By Vito Delsante
In pop culture, “genius” is often pinpointed to one spectacular moment, a confluence of talent, luck, and hard work. It is heard in music, seen on film, and/or experienced in words. I am, by no means, a critic but what I intend to do with BEFORE/AFTER GENIUS is revisit the catalog of the artists that have made the most impact on my life and discuss the work that led up to the eureka moment and what came directly after.
Let’s begin with our subject of this piece, Prince Rogers Nelson, known to the world, simply as Prince.
Who is Prince?
I think the first time I saw Prince was on American Bandstand, which, to anyone under the age of 30, is going to be a mystery. You’re familiar with TRL? Dick Clark, the New Year’s Eve guy, did it first. I almost always found myself watching it because cartoons ended, not because I had an artist I wanted to watch (that kind of fandom would come later, as my music tastes actually developed). So, there I was, stuck to the TV, and probably reenacting what I just saw on Super Friends with my action figures, and at some point, I looked up and, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” was being performed on American Bandstand. I probably thought it was a woman singing, because I had no concept of falsetto. I loved the song. As a kid in the 70’s, specifically in 1979 at the time of this song’s release, and as the son of a Motown and disco freak, my music likes were shaped by R&B, more than, say, hard rock. I grew up with my mom and her side of the family…the Puerto Rican side. As a result, dance music was BIG in my house and, as a result, Prince was on our radio. He was a staple of R&B stations like WBLS and 92 KTU, but his stardom didn’t truly take off, in the crossover sense, until 1982 with his album 1999. World domination came two years later with Purple Rain.
Before I get into the albums, I have to stress how important Prince was in the 80’s. Chris Rock has this joke where he talks about how Michael Jackson and Prince had a competition for who was better. The punchline is, “Prince won.” Rock is saying that in light of Jackson’s controversial latter days, which were more often than not filled with stories of (alleged) child molestation. Prince, who many thought was gay (a virtual crime in the early 80’s), came out smelling like a rose. Combined with Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson were the Holy Trinity of the 80’s. They are the Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman of music. By virtue of his musical ability, however, Prince is a true genius; according to the liner notes of his The Hits/The B-Sides, Prince is a virtuoso, having mastered two dozen instruments. Definitely the Batman of that trio. Neither Madonna nor Michael could come close to boasting such a feat. With nine albums released from 1980 to 1989, Prince dominated the 80’s (for comparison sake, Madonna had four; Michael Jackson had two). For all intents and purposes, Prince is a master of music. Period.
With that all said, let’s all agree that his moment of genius was Purple Rain (1984).
(And before you disagree, I will say that I personally believe Sign O’ The Times is his moment of genius, but I’m going to conform to the mass belief that I’m wrong for thinking that.)
Purple Rain, lest we forget, is a soundtrack, but it’s also Prince’s sixth studio album. It was the first of his albums to be credited to Prince and the Revolution, even if many of the members were on the last album. Purple Rain, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Madonna’s Like A Virgin, pretty much made up the “soundtrack of the 80’s.” Throw in Huey Lewis & the News’ Sports and Hall & Oates’ H2O and you’ve pretty much distilled the decade to it’s five quintessential albums.
Purple Rain is without a doubt a watershed moment for Prince. Without regurgitating facts that you can find on Wikipedia, you have to understand that what Prince was doing before this was more R&B/funk/soul music. Purple Rain was a rock album in the vein of the concept albums of the 70’s; It was more Led Zeppelin IV and The Who’s Tommy than it was Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow by Funkadelic. It was his crossover album, one that proved not only his guitar proficiency (he’s a virtuoso), but his ability to tap into what was hot in clubs, house parties and in cars. Put any guitar riff played by Prince or Wendy Melvoin up against anything on Van Halen 1984 and it’s clear that Prince, as funky as he is, could go up against any heavy metal guitarist note for note (except maybe Kerry King). Again, it can’t be understated; the leap from 1999 to Purple Rain was huge. So, let’s take a look at the before.
Before: 1999 (1982)
1999 starts off with the song of the same name, a party anthem if there ever was one (as evidenced by the repeated, “Party!” refrain at the end of the song). Heavy on the “Minneapolis sound” (which is basically a mix of funk and New Wave created, naturally, by Prince), the album is as far away from a rock album as you can get. Whatever your opinions on what constitutes a rock album versus an r&b album, you have to admit that, when listened track after track, 1999 is, at it’s heart, a dance album. I mean, he’s got a song on the album called “DMSR” (Dance, Music, Sex, Romance). How obvious do you need to be? The only exception is, possibly, “Little Red Corvette.”
The album’s second song, “Little Red Corvette,” is another heavy synth song, but the guitar solo is really a shade of what’s to come. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the guitar riff that opens “When Doves Cry” [from Purple Rain]…at the very least, you can hear the technique. When you listen to 1999 as a whole, you hear an 80’s album, sure, but you don’t hear something that transcends that. As much as I love the songs, I can’t see any of these songs being written today. Except for “Little Red Corvette.” If you were to point to any moment on this album that you can hear the genius break out, it’s that last guitar solo.
After: Around The World In A Day (1985)
The first thing you need to take note of when listening to Around the World In A Day is that this is the second album to feature Prince’s backing band, The Revolution. Like I said, some of the members played on prior albums, but the sound is fuller…this is Prince at his most Phil Spector. I’ve always considered this his Sgt. Pepper album (although, I’m sure most would say that Lovesexy is) because it’s very experimental. When listening to this album, you really have to try hard to remember Purple Rain and everything that came before; this is an album that is almost nine different takes of “The Beautiful Ones” [from Purple Rain]. But, in the wake of this album (which, if I remember correctly, wasn’t as well received as Purple Rain…research shows that Around The World In A Day went double platinum, versus 13x platinum PR), you can hear where Prince is going. He’s pushing music but, also, he’s pushing the expectations for what kind of music an African American artist should make. Best way to put it for modern audiences: You guys keep waiting for Radiohead to rock out again, and they just keep coming back with experimental music. That’s not to say there are no dance tracks on the album (see “Tamborine,” “Pop Life” and “Raspberry Beret”) or any rock songs (see “America” and the seedy-strip club blues riffs on “Temptation”). It’s just that Prince is going somewhere we can’t follow unless we’re willing to take the trip.
At the very end of “Temptation,” which is, fittingly, the last song on the album, Prince says, “I have to go now/I don’t know when I’ll return/Goodbye.” To me, Prince was shedding his skin, only to come back with three of the most important albums he’s ever done; Parade, Sign O’ The Times, and Lovesexy. After “Temptation,” he never really goes back to that heavy guitar sound, instead adopting a bluesy way of playing. Another thing that comes to mind his how “Temptation” ends with a conversation with God and how he starts writing music that shows the conflict with sex and spirituality. Here’s where Prince excels. Today, he sings about love and while that’s great, his conflict is gone. Every musician knows that conflict creates the best music (which is why so many songs are about heartache and break ups). Today, Prince has resolved his issues, and while some of his newer material is good, none of it can touch his 80’s output.
It’s crazy to think that in the span of ten years, Prince goes from Dirty Mind to Batman; from sex obsessed to spiritual; from the kid in black bikini bottoms to the man in the suit with the ass-less pants. But musically, right in the middle, he hit a peak that would never be touched. Could never be touched.
Photograph by Seth Kushner