Monday, July 23, 2007

No. 72: Purple Rain

Band: Prince and The Revolution
Album: Purple Rain
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Purple Rain" is Minnesota's greatest son's (take that, Warren Burger and Bob Dylan!) greatest record. Fully realizing his inner nouveau Sly Stone, Prince combined the popular genres of the day (pop, hard rock) with the music he was already making (funk, R&B) and some disparate styles (early rap, psychedelia, maybe early electronic music?) into something totally different and brilliant. The accompanying film has achieved "So bad, it's good" status thanks to the ironic love given to Morris Day recently, but the album stands up.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I imagine it should be higher, but I'm not totally sure. This is a pretty good rating.
Best song: "When Doves Cry" is, hands down, the best song on "Purple Rain."
Worst song: Well, if you're Tipper Gore, it's "Darling Nikki." For everyone else, it's probably "The Beautiful Ones."
Is it awesome?: It's close, but it falls short.

Is there a weirder state in the Union than Minnesota? All kinds of strange politicians come out of Minnesota, hence Jesse Ventura winning the governorship up there. It's cold nine months out of the year. They have a million lakes, though many are frozen. It's Midwestern in a lot of ways, but it's so far North, it might as well be Canada.

Bob Dylan is from Minnesota. Minneapolis had produced a decent punk rock scene in the '80s with bands like Soul Asylum and Husker Du.

Also, Prince. Prince is from Minneapolis. Outside of "genius," the first thing people identify with Prince is "strange." He's a very strange dude. He's brilliant, but he's clearly nuts.

The first thing that stands out is his hyper sexuality, something that has been co-opted by a lot of R&B singers since Prince, but none as well. Prince's genius in regards to filthy music was his ability to cloak/blend it with sensuality. His own bisexuality clearly gives him an edge over the overly machismo "I want to hit it from the back"-type lyrics that have come since "Darling Nikki" (sample lyric: "The castle started spinning or maybe it was my brain/I can't tell U what she did 2 me, but my body will never be the same "). His lyrics are just part of what made Prince both so influential and so popular.

Stylistically, though, Prince is one of a kind. His obsession with bright purple (and, later, bright yellow) is certainly distinctive. He's been lampooned on Dave Chapelle's show for wearing a "zorro-type outfit" or something "a figure skater would wear." Certainly, his flamboyance was something to behold in the '80s.

His personal style, especially on "Purple Rain," takes from Jimi Hendrix as much as his guitar work does. His solos on "Baby I'm a Star," "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" showcase his guitar chops as well as his fashion sense for the strange.

Again, he's strange. A lot of people my age know Prince from his assless chaps appearance at the VMAs (an appearance which appears to be absent from the Internet) and his constant name change battle (he's "Prince," he's a symbol, he's "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince," he's "Prince" again). Certainly, the story retold on "Chapelle's Show" is even more hilarious when you read about the Carlos Boozer rental story.


Still, the music is amazing. Taking a page from Sly Stone's book, Prince added rock and roll guitar to R&B in order to add to the frenetic energy his previous albums had already featured. The result is songs like "Let's Go Crazy," a nearly unclassifiable song that mixes the funky beats of R&B with the hooks of a pop record and the guitar solos of a Hendrix track.

"Darling Nikki" was one of the Parents Music Resource Center's "Filthy Fifteen," the songs they considered to be the 15 most sexual songs getting radio airplay. It's quaint to look at the list now (considering Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)" was a top 50 single in 2002), but "Darling Nikki" was kind of dirty for the time. Just the opening lines ("I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess U could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine") are provocative enough for some parents to be upset. Still, the song rocks pretty hard and Prince's use of language is considerably better than the goofed analogies of "Milkshakes" and being a "Slave 4 U" of modern porno-rock (as Tipper would call it).

Of course, the album's zenith is pretty clearly "When Doves Cry." Covered by everyone from Damien Rice to Mushroomhead to that kid in the Leo DiCaprio version of "Romeo and Juliet," "When Doves Cry" is delightfully and unapologetically unconventional for a dance track. Instead of a quick-reaction beat, the song starts with a guitar solo and a simple 4/4 electronic beat. Prince's guttural utterings/David Lee Roth-esque moans enter, along with the sparse melody played on what sounds like a toy piano.

Probably the most striking thing, musically, is the lack of a bassline. In a genre known as well for bass players (The Family Stone's Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, etc.) as lead singers, Prince forgoes a back bassline in any context. According to legend, Prince put one in, but felt it sounded too normal for his liking.

Lyrically, it's as adventurous as it is smart. The metaphor of peace failing in a household setting (the song was written about Prince's parents separation) works well, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure birds don't cry. Still, Prince weaves family dynamics ("Dig if U will the picture/Of U and I engaged in a kiss/
The sweat of your body covers me") in with stories of his family struggles ("Why do we scream at each other?/This is what it sounds like when doves cry") all while wondering which is real. It's a wonderfully introspective number wrapped in a musical experiment that works as well as anything did in 1984.


I'd be remiss if I didn't send readers over to Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's piece for Rolling Stone Magazine's "Immortals" series. In that series (maybe I'll do a project on that piece one day), RS named what they consider to be 100 of the greatest (the greatest, maybe?) artists. Anyway, ?uestlove's piece on Prince represents a better perspective from someone who grew up on Prince's early stuff.

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