James Brown may have been the hardest-working man in show business, but no one in the history of rock & roll has covered more ground than Prince. As a songwriter -- for himself and for others ranging from the Time, Sheila E., and Vanity 6 to the Bangles and Chaka Khan -- he ranks with Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Smokey Robinson; as a guitarist, with Hendrix and Steve Cropper. He was the most influential record producer and arranger of the '80s and the most influential creative speller in all of pop (though Slade came close). No artist has swung as fluently from style to style (hard rock, stripped-down funk, jazzy show tunes, intoxicated balladry, kid-pop, dance raunch), and only JB has put on more incendiary live shows. And if Prince had done nothing but stand stock still onstage and sung other people's material, he'd have locked up his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in the last three decades, popular music has produced few finer singers.
He started as a wunderkind, a black teenager from a north Minneapolis broken home (his father played jazz piano and led a trio; his mother sang) who'd taught himself every basic instrument while playing in cover bands during high school. Minneapolis is an isolated city, eight car-hours away from Chicago, the nearest large city, and with a small African-American population. Prince cut his teeth playing and listening to rock as well as R&B, and on For You, the debut cut when Prince was 20 (his bio trimmed two years off his age to make him appear even more of a prodigy), he leaned on light funk (the black-radio hit "Soft and Wet"), balladry ("Baby"), and R&B but also ended it with a hard rock song, "I'm Yours." 1979's Prince was even rockier and a lot more assured, with one hit ("I Wanna Be Your Lover," #11 pop and # 1 R&B), one future classic ("I Feel for You," a hit for Chaka Khan in 1984), and plenty else to chew on, most notably "Bambi" (a heavy-metal tale of a frustrated crush on a lesbian) and the molasses-tempo "When We're Dancing Close and Slow."
Dirty Mind remains one of the most radical 180-degree turns in pop history. Here, Prince flavored his rock with funk rather than the other way around, and the tinny keyboard hooks of the title cut, "Do It All Night," and the outrageously great "When You Were Mine" owed plenty to new wave. He also honored the title concept to the letter: cuts like the droll "Head" and the frantic "Sister" can still raise eyebrows. Throughout, Prince sounds furious, either at war ("Partyup") or with desire (take your pick), and his forthrightness marked him as a rock hero in the vein of Johnny Rotten or John Lennon as well as an heir to the soul-music throne. Controversy pushed this direction further ("Sexuality," "Jack U Off"), but also expanded his sonic palette with an increasing emphasis on synthesizers, although the best song is the most conventional: "Do Me Baby," a gorgeous, piano-led love song that features what may still be his best vocal performance.
1999 may be Prince's most influential album: its synth-and-drum machine-heavy arrangements codified the "Minneapolis sound" that loomed over mid-'80s R&B and pop, not to mention the next two decades' worth of electro, house, and techno. The first half is all anthems: "1999," "Little Red Corvette" (the rock-radio breakthrough he'd been after since the beginning; it reached #6 on the pop chart), "Delirious," the nervous grind of "Let's Pretend We're Married," and the sardonic "DMSR" ("All the white people clap your hands on the four now . . . one, two, three [clap]"). The rest is more experimental (the sound effects on the bridge of "Lady Cab Driver," the ominous textures of "Something in the Water"), although the rock ballad "Free" hinted at what was to come.
Which, as it turned out, was world domination. The movie was cartoonishly melodramatic, but the music of Purple Rain, made with his band the Revolution, remains the most accessible of Prince's career. Guitar heroics? Check ("Let's Go Crazy," "Computer Blue," "Purple Rain"). Plush candy pop? Double-check ("Take Me With U"). Edge-of-frenzy slow jams? You got it ("The Beautiful One"). And oh yeah -- an abstract lyric about a deteriorating relationship set to a weird drum-machine pulse and no bass line. That must be the hit, right? It was: "When Doves Cry" topped the charts for a month and was the biggest single of 1984, not exactly a bad year for pop singles.
Around the World in a Day, released a scant ten months after Purple Rain, proved that, just in case you missed Dirty Mind, Prince would do things his way or not at all. And miss it you might, because most of Around the World feels like an exercise in pop-psychedelia instead of a full-fledged immersion in it. Luckily, Parade, the soundtrack to the dreadful Under the Cherry Moon, Prince's second film, fitted a leaner, more finely polished psychedelia with a healthy shot of funk; cuts like the steel drum-happy "New Position" and the bushy-tailed "Mountains" were coy without cutesiness, and "Kiss" remains Prince's best single.
Sign O' the Times, made after the Revolution's breakup, remains his best album, the most complete example of his artistry's breadth, and arguably the finest album of the 1980s. The electroblues title hit was frequently identified as the source of the disc's tone, but mostly it served as a somber keynote to a wild party: "U Got the Look" is what funk metal might have sounded like if it weren't for slap-bass; the live-in-Paris "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" is more live than you'll ever be; and "Housequake" is the quirkiest and funniest James Brown homage ever. But it's his lyrics that take the real leap: "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" are among the most honest relationship songs he or anyone else has ever written, and "The Cross" works as much for the black-and-white sketch of its lyric as for its equally monochromatic music, which unexpectedly calls up the Velvet Underground.
His next disc would not be so devout. The funky, ribald Black Album is an excellent throwaway, and would have remained so had Prince not had a religious epiphany (brought on, according to biographers, by having been dosed with the drug ecstasy in a Minneapolis nightclub) and decided to shelve it. (It would be released in 1994 as part of his get-out-of-contract card.) In its place came Lovesexy, infuriatingly programmed as a single audio track on the CD version, which meant you had to take the bad ("Positivity," the Black Album leftover "When 2 R in Love") with the good ("Alphabet St.," "I Wish U Heaven"). This set the tone for pretty much every Prince album of the '90s, though the good on them is a lot better than it's usually given credit for.
Following the sleepwalking Batman, Prince issued another bad movie with a good soundtrack, Graffiti Bridge, which is interesting primarily for its guest stars (Mavis Staples, the Time, a teenage Tevin Campbell) and for the fact that it now sounds as dated as the new-jack swing it apes. Diamonds and Pearls, on the other hand, aims at hip-hop with the addition of Tony M, a rapper who cannot rap. Its thick, cushy sound is also a blatant aim for commercial appeal that only occasionally hits its target, although when it does -- "Cream," "Gett Off," the surprisingly biting "Money Don't Matter 2 Nite" -- it's pretty great.
The Love Symbol Album sounds like Prince on autopilot, but that's one reason it's a rebound from the overthought and lifeless Diamonds and Pearls. (It's also the last Tony M album, thank God.) It's the true beginning of Prince's second phase, in which his genre multitasking feels less like a state-of-the-pop-union address and more like variations on the theme that is Prince himself, who wasn't Prince anymore -- in 1993, he changed his name to the title of his most recent album, whatever that was. By now, the vast majority of his nonfervent followers were off the bus, and Prince decided he didn't like his Warner Bros. contract anymore. Bad timing, guy. His next album, Come, was blatant contract-fulfiller, credited to "Prince 1958-1993," but when he put out a single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," on indie label Bellmark the same year, it went to #1 (thanks in no small part to some heavy spending on independent promotion by Prince himself), and the fight was on. Prince was a slave, and his public would suffer.
How much it suffered tends to be exaggerated; while Chaos & Disorder, another contract-fulfiller, was obviously tossed off, its offhandedness has a frisky appeal, and it was sandwiched by a pair of more major works. The Gold Experience occasionally tries too hard, but "P Control" is his funniest and therefore best rap excursion (hint: the P doesn't stand for "princess"), while "319" and "Billy Jack Bitch" successfully resurrect his Controversy-vintage synth sound. Emancipation, conceived long before Prince got out of his Warners contract and issued five months after Chaos, is surprisingly short on filler and features some of his most underrated songs: "In This Bed I Scream" harks back to the Revolution days, while the house beats of "Slave" and "The Human Body" hint at what he could have done with the form he'd so heavily influenced. And the covers -- the first he'd ever commercially recorded -- kill, particularly a fiery take on Joan Osborne's "One of Us" and an astonishingly supple version of the Delfonics' "La, La, La Means I Love U." At three discs, Emancipation is too long, but it's rich nevertheless, and considering how many used or remaindered copies are out there, it's a bargain besides.
From there, Prince just seemed to keep sliding. Crystal Ball is three discs of interesting, sometimes great ("Crucial," the prototype for Sign O' the Times' "Adore") outtakes and rarities, plus an okay bonus acoustic album, The Truth. The Vault . . . Old Friends 4 Sale is exactly what it sounds like: contractual obligation outtakes. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic is loaded with guest stars (Chuck D, Gwen Stefani, Ani DiFranco) and not one single interesting song. Which doesn't mean it's worse than 2001's The Rainbow Children, which was sold with a sticker advertising it as "controversial," probably because no one had ever combined lite-jazz treacle with Jehovah's Witness dogma to such an unprecedented degree. That's not quite what we meant when we asked for another groundbreaking album, Prince.
After Rainbow, even diehards thought Prince was finished, but when you hit bottom, there's nowhere to go but up. One Nite Alone . . . Live! isn't perfect, but some of the rearranged older material shines, and when Prince strolled back into public consciousness in early 2004, thanks to appearances at the Grammys and his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, his new good-guy stance was still trumped by his blazing showmanship. Musicology isn't quite the great comeback it's claimed to be, but after nearly a decade in the wilderness, its solid groove and modest feel will certainly do. As for that wilderness era, maybe someday he'll let some corporate entity make a compilation. Speaking of which, 1993's three-disc The Hits/The B-Sides box is full of great music, but the sequencing could be sharper and the strict division between two discs of hits (also available separately) and one of B sides feels too neat to do his frequent tangents justice, while the single-disc Rhino collection is -- for the most protean, prolific, and brilliant artist of his generation -- completely useless. (Michaelangelo Matos)
From 2004's The New Rolling Stone Album Guide