Controversy,released on this day in 1981,is one of my very favorite albums of Prince’s immediate pre-crossover period. It came along at a time when he was heavily building his musical persona. Everything from his stripped down instrumental approach,the name Jamie Starr and around this period the introduction of The Time. First time I saw the album on vinyl,it was the basic Prince image I saw on the cover staring hard at me in front of some captivating faux newspaper headlines. The purple trench coat with the studded shoulder and his Little Richard inspired hairstyle were there-as well as the thin mustache.
Picked the album up on vinyl upon seeing this from Dr. Records,in its old location in Orono Maine. Happily it still had the original poster inside showing Prince posing in the shower, wearing nothing but black bikini underwear. Its also important to note I heard Prince’s albums almost in order,so heard this fourth in that line. The title track in its full version really got my attention. Especially where Prince is reciting the lords prayer over the pumping rhythm and funkified rhythm guitar before his chant at the end. My boyfriend told me this was the very first Prince song he heard while living Scranton,Pennsylvania.
That chant at the end of course was “people call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules”. The albums major funky moments come in the slap bass and synth brass groove of “Lets Work”,one of his finest slices of funk of that time. He also provides one of his major funk ballads in the elongated workout of “Do Me,Baby”-written by Andre Cymone and featuring some lustful vocals and slap bass. “Sexuality” ably mixes a rockabilly rhythm and melody,chicken scratch guitar and new wave synthesizers. Lyrically it also provides a bit of the albums social manifesto.
“Private Joy” is a sleek post disco new wave pop number build around drums and synthesizers-plus a peppy,sexy falsetto chorus. “Ronnie Talk To Russia” is a short,punky new wave number with a rather narcissistic anti nuclear message asking the president to talk to Russia “before they blow up my world”. “Annie Christian” is a striking art rock type number metaphorically dealing with the issues of violence and gun control in the early 80’s. The album ends with sexually playful “Jack U Off”,which is a straight up synthesized version of 50’s rockabilly.
Musically speaking,this album really finds Prince solidifying his sound. The musical pallet is similar to its predecessor Dirty Mind. Production wise however,Controversy is a pretty slick sounding album that doesn’t have the previous albums raw demo like quality. The album also integrates funkiness into its instrumental approach. Many times in the general rhythm of the songs,a lot of them still fall into the retro 50’s rock n’ roll/rockabilly style Prince was dealing with at this time. At the same time,he showcased how R&B,funk and modern synth pop/new wave would represent a major part of the Minneapolis sound.
Conceptually this album is one of his most telling. The Prince of Controversy emerged as a concerned,conscious citizen who also had a mildly unknowing,socially conservative streak. A lot of it is Prince walking the classic soul music line between the secular and the spiritual. In one song alone for example he’s saying “sexuality is all we’ll ever need” and turns around to say “don’t let your children watch television until they learn how to read/or all they’ll know how to do is cuss,fight and breed”. This mix of sexual freedom and social paranoia is a close early glimpse of Prince’s then developing social conscience.
Prince of course is no longer with us. And with a released catalog almost 40 albums strong in his lifetime,he’s told many different stories both musically and lyrically. My friend Henrique warned me not to try to chase Prince’s motivations because of how intentionally elusive the artist tended to be. For me,this album is probably the closest he came in the 1980’s to laying his soul bare. His feelings on sex,violence and religion are something he’s trying to reconcile throughout this album. Don’t know if he ever did fully reconcile them before he died. But the questions he asked here may be more important than the answers.