OK, there was the symbol thing. And the awful attempts at hip-hop phrasing. And the Sheena Easton thing. And the using of a certain ubiquitous letter of the alphabet (“Take Me With U,” “I Would Die for U,” “U Got the Look,” “I Wish U Heaven,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” so on) in the songs. And the spoken-word thing on The Gold Experience. And the complete redo of Purple Rain — your band versus the Time? Again? — for the narrative portions of his Sign O’ The Times concert film.
Yet, even after all of this, there are these earworm Prince tunes that just stick with us. For that, and maybe for that only, we forgive. Bless our hearts, we forgive …
“I WANNA BE YOUR LOVER” (PRINCE, 1979): It’s the forgotten hit. Peaking at No. 11 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1979, this is the song that first made Prince a star, but soon got overshadowed by his groundbreaking blend of funk, rock, new wave and soul of the 80s. The classic period contained so many era-defining hits, though, they became forever lined to their time. “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” not so much; it ironically stood the test of time better than many of his career-defining hits.
Prince, who produced and played most or all the instruments, showed not just a real knack for knocking out a catchy, danceable pop tune, but made a clean recording where the rhythms come from funk guitars with a string synthesizer lurks in the back at a tastefully low level. All this sets up his falsetto vocals, back in the day when that’s the only way he sang — and I gotta admit, he’s pretty good at that. Although the subsequent Dirty Mind earned him his renowned reputation for sleaze, the Purple One was already sliding in double entendres before then even on this single (“I wanna be the only one you come for”), but the snappy, poppy strut of the song easily bleached out such carnal thoughts.
Those with the self-titled album that begins with this song got the extended instrumental coda, where Prince noodles around a bit on a clavinet and another synth but mostly just lets the groove ride into the fadeout. His bent for over-the-top playing didn’t really assert itself until later but a somewhat reserved, shy Prince just turning twenty-one is part of the song’s charm. The aggressive, “don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be” stance would make the man starting the following year, but the budding talent phase was highlighted by this song that’s as easy to enjoy now as it was back then. — — by S. Victor Aaron
“RIGHT BACK HERE IN MY ARMS” (EMANCIPATION, 1996): You could argue that Prince never made another great record after the sprawling, White Album-level career statement Sign O’ The Times. A lengthy impasse with Warner Bros., and a weird name change didn’t exactly point to an artistic breakthtrough, either. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been moments, though, where you are reminded of everything that made him so interesting in the first place — and this (along with last year’s 20Ten) is one of them.
Finally free of a long disputed contract, the artist now formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince went on to unleash an ocean of tracks on the three-hour long Emancipation, a project that was at least one CD too long. Still, he made early impressions count. The second track begins with a brontosaurus grind, something all the more interesting since it’s a one-man keyboard construction, and a raw-nerve desire. Everything that makes a good Prince song great.
Sure, he almost screws it up with a tepid rap, part of a blessedly brief flirtation with the genre. But on an over-long 36-song album that eventually devolved into one too many cover tunes, and far too many boudoir ballads, Prince still found a way to make one of his most complete late-career stabs at finding his old groove again. — Nick DeRiso
“JACK U OFF (CONTROVERSY, 1981) I remember reading articles in Rolling Stone about this guy named Prince. They said he played all of the instruments on his records, played a mean guitar, and put on a killer live show … something about a cross between James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. What that would sound like was something I tossed around between my ears, the idea never really coming into focus.
Then one night I’m driving home from a friend’s house with the stereo tuned to WJUL, the University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) radio station. This naughty little come-on shoots from the speakers, a hilarious funked-up rave-up about mutual masturbation — “Jack U Off.” Somehow, I knew it had to be this Prince guy. The song is the final track from Controversy, the follow up to what many consider to be his first great album, Dirty Mind. At that point in time, I knew nothing about the man (except for those articles) but this song just knocked me out with its brilliant mashup of rock, funk, and New Wave. From the loopy main riff to the way-cool descending vocal on the chorus, there were enough hooks in a little over three minutes to make the song an instant earwurm.
This all reminds me of the Greil Marcus book Stranded, a collection of essays from various writers about their “desert island” discs. Dave Marsh put together an album called Onan’s Greatest Hits — basically, a bunch of songs about masturbation. Hell, give Prince a few more years and you’d be able to make your own Prince/Onan mixtape. — Mark Saleski
“SIGN O’ THE TIMES” (SIGN O’ THE TIMES, 1987): Returning to the self-contained brilliance of his earliest works, Sign O’ the Times is Prince’s finest moment, a staggering display of command across every important popular music genre of the day — and of this one — from funk and soul, to dance and rock, as well as electronic, pop and jazz. (Leaving aside, of course, the Sheena Easton thing.) And the album’s crowning achievement is its gritty, topical title track, recorded almost all alone. I still don’t know how you get something this grease-popping funky out of the stock settings on a Fairlight keyboard.
Of course “Sign O’ the Times,” ranked No. 299 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, remains strikingly contemporary, too. We are no closer today to solving the enduring riddles of war, drug abuse and AIDS — not to mention rocketships falling from the sky — than we were back then. More interestingly, Prince’s musical palette on this record, in many ways, echoes the same this-just-in relevancy.
Sign O’ the Times sounds a lot like the hit music of today. Only better. — Nick DeRiso
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