Prince’s 1978 debut For You received a modest response. He wrote every song and played every instrument but his misty interpretations of RnB and funk didn’t quite land as well as the self-titled follow-up which arrived a year later.
The first single from the record was Soft and Wet. It entered at 92 on the Billboard chart but went on to become a bit of a sleeper hit. Once the dust had settled after album two, fans went exploring and Soft and Wet became popular among RnB fans. While it doesn’t capture the fully-formed pop ambitions of his eponymous sophomore album, Soft and Wet is still a brilliant introduction to the Prince cosmos. A world where whispering is as good as screaming and sanctity can be found in just two places – in front of the altar and between the sheets. It’s also emblematic of the early stages of perhaps Prince’s greatest legacy as the NSFW freedom fighter serving sex and freedom up with middle America’s TV dinner.
Prince got Prince where he deserved to be. It was a commercial breakthrough teeming with fluorescent RnB individuality and tightly-screwed disco. Then came Dirty Mind and tender-hearted sweet-talk was traded in for salacious divulgence. The whole record is a hotbed of sexual realisation. An album which unflinchingly zeroes in on carnal pleasures but somehow – like all of Prince’s catalogue – keeps one foot somewhere a little more transcendent. The album cover depicts Prince staring down the lens wearing a trench coat, a neckerchief and bikini bottoms. That was just the start of things. As devotions to sex go, Prince has a canny knack of being explicit while remaining totally enigmatic. The second half of the album is full of straight-up filth; Head tells the story of oral sex with a bride-to-be, reaching boiling where Prince screams, “You wouldn’t have stopped / But I came on your wedding gown”, then Sister somehow weaves together a narrative about incest and self-discovery into a swell of smoky, new-wave bursts.
The astonishing thing about The Artist’s forays into such territories is how they never felt pornographic for the sake of it. On the track-list for Dirty Mind, Head and Sister come after Uptown – a minimal funk-pop classic idealising the top of town as some kingdom of heaven where prejudice no longer exists. A place where you go to “Set your mind free”. Prince’s transgressive power wasn’t necessarily in what he was saying, it was the superhuman confidence he exuded when saying it. He made anything – even the most fucked up stuff – seem acceptable, even appealing. This record came out under Reagan’s presidency – an ex-movie star reinstating an agenda of traditionalism. Luckily, the boy from Minneapolis smuggled this prophetic mission statement into the charts.
Prince’s messages to Reagan continued on 1981’s Controversy with the conscious pleas of Ronnie, Talk To Russia. The record’s most divisive tactic was tucked in to the title track where Prince recites the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety before ending the track on the mantra, “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” Aside from being one of the greatest pop singles of all time, Controversy reiterates Prince’s refusal to pick a side. He wants you naked and liberated on Saturday night but you better not be late for church on Sunday. People called his inclusion of the prayer blasphemous but he was following on the lineage of his hero James Brown, worshipping a God who knew no preconceptions and living in a Garden of Eden where the apple was never eaten so God never gave us clothes.
Things stepped up a gear circa-Purple Rain. The film / soundtrack extravaganza catapulted Prince into an even more distant cosmic realm. He was operating in orbit, looking down on the corporeal and delivering something extraordinary. The movie and the album are just that but one song in particular proved the peak of Prince’s powers. Darling Nikki is the fifth track on Purple Rain, a sharp, metallic funk track explicitly celebrating the joys of masturbation. At the end of the track, a vocal line is played backwards on top of the sound of wind and rain. Un-reverse those slurred tones and you’ll hear Prince sing,
“Hello, how are you?
Fine fine ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon
Coming, coming soon.”
It doesn’t take a genius cultural commentator to imagine how these lyrics went down in America. Tipper Gore, the then-wife of Al Gore, heard her 11-year-old daughter listening to Prince’s pleasure-seeking paean and decided to help co-found the Parental Music Resource Centre – a group who were ultimately responsible for the Parental Advisory stickers which still get plastered on album covers today. You heard that right. Prince made a song so terrifyingly sexy that America made a sticker to stop kids hearing anything of its kind. Darling Nikki also topped the Parental Music Resource Centre’s ‘Filthy Fifteen’ – a list of the 15 songs they found most abhorrent.
The legacy of that song is almost as remarkable as the legacy of the sticker it spawned. Rihanna transformed it into a provocative cover for her 2011 Loud tour – carrying the gauntlet for pop stars unwilling to conform to preconceived notions about sexuality. Similarly, when Beyoncé wanted to show her appreciation for Nicki Minaj last year, she shared a video to YouTube entitled Darling Nicki, performing an acapella version of the track with adjusted lyrics for her new best friend, “I met a girl named Nicki / I guess you can say she was the rap queen.”
I think the most telling part of Frank Ocean’s touching tribute to Prince was where he wrote about “his denial of the prevailing model”. The timeline of Prince’s career is littered with these moments of risqué behaviour. He actively courted controversy through his style, his lyrics and the way in which he played his career. However, it was always part of a bigger agenda, he was always focused on dismantling that “prevailing model”.
When the pendulum swung closer to spirituality in his later years, Prince reigned it in to a certain extent. In a 2014 cover interview with Essence magazine he said, “Would you curse in front of your kids? To your mother?” justifying the curtailing of his bad language. But you don’t need to look any further than 2014’s Breakfast Can Wait to see that lovemaking was still firmly part of his musical DNA.
It would be a shame if The Artist’s untimely death led us to overlook his bold, daring steps forward. If not that, we mustn’t weigh his progressiveness down with too much solemness. Throughout his life and his career, Prince seemed to embrace the fact that his relationship with spirituality was similar to his relationship with sexuality. Both carried a kind of otherworldly power, both leave him breathless and both will accept him for him. He was optimistic that the existence of a higher purpose gave us license to get our kicks while we could. It was a model for sexual freedom in pop that has been emulated countless times since; Rihanna, Janet Jackson, D’Angelo, Kanye, FKA twigs. Prince constructed a blueprint for artists in the mainstream to challenge their own identity and – most importantly – challenge the identity others try to attach to them. He proved that pop’s universal reach doesn’t limit its power. While he fought fiercely for serious issues and represented many people in a very personal way, the connectivity he shared with his fans was never built on exclusivity.
However isolated you feel, you can always go Uptown.