The first album from the Minneapolis wunderkind is a classic "flashes plenty of potential but he's not quite all there yet" debut. Executive produced by Tommy Viccari (at the record company's insistence) but otherwise "produced, composed, arranged, and performed by Prince," the 19 year old was largely up for the task here but his songwriting had yet to fully blossom. This album, whose first side is largely made up of lightly funky pop and disco and whose second side is primarily comprised of ballads (or "slow jams" as they say), is a bit too synth-y and ballad heavy, with plenty of solid songs but few obvious standouts. The album's most famous song is the danceable light funk pop number "Soft and Wet," a fun party tune notable for Prince's breathy vocals, but "In Love," a light dance track with catchy falsetto vocals, is also enjoyable; the preceding song, "For You," is merely a minute-long a capella intro. Also on side one is "Crazy You," a short, simple, melodic ballad, and the lightly funky groover "Just As Long As We're Together," which features more high-pitched vocals (as per usual on this album) and which stands out due to its extended 6+ minute duration. "Baby" starts out side two with one of those aforementioned "slow jams," this one with a good lead vocal, while "My Love Is Forever" delivers lightly poppy soft soul whose impressive guitar solo sets it apart. "So Blue" is atypical in that acoustic guitar is the primary instrument (though there are synthesizers as well, naturally), and though I'm not crazy about Prince's whimpering lead vocal, it's still a decent effort overall, and the album ends on a strong note with "I'm Yours," the album's most rocking song on which he flashes his full on guitar hero moves, which would be greater showcased on future albums. Actually, pretty much everything that Prince does well would be greater showcased on future albums, but this short (33 minute) initial introduction to Prince the uniquely talented artist is still a consistently solid and extremely listenable effort overall.
Prince (Warner Bros. ‘79) Rating: B+
A more successful record in every way (aside from the dreadful album cover), Prince's self-titled second album has better songs plus a more diverse and original vision. It's still primarily fairly straightforward, lightly funky disco and pop with high-pitched, effeminate vocals, but it contains killer upbeat songs such as "I Wanna Be Your Lover," a great hooky danceable pop song with an extended synth solo on the outro, "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad," which has similar virtues but substitutes an impressively melodic guitar solo this time, and "I Feel For You," another catchy dance pop tune that was a major hit for Chaka Khan a few years later. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" was the album's big hit, and it brought Prince to a wider audience and made Prince the best seller among his early albums. Elsewhere, the bass-driven "Sexy Dancer" is more pure funk than anything previously, while "Bambi" is the album's hard rock entry whose cool guitar playing and intriguingly risqué lyrics (he's trying to "convert" a lesbian) easily offsets his irritating vocals. The four ballads this time are solid but don't really stand out from the pack to me, the best being "Still Waiting," which delivers tuneful soft soul pop with airy harmonized vocals. The upbeat songs are the obvious standouts, however.
Dirty Mind (Warner Bros. ‘80) Rating: A-
Eight audacious synth/keyboard-dominated dance tracks from an auteur with all the right moves, this ode to Prince’s libido cranks out one sexually explicit funk-pop song after another. Seen by many as Prince’s first major work (it was certainly his best reviewed album to date even if it failed to match the prior album's sales), I find these new wavey songs to be catchy fun but also somewhat slight, both musically and lyrically. This is highly entertaining party music, don’t get me wrong, and I’m down with Prince’s “Dirty Mind” (one of my favorite tunes here, and besides doesn't everybody have a dirty mind at least to some small degree? Well most people do...) and “Partyup” mentality (hey, I like to “Do It All Night” as much as the next guy, though only a wacko would have sex with his own “Sister”!). But my favorite songs here, the sublime “When You Were Mine” (a rare song here about love rather than lust, later covered by Cyndi Lauper) and “Uptown” (a great song though its shrill vocals are a tad off putting) are the tracks that pack the most guitar bite and sport a more full-bodied sound. The album also short changes the listener with a mere 30 minutes running time, though an argument can be made that a short album is fitting since these songs are all of a piece and simply make their point and move on. It is an undeniably impressive record, especially when you consider that it’s mostly the work of one guy. Fortunately, that one guy is a genius with a knack for enjoyable rump shakers ("Gotta Broken Heart Again" is the lone ballad this time), causing my complaints to fall by the wayside as I get lost in the album's abundant hooks and danceable grooves. Sometimes the simple things in life are the most pleasurable, and following the depraved thoughts of this horny prodigy ("Head" is about a bride to be who blows him on the way to her wedding - nice, huh?) provides plenty of simple pleasures, even if the album may be too lyrically graphic for some listeners and musically it doesn’t quite measure up to some of the weightier projects his future would hold.
Controversy (Warner Bros. ‘81) Rating: B+
Although it tends to get overlooked compared to its surrounding albums, this is another entertaining effort that aside from a couple of filler efforts mostly maintains the high quality of Dirty Mind. Despite titles such as "Do Me Baby" (a slow, simmering 7+ minute slow burner that's superb) and "Jack U Off" (I'm too busy blushing to write about this one but suffice it to say I like it a lot) this album on the whole isn't as lyrically "shocking" as Dirty Mind, and sound-wise Prince further embraces coldly robotic synths and longer songs (the aforementioned ballad but also the very good if over-long 7+ minute title track, another hooky number that introduces his deeper voice along with the usual high-pitched falsettos that had dominated his first three albums). Like his prior albums, this one is badly dated to that time period (mostly due to the dinky bright keyboards) but again this is easy for me to overlook because the songs are all very good for the most part aside from the lame but mercifully brief rocker "Ronnie, Talk To Russia" (I guess Prince left his bedroom and recording studio long enough to watch the news for a change!) and the experimental spoken word misfire "Annie Christian." The best of the rest is probably "Private Joy," an upbeat tune that's quite catchy and well, joyful (dig that screaming guitar solo too), while "Sexuality" (a prototypical Prince song title) is a pretty good fast-paced groover and "Let's Work" a rump shaking funk workout. On the whole, Controversy was another very good album from Prince, even if it didn't really offer any major advancements on what he'd done previously. That would come soon enough, however, and the attendant tour, during which he supported The Rolling Stones, may have been an ill-suited match but it nevertheless significantly increased his profile, which helped set the stage for his commercial breakthrough. Note: Around this time Prince started writing, producing, and performing (aside from singing) songs for a variety of side projects, the most notable of which was The Time. The Purple One is nothing if not prolific!
1999 (Warner Bros. ‘82) Rating: A-
This was Prince’s breakthrough album, which set the stage for his biggest success Purple Rain. It was also probably his best album to date (this is a high A-), though not without its flaws as this double album (now a single CD) contains several songs (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic,” and “Lady Cab Driver” for starters) that are clearly too long, plus there are some others that are less than his best. Still, this is where Prince really started to perfect his hybrid funk-soul-rock-pop-disco sound, and the album’s fantastic first two songs, “1999” and “Little Red Corvette,” are two of his biggest hits and best songs ever. The title track is notable for several reasons, starting with the traded off vocals, as Lisa Coleman, Dez Dickerson, and then Prince sing lead, recalling the way Sly & the Family Stone used to do it. (They make vocal contributions elsewhere as well, making this easily his most vocally varied album to date, plus Dickerson adds a classic guitar solo to “Little Red Corvette,” as Prince was finally letting others contribute on his records, though he still handles almost all of the instrumentation himself.) “1999” features hooks a mile high, and even good lyrics about a pending apocalypse, as Prince was expanding his worldview beyond his bedroom. Still, despite its dark subject matter, “1999” is a great upbeat party song, one that was particularly popular as the millennium approached (p.s. this album version is almost twice as long as its single edit). “Little Red Corvette” is simply a brilliantly catchy pop song, albeit one that’s still dated to the ‘80s, though again that doesn’t really impede my enjoyment of it. Anyway, the rest of the album doesn’t quite hit those two high points, but there are other standout tracks as well, such as “Delirious,” a catchy, danceable, new wave/Elvis Presley-influenced (quite a combo, huh?) number highlighted by its squeaky synths, "Let's Pretend We're Married," a highly rhythmic, pulsating groover with delicious falsetto vocals, “Automatic,” which may run too long but which has an impressively funky (if robotic) synth-led groove, cool intertwining vocals, and good guitar playing, “Free,” a spare, tender ballad that to my ears sounds like Prince warming up for “Purple Rain” (though it's a very good song in its own right), and “Lady Cab Driver,” probably my favorite non-hit and another hook-filled track that has horns (or synths approximating horns) and brings forth some serious guitar heat (I wish that more of this album was guitar rather than synth-based, come to think of it). Elsewhere, Prince may be expanding his mind somewhat (great lyric: “I guess I should’ve known by the way you parked your car sideways, that it wouldn’t last”), but lyrics like “I got a lion in my pocket and baby he’s ready to roar” and “I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth” show that his image as a strange, androgynous, purple-obsessed sex fiend is probably pretty accurate! Fortunately, Prince remains a supremely talented musician, and 1999 contains some prime stuff, plus it's also encased within his first halfway decent album cover. Note: After the tour for this album, Dez Dickerson was replaced by Wendy Melvoin, and the "classic lineup" of Prince's most beloved backing band, the Revolution, was set: Wendy Melvoin on guitar/vocals, Mark Brown on bass/vocals, Lisa Coleman on keyboards/piano/vocals, Matt "Doctor" Fink on keyboards/vocals, and Robert B. Rivkin (aka Bobby Z.) on drums.
Purple Rain (Warner Bros. ‘84) Rating: A+
This is the Prince album that everybody knows and loves, and it's the one that vaulted him into the upper echelon of superstardom, where he competed with the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen for top dog honors within the pop-rock spectrum, if only temporarily. A soundtrack album destined to far outlive its mediocre movie counterpart (though the success of the movie helped commercially, if not critically), Prince’s first proper band outing on record features his most fondly recalled backing band, The Revolution, who further flesh out his sound (Lisa and Wendy's vocals are often prominent as well) on some truly classic tracks, which are far more rock and guitar-based than previously (which if you know me I heartily approve of). The album is best-remembered for "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," and the title track, but this is far from a hits-plus-filler affair and in fact is probably Prince's most consistent album. #1 hit "Let's Go Crazy" starts the proceedings with a classic spoken work intro (love those church-y keyboards too) before turning into a catchy, high energy party anthem replete with multiple guitar solos, including a screaming unaccompanied guitar solo capping things off on the coda. "When Doves Cry," an even bigger, monster #1 hit, is a strikingly stark and original song that's famously bass-less and features more great guitar playing, surprisingly heartfelt and moving lyrics, and memorably robotic multi-tracked vocals. Last but certainly not least, the nearly 9-minute title track is an all-time epic power ballad with an atmospheric melody, a big singable chorus, and a classic, transcendent extended guitar solo. The earlier ballad, "The Beautiful Ones," also builds to an epic climax (led by Prince's phenomenal vocal performance) and is a terrific album track, while irresistibly catchy dance numbers like “Take Me With You” (a duet with movie co-star Apollonia) and “I Would Die 4 U” (spelling challenged song titles are another Prince trademark) are first class keyboard dominated pop songs. Elsewhere, Prince's world class guitar playing, a highlight throughout the album, elevates the otherwise average "Computer Blue" (a harsh electro-rock number), the risqué lyrics of "Nikki Darling," on which our titular heroine masturbates and which incurred the wrath of the PMRC (thereby boosting album sales, naturally), overshadows its slinkily seductive melody, and "Baby I'm A Star" provides another energetic, danceable party tune, even if it's not one of the better songs here. On the whole, Purple Rain is a dazzling display of a musical genius and his best backing band capturing a sustained creative peak.
Around The World In A Day (Warner Bros. ‘85) Rating: B
Rather than attempt a sequel to Purple Rain, Prince (again with the Revolution) proved with this far different (and far less commercial) release that he was a true artist who was willing to follow his own muse. The record company was none too eager for any fresh product at the time, feeling that this one came out too soon on the heels of its blockbuster predecessor, but the album still sold three million and spawned two top 10 hits despite minimal publicity (Prince's wishes). So, even if it pales compared to Prince's best work, mostly because the material is pretty hit or miss, this is still a very worthwhile album, one that is notable for its '60s psychedelic influence (more Beatles than Hendrix this time), as its kaleidoscopic music matches the album's colorful cover. The album gets off to a solid start with the title track, a co-write with Lisa's brother David Coleman notable for its exotic Middle Eastern instrumentation and chant-like chorus. With strings, sitars, saxophones, piano, and the like, plus layered vocals (Wendy and Lisa often chime in or even duet with Prince), this album is definitely different, making it something of an intriguing one-off within Prince's prolific catalog. I really like "Paisley Park," mostly due to its extremely catchy sing songy chorus, and of course "Raspberry Beret" (on which Wendy & Lisa composed and conducted the strings and are featured prominently in the vocals as well) was the catchy, upbeat pop hit that everybody remembers from this album. "Pop Life," a catchy, funky, light (at least musically as the lyrics are quite cynical) pop hit with Prince protégé Sheila E. on drums, is also pretty undeniable, but the rest of the material is less impressive. There are a pair of big gospel-y ballads that feature impressively emotional vocals, but "Condition Of The Heart" is pretty but too slow going and uneventful at times; I prefer "The Ladder" though the spoken word intro can't compete with "Let's Go Crazy" in that department and the rest of the song is solid but certainly no "Purple Rain" (sorry but comparisons are inevitable). Elsewhere, the politically charged "America" isn't the most original or lyrically savvy (the words "heavy handed" come to mind) song, but hey at least it exemplifies that this is probably Prince's least sex-obsessed album to date, plus it's also more guitar-based than most of the other songs. As for my two least favorite tracks here, "Tamborine" (spare, slinky, percussive-based funk) and the 8-minute "Temptation" (a pretentious hodgepodge of ideas that never quite coheres and is frankly pretty embarrassing at times) are largely undone by annoying vocals. Fortunately, the majority of this offbeat album is at least interesting and occasionally excellent ("Paisley Park," "Raspberry Beret," "Pop Life").
Parade (Warner Bros. ‘86) Rating: A-
Subtitled Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon, this is a soundtrack album that is destined to outlast its movie counterpart. Then again, like most people I've never seen the movie, which by most accounts was a disaster. Wikipedia says "the album sees Prince further diversifying musically, adding orchestrations to his music and presenting a very European feel," and I'd agree with that assessment. The album, which I like a lot by the way, is again colorful but is less overtly psychedelic than Around The World In A Day. Instead the album is jazzier, with Wendy and Lisa again prominent on vocals on what would turn out to be Prince's last album backed by the Revolution (though Prince recorded most of the music by himself), and there are also lots of horns (primarily sax and trumpet) and woodwinds (or at least synths approximating woodwinds). The album starts with three short songs (my favorite of which is the catchy, colorful opener "Christopher Tracy's Parade") before taking off in earnest on the strong jazzy ballad "Under The Cherry Moon." "Girls & Boys" is a funky horn-heavy toe tapper with hooky synths and neat guitar interjections, "Life Can Be So Nice" is an up-tempo feel good pop song that's crammed with all sorts of cool musical ideas, and "Mountains" was a modest top 40 hit that easily could've been bigger by virtue of its airy pop chorus. The album has a couple of filler tracks ("I Wonder U," "Do U Lie?") with "U" in the title (coincidence?), and "Venus de Milo" is merely a short mellow instrumental that acts as a mid-album interlude, but the album finishes with a flourish with three of its finest songs. Sparse, extremely funky, and funny, the classic "Kiss" was a monster #1 hit that's among his signature songs (though truth be told his fey vocals here take some getting used to), and "Anotherloverholenyohead" also should've been a much bigger hit than it was (it flopped, basically), as it's an excellent gospel funk pop song. Finally, the melancholic "Sometimes It Snows in April" is another really good if over-long (6:48) ballad, this one primarily featuring acoustic guitar and piano plus a vocal from Prince that's much more reserved than usual (though Prince is a great vocalist, he can annoy me sometimes). Anyway, Parade has its flaws but it's among Prince's best overall efforts, though album sales again decreased despite it having a huge hit single. Note: Prince achieved something done by only a handful of other songwriters (can you name them?) when his song "Manic Monday," as performed by The Bangles, hit #2 on the Billboard charts at the same time that "Kiss" was #1.
Sign "O" the Times (Warner Bros. '87) Rating: A+
The background to this album is a bit complicated, so I'll let Wikipedia explain: "The double album was a synthesis of three projects from 1986, including some work with The Revolution. The bulk of the tracks originate from the final Revolution project known as Dream Factory and a later solo project called Camille. These projects, along with some other songs, merged into a 22-track, 3-LP opus called Crystal Ball. Prince's record company, Warner Bros. Records, balked at the idea of a 3-LP album, considering both the lukewarm performance of Parade and Prince's second film, Under the Cherry Moon, and it forced Prince to trim the album down." A highly varied tour de force that bowled over the critics, Sign "O" The Times shows off every asset in the Prince arsenal. Largely written, performed, and produced by his bad purple self after the dissolution of the Revolution, lyrically Prince extends himself beyond his usual horny musings, as evidenced by the dark anti-drug title track. In fact, on the passionate dance ballad “Forever In My Life” Prince declares himself ready to settle down, and lyrics like “baby I just can’t stand to see you happy, but more than that I hate to see you sad” are a bit more complicated than his one track mind usually allows. Musically, the album runs the gamut, from P-Funk styled funk stompers to slick Philly soul dance ballads to Joni’s subtle shadings to exciting Hendrix-ian guitar exploits to other otherworldly stuff that only this warped genius would ever think of. At 2 cd’s the album contains a little (but not much) filler, and Prince’s wide-ranging vocals can sound silly when he opts for his cartoonish Steve Urkel-ish alter ego Camille. So, the album isn’t perfect; it’s still a masterpiece that I never tire of listening to, despite the usual "dated to the '80s" problem with some of the sonics, in particular the drums. For one thing, Prince lets loose with lots of great guitar playing throughout, but more than that the album is chock full of great songs. Listing highlights is hard, but certainly the three top 10 hits are all worth a mention; in addition to the already-mentioned title track, whose sparse, spidery funk groove is also memorable, there's "U Got the Look," a hard-edged, danceable, guitar-driven rock duet with Sheena Easton, and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," a great pop rock song with a great guitar solo, period. Although it flopped as a single at the time, "If I Was Your Girlfriend," which sees a sensitive, jealous Prince (though it's lyrics are still sexually graphic naturally!) singing ballad-style in falsetto mode, is also one of his most justifiably famous songs, and excellent album tracks (to name just a few) come in the form of the playfully upbeat party tune "Play In the Sunshine," the seductive dance ballad "The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker," the lightly singable piano ditty “Starfish And Coffee,” the sexy horn-fueled soul ballad "Slow Love," the melodic, stirring, powerfully building guitar rock epic "The Cross" (which critic Jimmy Guterman said “sounds like the Staple Singers fronting the Velvets”), and "Adore," a classic falsetto-flavored soul ballad. Although again on the whole it was more a modest seller like the prior two albums rather than the once in a lifetime smash hit that was Purple Rain, this album gives that one a run for its money as the best Prince album, and it proved once and for all that the man really can do it all. My only complaints are that he hasn't released an album nearly this good since, plus given its under 80 minute running time it should be available as a single cd (but that’s his record company’s fault). P.S. Prince hasn't stopped making good music since (I'm partial to 1995's The Gold Experience), but few would argue that he did his best work in the '80s, or that he's often been his own worst enemy, as his strange behavior (i.e. stupidly changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and/or "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince") has often overshadowed his music, much like that other '80s music icon Michael Jackson. Quality control has also been a major problem at times.
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