This review of Prince’s two (!) new albums, out today, comes from Greg Kot, writing for the Sun-Sentinel, Sept. 29th…
Prince Says Let’s Go Crazy in 2 Different Ways
In one of the most improbable reunions of the last few decades, Prince is back with the label that he claims done him so wrong in the ’90s that he was compelled to scrawl the word “slave” on his face. No one does drama like the multi-purpose entertainer from Minneapolis, though, and he’s back with two albums on the same day for nemesis-turned-benefactor Warner Brothers.
The two albums couldn’t be more opposite. PlectrumElectrum, with his new rock quartet 3rdEyeGirl, is basically an excuse for Prince to go nuts on his guitar. Art Official Age is an opportunity for the solo Prince to go nuts as a studio innovator playing with his toys and personas.
Hardcore Prince guitar-freaks—those who yearn for an entire album of six-string slash-and-burn in the mold of Jimi Hendrix, Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel and Prince himself on “Purple Rain” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”—will find much to love on PlectrumElectrum.
Prince is an appreciator as much as an innovator, and he compresses about 50 years of guitar history into 12 tracks: the screaming punctuations on the feedback-saturated “Ain’tTurnin’Round” and “AnotherLove,” the Curtis Mayfield-style lyricism of “Whitecaps,” the punky urgency of “Marz.” But though the 3rdEyeGirl rhythm section of Donna Grantis, Hannah Ford Welton and Ida Nielsen provides a solid foundation, and shares some lead vocals, the songs feel slight, a touch predictable.
It’s not meant to be a particularly heavy album lyrically or conceptually, more of a blow-out. If there’s an underlying theme, it revolves around the 56-year-old elder statesman dispensing tips to the younger artists who have emerged in his wake, many of them in his debt: Frank Ocean, Miguel, Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, OutKast, Maxwell, Lianne de Havas (who sings backing vocals on Art Official Age). On “FixUrLifeUp,” he counsels, “Don’t worry about what the crowd does, just be good at what you love.” And what Prince loves on this album is clear: guitar, guitar and more guitar.
The emphasis shifts on Art Official Age, a more substantial and stranger album. After about a dozen listens, I still found myself discovering new twists and surprises in the dense, sometimes downright exotic arrangements (the same can’t be said for PlectrumElectrum).
It’s a concept album of sorts, a tour through the wilderness of Prince’s imagination, a maze of sound effects and funk set 45 years in the future after the groggy narrator emerges from a period of “suspended animation,” as a female narrator with a British accent informs him. Prince slides back into the Afro-futuristic tradition of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic. Space is the place where humans can roam free of petty earthly preoccupations such as celebrity worship, social media and material possessions (presumably including swimming pools, trophy wives and one-sided record-company deals).
The freedom the narrator craves is evident in many of the arrangements. “FunkNRoll,” also the title of a track on PlectrumElectrum (where it’s a fairly conventional funk-rock track), opens with guitar fanfare, dives into the shadows beneath percussion that sounds like a dripping faucet, slows down and then speeds up behind gothic keyboards. “Art Official Cage” zigs and zooms across time, with its booming EDM-style rhythm track and funk rhythm guitar flowing across dance-music history as if to one-up the concept on Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning 2013 album, Random Access Memories. The distant percussion in “Way Back Home” sounds like sheet metal flapping in a strong wind amid a matrix of sci-fi effects, and there’s the illusion of clinking cutlery on “Time,” which closes with a voracious bass line. The guitar is more sparing on this album, certainly less of a focal point, but its presence is crucial, particularly in the deft fills on “This Could Be Us” and the finger-snapping seduction of “Breakfast Can Wait.”
It’s an erotic and weird album, heavy on ballads that twist in unexpected directions. In an era when innovative artists such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are redefining the form and feel of R&B seduction ballads, Prince sounds not just relevant, but renewed. As Prince declared on his 1982 classic “D.M.S.R., “I… try my best to never get bored.” He sounds like he’s staying true to his word.
Live on The Jimmy Kimmel Show Oct. 23rd, Prince performing his latest single…
Pianist and composer Clare Fischer, responsible for adding orchestral arrangements to many Prince songs over the years, has sadly passed away at the age of 83. Supposedly Prince and Fischer never met and Prince refused to even look at a picture of Fischer for fear of breaking the “spell” they created together.
Prince’s forgotten album — never released in America. This review comes from Chris DeLine, July 10, 2010, on the Culture Bully website…
What followed the unexpected announcement of Prince’s new album in June was something that had to surprise even his most die-hard fans. (Then again, it is pretty much par for the course in terms of Prince’s career… the last decade even more so.) With less than a month’s notice, it was not only announced that 20Ten would be released, but that it would be released for free via some 2.5 million newspapers in the UK. While the prolific artist followed a similar promotional path for the release of Planet Earth in 2007, this move most certainly stepped things up; a decision which Prince considers logical despite many musicians opting to release “free” albums online rather than through a physical outlet. In fact, Prince took to condemning the digital publishing model, explaining to The Mirror‘s Peter Willis that “The internet’s completely over.” He continued, “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”
Though not released through the exact same means, Prince nonetheless made waves last year when it was announced that he would work exclusively with the Minneapolis-based retailer Target (in the U.S., at least) in releasing his new Read the rest of this entry »
Taken from Perfect Sound Forever, October 2006, and written by Ben Newman…
Is he still royalty and where does he get those wonderful (musical) toys?
As a new generation gets exposed to the man who is again calling himself Prince, (although apparently he never officially lost his name anyway) does it matter to the future of music that this intermittent genius is back after years of out-takes, side projects, compilations and fan-club-only releases? With a generation trying earnestly to get rid of a relentlessly youthful Madonna, do we really need another ’80’s maverick on TV? Prince, however, does have advantages over the aforementioned rival. He was always the more ingenious of the two, and although still on good physical form (despite rumours of a hip problem), he realises his age and is not cavorting around in uncomfortably flexible position in minimal amounts of spandex. Read the rest of this entry »
A link to listen to Prince’s new guitar-heavy funk rock song “Cause and Effect,” which debuted on Minneapolis radio station 89.3. The song could be stronger…but the guitar is excellent, of course. Not sure if this is from a future album or not. Hopefully…
This is an article from the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 8, 2009. Prince talks about religion, his new albums, new recording techniques and a myriad of other topics…
Rockin’ the limo, boudoir ballads, Prop. 8, Barry White, sex, faith, Pro Tools. Was it a dream?
It was 11 p.m. on the night before New Year’s Eve, and I was doing something I hadn’t expected would crown my 2008: sitting in Prince’s limousine as the legend lounged beside me, playing unreleased tracks on the stereo. “This is my car for Minneapolis,” he said before excusing himself to let me judge a few songs in private. “It’s great for listening to music.” He laughed. “I don’t do drugs or I’d give you a joint. That’s what this record is.”
That morning I’d received an e-mail inviting me to preview new music at Prince’s mansion in the celebrity-infested estate community of Beverly Park, where he’s currently keeping his shoe rack. The summons wasn’t entirely unexpected. Prince, who’s less reclusive than his reputation would indicate, has spent a year and a half consulting with culture industry leaders and occasionally entertaining media types, with an eye toward taking complete control of his own musical output.
His new mantra is “The gatekeepers must change,” and he’s refashioned his career to become one of them.
Since beginning his gradual relocation from the Midwest to the Left Coast, Prince has headlined the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and 2007’s Super Bowl halftime show. He sold out a 21-night run at London’s O2 Arena and released an album, a high-end photo book and a perfume. Most recently, he’s whetted fans’ appetites with sneaks of songs from three upcoming releases, first on the popular “Jonesy’s Jukebox” radio program on Indie 103 and then on two websites, the now-dark MPLSound.com and the still-evolving Lotusflow3r.com.
This flurry of activity has been characterized by what might be called methodical spontaneity. Everything happens quickly, whether it’s a show that takes place only a few days after its announcement or an evening interview arranged that morning. But Prince’s personality seems to be governed by two oppositional impulses: the hunger to create and an equally powerful craving for control. Intense productivity battles with meticulousness within his working process. Others might not anticipate his next move, but it is all part of the chess game for him.
That’s why I was there, on the eve of a holiday eve, as the mainstream music industry was enjoying a break from its ongoing plunge toward insolvency. The turn of the year is a slow time for pop, not the moment blockbuster artists usually release material. But Prince has been hinting for a while that his upcoming recordings might not be tied to a conventional label. Abandoning that machine, including its publicity arm, requires other ways of getting the word out.
Prince began experimenting with new methods of distributing music more than a decade ago, and his early efforts with the now-defunct NPG Music Club paved the way for later bold moves by Radiohead and others. Most recently he’s partnered with major labels to get copies into stores. Columbia handled the release of 2006’s Planet Earth, except in Britain, where copies were distributed free via a London newspaper, The Mail on Sunday.
Now Prince is about to unleash not one but three albums without major label affiliation, and talking to well-vetted writers is one part of the rollout. How well vetted? “You’re blond,” he said when we met. “I thought you were a redhead.” (He’d done his research; I’d changed my hair color only the year before.)
When I entered the house, which has the vaguely European opulence of an upscale spa, I found Prince with designers Anthony Malzone and Scott Addison Clay, examining mock-ups for a “highly interactive” website. “It’s a universe,” said Malzone, showing how a mouse click could make the whole screen rotate. “There’s a lyric in one of the new songs about an ‘entirely new galaxy.’ We took that cue, and from there on, we thought that everything would emanate from Prince.”
The website, still under construction, revealed the recognizable logo of a major big-box retailer with whom Prince is finalizing negotiations to distribute the albums. The three will hit the Web and that retailer, the artist said, “as soon as the holidays are over.”
I’d be hearing music from each of them.
“Let’s go to my car,” Prince said. “We’ll listen to the first album there.”
Entering his garage, he ushered me into a low-slung black sports car that he’s apparently named after his late friend Miles Davis. I strapped on my seat belt, but we didn’t venture outside. Instead, Prince turned serious as he brought up a recent New Yorker article that had spun beyond his famously controlling grip.
“I want to talk about that interview,” he said, gazing seriously over the steering wheel before turning on the music. He’d felt the writer had taken certain remarks he’d made — particularly one about gay marriage that implied he was against it — out of context. (The New Yorker stands by the story.)
“They try to take my faith. . . .” he said, his voice trailing off. “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. I’m trying to learn the Bible. It’s a history book, a science book, a guidebook. It’s all the same.”
Prince’s understanding of religion requires him to avoid political stands, including those that concern morality. “I have friends that are gay, and we study the Bible together,” he said. He did not vote for Proposition 8, the referendum to make gay marriage illegal. “I don’t vote,” he said. “I didn’t vote for Barack [Obama], either; I’ve never voted. Jehovah’s Witnesses haven’t voted for their whole inception.”
Prince, who became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001 under the guidance of veteran bassist and songwriter Larry Graham, views everything through the lens of his religion. No topic — sexuality, civil rights, his disdain for corporate pop — comes up in which it doesn’t play a role. Recounting a recent meeting with Earth, Wind and Fire singer Philip Bailey, for example, he commented that that group’s penchant for Afrocentric garb revealed a lost history similar to the one uncovered in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible.
Prince’s statements can sound extreme to a secular listener. Some have accused him of trying to conceal his views to avoid alienating non-believing (and, particularly, gay) fans. But his desire to be tolerant seems sincere. His favorite television show, for example, is Real Time with Bill Maher. Asked if the comedian’s confrontational atheism bothers him, he harrumphed. “That’s cool,” said Prince. “He can be what he wants. I like arguments. Somebody saying I’m a terrible guitar player feeds me.”
Prince’s faith fulfills a yearning that his songs expressed long before he became devout: a need for some kind of ruling theory to explain the sorrow and violence that intertwines with life’s joy. Songs as early as 1981’s “Controversy” focus on a quest for God, and his catalog overflows with complex number and color systems, prophetic statements and disquiet about the fallen state of humanity. In his religion, he’s found a code as inexhaustible as the one he was previously generating himself.
Which leads back to MPLSound, the album Prince recorded by himself at Paisley Park studios mostly last year. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you sound like you used to?'” he said by way of introduction. “But that music doesn’t have any wave energy to it. It’ll move a party, but that’s not what I’m doing here.”
These tracks did sound new in some ways: electronica-based, futuristic and subtly mind-altering. They also harked back to early Prince, including touchstones like “When Doves Cry” and The Black Album. Some, like one about a “funky congregation,” could become live show pieces. Others, like the playful “Hey Valentina,” inspired by his friend Salma Hayek’s baby, and the Space Age ballad “Better With Time” — dedicated to another actress pal, Kristin Scott Thomas, who costarred in Prince’s 1986 film, Under the Cherry Moon — contained sounds that didn’t seem possible to replicate anywhere but in Prince’s imagination.
The key to this particular aural universe, it turns out, is the ubiquitous computer platform Pro Tools. Prince avoided the system for years. One thing he’s truly moralistic about is the use of artificial vocal enhancement by subpar artists, which in his view has reduced mainstream pop to a “weak diet” of sugary junk. Yet he’s unlocked new elements within the very control surfaces Pro Tools employs. Using both analog equipment and digital technology, Prince has come closer to the body-altering music he wishes to make.
“I’m interested in the inner workings of music, the effect on the body,” he explained. “I’m trying to understand why we respond to beats differently.” His former associate, the producer Terry Lewis, helped him realize Pro Tools might help. “Terry talked me into it. He said, ‘Don’t think of it as a digital machine,'” said Prince. “‘Don’t play by its rules.’ I just took it and started flipping things.”
As the music played, Prince singled out a few lyrics. “The songs we sing lift us up to heaven,” he said as a song espousing “old-school ways” played. “This one’s about Babylonian tricks.” Then the music ended, and we moved on to the next offering — one that took us into Prince’s bedroom.
Before the New Yorker piece, the biggest question about Prince’s spiritual conversion concerned its effect on his own sexual expressiveness. No one in pop has written more powerfully about the transformative power of sex. His sometimes perverse, often humorous fairy tales opened up worlds of pleasure and possibility to listeners. After finding Jehovah, however, fans worried that he would denounce his most fruitful subject matter.
But a really powerful code can unlock anything. “I’ve studied Solomon and David now,” Prince said, referring to two famous Old Testament lovemen. “[In biblical times] sex was always beautiful. You come to understand that, and then you try to find a woman who can experience that with you.”
Songs on all three of Prince’s new projects celebrate carnal pleasures, but the album he played in his white-carpeted bedroom explores the topic from top to bottom. It’s Elixir, the debut of Bria Valente, Prince’s latest protégée. Valente grew up in Minneapolis and attended parties at Paisley Park as a teen, but she registered on Prince’s radar in Los Angeles. A tall brunet with a smooth, delicate voice — “she knows how to use her breath like I do on my falsetto, to make it glide over the track,” he said — she is Prince’s collaborator, along with keyboardist Morris Hayes, in reviving the quiet storm sound.
“This might be my favorite,” he said, playing a steamy ballad. “Remember those old Barry White records? A whole lot of people are gonna get pregnant off of this! I gotta call her.” With that, he left me to contemplate Valente’s “chill” songs, the heart-shaped mirror over his round bed and the large Bible on the nightstand.
It never became clear whether Valente is Prince’s partner in more than an artistic way. Since meeting him, she has become a Jehovah’s Witness. She lives just down the hill from Beverly Park, and later in the evening, she joined us at a nearby nightclub — she’s a friendly young woman who held her own in conversation with the superstar directing her career.
At the club, Prince carefully sat me between himself and Valente, only touching her once, when he gestured for her to accompany him to the front of the club to check out the noisy blues band rocking the crowd. Later, she laughed when he sneaked away to play a quick keyboard solo with the band. “He’s like Velcro,” she said. “Stuck to the stage.”
Beautiful women always have been important in Prince’s life, both as musical collaborators and as prominently displayed companions. He has been married twice, separating from his second wife, Manuela Testolini, in 2006. Now he carries himself with the exacting self-sufficiency of a middle-aged bachelor. Often citing famous beauties as close friends, he never mentioned a sexual conquest.
Whether or not he needs a day-to-day companion right now, Prince does seem to require a muse. Valente’s project has allowed him to make more openly sensual music than anything else he’s recently produced. He even took the high-fashion-style photographs that will adorn the CD booklet.
As her album played, he spoke of other female musicians he currently admires. “Have you heard Janelle Monae?” he asked. “She is so smart. How about Sia, do you like her?” The jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding was due to spend a few days with him later in the week. The names of previous collaborators peppered his conversation: the singers Tamar Davis and Shelby J., his old companions Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman.
For now, Valente is the conduit for Prince’s female energy. Her music sounds contemporary but also connects to earlier Prince protégés like the Family and Taja Sevelle. Though he was quick to praise her songwriting abilities (and to point out that he helped her cement a good publishing deal), he spoke about her songs as they played, almost as if they were his own.
“The art of making records, I give it so much respect,” he said as the album’s final track, a New Age-flavored set piece about Valente’s baptism, concluded. “But it gets trampled on for the sake of commerciality.”
He led me back into the hallway. “Let’s get in the limo to listen to the last one,” he said.
An album’s range
Lotus Flow3r will likely be greeted by Prince fans and the general public as the central product of his latest creative spurt. It’s a full band album with a sound that ranges from cocktail jazz to heavy rock. The first track included the lyric his Web designer had mentioned about the expanding universe, while subsequent ones referred to traveling to other dimensions and transcending race.
Directing his driver to take us for a spin after leaving to change from black loungewear into a red suit, Prince explained that Lotus Flow3r began to emerge during the sessions for his 2006 album, 3121. Prince selected the best of his massive output for this release, delaying its finish until he was sure every element hung together.
“The thing that unites these songs is the guitar,” he said. He’d fallen back in love with the instrument after playing in Davis’ backup band during a 2006 tour. He singled out a vampy solo in the samba-influenced “Love Like Jazz.” “When we do this live, that’s going to go on forever,” he said with a grin.
Positioning Lotus Flow3r as a rock record is a canny marketing move, given urban radio’s current focus on hip-hop-defined samples and beats. This music sounds more organic, meant to be played live, and Prince is trying out players for a new band, ones who’ll be able to grasp the tricky changes in the new songs. He makes decisions, he said, by “listening to the universe. If a name is mentioned to me three times, I know I need to check it out.”
Whatever band he assembles will have to be able to leap from the light-stepping funk of the song simply titled “$,” about “the most popular girl in the whole wide world,” to the soul jazz of “77 Beverly Place,” to the heavy-metal thunder of the album’s title track. That song references both Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix, but asked about the influence of the latter rock god, Prince demurred. “I try to play guitar like singers I like,” he said, later adding, “Don’t you think journalists can be lazy, I mean, when they make comparisons?”
He delivered this criticism in a kind tone. Talk turned to the Internet and the need for musicians to claim a niche. “My audience is really big, though,” he said. “And they’re really easy to reach online. Everything has gone viral.”
He continues to be firm on copyright issues — “I made it,” is his simple response to those who call him a hypocrite for restricting his material online even as he uses the Web for his own purposes — but seems fairly open to trying new ways to promote his avalanche of music. “You can put in that I’d like to play the Troubadour,” he said, though he hasn’t made any arrangements for local club dates.
As the night wore to an end, the conversation turned free form, touching on topics ranging from Edie Sedgwick (he saw Factory Girl) to Ani DiFranco (he loves her) to his favorite guitar (the blue and white Stratocaster he played during the Super Bowl, named “Sonny” after an early mentor). And then the limo pulled into the driveway.
He hugged me goodnight, and I got into my mud-stained Mazda Protege. Hugging the road down Mulholland Drive, I asked myself, “Did that really happen?” So many moments would seem fantastic in the retelling.
But then, as Beverly Hills became the Valley, I realized how carefully executed this visit had been. Each listening environment had been ideal: the close confinement of the sports car for the intense MPLSound, the boudoir for Elixir and the classic rock star ride for the far-reaching Lotus Flow3r. And though Prince had been open about many things, he’s also an expert at wielding the phrase “off the record.”
What I’d experienced was like a dream — a dream Prince had designed just for me. Which is what he’s been doing for his fans for 30 years.
June 1983 article in The Face by Carol Cooper on Prince, right before he ascended to superstardom with the Purple Rain movie, album and tour the following year…
The thing to bear in mind is that Prince does not do interviews. He certainly didn’t do this one, nor any of a dozen others when tabloids and magazines were dangling cover stories as bait.
In the States this aversion to the press has reached astonishing proportions with the 1999 tour. His management now supports a PR firm solely to explain to frustrated paparazzi why they can’t have interviews, and to warn photographers that their equipment might be confiscated if caught snapping during a show.
It’s an odd sort of Mexican standoff for an aspiring pop star, but his cheek is an appealing reversal of the trend that has kept many black artists in a state of abject, often futile, supplication for media attention. I suppose we must expect an eventual backlash against such a brazen 24-year-old black genius who is neither blind, nor, says he, a homosexual. This self-styled Wilhelm Reich of the sepia set not only has a lion in his pocket, but a tiger by the tail.
Most critics got off to a weak start with His Royal Badness (a monicker Minneapolis scribes have hung on their local hero) by being slow to catch on. Only America’s black teen mags were with Prince at the beginning when he was the first ‘coloured’ 17-year-old to land a six figure contract with Warner Bros – a contract with the unheard-of rider that no outside producer would be forcibly attached to his projects.
His first management team – Owen Husney, Gary Levenson and studio owner Chris Moon – were instrumental in landing this contract. But according to the New York Rocker‘s Tim Carr, Prince soon felt his talent would be beter served by California hot-shots Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fergnolis. This firm took the PR strategies developed by the Minnesotan team to soft sell Prince onto what might be called a higher plane.
Husney told Billboard‘s Nelson George that he, Prince and Andre Cymone used to sit up all night in the early days discussing the whole shtick that finally came to fruition with Dirty Mind: the suggestive visuals, the cultivated mystique, the comprehensive publicity kits, and the careful control of ancillary rights. Prince was co-writing songs with Chris Moon at the time (of which the classic ‘Soft And Wet’ from the For You debut album is one) and writing demos for other artists, a habit that accounts for the ease with which The Time and Vanity 6 have been grafted into Prince’s proven formula and current stage show.
After the second LP – titled simply Prince – had established an equivocal image but unequivocal sales figures, our boy left Husney and the cosy ghetto exclusivity of the black teen slicks far behind by giving Dirty Mind to Cavallo & Co. with the single injunction: “Sell me!” Storming the rock press with the renegade allure of incest, oral sex, and soul-rock fusion, Dirty Mind did indeed cultivate the critical attention of the nuevo wavo crowd, and gave the properly hyped interviewers their first – and possibly last –taste of an audience with the vocally reticent rude boy.
Prince told Musician‘s Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman that he scorned many of the punk/new wave efforts Dirty Mind was being compared to because these fellow refugees from the ennervating decline of white rock and beige disco “can’t sing.”
A background of high school bands that specialized in Sly Stone covers had convinced the young Prince that what power pop, acid rock, heavy metal and all their latterday derivations needed was a studied infusion of funk and old fashioned sweet soul crooning.
If white rockers couldn’t do it, Prince was more than ready to fill the gap. He told Andy Schwartz, editor of the New York Rocker that he learned arranging and production techniques by using two cassette tape recorders; singing cross harmonies into them and playing them back, alternately playing and recording as he strummed along, building layer upon layer of sound. As a studio neophyte he took five months to finish the first album in LA: Dirty Mind took only 12 days in Minneapolis for the basics and a week and a half for the mix.
There is reason to believe that some of the tracks on 1999 date from the time of Dirty Mind or even earlier. Prince described to Schwartz the way he wrote at 16: “I was writing things that a cat with ten albums would have out, like seven-minute laments that were, y’know, gone. I wrote like I was rich, had been everywhere, and been with every woman in the world. But I liked that, I always liked fantasy and fiction…”
So maybe His Royal Badness will excuse our own exercise in fantasy on the following ‘interview’. I was dreaming when I wrote this, so forgive me if it goes astray…in my dream the ectoplasmic Prince was ever so kind and forthcoming. His lips, his eyes, his hair were burning – very much like his pictures; the Edwardian tart, the Prince of Uptown, USA.
Carol Cooper: Do you believe that white people understand what you are doing?
Prince: No, of course they don’t. How many black people understand? White people are very good at categorizing things – and if you tell them anything they’ll remember it, write books about it. But understand? You have to live a life to understand it. Tourists just pass through.
At the beginning, when California based slicks like Soul Teen and Right On! were examining and stroking this boy in the proper context (as just one of many talented and shrewdly outrageous black pop contenders) there was no hint as to how far into the “mainstream” his increasingly bizarre self-hype would take him. When the pop soul of For You and Prince was derailed into the randy rock of Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999, Right On! ran an illuminating series of colour pin-ups clocking the visual transformation from ’79 to ’82.
The indulgent, tongue-in-cheek copy that helped wedge this growing incongruity between the glossy smiles of Stephanie Mills and Richard “Dimples” Fields bore no resemblance to the credulous awe of the white rock press. The difference in perspective stems from the American cultural apartheid which neither white nor black media likes to approach head on.
For the white media the real possibility of Prince attaining a large white audience and its added bonus of high visibility is merely a momentary titillation, a diversion. For the black media, Prince is yet another in a long line of brilliant young turks getting ready to break his back against institutionalized white indifference. “Is He the Prince of Darkness?” read the blurb above the Right On! photo essay, as if to render all his abrasively ambiguous posturing into a statement on how the black man must exaggerate and contort his image (as allegory for much of the gratuitous absurdity of being “black” in America) just to be heard.
From what he tells us, Prince’s early life was surprisingly insular for one of nine or so half-brothers and sisters. Left alone for vast stretches of time after the departure of his father, an itinerant jazz musician, the prepubescent loner would spend hours at his dad’s abandoned piano or amuse himself with whatever reading matter came to hand – a dollop of speculative fiction, a dip into his mother’s personal stash of dime store pulp porn novels. His father’s surname was Nelson and his stage name was Prince Rogers. Prince claims his father actually christened him Prince Rogers Nelson.
What should be remembered about Minneapolis, Minnesota (but what is unlikely to ever show up in any “official” demographic studies) is that the area became a magnet for ambitious young black males in the Fifties and Sixties seeking space, calm, and equal opportunity. The result was a remarkably high incidence of multi-racial families developing in an atmosphere of relative financial stability. Meaning that the “black” population of Minneapolis is possessed of several characteristics distinct from the ghettoized norm. They haven’t eradicated the dark-skinned genotype, just amplified it with yet another strain. Another genetic mood.
A part of this mood was a motivation towards upward mobility, and like many matriarchs of a nascent black middle class, Prince’s mother was unhappy with her son’s increasing obsession with music. She tried sending our boy to various boarding schools as a cure, but that, coupled with an increasing dislike of a current step-father forced Prince to migrate. He spent much of his early to middle teens gypsying about between the homes of various friends and relations, not all of them limited to the midwestern outback of Minneapolis.
It was during a sojourn with an older sister in New York that Prince claims to have been initiated into the forbidden joys of incest, the details of which he revealed to the world on Dirty Mind with the cut ‘Sister’ (and evidently felt compelled to discuss with subsequent bedfellows who contribute to a growing Gotham rumour mill). By the time ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ had our favourite mestizo waif finishing off his second year at the top of the soul charts, Prince already had the material and the experience to launch himself out of the small Greenwich Village jazz halls into massive rock areas and beyond.
Carol Cooper: Are you at all afraid of alienating your black audiences with the radical change in your music?
Prince: They knew it was coming. ‘I’m Yours’ off the first album was a straight-up rock jam…
Possibly your best. The guitar solo near the end is exquisite; that dream dimension where Hendrix, Van Halen, and Jeff Beck meet.
And the second album had ‘Bambi’, which was also written in such a way as not to give the impression that I was a dilettante. So many black bands in the early Seventies diddled with the rock guitar just to prove they could. They had no real conviction, but none of my rock jams are contrived that way. Yes, I expect to lose some of the black audience with the new tunes. But in general my fans are pretty loyal and broadminded. And while blacks may not get into the Edwardian drag, or the hair, or the fact that the new stuff demands longer, more ‘grooveless’ and atonal solos, there will still be elements they will appreciate.
If the live concert’s primary function is group therapy, then Prince’s stage show starts exactly where it must: at the infantile traumas of sensation, bodily function; working its way to, and culminating in, raging adolescence. Although the recent date at Radio City Music Hall in New York was criminally short and high priced (the Prince entourage makes more use of beefy house security than any anti-authoritarian rabble rouser I can remember; I expect to see the T-shirts pop up among the hoi-polloi any day now: “Prince Jacked U Off at Radio City”) it was also a superb example of conscious, old school showmanship.
On a dark stage intermittently punctured by the glare of a riot flare beaming out of the drum kit, the supersonic throb of the overture to ‘Controversy’ sounds like nothing so much as the chant of the witch’s guard from The Wizard of Oz (“The only one, the Old One”). Prince, ever the coy boy Satanist, rises in silhouette to a backstage platform like a demon on the express elevator from Hell.
He seems to have written new arrangements for this set as everything is not only faster but versions of ‘Sexuality’, ‘Let’s Work’, ‘Dirty Mind’ and ‘Little Red Corvette’ are instrumented to emphasize their Sixties rock ‘n’ roll underpinning rather than the technopop drone heard on vinyl. The light show and the band’s sexually and racially integrated choreography is full of pointed comparisons and humour. During the instrumental break in ‘Let’s Work’ the Prince front line strike a classic Rolling Stone tableau, with Dez and Prince doing a back-to-back Ron Wood & Keith Richards impersonation, their bassist more Wyman than Wyman. ‘Little Red Corvette’, gloriously lurid in billowing red smoke, becomes the soundtrack of Cat People as Prince mimes a Bowie-esque salute before immersing himself in the hallucinogenic hydraulics that burble and shuffle behind his vocals. Erection, copulation and consummation to the subliminal tempii of Endless Love.
Sitting at a keyboard brought centrestage, Prince throws the synthesizer into acoustic mode and slows down the pace with a blast from the past. ‘I’m Still Waiting’, that wistful teen plea for a love too long delayed, gives way to a fierce new blues ‘How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore’. Innocence has been scorched by rejection, and Prince camps it up in mock macho effortlessly sliding from Little Richard falsetto to Rick James baritone. Moving towards the audience he preens before them as the lover of the song. “Does he have an ass like mine?” he sneers. “What’s the matter baby, don’t you want to play with my tootsie-roll?” The audience is in raptures, reliving all those puppy-love scenarios of false bravado. The segue into ‘Lady Cab Driver’ is totally apropos and totally unexpected; the psychodrama completed with our stricken hero being whisked from the throes of self-realization by deus-ex-machina in the form of a taxi cab.
Having spent most of this year touring up and down the US by bus, Prince has polished his moves and his professional attitude. In a recording industry recession where tour support is often harder to get than a three year contract, Prince has a relationship with his company, Warner Brothers, which is the source of great envy and speculation. Thus far they have deferred to him on every level of how to steer his career, and in return Prince is stubbornly determined to make his wilfully idiosyncratic, specially underpriced, two-record 1999 LP (reduced to a single album in the UK) go gold in the US, something even exposure on the notorious video channel MTV has, as of this writing, yet to deliver.
No black artist outside of Stevie Wonder’s deal with Motown has been allowed to do whatever he likes; so at least half the critical excitement over Prince is to see how long his good fortune will last. A master of indirection, Prince continues to send out conflicting signals without coming off as weak minded or insecure. ‘Party Up’ was anti-draft, a conceptual anagram for ‘Don’t Join Up’. ‘Sexuality’ is not about enslaving oneself to the flesh as much as it is about freeing oneself from anti-life authoritarianism. ‘D.M.S.R.’ pegs the hypocrites that tell you what’s good or bad for you based on what they’re selling this week – teaching people to be afraid of their own bodies so they can be manipulated that much more easily.
Prince declares that if modern society has divided everything into either Sex or Death symbology then he will define himself in terms of Sex. And unlike George Clinton, Rick James, or Kid Creole, who also wield sex and romance as tools and metaphors, Prince has not lost himself in cynicism, not abandoned the chance for original solutions by subscribing to the pimp’s excuse that “you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.”
When Prince leans toward misogyny on tunes like ‘Something in the Water’ and ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married’ one can hear him consider and re-consider the options. The outcome of the war between the sexes is in no way a foregone conclusion for Prince, nor has he bothered to take sides.
A line like “screw the masses” on ‘D.M.S.R.’ is meant to distress the armchair revolutionaries, for totalitarian government impresses Prince about as much as any police state. If you ask him to suggest a better alternative he might refer you to a line in ‘Ronnie Talk to Russia’ where another ostensibly counter-revolutionary statement – “…don’t feed guerrillas” – is merely a reminder that when you are trying to live it doesn’t really matter if the people doing the killing are of a right or left persuasion. Feed people not guerrillas; wage food diplomacy not revolution.
Carol Cooper: What is all this talk about a “new breed” coming out of the Controversy album?
Prince: The “New Breed?” It’s no doctrine, no rhetoric. We’re not sloganeers the way politicians are. I always laugh when people complain that my “message” lyrics aren’t specific. Where has all the “specificity” of Mao or Marx, Franklin or Jefferson, or even Plato and Aristotle gotten us? True philosophy need be no more specific than “live and let live”. The “New Breed” are people who know how to do that.
On ‘All the Critics Love U in New York’ on the new album, you recite a litany of backhanded swipes at music critics. What is that all about?
A little vindictiveness I guess, but not a lot. It was part experiment and part joke, but people didn’t seem to get it. I remember the critic from Rolling Stone tagged it along with ‘D.M.S.R.’ as obvious filler, when I thought they were two of the best tunes, so you figure it. But if you’re asking for a general statement, I guess I’m saying that the media fucks with you, with your image. They’re concept groupies. Interviewers are another species of tourist. Mental vampires. I think Zappa once wrote a line like ‘I won’t do any more publicity balling for you.’ That’s sort of how I feel.
Prince proteges The Time and Vanity 6 have of late taken up their benefactor’s on and off again affair with the press, and at present, only Morris Day of The Time remains sanguine about bolstering his onstage persona with comments (more playful and flippant with each encounter) to the scribes and Pharisees.
The Time, with their modified zoot suits and two-tone shoes are like a scaled down model of the early Savannah Band. But their style is less about degenerated America than about bad boys who’ve found a constructive use, temporarily, for their time. Due to circumstances they’d really like to control some day, they’ve become white collar gangsters-in-training; a sort of street elite of Uptown USA. Given to puns and mock bragadoccio, Day’s primary emphasis is always about being pressed for time. And paired with Prince’s time-tied apocalyptic warnings, The Time also offer a thematic indirection that echoes one of Stevie Wonder’s recent mysticisms…We are the children of your night.”
Day might quip “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die – but not us.”
The three girls who form Vanity 6 are somewhat more problematic as a viable female faction of the Princely avant garde. None of the three play instruments on stage, and the songs on their debut LP for the most part require no extraordinary singing ability. For visuals they vascillate between Vampirella’s cartoon menace, and lingerie-clad coffee table porn. Susan and Vanity develop more stage presence every time I see them (Brenda, the oldest, had hers down from the beginning) but they as yet seem unclear on whether they’re aiming for Annabella style prurience, camp comedy, or the deeper implications of a Joanna Russ style Female Man.
As a freeze frame triple fracture of Prince’s own feminine projections they are intriguing: Vanity, a creamy sort of black Barbarella sandwiched between a sweet, underage brown vixen and a tall, butch blond who talks like the black Boston ghetto. Vanity is meant to combine the other two with an extra kink or two of her own thrown in for good measure. It will be interesting to see where the second album takes them, as The Time were not taken seriously either until their second time around.
The point is, has been, and always will be to fly in the face of convention, and if The Time, Prince, and Vanity 6 are able to sustain the work pace they’ve set for themselves, the changes and growth are bound to be a more accurate reflection of America’s current state of mind than any other set of pop-culture artifacts.
Carol Cooper: Tell me about the line “Purple love and war/That’s all you’re headed for/But don’t show it”. That seems to be the pivotal statement on ‘All the Critics Love U’.
Prince: Oh, now you’re getting close. All is fair in love and war. Royal purple, red and blue, the colour of yin and yang when they become one. People are still not serious on a mass level about the war against racism and poverty, they’re also not ready for my kind of love. So yes, I’m making love and war in ways that society is not sympathetic to at the moment, so that’s why it’d be unwise to show it. The war of Armageddon is coming whether we’re prepared for it or not, and in ‘Free’ I talk a little more about the freedom of choice between good and evil. No government gave you that, God did. But governments don’t want you to remember that – which is why they put conscientious objectors in jail. But in the war that’s coming there’ll be no way to abstain. Whatever you do you’ll have to be behind one flag or another. My flag is freedom, purple, unconditional love.
But you would have to admit with all the sex-related disease around, from herpes to A.I.D.S., that it would discourage people from following your advice into free, polymorphous sex.
All these things are prophesy. I wouldn’t tell anybody not to take precautions…
Your philosophy doesn’t mention any.
You can look at it two ways. Either other aspects of the wrong way people are using their environment is making people sick, or these diseases are just what they call them – the Wrath of God. All I say is that you shouldn’t repress your sexual feelings just because somebody official told you to. In many places in the world today you’re not supposed to fuck just like you’re not supposed to think. Part of thinking for yourself is avoiding people who are going to give you diseases – mental or physical.
The extremely psychadelic new video from Prince….a cover of the old Tommy James classic (incorporating a bit of “Wild Thing” by The Troggs, by way of Jimi Hendrix)…from his new collection LotusFlow3r…