The Dream Factory” and “Crystal Ball”) and despite its occasional selection of the obvious over the revolutionary (with a small “r”), the album is still the diminutive one’s most consistent multiple album.
Cut loose from the Revolution, he’s stylistically all over the map, heralding the title track’s end of the civilised world with uncommon detachment, reminding us he’s a visionary keeper of the flame with a pointillist funk so sinuous it almost equates drug-blighted apocalypse and desire. But then the enduring appeal of his transmogrification of JB’s-cum-SLY-cum-CLINTON groove into 80s idioms like `Housequake’ (check the proto-“South Park” phrasing), `Play In The Sunshine’ and `It’ is, depending on how much of a purist you are, questionable. `U Got The Look’ – his shutter-speed, choreographed collaboration with SHEILA E and SHEENA EASTON – lies somewhere in between, satisfying the Caucasian rock-ist tendencies he’d increasingly cultivated as the decade drew on.
These, though, were but glittering prizes next to the eroto-spiritual-idelica which PRINCE availed himself of through the album’s hyperactive drift, definitively ambiguous jazz-love ballads – `I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’, `Adore’ and `…Girlfriend’ – which simultaneously crowned him as a Casanova of seemingly limitless imagination and possibility, and a seeker who refused to relinquish a very personal vision of psycho-sexual intimacy. PRINCE was sitting on a raft of material just as radical but events conspired to consign it to hardcore fans willing to stick with him as he tested patience, preconceptions and, ultimately, ceded the initiative to younger bucks only too willing to play the game.
THE BLACK ALBUM {*7}, meanwhile, concentrated almost solely on the mechanics of sex via some visceral uncut funk yet allegedly, PRINCE considered the album was “immoral”(!) and recalled it from Warner’s German pressing plant at the last minute in December ‘87. Officially released late in ‘94, the album remained a favourite talking point for years among PRINCE obsessives and casual observers alike, bootleggers no doubt making a fortune.
Presumably his white album, then, LOVESEXY (1988) {*7} was the flipside to its predecessor’s libidinous funk, the insistent pop of the title track and a UK No.1; `Alphabet St.’, `Grand Slam’ and the uplifting `I Wish U Heaven’ all struck gold across the seas. Pity it had no room for his versions of `Manic Monday’ and `Nothing Compares 2 U’, his self-penned worldwide chart-toppers (1986 and 1990 respectively) for The BANGLES and SINEAD O’CONNOR.
Though the album sold relatively poorly by comparison in the States, PRINCE’s commercial fortunes were revived with Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) {*6} flick, a multi-million selling soundtrack which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. His weakest album of the 80s, no argument, but given the bar-setting opuses which preceded it, that’s not quite a criticism; and coming on the back of the era-capping “Lovesexy” might’ve likewise clipped its batwings. `The Future’ throbbed darkly in the knowledge that its pristine, palpitating funk carried the torch; it’s PRINCE at his most soulful, stealthy and compelling. `Electric Chair’ came close, but it’s PRINCE doing SLY STONE instead of himself. The epileptic `Batdance’ montage – a huge homeland No.1 – was his answer to the COLDCUT-style mash-ups doing the rounds in the first flush of acid house, and it proved he could’ve cleaned up with clubby electronica if he’d fancied it – but he didn’t. Oor wee Sheena (EASTON) again makes her mandatory appearance on `The Arms Of Orion’, but her talents might’ve been more profitably applied on falsetto confession, `Scandalous’. `Vicki Waiting’ plies typically purple innuendo while `Partyman’ (another big hit) and `Lemon Crush’ funk around to no great consequence. It wasn’t not going to save the world, but as comic book funk, “Batman” spun an enjoyable enough web.
If not exactly the most profound of his albums, it was certainly more listenable than the weak GRAFFITI BRIDGE (1990) {*5}, a critical and commercial vanity project disaster touted as a follow-up to “Purple Rain”. If the accompanying soundtrack mitigated some of the pain, it certainly wasn’t his best. Dated, is the adjective of choice most often bandied about by critics in re-appraising PRINCE’s last-gasp soundtrack. If anything, the record hasn’t even aged as well as its superhero predecessor. The opening `Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got’ was PRINCE doing his best KENNY LOGGINS-cum-BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN routine, and while what worked in the early 80s didn’t necessarily cut the purple mustard a decade later, its author was clearly more inspired looking backwards than he was forwards. With its lumpen R&B and tired `Times-they-are-a-changin’ theme, `New Power Generation’ was his poorest-performing single since the mid-80s. Given that the NPG were actually his new backing band, things looked grim. `Release It’ picked up the tempo with a slap bass and breakbeat groove as raw as could feasibly be expected for 1990. But it’s not PRINCE; the fact was, this album only really broke sweat when he rather charitably made way for his old pals, The Time: `Love Machine’ offered a peep-show preview of the new model, X-rated funk which the NPG would – at least initially – carry off on the underrated follow-up. Among the other guests, Amp Fiddler’s “Knee Deep”-like keyboards animate the otherwise disappointing GEORGE CLINTON collaboration, `We Can Funk’, and MAVIS STAPLES at least brought a bit of old skool sass to `Melody Cool’.
`Thieves In The Temple’ was the big single, and while it’s not one of PRINCE’s most memorable, at least it’s got a hook, something which – for all their neo-psychedelic promise and impressive guitar work – the likes of `Joy In Repetition’ and `The Question Of U’ lack. Even more ominous than the cloying production and half-written songs was the sleeve artwork: a pallid-looking PRINCE sporting a “symbol” earring. In terms of the identity crises and creative freefall to come, the graffiti wasn’t so much on the bridge as already on the wall.
Thankfully (bar 1996’s “Girl 6” collection), PRINCE let up on his film aspirations in subsequent years, though his musical output didn’t seem to have benefitted from missing the reels that much. Nevertheless, the 90s re-started on a high note with the massive DIAMONDS AND PEARLS (1991) {*7} album, credited to Prince & The New Power Generation. This band had already backed PRINCE on his previous OST project, this time around their playing injecting a more spontaneous live feel to proceedings. The sexy strut of `Cream’ and the more intense funk lewdness of `Gett Off’ and `Insatiable’ dominated the set (a remixed import single of the former, hit the UK Top 40!), while `Money Don’t Matter 2 Night’ was deeply affecting, soul baring stuff.
Following the release of the “Symbol” (1992) {*7} album – at times a rather patchy collection partly redeemed by the jazzy leer of `Sexy M.F.’ – PRINCE bizarrely announced he was changing his name to “symbol”, followed by yet more rumours that he wished to be known as Victor, then finally T.A.F.K.A.P. (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince).
More controversy followed with revelations that PRINCE wanted out of his contract with Warners, unhappy that he was restricted to one album a year. COME (1994) {*4} was hardly the grounds to vent his sacrificial anger, as most of the single-worded titles (`from the 11-minute title track to his `Orgasm’ finale) could well’ve been branded under one other four-lettered example.
In protest, he took to wearing a mask onstage and painting the word “slave” on his face, subsequently releasing the lush charm of `The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’ (a UK chart-topper) on independent labels worldwide. Fulfilling his contract, T.A.F.K.A.P. released a further couple of largely uninspired albums, THE GOLD EXPERIENCE (1995) {*6}, CHAOS AND DISORDER (1996) {*5} and EMANCIPATION (1996) {*6} – the latter featuring a cover of The STYLISTICS’ `Betcha By Golly, Wow’ – before disbanding the N.P.G. and retreating into silence.
RAVE UN2 THE JOY FANTASTIC (1999) {*3} did little to regain his diminishing audience as he indulged himself with a cover of SHERYL CROW’s `Everyday Is A Winding Road’ (the lady herself featured on `Baby Knows’). Chuck D of PUBLIC ENEMY was on hand to back up the deep purple one on `Undisputed’, although the need for stars such as GWEN STEFANI (on `So Far, So Pleased’), EVE (on `Hot Wit’ U’) and ANI DiFRANCO (on `I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore’), proved unnecessary – sex-funk looked to be dead. Having married backup singer/dancer, Mayte Garcia, in 1996 (they had one child who tragically died of Pfeiffer syndrome after only a week), they divorced in ‘99. He subsequently wed Manuela Testolini in 2001, but they too ended their relationship five years later.
Still, by the turn of the decade things were looking up: ignore the Jehovah’s Witness sentiments and gimmicky processed vocals, and THE RAINBOW CHILDREN (2001) {*5} was blessed with enough uncut polyrhythm and pop revelation (check `1 + 1 + 1 Is 3’ and `She Loves Me 4 Me’) to suggest a new dawn around the corner.
Needless to say, the jazzy jam-centric N.E.W.S. (2003) {*3} wasn’t it (as was a handful of download-only sets), but finally, in spring 2004, the forgotten seer acquiesced to major-label distribution: MUSICOLOGY (2004) {*7} actually sounded like a major-label album (and as a transatlantic Top 3, sold like one), to many critics and fans his best since the late 80s. Musically, it pretty much carried on where PRINCE left off, instantly redrawing his wilderness period as a sabbatical that never was. Nor could his comeback’s timing have been better, with all things 80s back in vogue; as one of the few real geniuses from that decade, he once again proved his mettle with flirtatious call-and-response funk, flab-sheared soul and – on minor hit `Cinnamon Girl’ – the kind of anthemic pop-rock that radio programmers would’ve died 4 back in the mid-80s. While `Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance’ came closest to “Diamonds”-era sauce, and the SLY STONE-esque `On The Couch’ wasn’t far behind, the 40-something married man largely laid off the explicitness of old for more socially-pointed lyrics.
The revival rolled on with 3121 (2006) {*7}; the superstar was back where he’d spent most of his career, at the top of the American charts. Contemporary R&B touches lent balance but lock-tight 80s throwbacks turned up the heat: `Lolita’ and `Black Sweat’ fronted some of the sharpest, sultriest synth-rock in decades, leaving the young pretenders gawping in his slipstream. It’s official: raunchy funk was not dead.
2007’s PLANET EARTH {*6} found favour with UK’s The Mail On Sunday readers, having been delivered exclusively for the tabloid, while American fans had to buy the album through the nose. Nevertheless it again positioned PRINCE as a Top 3 artist, with the world – one could say – at his command. The triple-set LOTUSFLOW3R (2009) {*6} was a dreamier, smoother set incorporating elements of the HENDRIX experience next to the likes of funky moments with co-vocalist Bria Valente. Once again letting the newspapers of Britain deliver his funk jams to the doors of his loyal audience (what were they paying him?), while Americans emptied their pockets, the appropriately-titled 20TEN (2010) {*5} was in need of a product scrutineer rather than the self-indulgent PRINCE himself. As the spiritual superseded the sensual, the grooves on show here (including `Compassion’ and `Act Of God’) were stripped of a large dose of character that had enhanced his 80s work. Still, PRINCE could do no wrong in the eyes of loyal fans who worshipped every (well, nearly every) part of his body… and soul.
Tying the knot once again with former sparring partners, Warner Brothers, the Royal One was back with a bang on two simultaneously released sets in 2014. PRINCE never was one to do things by half, and with this pair of transatlantic Top 10 records, a million more fans had the opportunity to give their verdicts. ART OFFICIAL AGE {*7} – ged it! – harked back to halcyon days when Diamonds And Pearls graced the night-time airwaves. Electro-funk with hip hop, rap and sensual soul, the purple PRINCE was happy to resurrect his alter-egos Camille and Bob George; its best example oozing through the glorious grooves and pitch-perfect classic `Breakdown’ – surely a hit if delivered a decade ago. Whether played on Saturday night or Sunday morning, others such as `Breakfast Can Wait’, `What It Feels Like’ and `Time’, should give the green light for baby boomers everywhere.
Although not as immediate as “AOA”, the rockier PLECTRUMELECTRUM {*6} pitched the man with feisty female trio, 3rdEyeGirl – aka singers Donna Grantis, Ida Neilsen and Hannah Ford. Alongside a wake-up take of `Funknroll’ (very different to the AOA version), their fusion of freaky funk and psychedelic soul was best served up on `Wow’, `Anotherlove’ and the Zeppelin-esque title track.
It’d be fair to say PRINCE had fallen by the wayside of late; in terms of his commercial status and proposition at least. I’d be fair to say also, that his sudden decrease in sales figures were, in some respects, down to the wee man himself. Christ… would it be a crime if he just laughed off his critics in an exclusive interview? Christ… would it be another crime for him just to raise a contrived smile now and then. Anyhow, ego-maniac PRINCE let his funky music do the talking. 2015’s quick-fire HITnRUN: Phase One {*6} was distinctively retro, re-booting renaissance PRINCE by er… sampling himself – now, who would’ve thought to do that. In dire need of a hit single in these austerity-riddled days of youthful R&B/hip-hop, was there room at the chart inn for `This Could B Us’ (very `Most Beautiful…’), `Ain’t About 2 Stop’ and the “horny” `Fallinlove2nite’? Definitely, maybe. But without a sustained push from a record company – no chance. Still, the slick and street-smart purple-people-eater had friends in high places, backed on this occasion by his ladies of luv: Judith Hill, Lianne La Havas and Rita Ora – stars in their own R&B right.
Tragically, after being hospitalized the previous week after his plane was forced to make an emergency landing, the iconic legend PRINCE died of a mysterious illness at his Paisley Park home in Minneapolis on April 21, 2016. He was 57 and about to release the companion piece, HITnRUN: PHASE TWO {*7}, which was all over the internet at the turn of the year and in the Top 50 a week prior to May 6,
To be out-gunned chart-wise by his own “Greatest Hits” and “greatest albums” in the aftermath of his untimely death, the Phase Two set harked back to his 80s funk-soul-rock times; loyal fans identifying closely with `Baltimore’, `Stare’, the nocturnal `When She Comes’ and the 7-minute `Black Muse’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD/LCS-BG // rev-up MCS Aug2013-May2016

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