Head (Dirty Mind – 1980)
Dirty Mind, Prince’s third album, signified the dawn of an artist who would go on to change the face of popular music forever. Although considered an exclusively ‘black’ artist at the time, the stark electro funk of tracks like ‘Uptown’, ‘Head’ and the title track owed more to the new wave movement than the disco tinged releases previous. ‘Head’, a minimalistic tribute to oral sex, is for me, the standout track of the album. It sums up everything Prince was about at the time: relentless funk, cutting-edge use of synths and drums and sexually charged lyrics delivered with a trademark wry smile. Although at the time he was accused of stealing Rick James’ moves, a listen to ‘Head’ followed by James’ ‘Cold Blooded’ (released three years after) shows that musically, Prince was years ahead of his contemporaries. Its sexually explicit lyrics divided critics at the time, with The Chicago Sun-Times’ Don McLeese saying “[Prince] doesn’t seem to understand that wit, understatement, and style get one laid much more often than vulgarity”. Despite this crushing verdict from the Casanova of conservative journalism, Prince did go on to get laid. A lot.
Let’s Pretend we’re Married (1999 – 1982)
The last single from 1999, ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married’ encapsulates the synth-laced electro funk sound that Prince had perfected by his fifth album. Drum machines kick their way through a 7 minute long party jam, with playful synthesizers backing Prince’s voice at its most energetic and raw - while Michael Jackson was singing chart-friendly ditties and prancing around graveyards dressed like Shaun of the Dead, Prince was telling the world he wanted to “fuck the taste out of your mouth”. This album was the first peak in Prince’s career; it took the trademark drum machine/synth combination that could be accused of being almost too clinical on Dirty Mind and injected a generous helping of bass and a new backing band to create a more accomplished sound. The three minute bursts of funk-pop had become seven-plus minute experimental jams, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” being my pick of the bunch. The huge commercial success of Purple Rain went on to overshadow this gem of an album, but in my opinion it’s his best work to date.
Feel U Up (recorded 1986 – released as a B-Side to Partyman 1989)
After disbanding his backing band ‘The Revolution’, Prince entered a creative purple patch which would see some of the best and most creative writing of his career, eventually reaching a peak with the release of Sign O the Timesin 1987. It was during this period that he worked on a series of dark, sexually charged songs in which his voice was sped up to produce a high-pitched androgynous effect, thus giving birth to ‘Camille’, a character supposedly representing the dark side of Prince’s personality. Entire albums of songs were recorded and released in various forms, with Prince even deciding to pull the plug on one project after it had been shipped. Promo copies of ‘The Black Album’ as it became known, were recalled and destroyed, leaving only a few hundred left in circulation making it currently one of the most sought after records in the world. As few as ten original CDs are said to exist. ‘Feel U Up’ was one of the original Camille recordings, a relentless sexual assault on the dance floor with the enigmatic high-pitched vocal urging the listener to “let me touch your body baby/let me feel you up”. Classic tune from Prince’s most creative period.
If I Was Your Girlfriend (Sign O the Times – 1987)
This downbeat, haunting tune is Prince at his most personal. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is an achingly heartfelt plea to the lady in his life (who at the time was his backing singer Susannah Melvoin), for them to share the closeness she had with her platonic friends and in particular her sister, Wendy (another member of Prince’s backing band). The Linn LM-1 drum machine taps out a lonely beat with only a sparse bass twang and a keyboard melody for accompaniment, making for some of the most emotional music he ever recorded. NME’s Paolo Hewitt called it a “hypnotic, brooding groove”, and I’d be inclined to agree. The Sign O the Times album and this song in particular also marked a turning point in Prince’s writing style; up until this point he’d had only ever addressed his relationships with women in a way more akin to the letters page of ‘Readers Wives”, this was an indication that he was maturing not only as a songwriter but as a person. An undoubtedly sad but brilliant song.
Don’t Play Me (The Truth – 1998)
Unfortunately with a lot of people, the hoo-ha surrounding the period after Prince left Warner Brothers in the early nineties and changed his name to an inexplicable symbol seems to overshadow the many merits of his career. As a fan, I’d describe the whole debacle as entering a period of creative liberation and making a valid point about the treatment of artists and their music by avaricious record companies. Others might call it ‘disappearing up your own arse’. Either way, the ‘symbol’ period produced some of the best music of his career which sadly got drowned out by a chorus of tabloid journalists looking for the next ‘Wacko Jacko’. In 1998, Prince released ‘The Truth’, a fully acoustic album available only as the bonus disc with the limited edition ‘Crystal Ball’ box set of previously unreleased material. As you can imagine the collectors went mad for it (I count myself in that band of nerds – unfortunately I was 12 at the time and my mum had docked my pocket money for trying to change my name in the school register to an unpronounceable symbol). “Don’t Play Me” comes from that album, a simple three minute acoustic tune which showcases his unquestionable ability to knock out frighteningly brilliant songs for fun. If it were any singer/songwriter in the charts today it’d probably be a standout single, but for the man who picked up a guitar and wrote ‘Kiss’ in five minutes it wasn’t even worth releasing. An exhibition of pure genius.
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