Baby I’m a Star
(1984; Warner Bros.)
I never walked a mile in Prince’s shoes, so I’ll always wonder what went so south as to make him go into “slave” protest mode in the early 1990s and break from the Warner Bros. roster. I’m not sure what else the Warners could have done for him; frankly, the man should forever be in their debt for their film division’s greenlighting of his tortured-artist movie script. Without getting Purple Rain on camera — regardless of it being formula or a cult classic — Prince may never have committed its music to tape. A lot of it existed before and outside the context of the film but dig, if you will, a picture of the Purple One’s catalog without that soundtrack getting assembled. Does “I Would Die 4 U” slide just as easily into “Baby I’m a Star” somewhere else? Dearly beloved, would “Let’s Go Crazy” be able to start any other album? “When Doves Cry” wasn’t even written until director Albert Magnoli asked Prince to fill in a sonic hole during production; what cosmic forces would have to align to generate it otherwise? And notice how I haven’t even talked about what these songs actually sound like? I never meant to cause you any pain, but I shouldn’t need to say a fucking word about that.
Yet I will: Prince’s screaming guitar solos draw lines between Jimi Hendrix and today’s metal and post-rock magicians. Sneaky synth lines from Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink inspired Trent Reznor. The Revolution’s funk rave-ups echoed James Brown and presaged LCD Soundsystem. The songwriting and production could shift on the fly from is-the-water-ready romance to white-hot yes-Lisa sexuality faster than a page turn in Penthouse Forum. Entertainment magazines’ exercises in instant nostalgia regularly bring up Purple Rain as one of the capital-letter Greatest Albums of 1984, the 1980s, the Last 20 Years, 25 Years, 30 Years, R&B, Rock, and All Time. None of this is hyperbole. Only people who hate Prince hate this album, and we didn’t generate this list because we hate Prince. God help you if you haven’t heard it at a dance party, mashed up with something more current, in some random Spotify playlist, or passed down from a sibling or parent. People who don’t know Prince otherwise know this album, and if you know this album, you know one thing for sure about it: You can call it up whenever you wanna grind. – AB
Rating: 10 out of 10
Around the World in a Day
(1985; Warner Bros.)
Ten months – the music business equivalent of a coffee break – after the release of Purple Rain, Prince released Around The World In A Day with almost no advance notice or publicity. The timing suggested outtakes, or even worse afterthoughts, from the multi-media, completely successful shower of Purple Rain. But Around The World In A Day was its own thing, a nebulous injection of psychedelic principles and synthesizer settings into the Prince canon that at once puffed with ambition and chucked it in the wastebin. For one thing, Prince’s attempt to force childlike innocence back upon himself seemed a little inauthentic. His appropriation of the late ‘60s (I’m gonna have to use this word, sorry) vibe doesn’t quite jell in the rootless title track, and the mindless Shangri-La of “Paisley Park” sounds uneasily like a Prozac endorsement. “Raspberry Beret” accumulates all those touches with a somewhat charming schoolboy lust, but even as the violin scrawls away there’s still a sense that he was playing with an erector set rather than building something on the ground. “Condition Of the Heart” doesn’t feel sadness as much as it sees it from the corner of the room, although the long intro of jazz piano and single-note synth conjures up a pleasant comparison to Stevie Wonder, Talking Book era.
As expected, the songs where Prince doesn’t try too hard deliver the most. “Tamborine” is blatant filler, but its simple backdrop of bass synth and drum set lets Prince go off the hook with a crazily pinched vocal scream. “Pop Life” is the best thing on here; its rich piano stabs, airy chords and simple message might be what he really intended to achieve with the entire record. “Temptation” is one of Prince’s most lurid musical feats, and judging from the bluntly comic way he sings, it’s a real possibility that he’s satirizing his own storied carnality. Maybe he was getting tired of it and thought that we were too. God, who has a spoken word cameo here, almost definitely was tired of Prince jumping on the pussy wagon: “That’s not how it works. You have to want her for the right reasons.” Prince: “I do!” God: “You don’t. Now die.” Not even a proper trial, but I guess God would find that redundant.
As a self-aware parody of his indulgences “Temptation” totally works, but as a serious statement it’s too over-the-top, over-simplifying his complexes and taking eight minutes to do so. Since the guitar’s smoking, I’m going with the former. But like the rest of Around The World In A Day, it’s hard to figure out whether Prince saw it as the next logical step in his ambitions, a hoarse answer to the Purple Rain mega-machine, or just Prince Having Fun On Stage. But if you’re looking for it, well, you can pretty much find it anywhere. – PP
Rating: 6.1 out of 10
(1986; Paisley Park/ Warner Bros)
Prince’s approach (and thus, his discography) is ever-evolving. It’s extremely unlikely that a listener will love all of his work — or even all his best albums — the same. Parade is, perhaps, a great example of that elusive quality. Centered around euro-pop tendencies of the time, Prince’s second film soundtrack was a bit of a stretch for his regular listenership, but effective enough in it’s own right. To match the allure of its companion film, Under The Cherry Moon, Parade enlists silky, orchestral production to highlight its funky repertoire. The resulting sound is a groovy baroque pop of sorts. This new approach’s effectiveness was varied, perhaps most well done on more psych-oriented tracks like “I Wonder You” and “Life Can Be So Nice.” Parade is definitely not Prince’s brightest moment, but it holds a certain charm and curiosity that are well worth the listen; even if the record doesn’t necessarily beg for repeat spins. – ATB
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Sign ‘O’ the Times
(1987; Paisley Park/Warner Bros.)
Prince reached another peak in his career with the release of the masterpiece double-album — easily one of the greatest records of the ’80s — Sign ‘O’ the Times. Having expanded his stylistic palette to encompass psychedelic, electronic, and baroque pop on his previous two releases, Prince sets all his considerable tools to work on a sweeping artistic statement (condensed to two albums from the three he originally planned), and runs the gamut from spiritual, desirous balladry (“Slow Love,” “It’s Gonna Be A Wonderful Night”) to sociopolitical commentary (the title track) to Dorothy Parker and gender role subversion. The wide stylistic diversity with which he realizes these concepts renders the overall album pretty much indescribable from a generic standpoint, but there’s no noodling or lack of focus here (remember, it’s condensed, so there’s no filler). Instead, it somehow comes off as perfectly coherent; though its individual parts are all superb, the gestalt is more spectacular than Purple Rain. And that’s saying a hell of a lot. – CB
Rating: 10 out of 10