Sunday, August 31, 2014

If you think Purple Rain is the Preeminent Prince Album, Here are 7 More You Need to Hear

Purple Rain (1984)

But first, let's talk about how important Purple Rain is.

30 years ago, one of the most culturally significant albums in popular culture was released. Prince & the Revolution's legendary Purple Rain, the soundtrack to the film of the same name, hit shelves on June 25th, 1984. It was preceded by the equally revolutionary lead single "When Doves Cry," the final song recorded for the album. In constructing the now classic tune, Prince made a radical decision that had all of his personnel scratching their heads.

He removed the bass line from the track.

This, in turn, gave the song a minimalist funk kind of sound, which was panned by the people around him. They just knew it wouldn't be a success. However, when the song was finally released in the middle of May in 1984, it was a worldwide smash-becoming Prince's first American number one single and the biggest selling single of the whole year. And that was just the beginning. The album went on to yield another number one with the infectious "Let's Go Crazy" and two top ten singles with "I Would Die 4 U" and the title track. The film, released a month after the soundtrack, was also released to much critical acclaim and grossed over $80 Million at the box office from a $7.2 Million budget. Prince went on to win two Grammy awards for the album and an Oscar for best original score. During the year of 1984, Prince had the number one single, album, and movie all at the same time-a feat that was only ever achieved by The Beatles previously, and has not been achieved by anyone since.

Okay, now that we've got those facts and achievements out of the way and blah blah blah, let's talk about the real importance of this whole era.

Purple Rain was raw. It was nasty. It was Prince. This was nothing new if one takes a look at the 5 albums that preceded it. However, with the huge commercial success that the whole project held, this was the project that catapulted Prince into super stardom. It was also the first time the world got to hear Prince & the Revolution live on a record. The basics for "I Would Die 4 U", "Baby I'm a Star", and "Purple Rain" were recorded live at a Minnesota benefit concert in 1983 (which marked the first appearance of Wendy Melvoin), and later edited and overdubbed in the studio. "Purple Rain" was initially a 16-minute song with extra verses and guitar solos, but it was edited down to 8 minutes for the final configuration of the album. However, if you talk to Prince, I have not seen this unreleased concert, I don't know you, and I was never here.

Though the lyrical content was nothing surprising considering Prince's nature, the fact that the album and film became so popular and commercially successful certainly impacted popular culture in huge ways. Prince became the prime example of being young, wild, and free. He represented being who you are, going all the way to the edge, and even going completely off the edge. No one else was writing songs about a sex fiend named Nikki who somehow thought it was okay to masturbate in a hotel lobby. Or fusing rock, new wave, pop, and funk with jams like "Let's Go Crazy" and "Computer Blue." It was cool. It was different. Oh, and not to mention using letters and numbers in the place of words (I Would Die 4 U). With the age of texting and tweeting with this language on a rise, it had to come from somewhere, right?

But as wildly important that Purple Rain is both culturally and aesthetically, most people whom are not huge Prince fans don't realize that he jumped into the music business with the same "rude boy" attitude, and continued with it 30+ albums later into today. Don't believe me? Go to your local record store or eBay account and pick up a copy of For You, Prince's debut album released in 1978. You'll hear elements of funk, disco, acoustic rock, soft, tender soul ballads, and blaring hard rock. Yet, somehow, he was always able to bring it all together into one collective force.

So, if you're reading this, and the only thing you know about Prince is that "Hey, wasn't he in that one purple movie?" or "Wasn't his only hit that 'When Doves Cry' song?", here are 7 Prince albums you must hear, coming from an expert. This is not to say that these albums are superior to Purple Rain, because comparing two Prince albums is like comparing David Bowie to Barry Manilow. It's just not possible.

  1. 1999 (1982) - In 1982, if you were worried about the predicted apocalypse in 17 years, Prince was there to party with you. This is the ultimate party album that had everyone dancing their life away. Guaranteed. Not only this, but it's the point where Prince had perfected the art of genre-blending. The sound complexity of songs like "Delirious", "Automatic", and "Lady Cab Driver" were absolutely unheard of. Not to mention the extended funk workout of "D.M.S.R."  The music video for one of the most well-known tunes from this classic, "Little Red Corvette" also helped to break the color barrier on MTV alongside Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean".

  2. Around the World in a Day (1985) - This album truly lives up to it's title. It will take you on a journey, beginning with a song that makes you want to call a local belly dancer. You then get a bubblegum pop, hippie-infused song about a park that is paisley and in your heart, a six minute complex ballad with piano work and vocals that will blow your mind, the classic hit about when Prince lost his virginity to a girl in a beret that was raspberry, a song about how funky life can be with a killer bass line, a gospel song about finding salvation, and more. Funny thing about this is, this album was already completed during the middle of the purple success. And it sounds nothing like it. Nothing.

  3. Parade (1986) - Scrambled eggs might be boring to Prince, but this album happens to be far from that. Parade stands as the last album to be credited to Prince and the Revolution, written as the soundtrack to Prince's second motion picture, Under the Cherry Moon, which fared significantly less than it's predecessor. The film aside, the album stands quite well on its own. Not only did it possess one of the biggest hits in his career with "Kiss", but it is also filled with sparse, demo-like recordings that are also filled with life. It sounds unfinished, like these were the humble beginnings of the record, rather than the finished record. Nonetheless, it's filled with offbeat funk, intense orchestration, and a large absence of the rock elements that defined his earlier work. It is the album that explicitly presented the musical dichotomy of Prince.

  4. Sign "☮" the Times (1987) - We shouldn't be talking about this album as part of a collective post. We really shouldn't. It's my favorite Prince album of all time, and I know more about this era than any other. Despite this, we'll try to keep it short(ish). Released exactly one year to the date after Parade, this album is two LPs of sheer craziness. It opens with the bluesy, socially-conscious title track. From there, it spirals off into hardcore funk, a spacey ballad about the Dorothy Parker in Prince's dreams (not the poet), pushes you to consider "Starfish and Coffee" as a new breakfast entree, takes you into a world that defies sex where Prince imagines what it would be like to be your girlfriend (platonically, of course). Then there's "The Cross", which goes from strictly acoustic to blaring hard rock in a split second, the booty-shakin', 9-minute "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" (recorded live with The Revolution in '86), and the album closes with what has to be one of the greatest love songs of all time. Have I said enough? Not nearly.

  5. The Black Album (1987)/Lovesexy (1988) - Okay, so I'm cheating a bit here, but these two albums certainly go hand in hand because of the stories behind them, which we've outlined previously. In case you don't feel like reading the whole thing, here's a shorthand version. Essentially, these two albums represent where the darkness and the light meet. Late 1987-88 is rumored to be a highly conflicting and crazy time for Prince. Only he knows what is true, but what can be said is that the dark funk and rap parodies on The Black Album coupled with the highly spiritual and pop complexity of Lovesexy make this era one of the most ground-breaking in Prince's 35+ year career.

  6. O(+> (The Love Symbol Album) (1992) - Welcome to the pilot episode of "Prince Writes an Opera Like No Other". That essentially sums up this fantastic work of musically diverse tunes that tie into a loose plot line. It's the second album credited to 'Prince & the New Power Generation', following Diamonds and Pearls the year before. In terms of content, the album is all over the place. We see Prince rapping in "My Name is Prince" and "Sexy M.F.", throwing in some crazy new jack swing with "The Continental", and even experimenting with reggae sounds in "Blue Light". The climax of the story comes in the second to last track on the album, "3 Chains O' Gold", which, to put into perspective, is like "Bohemian Rhapsody", Prince style. This era also marks the first appearance of 'the love symbol', which has no pronunciation, and is the character that became Prince's name the following year.

  7. The Gold Experience (1995) - The first album to be credited to 'O(+>' (see album art), this interlude-packed experience is filled with all the magic of Prince and the new directions of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Each interlude contains an 'NPG Operator' that directs you to the irony of "Pussy Control", the ballad "Shhh"—which contrasts hard rocking drums and guitar with smooth R&B, the blaring rock n' roll of "Endorphinmachine", and the spacey aura of "Shy". The lead (and most well fared) single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" was the first of it's kind being that 'The Artist' released the song independently, while still under contract with Warner Bros. This joint has a little bit of everything, which is very true to Prince's nature.
If I made this list again in a year or so, it might be completely different. So, I guess you could say you can't trust me all that much. What you can trust is that Prince is much bigger than Purple Rain. He has contributed tremendous innovations to both music and pop culture over the years, and is unarguably one of the most prolific and musically diverse artists in the history of music. So, the next time you see that 5'2" genius in the diamond-studded purple trench coat, white frilly shirt, and high-heeled boots sitting on a motorcycle, just know that 30 years later, his legacy has engulfed a plethora of additional sounds that defy all that is popular music.

Until next time, Peace & B Wild.