Now that a day had passed since Prince’s rather sudden death,there’s been some time to absorb everything a bit better. Henrique Hopkins and myself have been discussing Prince’s music in a funk context for years now. Everything from the strong influence of Curtis Mayfield on his falsetto voice and high on the neck guitar playing,down to his bass playing being influenced by his guitar style. Earlier I ran down some of Prince’s most influential albums throughout the years. As the man himself said last year,,albums matter.
Also on that last article,mention was made about a good deal of Prince’s most creatively satisfying works having not been mentioned in favor of the highlights. So in this article I plan to remedy some of this. As my friend Calvin Lincoln had implied,Prince’s music has been overdressed by some. And in all truth,his album’s after the early 90’s could be extremely uneven in quality. But the key element of his musical ethic was the element of surprise. When one thought he was out of steam,couldn’t rock and had lost the funk,he came back with vigor. So here are some albums that reflected this for me anyway.
Prince’s sophomore album provided him with his first major pop hit in “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. Songs such as “I Feel For You”,later done by the Pointer Sisters and most famously by Chaka Khan as well as the churning funk of “Sexy Dancer” are stand out funky grooves on an album that leans heavily towards west coast style pop/rock and mildly country influenced ballads. As Prince himself said it,the album was for the radio more than for him. But in the end it balanced his musical approach and sense of pop craft very well.
I’m listing these albums together because Prince’s third album Dirty Mind from 1980 and and fourth Controversy from 1981 could almost be part one and part two. The former album has a rougher demo like musical quality-with “Partyup”,”Head” and “Uptown” having an anti authoritarian punk funk vibe about them. The latter album was a bit sleeker musically. And an interesting attempt for Prince to address socio political concerns as they were developing. “Sexuality” and “Annie Christian” address everything from censorship to gun violence while the title song deals with his sexually and musical free outlook. He also pulls out some heavy funk on “Let’s Work” as well. These are two albums that really lend themselves well to be heard together.
Prince knew this 1984 album was going to be his commercial breakthrough album. In hindsight it’s also the album that still has a lot of radio oriented music lovers convinced (incorrectly,really) that Prince was primarily a rock based artist. And probably on purpose. That’s because this album doesn’t have much funk/soul content on it. At the same time,it could best be described as progressive new wave/synth rock at the cutting edge instrumentally-with the bass-less classic “When Does Cry”,the brittle “I Would Die 4 U” and “Computer Blue” leading the way. That plus the fierce gospel hard rocker “Let’s Go Crazy” and the arena anthem title cut really gave Prince the huge audience he has today. And it served to musically illustrate the semi autobiographical feature film of the same name.
Parade was Prince’s second soundtrack for his second film in 1986 called Under The Cherry Moon marked the ethos of a massive change in musical priorities for Prince. The electronic orchestrations of the Minneapolis sound are replaced by the sweeping strings of Claire Fischer and the sax of newcomer Eric Leeds. These shows up on the cinematic “Christopher Tracy’s Parade”,”Life Can Be So Nice” and “Mountains”. Still Prince throws down some of his most powerful funk with “Girls & Boys”,”Anotherloverholeinyohead” and the iconic hit “Kiss”-with it’s Curtis Mayfield style falsetto and that high up on the neck guitar.
Perhaps this is Prince’s most personally defining album in his career. The history of this 1987 album is enough for at least one whole article. Started as a whole other type of project during a massive period of recording the year before,it eventually became a double album. It has the uneven quality of a greatest hits album,with songs sounding as if they come from totally different sessions. But the strength of all the material make it all work.
It has it all-from soul ballads like “Slow Love”,pop/rockers such as “Play In The Sunshine” and “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” to the proto alternative/grunge sound of “The Cross”. The funk comes in many varieties from the full on JB groove of “Housequake”,the slow grinding “If I Was Your Girlfriend” to the danceable hit “U Got The Look”. There’s also two more distinctive numbers in the jazzy funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” and the dreamy melodic piano pop of “Starfish And Coffee”.
Prince apparently recorded this album in 1987 to be played at a birthday party for drummer Sheila E,who was playing in his band Madhouse at the time. From “Le Grind” to “Rockhard In A Funky Place” at the end,this album is almost a non stop hard funk stomp. Save for the sweet ballad “When 2 R In Love”. Prince is basically playing up one big sexual orgy on all these lyrics-allegedly to showcase he hadn’t sold out. He abruptly shelved this album and didn’t put it out until 1994. But it’s a great party funk album if one is in a particularly rascally mood.
Prince’s third soundtrack to his final and least successful motion picture isn’t a full Prince album per se. It features many productions of his from Paisley Park signed artists such as George Clinton,Mavis Staples and the revived lineup of The Time. As for Prince’s contributions,he has some mutant funk/rockers here such as “Elephants & Flowers”,”Tick Tack Bang” and the epic,jazzy arena rocker “Thieves In The Temple”,his first hit of the 1990’s.
This very elusive concept album from 1992 actually focuses a great deal on the funk side of things with another JB sendup with “Sexy MF” leading the way. “The Sacrifice Of Victor” keeps the funk stripped down in classic Prince style as he waxes nostalgic on the Civil Rights movement. With the psychedelic soul/gospel of “7” leading the way,this largely hip-hop inflected album finds Prince as a bandleader for the NPG “taking it back to Church” as they say in fully rediscovering his black American musical roots.
This 1996 triple CD set was the newest Prince album to come out when I was first getting into exploring his albums. From “We Gets Up”,”Get Your Groove On”,”Sex In The Summer” and the big band sounding “Sleep Around” represent some of his most massive funk of the 90’s decade-along with the synth heavy Minneapolis groove of “New World” and the jazzy opener “Jam Of The Year” and the witty hip-hop of “Style”. Some of the music on this album,as with much of Prince’s output at the time,hasn’t musically aged well. But when the grooves cooks,it cooks up a storm!
Prince made a huge statement towards his music being based in funk with the title track of this 2004 album-another James Brown influenced number in the vein of “Housequake” and “Sexy MF”. This is an album of mostly pop/rockers and 60’s style soul ballads generally. Of the rockers Prince does provide a powerful message song in “Cinnamon Girl”,in which he discusses how the post 9/11 events are leading to discrimination of Muslim Americans.
Prince packaged this 2009 album with another of his entitled Lotusflow3r and female protege Bria Valente’s debut Elixer-exclusively at Target stores at the time. With songs such as “Chocolate Box” and “Dance 4 Me”,Prince began the reboots the 80’s Minneapolis sound this album is named for with it’s use of the Linn drum machine and synth brass. While the album itself represent Prince making his music harder to find by seeking new distribution methods,it paved the way for it’s harder to find follow up 20Ten and represents him re-embracing a sound he was in on the ground floor with.
This 2014 albums turned out to be one of Prince’s final studio albums. Released after a five year hiatus from releasing any new material publicly,it also found him back on Warner Bros. after years of fighting them over artists rights. It’s something of a ground zero for Prince-donning an Afro as he did at the very start of his career and working with a younger producer Joshua Welton. The album is home to two major funk blowouts in “The Gold Standard” and the jazzy “Breakfast Can Wait”-along with some sincere efforts to embrace modern pop and rock production techniques.
I am sure there are many people who’d have very different content in such a list. As much as Prince effected me in terms of his championing of creative freedom for artists? It’s hard to get away from the fact that he died having not effectively been able to embrace online streaming and video (such as YouTube and Vimeo),and became a hostile litigant against anyone who shared his music online in lieu of him doing it. The history of the physical music media he embraced is unknown. But as long as his music exists in some form,it’s important for young people (especially aspiring musicians) to listen to and learn from his grooves.