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Discussions: Prince

By Jason Hirschhorn & Jack Spearing; October 25, 2011 at 5:20 PM 

Prince

In this latest installment of our ongoing Discussions series, our writers chat about one of the most talented, grandiose performers of our time: Prince.

JASON HIRSCHHORN: And here we have Prince, one of the most documented, confusing, and prolific artists in 20th century popular music. Of all the rich volumes in the Prince library, which is your favorite?

JACK SPEARING: If I’m honest, it has to be Purple Rain. No matter how deep I stray into Prince’s discography, I always end up coming back to it, simply because it’s flawless from start to finish. Almost every track sounds like a single, and in amongst them you’ve got the full gamut of Prince’s abilities and personality – quasi-religious overtones, deranged, foot-stomping funk-pop, overblown power ballads, oozing sexuality – it’s all there. What’s most amazing about it for me though is that it has this almost casual, throwaway quality, like it was incredibly easy for him to make. He wants to crossover to mainstream audiences and be a rock star. So he does. He wants to write a nine-minute epic. So he does. He realises something’s missing, so he writes the best song on the album (“When Doves Cry”) in a single night, throws in a few virtuoso guitar parts, takes out the bass, and bang: it’s done. The whole thing feels like he took a doodle scrawled on a napkin, and turned it into the Sistine Chapel. Not only that, but it’s one of the few albums where, despite the melodrama, you actually believe what he’s singing – he has gone crazy, he would die for you, he is a star. Sign O’ the Times has a lot to offer, but for me it just can’t compete with the exuberance of Purple Rain. Where do you stand on the matter of favourites?

JASON: I stand very firmly in a different camp. I contend that not only is Prince’s best album 1999, but that it’s the best album of the entire 1980s. I voted for it as such in One Thirty BPM’s list of the best 80s albums, and was shocked that it featured so low on that list. At any rate, 1999 is the album where Prince became Prince. He’d made great album’s before (certainly Dirty Mind for which a best Prince album case can be made), but until 1999 Prince’s persona on record was that of a weird, R&B-obsessed, horny misfit. What he would become – the sexually tortured, genre-crushing eclectic – emerged on 1999. All of the great Prince hallmarks are apparent in just the first three tracks: the “live for today and only today” party aesthetics of the opening title track, the savior of women on “Little Red Corvette,” and the disoriented sexual overdrive of “Delirious.” The whole album is full of Prince exploring not only these aspects of his persona, but some of the catchiest funk and pop of his career.

JACK: This is why picking favourites is always a bit of a blind alley. It pits fellow fans against each other when, if we all just stood back and took a more considered, pluralist approach, we’d see that we’re all in the same camp. While I’d hesitate to call it the best album of the 80s (for me that honour must fall to Remain in Light), I’d agree that 1999 certainly has its merits, and that it’s definitely the point where Prince began roaming outside of his usual territory, unafraid of alienating the fanbase he’d gathered up to that point. I feel like most of the substance, the real texture of that album was overlooked because of too much focus on the title track – it became like some ill-considered sci-fi film that hadn’t set itself far enough in the future, to the point where people were just waiting for the real 1999 so they could play the song at the dawn of a new era. The apocalyptic lyrics lurking under the surface got a little lost amongst the Millennialism. What I really liked about 1999 though is the experimental thread that runs through so much of what Prince does, which comes as a surprise after the patchiness of Controversy and the stark focus of Dirty Mind. It’s almost self-indulgent, but he gets away with it because there’s such a wealth of ideas underlying it all – like the dark, scratchy little beat in “All the Critics Love U in New York,” and because he’s more than willing to throw in a couple of luxuriously long pure funk numbers, as well as a certain amount of irony. It feels closer to the squelchy, George Clinton/Bernie Worrell side of funk to me. I think the fact that he really found his niche here is down to his move, like Brian Wilson or Stevie Wonder before him, from musician to producer, his increasing mastery of the studio, not to mention his emergence as a bit of a musical control freak. Dirty Mind makes for an interesting comparison because it’s a lot more unified, and cleaner, in a musical sense, if not a sexual one. It sounds crystalline, almost minimal.

I’m intrigued though. Do you still like Purple Rain or do you think it’s been overrated, loath as I am to use that word?

JASON: I couldn’t agree more with your point about Prince’s mastery of the studio playing a large role in his musical evolution. Granted he had produced his albums his whole career, but on 1999 Prince really came into his own in that capacity.

As for my opinion of Purple Rain, I don’t see it as overrated. All the tracks are great, and it certainly has a more “relaxed” feel by Prince standards. I couldn’t denigrate anyone for rating it his best album. It’s among the several albums by Prince that all have strong cases for being his greatest LP. That Prince was as prolific as he was and as consistent as he was during the 80s is something I often struggle to wrap my head around.

JACK: Before we talk about Prince’s most prolific moment, namely Sign O’ The Times, I know you’re a fan of some of his later output – so what would you say his best non-80s album is for you? I can’t say I’m a fan of much past Diamonds and Pearls, myself – to me it all gets a little bit too relaxed, too loose. I’m sure it’s an acquired taste, but once the New Power Generation show up and then makes his strange foray into the world of TAFKAP, switching between acoustic and electric all the time, I think he really goes off the boil.

JASON: The New Power Generation was an entirely different creature from the Revolution. Technically speaking they allowed Prince to do even more, though they lacked the charm and personality of the Revolution. Certainly, the collection of albums Prince made with the NPG weren’t as strong as those he had done previously, but part of that was Prince’s growing inability to edit his own work. The downside of having near complete control over the creative process as we discussed earlier is that there’s nobody to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Such was the case at times with the NPG.

That said, the Love Symbol Album (or whatever you prefer to call it), should be considered alongside with Prince’s best work. What’s noticeable from the get-go on that album is how much heavier and textured the rhythm section is as compared to Prince’s 80s releases. It seemed like Prince was making a deliberate effort to reclaim the R&B audience that had left him as he became a pop superstar in his post-Purple Rain period. Prince never got closer to sounding like James Brown than he did on “Sexy M.F.,” and he certainly never created a more honest personal anthem than “My Name Is Prince.” It’s just a joyful album, and for my money the last great Prince album.

Where do you stand on his best non-80s work, and why don’t you care for so much of it?

JACK: If you forced me to pick a non-80s album, I’d have to cheat and go for something like his self-titled 1979 release. I tend to go along with Simon Pegg’s approach in Shaun Of The Dead: if it’s after 1990, you throw it at the head of a zombie, because that’s all its good for. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh, but I feel that if you carry on listening to every single Prince release you end up with the same problem as him, which as you rightly point out, is a lack of self-awareness. Where do you draw the line between what’s truly classic and just mediocre autopilot-Prince? There has to be a cut-off point somewhere, and I tend towards the purist side of things – unless a Prince album is good all the way through, to me its non-essential. The control freak aspect of things is interesting as well, and I can’t really listen to Prince’s more recent material without thinking of Kevin Smith’s revelations about the man’s eccentricities. I saw in another discussion feature about Sigur Rós that the band were compared to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, because of the glacial pace of their music, which really struck me as apt, because I’ve often thought of Prince as a kind of musical Kubrick – thoroughly entertaining, yet reclusive, perfectionist, a little odd, sticking to a particular style but becoming more bloated and long-winded with the passage of time. He certainly returned to his R&B roots but at the cost of sacrificing the innovation and eclecticism that characterised something like Sign O’ The Times. How do you feel about that album? To me it feels like the most “complete” Prince release, if not necessarily the best.

In terms of backing groups, with The Revolution it felt like there was a bit more give and take between Prince and the band, (although maybe that’s just the Purple Rain movie clouding my memory!) whereas later material feels very much as though everyone is there purely at Prince’s behest and to serve his needs alone. In spite of my reservations, there’s also a great deal to be said for listening to the post-80s material out of pure curiosity, or for a kind of novelty value, if that’s not too derogatory a term to use. Even if I don’t particularly care for the songs, there’s always some bizarre little sound or amazingly convoluted groove in amongst it all. From what I have listened to though, I’d definitely agree that the sound becomes richer, there’s a lot less space in it. He showed that he could create a meaningful dialogue with inspirational figures from the past without sacrificing too much of his own style. On that note, how do you think Prince compares to some of his forerunners, and his contemporaries for that matter?

JASON: I love your Prince/Kubrick comparison. Making cross-media comparisons can often be difficult and futile, but that one does make sense.

As for my feelings on Sign O’ The Times, I find it to be a scatter-shot, colossus of an album. Prince has done that kind of thing before, but the aspect of SotT that makes it unique in Prince’s catalog is how different Prince presents himself on it. With just about every Prince album from 1999 on, Prince’s material sounds as though it was written for an alternative universe. On Sign O’ The Times, Prince does the opposite; he takes on contemporary issues. In the title track alone, Prince discusses gang violence, the proliferation of crack cocaine, and the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps part of the change in focus has to do with the fact that Prince made this album without the Revolution (save for “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night,” which serves as an intentional break from the overarching themes of the album). Prince has never since been as topical.

Now to your other topic. Prince has certainly been compared to many prominent musicians: Smokie Robinson, James Brown, Michael Jackson, even a little bit of Zeppelin-era Robert Plant. However, I think his closest relative is Sly Stone. Stone’s music genre-alchemy, his focus on the groove, and his disregard for gender and racial restrictions are all über-overt in Prince’s music and presentation. What say you?

JACK: There’s a lot of material on Sign O’ The Times that has much more of that anguished, personal slant you mentioned before, particularly the uncomfortable intimacy of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which feels like an identity crisis packed into five minutes, nostalgic moments like the sweetly melodic “Starfish and Coffee” and sincere religious conviction in “The Cross,” which incidentally always sounds to me like it could do with remastering to give it more emphasis. You’re right, Prince certainly took a break from living entirely in his own world here to deal with more practical concerns. I think the slightly disjointed flow of the whole thing has to do with it being more akin to a compilation than a true album, gathered together as it was from the abortive Camille side-project and a variety of other recordings. Again, it’s one of those remarkable moments where Prince produced genius from spontaneity, as though he just found some songs down the back of a sofa.

As I said before, Stevie Wonder often seems like a natural comparison to me, possibly just because of the sheer work ethic and ability to do a little bit of everything. Smokey Robinson’s lyrical dexterity and songwriting craft definitely shine through, sometimes to the point of lifting whole phrases like “gone to stay,” and James Brown’s pure showmanship and improvisational genius are difficult for anyone to ignore. The Michael Jackson comparison is often made, usually as a way of asserting the superiority of one versus the other, and while I do err on the side of Prince I still think it’s vaguely ridiculous to compare two giants just because they happened to be around at the same time. I grew up listening to a lot of Sly & The Family Stone, and although I knew of Prince’s admiration for some of the many musicians who passed through Sly’s sphere of influence, the comparison had never occurred to me. Thinking about it now though from more of a thematic viewpoint, it certainly rings true. People often point out the clear sources of Prince’s aesthetic (Hendrix, Little Richard), but I think focusing too much on them is superficial and misses the point. Besides all that, there’s the issue of Prince’s vocal style – his admiration of Joni Mitchell is well-known. And you only have to look at the shape of his guitars over the years to see how underrated and unusual his efforts in that department have been.

JASON: Prince certainly has had some wild looking guitars over the years. I’d ask you what your favorite was but given your unabashed love for all things Purple Rain, I’d have to imagine it’s the white cloud guitar Apollonia gives him in the movie.

JACK: Oddly enough I really like the love symbol guitar, mainly because it looks fiendishly difficult to play, but also because it’s a bit more imaginative than a Flying-V or a double neck. I think the guitars are a great example of how even if he doesn’t rush to embrace new technologies and trends in the way he once did, he always puts his own idiosyncratic twist on things.

JASON: So you’re saying these days he’s style over substance these days? I suppose there’s a precedent for that. He absolutely despises the internet, which he declared dead last year. He also had all over his music videos removed from YouTube as some kind of protest. Then, while in the process of suing his own fansites, he dropped a diss track to insult several users by name. I find it all very strange, as I do think there are some ways in which he’s managed to stay current. His performance at Super Bowl XLI was the best the NFL has had in recent memory, and included then recent song “Best Of You” by the Foo Fighters. He’s also covered Radiohead in recent years. He doesn’t seem completely averse to new things, just the ones he doesn’t understand.

JACK: True, but the unfortunate thing is that also seems to apply to conspiracy theories and religion.

I don’t know if I’d say it was all style over substance exactly, and even if that was the case, it’s an incredible style nonetheless. I think you’re right to highlight the live performances of the last few years. From my position across the pond, the more-or-less unprecedented string of twenty one consecutive gigs at the O2 arena, which isn’t exactly an intimate venue, was incredibly impressive. Or at least it would be if Prince didn’t keep taking the bootlegs (do we still call them that in this day and age?) off YouTube. The whole furor over that “Creep” cover shows how contradictory it is to start a dialogue with a band who have made technology a cornerstone of their work, while at the same time repressing aspects of technology he doesn’t approve of. That said, his showmanship hasn’t deserted him, and you really can’t fault someone who puts on the kind of gigs that he does, especially whilst wearing pretty substantial heels. In fact, I think I first really became aware of Prince because of his live work, albeit indirectly – I couldn’t sleep one night, so I put on BBC 6music and there was a documentary about the “Minneapolis” sound. I can’t remember who it was now (probably someone from the act he was supporting early in his career) but someone in the documentary said they would go and watch him every night purely for the guitar solos. I think that speaks for itself really.

JASON: Interesting. I’ve never considered Prince to be part of the “Minnesota sound.” For me, that’s more the territory of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Your story makes me think of the first time I heard Prince. I hadn’t heard anything by Prince until I was in high school. A friend of mine had just discovered our first reliable post-Napster download service. Consequently, we started downloading anything that was labelled “best of [insert decade here].” Surely enough, “Raspberry Beret” was one of those songs. As you can imagine, hearing that for the first time leveled me. I didn’t try to seek out more of his music until a few years with the first big wave of music store closures. One store in particular had several recommended eighties releases still on the shelves, so I grabbed a bagful. Amongst them was a purple vinyl 45 of Purple Rain. I dove in straight from there, subsequently picking up all of his 1980s albums.

JACK: Maybe there were several Minneapolis sounds – it’s always seemed like a more diffuse concept than say, Philly Soul.

Its funny you mention vinyl, because I used to go out of my way to visit the fantastic Sister Ray Records (as seen on the front of Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory?) in London just to look at some of the hilarious cover artwork. I think that’s another thing Prince learned to value from Parliament/Funkadelic. But maybe that’s just because I’m an obsessive fan, the kind Prince continues to rely upon.

JASON: I’d like to think Prince’s cover artwork is inspired by those funk albums you brought up. If not, then he’s even more narcissistic than I thought (or is there another way to interpret the cover to Lovesexy?).

JACK: I think it’s probably best we don’t criticise him any further, or he’ll have this entire website razed to the ground.

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Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Pavement
Radiohead
Bob Dylan

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