Read my reviews of albums by Prince Rogers Nelson:
1978: For You (???)
I’ve never heard Prince’s ’70s albums. Read my reviews of albums released in 1978.
1979: Prince (???)
1980: Dirty Mind (8/10)
Like so many artists’ early work, I’ve come to this Prince album backwards. And I suspect that a lot of my issues with it come from all the later Prince I’ve heard. Because, on first listen, this record just sounded like Prince in utero or, um, proto Prince.
Prince’s sense of melody is already really well established and it’s one of the albums main strengths that everything is so damn catchy. I have only heard one of the earlier records maybe once and don’t remember much about it but it’s pretty clear this guy can write catchy songs.
The lyrics though – they are among the dirtiest of Prince’s career, which is saying something. It’s fascinating that this record did not enrage ’80s parents like heavy metal albums did. And one suspects that they heard bright, seemingly happy-sounding music, which actually sounded like music and didn’t pay attention to the words. But when they heard metal, they paid attention. Anyway, there is at least one song here which goes a bit too far for me, and I’m hardly a prude. (Though I suspect I’m becoming more of a prude the older I get.)
For me, the most obvious sign that Prince isn’t quite himself yet is his performance. He’s a compelling performer but he’s not quite as seemingly all powerful as he would get on later records. Yes, he can perform any number of styles and it’s very impressive, especially for someone his age. But the age shows a little bit here, and it feels like he still has a bit of a ways to go to become the mature version of his artistic self.
Also, like many of Prince’s ’80s records, it doesn’t sound great 40 years later. Prince was always an idiosyncratic producer – sometimes his work is good, sometimes it’s not so good – but I’m not sure it’s that on this record. I wonder if he just hasn’t quite figured it out yet. This is definitely an album that sounds of its era, even if it’s free of some of the worst production touches of the time.
Honestly, I think so much of my experience of this is coloured by my love of later Prince records and how this feels slight and immature. I suspect that, had I heard this in 1980 (had I been alive and an adult) I would have been blown away. Alas, I cannot quite get there.
1981: Controversy (???)
I thought I had listened to this but I guess not. Read my reviews of albums released in 1981.
1982: 1999 (8/10)
Listening to this record immediately after Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love is instructive: Prince shows how cutting edge musical technology can be used without permanently dating a record. Hint: it helps if you write good songs and it helps if you’re idiosyncratic.
Prince has written a bunch of really catchy songs – even the songs he jams are really catchy. I can’t say I love Prince’s lyrics (I’m not sure I’ve heard a Prince song where I liked every word) but his songs are co catchy, his arrangements so interesting, his performances so great, that it really doesn’t matter. There’s the odd line that sticks with me here and there but, for the most part, I like this better when I don’t focus on the lyrics.
This is the earliest Prince record I’ve heard to date, so I don’t know how long he’s been doing this fusion thing he does (though I’ve heard via reading and podcasts that it was for most of his career) but he expertly fuses so many different genres in basically every song that every time we think we have him pegged down, we have to guess again. Calling this music “R&B” feels like a disservice. Yes, the music is rooted in contemporary R&B and funk but there’s so much more going on, with ideas taken from sub-genres across the R&B spectrum and from pop rock as well.
And Prince is such a compelling performer – not just as a singer with that incredible range, and those vocal effects, but also a player – that even when the songs are maybe not the greatest, the arrangements and his performance make them work in such a way that you cannot believe nobody had tried this kind of fusion before he did. Prince makes it sound easy and obvious and natural in a way that no other R&B performer I am aware of ever has when attempting such “crossover” music. (And that’s in part because categorizing Prince is foolhardy.)
Great stuff. A little overlong, a little self-indulgent, sure. But I’d much, much rather listen to this than Lionel Richie or Michael Jackson.
1984: Purple Rain (8/10) with The Revolution
Though I have yet to hear even half of Prince’s discography, I think there’s a case to be made that, melodically speaking at least, this is his best set of songs ever. There’s not a single melody here that isn’t up to the quality of the others, and a few of them are among his very best. Moreover, he’s exercised his duty/ability as an editor and shortened some of these from much longer pieces. (Prince did like to let songs run a long time on some of his records.) In that sense I think you could probably make a case that this is the best Prince album.
But I don’t buy it. As is just about always the case with Prince, the lyrics are all over the place, with one song ostensibly (but obscurely) about one subject opening with a brief skit about a completely different subject, for example.
And though Prince’s abilities as a songwriter, arranger and performer (particularly a guitarist) are all on full display, his range isn’t as much. Because this record is more concise and polished, it lacks some of the ambition and diversity of the records of his I like the most. Though he could sometimes let a song run too long or dump too many ideas on one record, I like it when he does those things. Though this record has more immediate appeal than many for me the rewards are greater with the weirder, crazier records. Those are the records where I really admire him. Here it feels like to me he’s too under control, which is fine. (And it’s still a really strong set of songs.)
Not my favourite but I understand why everyone loves it.
PS: “When Doves Cry” set the blueprint for so much aughts R&B (minus the guitar) that it’s kind of incredible. How many songs from that decade can you name which are just a basic rhythm track, one melody instrument and way too many vocal overdubs?
1985: Around the World in a Day (7/10) with The Revolution
I suspect the degree to which I like this album is heavily influenced by the narrative around it, and my lack of engagement with that narrative. Prince is a known iconoclast when I’m listening to this record for the first time. He’s done things such as change his stage name and fail to release completed albums. So this left-turn really doesn’t seem that weird. But had I been an active music fan – particularly a fan of Prince’s – in 1985, I can imagine a world in which this record would have made me very excited.
And that’s because it definitely feels like a bit of a “fuck you” to any bandwagon fans who might have jumped on because of Purple Rain. (This isn’t entirely fair since he started recording it before Purple Rain.) Though this record is unmistakably Prince, it also feels deliberately less accessible and less polished than his most famous album. (One of his two most famous albums? One of a couple, anyway.)
I really like Prince’s music and particularly his brand of neo-psychedelia, which is like nobody else’s. My favourite thing about this album is that it is a good example of his amalgam of R&B and psychedelia that is inimitable. I quite enjoy the arrangements and really don’t find them that weird.
Some of the songs are quite good and obviously one of his most famous is here. I don’t think it’s his best set of songs here and at least one of them really sounds an awful lot like a poor man’s “Purple Rain” at times. (“The Ladder”.) Still, they hit more than they miss.
The issue I have is the production: it is indeed dense but it’s almost somehow kind of thin. That’s the part that really feels like a “fuck you” to new fans, at least to my ears. And it really doesn’t endear me to the record. I generally think Prince does a better job of handling ’80s musical technology better than most, but here it seems as if he or the engineers were trying to make the record sound not as good. I don’t know if it’s the mastering – it’s a quiet record – or if it’s the mix – everything feels on the same level – but this is not a dynamic record. And, of course, Prince is an incredibly dynamic performer. So the question is, to what end is this thing sonically neutered?
I like it but I think I would like it more if it sounded better.
Prince albums from 1986:
I know nothing about this.
Parade: Music from the Motion Picture “Under the Cherry Moon” (7/10)
I have never seen Under the Cherry Moon, just like I haven’t seen his other movies. But everything I read says that this is a lot better than the movie, so I should be okay.
This soundtrack is an onslaught of Prince melodies and styles with his usual lyrical obsessions, though I guess those might be coloured through the prism of the plot of the film. (I mean, maybe…) It’s certainly a decent set of songs though, for me, far from his best.
If you’re worried that the music will have changed to suit to the setting of the film, don’t. It’s fairly typical of ’80s Prince in terms of both his proclivities and its stylistic diversity. It’s just a little more accessible: as others have noted, it’s less indulgent than some of his records, at least in terms of song lengths and showing off his chops. (Is there a notable guitar solo on here? No, no there isn’t.)
But it’s also safer, as a result. And this is the only ’80s Prince record I can think of where, when he does a ballad, it’s conventional. There are only a couple instances of this and usually the songs are filled with the usual inventiveness (such as the title track to the film). But “Sometimes It Snows in April,” for example, is almost cheesy, which is something I have a hard time imagining from Prince. (Usually he’s too weird or too inventive to be cheesy. Or he sells it well enough.) “Venus De Milo” is another one that is just so conventional (this time it’s a film piece), it’s hard to really believe he did it.
Still, it’s mostly full of Prince doing his thing really well, and in relatively conventional, pretty short songs. It’s actually probably a pretty damn good place to start listening to his stuff.
Albums released by Prince in 1987:
Sign O the Times (9/10)
Someone described this record as Prince’s White Album. This is only the second Prince album I’ve ever heard (I know, I know) but I still think that’s pretty apt. There’s a range of music here that is kind of incredible, especially given how much of the record he made himself.
This is such an immense amount of music and ideas that it’s hard to digest completely after just my typical three listens, but it feels like there are a lot of different genres here (or a lot of different spins on a few genres) and the songs are pretty catchy despite how many there are.
The one thing that might be a drawback is that the production has dated it a lot (though far less than a lot of ’80s records).
My #4 album of 1987.
The Black Album (???)
1988: Lovesexy (7/10)
To the extent that I know Prince, I know him as the dynamic performer who effortlessly combines aspects of R&B (funk, soul, etc.) with elements of rock (psychedelia, art rock, hard rock) and pop. Well, he’s dialed down the ambition at this point in his career and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
But before I get to the songs I want to discuss the bizarre decision to blend all this music together. Prince has created 9 songs here – they are distinct songs – but on the original LP and now on digital streaming, they are combined as one 45-minute track. I’m not sure what the original intent was behind this decision. Was it supposed to be harder to pick out your favourite, to encourage to listen to the record as a whole? But for me it just makes it harder for me to see which song it is when I’m listening to it. It’s a quirky thing to do but I’m not sure why he did it or what end it serves. I do know that if I wanted to tell you what I thought the best songs were, it would be harder than normal.
About those songs: as usual, Prince is a dynamic performer who makes even weak material compelling. And he hasn’t lost his sense of melody or his knack for provocative lyrics (despite this album being about “God” or something). And, as usual, he combines songs that you would think have been made for dancing or sex or both with impeccable, sometimes out-there and interesting musicianship.
But this is an R&B record – there’s just a hint of the gospel he claimed this record was about, which makes sense given it’s Prince – and what I miss most from those earlier records was the feeling that he could do literally anything he set his mind to. As a result, this record feels less ambitious but also more of a specific time and place (despite being arguably better produced than some of his earlier albums) and it just isn’t my thing.
But it’s still Prince, and it’s hard to say it’s anything less than good, it’s just not my thing.
1989: Batman Motion Picture Soundtrack (5?/10)
I grew up with this – it was my first exposure to Prince and almost my only exposure to him until I was in my 20s and a coworker lent me Purple Rain – but I have never listened to it as an adult and I have no idea if it’s as horribly cheesy as I remember (and the film makes it seem).
1990: Graffiti Bridge Motion Picture Soundtrack (???)
1991: Diamonds and Pearls (???) with The New Power Generation
1992: O(+> (???) with The New Power Generation
1994: Come (???)
1995: The Gold Experience (7/10)
I can’t claim to know Prince’s catalogue that well, especially since the ’80s. So you can’t take what I say as gospel. But, listening to this, I’m inclined to agree with the critical consensus that says it’s his best record of the ’90s (or one of them). There may well be better ones, of course, but, listening to this, I understand why people think that.
Prince has embraced hip hop on this record to a degree I’ve never heard before. Now, I’ve heard very little of his ’90s music, but I don’t know how much he’d ever done it before. It mostly works – though it does sound super awkward at times – and it seems to reinvigorate him. As others have noted, this record is pretty damn funky. And it’s like listening to hip hop has reignited his sense of musical dynamism. Whatever you might think of the (very loose) concept or the material, Prince and his band do an excellent job of playing this.
The material isn’t completely there, though. Some of the songs rank among his better material – and at least one feels pretty new for him – but other songs sound way too much like rewrites of his classic material. (Albeit very good rewrites, I should say.) And then there’s “Dolphin,” a song that I just detest. It’s one of the worst songs of his I’ve ever heard. It definitely feels like he is coasting by on his amazing musical abilities and getting lazy in the songwriting department at times.
But the record really does sound good. Some of Prince’s ’80s records are oddly produced and that is not the problem here. One of the reasons Prince and the band sound so good is that he’s done such a good job of producing this one. It’s not always the case.
Yes, some of the songwriting is lazy, the concept is dumb and the album is too long. But there are moments when he’s at his absolute best and when he succeeds at incorporating hip hop into his sound – which he does more often than he fails – it feels like he’s got new artistic life. And there are vocal and guitar performances on this record that rank among his best.
2004: Musicology (???)
I have never listened to 21st century Prince. Read my reviews of music from 2004.