Purple Rain came out in 1984, four years before I was born. By the music industry’s standards, that makes it an ancient album, a snapshot of a long-past moment in time when synths were still new and pop was in the midst of a cultural revival. It would be easy to group Purple Rain in with other dated albums under the “totally 80s” banner; in fact, seeing as how Prince’s most recent releases haven’t exactly taken the musical world by storm, it might seem appropriate to consider his best work in a historical context. After all, who wants to dwell too long on Lotusflow3r?
Until perhaps a couple of years ago, there was a strong case for confining albums like Purple Rain to nostalgic appreciation. But in the last two years or so, artists like James Blake, How to Dress Well, and Toro Y Moi have developed sounds that blend the rhythmic excitement of funk and R&B with more classical notions of “bedroom pop” and lo-fi electronica. Meanwhile, bands like Sleigh Bells have blurred the line between hard rock and twee pop, while scores of ambient artists have turned to the techno-industrial mystery of analog-driven electronica to create songs that sound both decidedly modern and purposely dated. In light of these artistic developments, Purple Rain has never sounded more important or relevant.
Opener “Let’s Go Crazy” lurches to life like a damaged cassette tape, an out-of-tune electric organ accompanying an opening monologue that foresees Nikki Minaj’s fantastical introduction to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. About forty seconds in, drums begin to sound, and are quickly accompanied by a crunchy guitar and the first of the album’s many indelible synth lines. The song is indeed “crazy,” all of its instruments chugging along at full force until a fierce guitar breakdown at the four-minute mark that begins a classic-blues outro backed by crashing symbols and Prince’s trademark hollering. Oh, and it’s also a great dance track. Less than five minutes into Purple Rain, Prince has already thrown a bunch of genres at the wall and seen all of them stick, fusing these stylistic forms together in some kind of reverse-engineered mashup that sees jazz and doo-wop rub shoulders with call-and-response funk and heavy metal.
Track two, “Take Me With U,” drapes a country-rock acoustic guitar with synth strings as Prince croons that he doesn’t care “if we spend the night at your mansion” or “on the town,” thrusting the listener in the midst of some unexplained love affair. “The Beautiful Ones” starts off riding a slow, deep drumbeat with Prince’s falsetto and a syrupy synth line that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Washed Out track. But it builds and builds, Prince screaming: “I may not know where I’m going, babe/ I said I may not know what I need/ One thing, one thing’s for certain, baby/ I know what I want, yeah,” intense guitars and spooky cathedral organs relaying the intensity of the singer’s romantic desire mingled with his unmistakable confidence.
“Computer Blue” is all squelching synths and dueling guitar-and-piano solos, the kind of music acts like Skyramps and the Skaters seek to emulate and toy with. “Darling Nikki” marries chillwave’s laid-back vibes with a vocal performance that ends up sounding like something off a Fuck Buttons album. And then, a fiery guitar scale: “When Doves Cry” has arrived.
Prince’s most enduring classic, “When Doves Cry” is just so amazing. It takes the eerie sparseness of “Billie Jean” and makes it even more sinister. A menacing drumbeat and a single synthesizer provide the bulk of the song’s instrumentation, but “When Doves Cry” sounds remarkably full, brimming with hooks and familial passion (“Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold/ Maybe you’re just like my mother, she’s never satisfied”) and a Silent Shout-like fascination with the macabre. “Touch if you will my stomach/ Feel how it trembles inside” is perhaps the creepiest yet emotionally accurate description of love at first sight you’ll ever hear in an R&B song. Most impressively, “When Doves Cry” is a dance song without a bass line, a seemingly impossible feat that Prince would go on to replicate in 1986’s “Kiss.” However, the lack of a bass line doesn’t take away from the beat’s ability to get your feet moving; rather, it only adds to the eeriness, adding to the atmosphere by its conspicuous absence.
“I Would Die 4 You” and “Baby I’m a Star” play off the rock-meets-electro themes of the rest of the album, which makes the titular closing track such a sonic surprise. It’s tender, soft, almost like a gospel ballad (“If you know what I’m singing about up here, c’mon, raise your hand!” he sings in his take on the “Can I get an amen?” church song trope).
“I never wanted to be your weekend lover/ I only wanted to be some kind of friend,” Prince sighs. In the wake of this album’s unbridled sexuality, such sentiment should come across as sappy and insincere; it’s to Prince’s credit that he absolutely nails it, making a convincing case for true and honest love that flies in the face of the cynical anarchism of the prior eight songs on the album. It’s a flip side to Thom Yorke’s “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover,” an opportunity for Prince to eschew the hopelessness that the bleak “When Doves Cry” may have imparted onto the listener. In lesser hands, a song like this would be a veritable Hallmark card; Prince turns it into a pop classic.
“Purple Rain” the song takes two full minutes to wind down, but Purple Rain the album maintains its power long after the record’s stopped spinning. If you’ve never listened to this album before, you’ll be shocked by how modern it sounds, how it seems to have anticipated so many developments in contemporary pop music. As I mentioned earlier, Prince released Purple Rain in 1984, but this is an album that will never get old.