Strongest album: Purple Rain
Must to avoid: Batman

If you look up "musical talent" in a dictionary, chances are you'll find a picture of the Artist Formerly Known As Possessing A Real Name. This musical polymath is not only responsible for some of the most delectable funk-pop-soul-rock-disco-weird unclassifiable zoombahs in the past two decades (!), but if you weren't aware, has often literally functioned as a one man band: not only does he produce all his albums at his hideaway Paisley Park studio, but on certain of those albums he has played every single note all by hisself. His vast stylistic swath went a great distance toward breaking down the barriers between white and black pop (but only for him - the wall still stands, unfortunately); it's difficult to think of any major artist who so many musicians from so many diverse fields have complete respect for.

That said, Prince's work presents a few undeniable problems. Firstly, he bespeaks a certain obsession with carnality (to put it politely) that in the initial stages of his career might have seemed liberating, but over the course of time betrays a lack of lyrical variety that has grown stultifying. Secondly, the man is outdone only by Guided By Voices in the amount of unnecessary material he has deemed fit for release. In fact, he recently bought out his contract with a major label because they wouldn't release everything he wanted distributed to the masses; he boasted he had so many tracks in the vaults that he could simply continue releasing those as "new" albums to fulfill his contractual obligations. Now that he's on his own personal label, the Artiste has deigned to release a veritable flood of music (including at least one triple-album), all of which would be much, much stronger if he pared down the essentials to a handful of workable albums. I have done my best to track down a hefty chunk of Prince's material, but to be honest right now I'm suffering from massive overload. What I mean to say is that I'm still in the process of absorbing several of the Prince albums that I do own, which will account for my not assigning grades just yet for some of these. I'll get around to handing out grades and completing full-length reviews for all of the discs I own in due course, so don't be taken too aback by some of my brief comments.

There are a million sites on the web revolving around Prince. Stop by Yahoo!'s Prince Links. Seems that there's quite a backlash against the Artist on the web these days - take a gander at some of the Anti-Prince sites by disgruntled fans.

For You (1978) **

It's nothing short of amazing that an 18-year-old wrote, produced, and played every instrument on his debut album. Despite my low grade, this is actually a good album, and sure to go down easy on the ears. If anyone else had released this, I would up my grade a star or so, but Prince is still in his formative stages. Compared to his later work, this is highly conventional mainstream soul that sounds like a mere test-run. The major news so far isn't the upfront sexuality (which is placed in the background), but the final track, "I'm Yours", which combines soul with hard rock. The hit single was "Soft and Wet", and it's like the rest: nice enough if you hanker for late-70s/early-80s synth-soul, but gives little indiction of the talents Prince had waiting in his arsenal.

Prince (1979) ***1/2

A considerable improvement over the debut, though it suffers from excessively high-end sound and inconsistent song quality. Critics usually claim that Prince made his "rock" move with Dirty Mind, but that's not accurate - the way non-PC anti-dyke "Bambi" rocks more metalwise than anything he's ever done before or since, and several other tracks offer tasty guitar solos. The lead cut, "I Wanna Be Your Lover" is Prince's first true classic, and the next track, "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" is almost as good. In "Sexy Dancer," one long heavy groove workout with a shouted chorus, Prince unveils his taste for the wild thang with an explicitness that would only get more explicit. In case you don't get the point, he adds sex noises to track, beginning a long tradition. Unfortunately, "When We're Dancing Close and Slow," and "With You," are boring smarmy love-man ballads - Prince hasn't learned how to write slow songs yet. Hidden near the end is "I Feel For You," the other true classic on this record; it became a huge hit when he gave it away to Chaka Khan. His next few records are much stronger, but he's coming into his own on this album, and Prince fans won't be disappointed.

Dirty Mind (1980) ****1/2

He most certainly does. I've never had a sister, but if I did, I don't believe I'd sleep with her (unless it were a Brady Bunch situation in which she was only my foster sister, that is to say a girl my own age [completely unrelated save for the technical, divorce-age sense] who by accident wound up a few doors down from my room, especially if she were as hot as Marcia...shit, if one of the girls in my highschool had lived in the room beside me back in the day, right now I'd be swigging a six pack in front of the tube and cussing out my illegitimate children in the trailer park. Luckily I was a nerd in highschool, and now I'm making it, and all you cool people are losers living off welfare! Ha Ha Ha!). This stripped down funk inspired a number of people like Rick "Crackhead Sodomite" James, but I'll let that slide. Originally intended as demos that would later be laid down by a real band, Prince decided not to bother 'cause it sounded good enough already, and boy was he right. This would constitute his best-ever album if only it were a wee bit longer and had more stylistic variety. "When You Were Mine," is Prince's best ever song, and one of the early '80s sharpest singles, clearly establishing him as a tunesmith to be reckoned with. Zooming by at 30 minutes, this is one of those perfect party albums that you can slap on and no one will not dance to, and it's quickly over before anyone's sick of it. It's a bit, err, obvious to seduce that lil' sweet thing you convinced to come over with, unless kids today are much more sexually explicit than when I came of age. For instance, the title "Head", but I guess subtlety has never been Prince's forte, and lord knows he's had many more beautiful vixens than I'll probably ever see.

Controversy (1981) ****

Weird stuff. Prince's most New Wave set indulges in his wackiest fantasies and delivers the pop goods (mostly). It essentially follows in the same stylistic stripped-funk mold as Dirty Mind, only slightly more elaborate and experimental. "Annie Christian," is the most whack song he's ever written, touching on Lennon's and Reagan's assassinations, and it displays for the first time a, shall we say confused political side: "I'll live my life in taxicabs" ?!? The title track confronts bisexuality, and he puts "Ronnie, Talk To Russia," and "Jack U Off," on the same side. "Do Me Baby," was rewritten (without giving songwriting credit, natch) ten years later by a trio of ex-New Edition guys no one cares about these days, and lays the groundwork for the smarmy balladic material of proteges Jam & Lewis. Overall this album is rather unfocused, but Prince is stretching his generic boundaries, and you have to hear this set to understand just how he progressed from your average funkster to the supremo weirdster we know today.

1999 (1982) ****

The self-indulgent double album, it suffers from stretching a number of its tracks far too long, though in its favor it does display his Hendrix-derived soloing to good effect. Since in the coming year the title track will undoubtedly be overplayed to death and you'll be thouroughly sick of it, let me state right now that right now in 1998 and every year before it "1999" has been one of the classic jams of the century, and if it becomes the next "Honky Tonk Women," or "Louie, Louie," then that by no means demonstrates that it was a bad song in the first place (in fact, it demonstrates the opposite). The CD version inexplicably leaves off "D.M.S.R." (Dance, Music, Sex, Romance) instead of one of the weaker tracks like "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)" in order to fit on one disc. It contains his first big crossover hit, "Little Red Corvette," a classical Freudian example of the car as an extension of the penis. Ends with Prince inviting you up to his "cockpit," har-har. A bit too diffuse for full "thrust," but we'll leave that be for now, shan't we?

Purple Rain (1984) *****

This record is total shite but it gets five stars for pissing Tipper Gore off. No, scratch that, I'm only pulling your chain, but this did (according to Ms. Gore) inspire the P.M.R.C. Now, given that there have been far more offensive albums out there before and since (ever hear the collected works of G.G. "Microphone Up My Ass" Allin?), what's so terrible about "Darling Nikki"? Well, the reason is that this album put Prince over the top into superstardom, that's why. And it's easy to see what made this LP so popular, ignoring the film (that I haven't seen) for a moment. For the first time, Prince does not lay down all the tracks by his lonesome, but brings in the Revolution (humorous aside: back in junior high, I was hanging outside of the Malvern movie theater [$1 per movie] and these black girls were talking about "Prince and the Revelation - ooh, he good!" Note different spelling). Kicks off with a goofball sermon about a shrink in Beverly Hills, and ends with a majestic guitar ballad that would make Hendrix's Little Wing cry dove tears. Simply put, this is the man's most focused and best work, and if you aren't a convert to all that is purple after hearing this, then you must be Kenneth Starr.

Around the World in a Day (1985) **1/2

Okay, so the world's most sexually explicit pervert since Mick "Choco Bar in Marianne Faithfull's Privates" Jagger releases his Sticky Fingers, and how's he going to top that? Release his Exile On Main Street? Well, he did, but that was two years down the line. In the interim, Prince puts out two so-so albums that confuse and try the patience of his newfound fans. Admittedly, "Raspberry Beret," (Monica L.'s favorite song) is better than any single the Small Faces ever released, but little else here matches that standard. Around this time Prince must have felt guilty about all that hedonistic carnality he'd been putting on record, so he indulges in jesus-freak religious messages ("The Ladder") that might concievable be credible if they seemed thought out or at least sincere. "Pop Life," is another winsome single, but most of this is frustrating, '60s sound without '60s substance, as if he's gearing up to metamorphize into Lenny Kravitz. Ends with a psychedelic guitar workout called "Tempation," as in "I'm talkin' about sexual temptation," which perilously demonstrates that for the first time Prince's carnal liberation might be more limiting that liberating. His first (though certainly not last) serious stumble.

Parade (Music From the Motion Picture "Under a Cherry Moon") **1/2 (1986)

For a while there folks thought Prince had gone off his rocker. Well, he always has been off his rocker, but he wasn't justifying his weirdness with much good music. I suppose this one's slightly better overall than Around the Bedroom In a Night, but the minimalist funk-thumper "Kiss," isn't as great as "Raspberry Beret." But wait, "Mountains," and "Anotherloverholeinyohead," are good songs, and "Sometimes It Snows In April," (if you live in Minnesota) is a decent ballad. Otherwise this featherlight pop psychedelia puts me to sleep and/or annoys me. The sound he gets here is pretty unique - it's all high-end rococo excess, kind of like Love crossed with Sgt. Pepper's Funky Sly Stone Band, but hey, so was Queen. I haven't seen the film these songs allegedly come from, but I hear it's a turkey - the movie bombed big time, further dragging down Prince's mid-'80s career.

Sign O'the Times (1987) ****

This one is the Prince album everybody goes ga-ga over, and it's easy to see why: it's a double album. It isn't as consistent as some of his other albums (it's a double, after all) but it does cover a lot of different stylistic ground. The individual songs don't stand out the way the ones of Dirty Mind or Purple Rain did, but there are more of them. In other words, if you're a newcomer to Prince, start with one of his early '80s LPs; if you are a Prince fanatic, then this will get your jones going like nothing 'cept Sheila "Take the Morning Train," E. or Carmen "Famous for sleeping with Prince," Electra in bed, unless you're a hetero female or homo male or otherwise, not that it matters 'cuz you folks can get excited fantasizing 'bout Mr. Libinous hisself, unless you think he's a skinny motherfucker with a whiny voice (self-described). Big time news back in junior high, lots of folks my age said that they were heavily into Prince back in the day, and to put that in context, this was black pop before rap took it over completely. "Starfish and Coffee," imitates Joni Mitchell, "U Got the Look," once again imitates Hendrix, "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," is an overlooked pop classic, and a lot of the rest reminds me of Sinead O'Connor jamming with Eddie Murphy, if that makes any sense. In the late '80s crack made its destructive presence know, and the title track announces itself as one of the '80s most powerful anti-drug statements. Prince's Exile On London Calling's White Album.

The Black Album (rec. 1987 or 1988?; rel. 1994)

The infamous bootleg, containing a lust ode to "Cindy C." Not as good as you'd think, but twisted to be sure. At least it gave Hanif Kureishi a good title (who I'm doing a graduate thesis on, so I suppose I'd better "study" this album well!).

Lovesexy (1988)

A considerable regression after Sign O'the Times.

Batman (1989) **

A rush job, and for all the worse sounds like it. It does contain one genuinely exciting song, "Batdance," that heavily employs dialogue samples from the film. However, much like the film this soundtracks, the music here is all shiny and revved up with no place to go, and while it's supposed to be fun it's sorely lacking in entertainment value. The tracks are evenly split between house-influenced dance numbers and by the numbers ballads that are tuneful enough, I guess, but that doesn't prevent me from drifting off. The continued referentiality to the movie and guest cameo from Kim Basinger gives off an air of smug Hollywood insider-ness; like the film, this tape feels more like a star vehicle vanity project than anything you'd actually want around your house. I do think, however, that Prince would make a way cooler Batman than Micheal Keaton. For some reason "The Future," quotes Lincoln Steffens - "I've seen the future and it works." Well, we all know how the Soviet Union's Marxist-Leninism turned out in the end, don't we?

Graffiti Bridge (1990)

This one sounds pretty dull to me.

Diamonds and Pearls (1991)

This is one is actually quite good, and despite its conservatism, his best work in years.

Unpronouncable Symbol (1992)

Like The White Album and Led Zeppelin IV, not the real title; this album is marked by a glyph representing Prince's new handle. Despite such silliness, this is another solid effort.

The Hits (1993) ****

The copy I have only consists of Vol. 1 and 2, which means I don't have the B-sides disc. The first two discs condense most of Prince's greatest moments onto a non-stop high quality release, but of course as usual I prefer to just go back and listen to the original albums. The third disc, which I don't own, consists of material that was not on the original albums, and hopefully I'll find some way to pick it up separately. Otherwise, this is the best place for newcomers to invest in their discovery of Prince, though as I said the original albums flow much better and have lots of weird surprises.

Come (1994)
Gold Experience (1995)
Chaos & Disorder (1996)

A rush job of leftovers, and certainly sounds like it, but it's also more playful and rocks harder (more guitars) than anything he's done in years.

Emancipation (1996)

I've got this 3-disc behemoth, but don't expect a review for a while - it's quite a bit to chew.

New Power Soul (1998)

His latest release.

Reader Comments

i think u did prince some justice on all his albums up to sign of the times, that album should have gotten 6 stars, and lovesexy should have gotten at least 4 stars....the artist is the most influencial singer/songwriter/producer/composer of my time, his live shows are the best ever, complete show. hes not afraid to try anything, or explore all areas of music.....a true musical genius.

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