Prince & The New Power Generation – Diamonds and Pearls

Diamonds and Pearls

Prince & The New Power GenerationDiamonds and Pearls Paisley Park 9 25379-2 (1991)

While Prince had already demonstrated in the 1980s that his music could be self-indulgent, in the 1990s he also demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to pander.  Diamonds and Pearls is one of the biggest duds in Prince’s catalog.  It opens with a few faux-street-tough songs in the same mold as Michael Jackson‘s Dangerous (released a couple months later).  While not particularly memorable, they are at least listenable.  Then there is the hit title track, a sappy ballad that is quite mediocre.  But then, a bright spot.  “Cream” is Prince in his prime, a sleek: funky R&B song with all the ribald themes listeners expect from the man.  But from there the album drops off considerably.  The rest ranges from the bad to the cringe-worthy.  Prince is trying to fit himself (and his band) into some kind of mold of appearing tough yet vulnerable, seemingly aiming for praise for “triangulating” what the public wants. In hindsight, it comes across as an unconvincing and contrived act.  In the late 1990s Prince famously said in an interview (in which he talked about jumping off pianos) that his career was about the music not about money or the trappings of fame.  Listeners might well question whether that statement held true around 1991 though — or at other times in his career too.  For instance, Prince’s first producer Chris Moon later claimed that Prince was mostly interested in fame when he first entered the music business.

Listeners can safely pass on Diamonds and Pearls and merely pick up “Cream” on a compilation.

Prince and The Revolution – Parade


Prince and The RevolutionParade Paisley Park 9 25395-1 (1986)

Lots of excellent commentary has already been written about Parade, the soundtrack to a second film starring Prince, Under the Cherry Moon.  The film is terrible in case you are wondering.  The soundtrack came along after Prince’s big breakthrough with Purple Rain.  He followed that big success with the cathartic (in a self-indulgent way) neo-psychedelic meanderings of Around the World in a Day.  Parade was a more concerted effort.  And Prince goes big most of the time, with grandiose production concepts mixing together contributions from large sets of musicians.  Yet, as my friend Patrick said, “it’s at once too much and not enough.”  He piles on the production gimmicks just because he can, and well into the album those efforts hardly ever seem to come to fruition.  Side one is all over the place, dragged down by the incongruous marriage of lightweight compositions and jarring recording experiments.  It doesn’t offer much except for “Girls & Boys,” and the somewhat mediocre “Under the Cherry Moon.”  But side two turns things around completely.  There is the big hit “Kiss,” which remains one of Prince’s best.  But “Kiss” is part of the great closing sequence of “Kiss” (an insanely infectious and tight dance funk jam), “Anotherloverholenyohead” (a loose yet funky workout) and “Sometimes It Snows in April” (a slow-burning epic ballad).  The second side is Prince in his prime and that more than makes up for the meanderings of the first.  And the great news is that Prince turned around and took all the best parts and added even more great songs and ideas for his next effort, the magnificent Sign ‘O the Times.

Prince and The Revolution – Purple Rain

Purple Rain

Prince and The RevolutionPurple Rain Warner Bros. 25110-1 (1984)

In the All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that David Bowie‘s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had a “grand sense of staged drama” and that “Bowie succeeds not in spite of his pretensions but because of them . . . .”  The same could very well be said about Prince’s most acclaimed and best-selling album (over 20 millions copies), Purple Rain.  This was the soundtrack to a movie of the same name, which some say was inspired by Samuel R. Delany’s novel Dhalgren.  Some of the songs were recorded live (“I Would Die 4 U”, “Baby I’m a Star” and “Purple Rain”), with later overdubs.

Purple Rain just appeals to so many people.  There is something for the freaks, something for the squares (aside from the prudes).  That wide appeal should not come as a surprise.  This is basically a perfect album.  Sure, it might be hard to find anyone picking “The Beautiful Ones” as his or her favorite, on an album that also boasts “Let’s Go Crazy” (a rock-gospel party anthem), “When Doves Cry” (an abstract, minimalist pop stunner without a bass line), and “Purple Rain” (a monster ballad to end monster ballads).  Not only is there is no filler here, every song is great.  It certainly helped that Prince was a prolific songwriter.  He had about 100 songs lined up for the film, according to director Albert Magnoli, who had to cull that down to what worked best.  The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once mentioned in a 1977 interview, “It takes me a good week really to decide what negatives and that’s half of taking pictures, is the selection.  *** And the framing is very important.”  These are analogues to song selection and album sequencing for music.  These things do put in perspective what it takes to make something like Purple Rain.  A handful of decent songs is simply not enough.

Prince wasn’t exactly an unknown before this album and the movie — from 1979 to 1983 he had even appeared on television a few times — but they were what made him a worldwide superstar.  His band The Revolution also played a significant role, with Wendy & Lisa noted for making key contributions.  Prince became something of an egomaniac as a result of his fame.  Mapplethorpe also said in that interview that all artists he knew were egotistical.  This perhaps says something about what it takes to want to put one’s self in the spotlight.

There isn’t much to say about the music itself that hasn’t already been said so many times over.  But this album still holds up decades later.

Prince – Come


PrinceCome Warner Bros. 9 45700-2 (1994)

A misfire according to critics, but still a moderate commercial success, Come was disregarded by Prince himself in favor of the contemporaneously recorded The Gold ExperienceCome was created at the beginning of Prince’s notorious feud with his record label Warner Bros., when he changed his name to the unpronounceable “love symbol” which looked something like “O(+->” and he was referenced as “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”  Stripping away all the hoopla and critical perspectives of the day, in hindsight this isn’t a bad album at all.  It is not particularly ambitious, and there aren’t any obvious hits here, the album nonetheless is consistent from beginning to end.  There is a “Poem” cut up into interludes between songs throughout the album that should have been dropped (especially the closing “Orgasm”).  But the title track, “Papa,” “Dark” (check those horn charts! and guitar solo!), and “Letitgo” are all solid performances in the smooth soul style that Prince has toyed with going back to songs like “Slow Love” and “Adore” on Sign “O” the Times.  Venturing a guess, critics probably disliked Come because of its refusal to cater to the fads of the day (like the hip-hop/R&B melange of “new jack swing,” etc.), thereby suggesting that the music industry (which included the critics) was promoting inferior music.  Hindsight suggests Prince was right.  While this won’t be anyone’s favorite Prince album, it is a decent one that has surely held up better than, say, Batman, and even Diamonds and Pearls.

Prince – The Rainbow Children

The Rainbow Children

PrinceThe Rainbow Children NPG 70004-2 (2001)

Kind of a forgotten Prince disc, unfairly, because The Rainbow Children is really one of the best from his later years.  With the exception of some weird concluding outtro tracks sequenced strangely on the CD and perhaps the novelty song “Wedding Feast,” this is an album that is solid all the way through.  The musicianship is top shelf, without succumbing to pandering or self-indulgent showiness.  To the extent this was the launch of a more mature sound for Prince, it succeeds completely.  Although it is fair to call this contemporary R&B/soul, much of this follows a kind of light soul jazz/jazz-funk approach (reference, for example, Dave DouglasLive at the Jazz Standard from a few years later).  It also leans toward gospel-style vocals, which is a big bonus.  Of course, there is more than just that here.  “1+1+1 Is 3” is very much a throwback to Prince’s iconic style of the mid-1980s, done quite convincingly.  It highlights just how versatile his guitar playing is across the album.  When people speak, generally, about what a talented performer Prince was, the evidence is right here.  This album is kind of like being at the best possible intimate, private concert you cold imagine from Prince around the turn of the Millennium.  It was around this time too that Prince appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on May 3, 2001 and played a couple songs, including “The Work, Part 1” from this album and a great version of his classic “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (originally on Sign “O” the Times) with many jazzy keyboard flourishes.  The album as a whole is close to the sound of that televised performance.  He came back in December of 2002 to perform “The Everlasting Now” on the show too.  Now, some people don’t seem to like the album, often because of the religious content.  But, really, that is only on a few songs (“The Everlasting Now” etc.) and unless you focus on lyrics to the exclusion of almost everything else, the few religious messages are general enough that they don’t hold this back much.  Songs like “Family Name” — one of the funkiest on the album — are political/social commentary anyway.  The real reason this isn’t better known is that it wasn’t heavily marketed and was independently distributed.  It did set up material for the tour that produced One Nite Alone…Live!  Nonetheless, this might be the single most overlooked Prince album. 

Prince – The Black Album

The Black Album

PrinceThe Black Album Warner Bros. 2-45793 (1994)

When Whitney Houston died, there was much talk about how she was long ridiculed by some for appealing too much to white audiences.  That unfortunate sentiment — that only insular identities based on differences were valid — looked down on what has long been called “crossover” appeal.  It is the idea that different musical styles that appeal to different groups can be synthesized into a hybrid that appeals to audiences for all its sources.  Prince in his prime years of 1981-87 was every bit a crossover success.  But some unfortunate pandering reared its head toward the end of the 80s.  So he made “The Black Album,” with some overt attempts to appeal to black audiences.  For whatever reasons, though, the album was aborted in late 1987 after a few promo copies were given to industry insiders — replaced by the adequate but by comparison inferior Lovesexy album, which had a more mainstream pop sound.  Due to its dubious status, this was a much bootlegged album until a belated official release in 1994.

In the mid-/late-80s Prince was working on an album project tentatively titled Crystal Ball, which was never released (another collection later adopted the same name) but evolved into Sign “O” the Times.  One of the tracks (“Rockhard in a Funky Place”) intended for Crystal Ball that was dropped from Sign “O” the Times ended up here.  Other songs still have a bit of the sonic flavor of Sign too.  That is a positive, in that Sign was Prince at his best.  But the opening few cuts (“Le Grind,” “Cindy C.”) are made for dance clubs.  There are other songs that suggest how “Slow Love” from Sign would be more representative of things Prince would do in the 1990s.

The weakness of the album is the middle section.  The P-funk workout “Superfunkycalifragisexy” gets monotonous quickly.  “Bob George” is a skit-like song with Prince playing the role of a macho critic of himself.  It’s a strange, unsettling performance, much talked about by critics and fans, but also a bit disturbingly violent and the backing track drags on like an afterthought.  It is a fascinating song in concept, but actually listening to it is kind of secondary.

The album picks up mightily at the end.  The jazzy instrumental “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” is a highlight, complete with chaotic group segments, stinging synthesizer, and a lengthy bass solo that actually propels the songs forward.  The closer “Rockhard in a Funky Place” is also unstoppable.  It’s a funny song too.  The lyric “I just hate to see an erection go to waste” seems like the same sentiment from Leonard Cohen‘s “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-on” (Death of a Ladies’ Man).

In the end, The Black Album is weighted down by some filler, and it lacks an obvious candidate for a hit single.  Still, it is mostly really good stuff from the tail end of Prince’s finest years.  Anyone who has exhausted Prince’s greatest material of the 80s (and that should include, well, everyone) but still wants more should consider checking this out.  In spite of the inconsistency of The Black Album, the Purple One scarcely mustered this intensity again at album length.

Prince – The Very Best of Prince

The Very Best of Prince

PrinceThe Very Best of Prince Warner Bros. R2 74272 (2001)

More appropriately titled “Greatest Hits” than “The Very Best of,” you could stand to get a much better overview of The Purple One than this compilation — The Hits/The B-Sides would be a slightly better choice.  Still, for the mildly Prince-curious this gives you most of the biggest hits to use as a starting point.

What Prince stood for in the 1980s — his prime — was a contemporary R&B (as Little Richard has it, that means “real black”) counterpart to David Bowie of the 70s.  Prince was this slightly androgynous, racy character who had these incredibly catchy, popular and just plain great songs.  Now, the fact that Prince was coming along in the wake of Bowie breaking into the charts might be explained by the somewhat socially conservative streak found in afro-american culture — especially when it comes to sexuality, the core of Prince’s musical subject matter.  Strange that Prince died just a few months after Bowie then.

Prince – Sign ‘O’ the Times

Sign '☮' the Times

PrinceSign ‘O’ the Times Paisley Park 9 25577-1 (1987)

Prince always was best when he attempted everything under the sun on one album and tied it all together only by the fact that he was writing, arranging, producing, and performing his music entirely by himself. Sign ‘O’ the Times is just that kind of album. A few select guests keep the album hopping with psychedelic R&B flavor. The many different faces of Prince each make an appearance. He never made a better album.

Disc 1 has a bunch of winners, enough to make any album great. “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” “Starfish & Coffee” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” tell of urban social decay, surreal childhood memories, and dark romantic journeys.

Disc 2 is a goldmine. “U Got the Look,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “The Cross” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” are big deliveries even for a superstar. Prince had a talent for dance rock that could keep going all night. The ideas are easy to grasp. Prince builds rhythm by repeating what you need to hear as many times as you need to hear it.

Throwing in two or three note riffs on the keyboard was that thing only Prince seemed to get right. 1980s pop music tried to break everything down to simple little songs. Prince dared to make things simple and help the word “simple” grow along the way. His guitar solo on “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” has all the recognizable points of a hit song. It also can wrap you into the guitars and drums completely. It’s hard not to relate to Prince. He reaches to be a friend to the lonely girl he meets. She wants more than he’s willing to give. Her sad situation is enough to have him thinking her problems over, and telling her he’s not good enough to be the answer.

“The Cross” is a tremendous rock-gospel song that has fire and brimstone held in check. Prince uses enough guitar and sitar to overpower any heavy metal song of the day.  He is careful not to use any padding.

Sign ‘O’ the Times was made when Prince was on top of his game, and it stays right there. As a listener, though, it gets hard to resist the urge to wander off. Temptation is all part of the game!

O(+> – Emancipation


O(+>Emancipation NPG Records 7243 8 54982 2 0 (1996)

Let’s take a look at the largest arcs of Prince’s career, to better understand where Emancipation fits.  His early days in the 1970s had him doing closet R&B, very much as a one-man show, and very much in line with R&B of the day.  He was singing in a falsetto almost always, and his songwriting wasn’t particularly attention-grabbing, though it started to become more and more provocative as time when on.  In these early days, commercial success and popularity came at best fitfully to Prince.  Then came the 1980s.  His star rose higher and higher, and with 1999 and then, most significantly, Purple Rain, he became as big a star as there was in pop music.  Some of his recordings in the 80s were uneven, especially as the decade wore on, but there was good stuff found on anything with Prince’s name on it.  He had hits galore.  Into the early 1990s, things definitely changed.  Prince’s recordings were becoming a bit patchier, and he was starting to chase after fads like “new jack swing” and cater to what was popularized by others.  There is some terrible stuff in this period, along with some worthy bits and pieces.  The good stuff was fewer and farther between.  There is a hard fact of Western popular music during this larger era that artists usually only have about 5-10 years of relevance before they are cast off in favor of something else.  By the 1990s, Prince had already had his decade.  His response?  Feud with his record label.  He changed his name to an unpronouncable symbol in 1993 (people referred to him as “the artist formerly known as Prince”).  After he entered the new millennium, Prince had a comeback of sorts.  He was something of a respected elder of pop music.  But there was a crucial transition during the 1990s.  It was then that Prince’s abilities as a songwriter faltered.  The guy could still play, but he was only coming up with one or two catchy songs every few years.  Rather than face up to that, he started the record label feud and engaged in other distractions that kept his name in the press for reasons other than the content of his work.  Now, as to the feud, the man did have a few decent points about musicians getting too small a slice of the pie.  However, those seemed like excuses drummed up after he already wanted to stir controversy.  But into his later period, it was really apparent that this guy was a total professional as a performer.  His was playing as well as ever, even if he wasn’t writing new songs of much interest.  This was clear to anyone hearing him play some of his old songs.  He would sometimes change them up and present new versions.  He could still wow audiences that way, mining his back catalog.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Prince released two multi-disc albums, first Emancipation and then Crystal Ball.  There was the late night sketch comedy program that in the 90s made a fake TV ad for a bank that supposedly only made change, and when asked how they made money responded by saying, “volume.”  That gag is built on the same principle as Prince’s 1990s multi-disc albums.  He wasn’t able to write any particularly engaging new material, but he could churn out new recordings by the bucket load.  These recordings leaned on covers, and also thin re-treads of old Prince songs.  If anything, these years gave him the chance to hone his already-impressive skills as a performer.

On Emancipation, Prince chose to use every ounce of his skills as an instrumentalist. The performances are rich and textured. His band The New Power Generation (NPG) works perfectly as a spotlight on him. Improvisational elements form the core of this work.

“Sex In the Summer” is a fresh reconstruction of Sly Stone’s “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” complete with nods to other influences like Mahalia Jackson. Prince manages to avoid superficial worship, and delves into lush arrangements. He always liberally quoted other material. This is not cutting corners on the creative end, but benchmarks in a fun way (“Get Yo Groove On” takes a line from “Another Saturday Night”).

This is a mature and wiser Prince — now a music “professional”. Emancipation still finds “the artist” fuming over past recording contracts, but he’s rarely bitter. With over three hours of music, he does have plenty of opportunities to touch base on just about anything. Though the song structures are fairly traditional, that more directly emphasizes his change in direction. While Emancipation isn’t quite the accomplishment as his legendary 80s material, it isn’t so far behind that you don’t recognize Prince as Prince. This is likely an album only intense fans will take a chance on, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Prince knows how to make music people will like, and this album is far more accessible and durable that it seems.

There is a lot to Emancipation. More importantly, there is a lot to like about it.  It’s an album that many will probably find more enjoyable and listenable than expected, though there isn’t much on it to convince you to listen in the first place.

Prince & The Revolution – Around the World in a Day

Around the World in a Day

Prince & The RevolutionAround the World in a Day Paisley Park 9 25286-1 (1985)

A revealing album in that it foreshadowed the self-indulgent character of a lot of Prince albums to come.  Now, this one is still a lot easier to take than the later stuff.  It has its moments, as well as a mega-hit in “Raspberry Beret,” but stacked next to Prince’s best work of the 80s this is a little underwhelming.