Bloomsbury Popular Music - Prince's Sign ‘O’ the Times
Prince's Sign ‘O’ the Times
Prince's Sign ‘O’ the Times
Michaelangelo Matos

Michaelangelo Matos was born and raised in Minneapolis. A former staff writer at Seattle Weekly, he has written extensively for Minneapolis/St. Paul’s City Pages, Village Voice, Spin,, Time Out New York, Urb, Stereo-Type, Chicago Reader, Baltimore City Paper, and Creative Loafing Atlanta. He currently lives in Seattle. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2004



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33 1/3 Books



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Side Two: Times


Michaelangelo Matos

Michaelangelo Matos was born and raised in Minneapolis. A former staff writer at Seattle Weekly, he has written extensively for Minneapolis/St. Paul’s City Pages, Village Voice, Spin,, Time Out New York, Urb, Stereo-Type, Chicago Reader, Baltimore City Paper, and Creative Loafing Atlanta. He currently lives in Seattle. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 33–56

Sign ‘O’ the Times opens with a bare drum machine singing the blues and closes with a wall of sanctified sound fueled by Prince overdubbing himself into a gospel choir. In between, it sums up everything Prince had done up to this point. Even if it weren’t his best album, it would still be his most complete—1996’s Emancipation, which is more than twice as long as Sign, covers less thematic ground.

Which is quite a bit of ground. Prince got his start early. He was born Prince Roger Nelson on June 7, 1958, to pianist John Nelson and his wife, singer Mattie Shaw, and given his father’s stage name (also the name of his group, the Prince Rogers Trio). Prince has credited two concerts—seeing his father in a Minneapolis theater at age five, and a James Brown concert five years later during which the young Prince danced onstage with Brown—with giving him the impetus to become a musician. John and Mattie divorced in 1968, when Prince was ten; when John moved out, he left his piano behind, and Prince, who had always tinkered with the instrument, began playing it in earnest. Soon he began doubling up on guitar, bass, and drums, as well.

After his mother remarried, Prince briefly moved in with his father, who kicked him out after catching him in bed with a girl; he bounced around several relatives’ homes until moving in with Bernadette Anderson, the mother of six children, including Prince’s friend André. Soon Prince and André, along with Prince’s cousin Charles Smith, had started a band together called Phoenix, which later mutated into Grand Central. The group played most of the big R&B hits of the day, as well as songs by Chicago, Steely Dan, and Grand Funk Railroad (whose 1972 album Return of the Phoenix provided the group with its original name).

This points to a crucial distinction between Minneapolis and most other American cities with renowned black music scenes, Not only was the vast majority of the city’s population white (according to , the city’s black population was 19% in 2002 with the population of Minnesota as a state only 4%, and the number was significantly lower when Prince was growing up), but there was little black radio.[4] The city had one black station, KUXL, which went off-air at 8:30 p.m.; growing up, Prince and his peers would tune into the KQRS, which programmed progressive rock before calcifying into the city’s classic-rock monolith. Prince would credit his early love for Santana, Boz Scaggs, Joni Mitchell, and Maria Muldaur to the station, and his affinity for Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones would logically seem to stem from there as well.

The city’s club scene, too, was less than supportive of young black musicians. Small community centers like the Elks’ Lounge, the Cozy Bar, and the Nacirema (“American” spelled backward) catered to Minneapolis’s African-American community, but black musicians were shut out of the downtown clubs. As local activist Spike Moss told City Pages’ Peter S. Scholtes, “What ended up happening was, the bands had to perfect the latest record like it sounds. We didn’t even have Soul Train—it didn’t come on [in Minneapolis] until the Eighties. So you had to be a good musician, because you had to play those records.”[5] Local musician Bobby Vandell noted to Scholtes, “That’s largely why people like Prince and Terry [Lewis] and Jimmy [Jam] got to where they got, because they weren’t able to make this meager living that we [white musicians] made. We could work. The black groups had one of two choices: Either hang it up, or transcend that scene. Move ahead and say, okay, fuck you. You won’t let us play your club? We’ll own your club. It’s a double-edged sword. It was racist, but it kicked a lot of people in the ass.”[6]

This meant Minneapolis’s teenage black bands of the Seventies—Grand Central (who soon renamed themselves Champagne after Charles Smith was replaced by Morris Day), Flyte Tyme, Cohesion, the Family—had to book and promote their own shows, often at hotel ballrooms and YMCAs. By the time Prince and the Time—whose members were largely drawn from that pool of local talent—began making waves in Minneapolis during the early Eighties, they’d been part of a DIY scene that paralleled the recently minted new wave and punk audiences—who, not surprisingly, enthusiastically embraced Prince and his protégés when both scenes converged at First Avenue, a downtown club.

That was a few years away, though, when Prince made his first recordings in 1975, as a session guitarist for his cousin’s husband, a songwriter named Pepé Willie. Soon after, Prince cut a series of demos with Champagne, and his multi-instrumental ability caught the ear of Chris Moon, an English ex-pat who ran one of the studios where Champagne recorded. Moon offered a deal: If Prince would write and record the music for Moon’s lyrics, the Englishman would give the young man free studio time in exchange. Champagne balked, but Prince accepted the offer. Among the songs he and Moon wrote together was the chirpy “Soft and Wet,” a bubblegum R&B song with a stop-start rhythm, insistent little rhythm riff, and googly-eyed soft-porn lyrics that were pretty difficult to resist when Prince sang them in his breathy falsetto.

Not long thereafter, Warner Bros. Records signed Prince to a three-album contract that allowed him an eyebrow-raising amount of artistic freedom, including the right to produce himself. For You, released in April 1978, took five months to make and cost almost as much as his contractual budget for three albums. While “Soft and Wet” did decently as a single, hitting no. 12 on Billboard’s Soul charts, the album sounded thin and fared worse, pushing up to the mid-20s on the Soul album chart before collapsing, and barely making the Top 200 pop chart. His reluctance to make personal appearances or do interviews didn’t help, either.

1979’s Prince was made in six weeks for a lot less. Money well spent: “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the first single, not only went no. 1 Soul but no. 11 pop—hardly unusual during the high season of disco crossover, but impressive nevertheless. So was the song, hooked by a guitar-and-synth figure that sounded like a pop-funk clarion call, cool and insistent both at once. The lyric was disarmingly direct, but its bravado was funny, too: “I wanna be your mother and your sister, too/There ain’t no other/That can do the things that I’ll do to you.” There’s also a bit of conscious image-tweaking: In retrospect, lines like “They say I’m so shy, yeah/But with you I just go wild” sound like an embryonic version of guessing-game lyrics like “Am I black or white?/Am I straight or gay?” from later songs like “Controversy.” The follow-up, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” didn’t do as well, missing the pop charts and going to no. 12 Soul, but its art-rock-ish keyboard furbelows, sneaky funk bass, soul falsetto, and steady rock beat hinted at fusions to come. So did “Bambi,” an outright heavy metal number in which Prince attempts to convert a lesbian to the joys of good old-fashioned heterosexual intercourse. It doesn’t seem to work, though, probably because he saved the “I’ll be your mother and your sister, too” line for someone else. Perhaps he should have told her, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand,” but it would be five years before he thought of that one. Nevertheless, it’s heartening to realize that there were in fact women who the young Prince did not actually sleep with.

Prince, and particularly “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” made Prince a hot R&B star, but his disdain for press rigmarole—not to mention his habit of necking his keyboardist onstage (originally Gayle Chapman, then Lisa Coleman) while wearing underwear and heels—created a serious mystique about him that seemed better suited to a messianic rock idol than a teen R&B star. So did some of the new songs he was performing on tour, like “When You Were Mine,” which alluded to a threesome, and “Head,” which was not about a psychedelic supply shop; ditto the way he played these and his more familiar material, with a rocked-out edge that startled many fans anticipating a straightforward R&B show.

“When You Were Mine” and “Head” appeared on Dirty Mind, released in October 1980, and so did the rocked-out edge. In fact, “When You Were Mine” was essentially the new wave song to end all new wave songs, tethered to a synthesizer hook that, rumor has it, Bllondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri took one listen to and had to be restrained from chopping off his own middle and index fingers with a kitchen knife.[7] Prince sang it—like everything he did up until Controversy—in a falsetto so candied it took a few listens to realize exactly what the “he” of the song was doing there, “sleeping in between the two of us.” The rest of the album’s songs followed suit, except they were a lot less shifty about it. “Head,” in which the singer disrupts a wedding in progress in the rudest fashion imaginable, climaxes with Prince ejaculating upon the bride-to-be’s gown, was the most overt funk song on the album; “Sister,” which was not about a convent, was a rushed minute-and-a-half that sounded, from the frenzied vocal to the testy beat and occasional guitar twang, like a fantasy Prince was embarrassed to be having, but that was too compulsive to keep hidden away. It’s the one time on the album he sounds overwhelmed; the pause in the phrase “My sister was 32, lovely and—loose” snaps in the ear like a twig. Elsewhere on Dirty Mind, he pronounces himself against war and in favor of the back seat of daddy’s car, which is to say, he’s been studying his rock-hero texts and is putting himself in line.

Dirty Mind is the coming-out party for Prince’s shock-the-squares persona, and its fusion of new wave with funk and R&B made him the first black artist with a potentially huge white audience since Jimi Hendrix; it also helped set the stage, directly or indirectly, for much of the best black music of the Eighties, from Living Colour to Public Enemy to Rick James (who, to be fair, had already been heading in the same direction for a while but who didn’t crystallize it until 1981’s Street Songs). The same year’s Controversy pushed many of the same buttons, amplifying the politics implicit in Dirty Mind with direct references to Abscam and the Atlanta child murders. But its greatest song, “Do Me Baby,” was the kind of lush balladry he’d never quite perfected on the first two albums; here, he’s delicate, assured, and in a way every bit as audacious as he is on Dirty Mind, because for the first time he wields his vulnerability like a machete: The earlier ballads sound tentative in comparison. It’s easy to overlook Prince the singer, especially for critics and biographers more comfortable with discussing Prince the auteur or Prince the persona or Prince the has-been. But as brilliant an instrumental set piece as it is, the success of “Do Me Baby” lies entirely in the singing; to this day, it may still be his single greatest vocal performance.

1999 followed in 1982, and with all due respect to Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, Parade, and Sign ‘O’ the Times, it remains the most widely imitated record of Prince’s career. It’s one of the earliest, and most complete, meldings of electronic textures and dancefloor-oriented, blood-and-sweat funk, and it should come as no surprise that a childhood 1999 fan like myself would eventually dive deep into rave culture. Playing ancestor-worship can be a tired exercise, and God knows dance music hasn’t exactly stood still for the past 20 years. But 1999 is every bit as important as the handful of other late ’70s/early ’80s records—Parliament’s “Flash Light,” Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” Larry Levan’s remix of Instant Funk’s “I Got My Mind Made Up,” and New Order’s “Blue Monday”—that carved the path for the next 20 years of house and techno. As the most down to earth, immediately accessible, and song-savviest of those records, it’s hardly surprising that 1999 had (and has) the broadest appeal—three million copies sold within its first two years of release, four million total in the U.S.

Given how densely electronic and dance-oriented 1999 is, there’s something ironic about it having turned Prince into a rock star. That had less to do with the album, though, than with MTV. Looking at Prince’s early videos, it’s amazing how ungainly he is. The “I Wanna Be Your Lover” clip is straightforward enough—multiple medium shots and close-ups of Prince playing all the instruments and singing—and his 1981 appearance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live finds him and his band exuding a frenzied, bug-eyed energy. But the “Dirty Mind” clip—Prince and group performing onstage, wildly costumed, in front of a typically mixed audience of black funkateers and white new wavers—is jarring to look at today for anyone who grew up watching Prince execute some of the most intricate choreography in rock.[8] His dancing is extremely sloppy; he flounces around, full of a nervous energy that’s appealing but also a little unsteady. This improves in the “Controversy” video, and by the “1999” video, with its stylish camera angles and priceless reaction shots (Prince’s mugging after the screen-whitening flashpots that accompany the line “We could all die any day” demonstrate him at his most openly goofy), he had shed some of that on-camera mania.

In the anthology O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors, art critic Dave Hickey describes a television appearance by Robert Mitchum in which Mitchum explains the difference between stage and movie acting:

When you’re acting in a film… everything will be moving. There will be this hurricane of pictures swirling around you. The projector will be rolling, the camera will be panning, the angle of the shots will be changing, and the distance of the shots will be changing, and all these things have their own tempo, so you have to have a tempo, too. If you sit or stand or talk the way you do at home, you look silly on the screen, incoherent. On screen, you have to be purposive. You have to be moving or not moving. One or the other. So a lot of times, in a complicated scene, the best thing to do is stand absolutely still, not moving a muscle. This would look very strange if you did it at the grocery store, but it looks okay on screen because the camera and the shots are moving around you. Then, when you do move, even to pick up a teacup, you have to move at a speed. Everything you do has to have pace, and if you’re the lead in a picture, you want to have the pace, to set the pace, so all the other tempos accommodate themselves to yours.[9]

To watch the video for “Little Red Corvette” after seeing the earlier clips is to see Prince having learned Mitchum’s lesson. Shot on film, not videotape, “Little Red Corvette” finds Prince rock-still behind the microphone while his hands move in slow, dramatic arcs, at a speed. The music gears up, and Prince gears up with it; it backs down, and he backs down. A deaf person could figure out what he’s singing about. Of course, so could a chimpanzee; Prince is always singing about sex, more or less. But like the song itself, the video is more playful suggestion than horny-toad come-on, pocked with cheetah-quick flashes of aggression when the song calls for them. During the guitar solo, Prince executes a quick, breathtaking series of dance steps that seem to harness all the energy he expended so carelessly in the “Dirty Mind” video. Then he gets back behind the mic to sing the bridge. His eyes don’t dart around anymore; he’s in command. And he’s teasing us; there are glimpses of this in the “Controversy” and “1999” videos, but nothing as sustained as the 30 seconds in which his lips curl into a sneer, then a moue, then an outrageously lubricious leer before the final chorus revs back in. In that short space, Prince completely sells the image he’d spent five albums propagating—to the viewer, and just as importantly to himself. So of course he made the semi-autobiographical feature film Purple Rain next. After a demonstration of self-belief that overpowering, what else could he do?

Purple Rain may be the ultimate good-bad rock movie, which is saying something, considering how good-bad the genre is as a whole. Our hero, the Kid—who sidesteps his real-life counterpart in at least one way, by continuing to live with his parents into adulthood—is the domineering-but-sensitive bandleader of the Revolution, whose two female members, Wendy and Lisa, want greater songwriting input. Their rivals on the Minneapolis scene are the Time. In reality, the Time were originally a puppet band Prince created in 1981 around ex-Champagne drummer Morris Day but, when he staffed their stage counterpart with several members of the bands Prince ran with as a teenager—keyboardists Monte Moir and Jimmy “Jam” Harris, bassist Terry Lewis, drummer Jellybean Johnson, and guitarist Jesse Johnson—they turned into a live unit every bit as fearsome as Prince’s own. The same cannot be said for Vanity 6, whose self-titled 1982 debut might have been the blueprint of Canadian electroclash pseu-dovixen Peaches’ entire career if Peaches had an ounce of wit or funk in her. But before filming, Vanity—or Vanity’s drug habit, depending on whom you read—began believing her own name and split, to be replaced by the more docile Apollonia, whose recorded output can make you long for Peaches. Apollonia isn’t much better in the movie, either, but at least there we have the advantage of seeing what Prince saw in her, especially during the topless scene.

The plot stuff—the Kid and Morris rival each other for Apollonia’s affections, the Kid’s black father beats his white mother, the Kid himself starts demonstrating his father’s less salubrious traits—is pure soap opera. The music stuff is, too, but in the best possible way. “When Doves Cry” opens with Van Halen fuzz guitar, slides into the most distinctive Linn drum machine pattern Prince has devised yet, contains some of the boldest lyrics he’s ever written (from a psychological standpoint, not a sexual one, unless you want to read even more into “Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold/Maybe you’re just like my mother/She’s never satisfied” than is probably healthy), and has no bassline. It spent five weeks at no. 1 and was easily the biggest single of 1984, the best year for hit singles in America since the Sixties and possibly ever. And in a year of sales blockbusters like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., the Jacksons’ Victory, Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, Purple Rain ruled the charts for half a year. Prince’s most overtly rock album aside from the 1996 quickie contract-ender Chaos & Disorder, Purple Rain sold over ten million copies and figures largest in the Prince mythology. To middle America, it’s the first and last word on the man; and considering that in nine songs the album manages to hit nearly every crucial button on his music and persona, middle America may have a point.

The path to Sign ‘O’ the Times proper begins with 1985’s Around the World in a Day, one of the more outlandish auto-backlash albums in pop history, but not one of the more effective. Prince had already made people wonder when he appeared at the Academy Awards wearing a black lace shroud; an altercation with an invasive photographer who jumped into a limousine with Prince the night he had declined to attend the “We Are the World” session garnered a minor press hubbub. (Prince later addressed the incident on “Hello,” the B-side of “Pop Life.”) And his former bodyguard, Chick Huntsberry, a giant former wrestler who had shadowed Prince whenever he attended a public event, had given an interview to the National Enquirer, in which Prince was portrayed as even more of a freakish hermit than his records had indicated. That Around the World in a Day appeared at this time did Prince’s increasingly eccentric public image no favors. Now that he had what amounted to the world by the ear, Prince was deliberately moving away from what had made him popular in the first place.

Around the World is mostly straight-up psychedelic-flavored pop, from the cover (a mosaic-looking drawing of what we can safely assume is the Paisley Park of Prince’s fantasies, occupied by himself, the Revolution, and assorted hangers-on, with an oh-so-symbolic ladder occupying the middle) to the music. The rhythms of “Paisley Park,” “Pop Life,” and the totally irresistible “Raspberry Beret” hint at funk, but land on the one with a twinkle-toed bounce better suited to a lazy body-shuffle than getting on up like a sex machine. “Tambourine” is a strikingly minimal exception, but it’s also slap-dash. Even when Prince concocted body-workouts out of spare parts, like “When Doves Cry” or 1999’s “D.M.S.R.,” the thickness of the drum machine sounds (usually the somewhat reedy Linn machine sent through effects pedals to change and broaden the tone) ricocheted around the speakers and the listener’s cranium enough to make up the difference, but on “Tambourine” the drums are live (and frantic), the bass pops, the tambourine shakes, and except for the vocal that’s just about all. Like much of Around the World, “Tambourine” points in intriguing new directions without actually taking us there. The psychedelic touches feel tentative; they lack the wigginess that the music of derangement calls for.

Yet there’s a throwaway quality to Around the World that’s rather appealing in theory if less than satisfying in fact. The album is split between big production numbers (“America,” “Temptation,” “The Ladder”) and fripperies like “Tambourine” and “Paisley Park,” which, for all the busyness of its arrangement, sounds like something Prince concocted in an hour after listening to Magical Mystery Tour for the first time. On Around the World and 1986’s Parade, the funk got sparer, sharper, more willful; the rock songs seemed thinner and more spacious, even when he was using more instruments. Compare the use of guitar distortion on Purple Rain with Around the World or Parade. “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain”—the album’s three biggest hits—and “Computer Blue” all utilize it to notable effect. The other, keyboard-dominated songs have the same kind of blaring mid-range that a distorted electric guitar provides; listen to the fat-toned synths underpinning “The Beautiful Ones” and “Darling Nikki” and “I Would Die 4 U.” Then play Around the World in a Day or Parade and notice how little electric guitar there seems to be, on the surface or under it. The rhythm guitar of Parade’s “Kiss” is distorted, yes, but it’s thin, brittle, and metallic, closer to a Doppler-effect synth than to a traditional six-string. The same album’s “Girls & Boys” contains a fuzzy single-string riff rather than thick, bunched chordal riffs, and its presence here doesn’t set the tone but instead acts as a Greek chorus to the vocal line. Eric Clapton’s demonstration, in Hail! Hail! Rock ’n Roll, of the difference between Chuck Berry’s playing with the blues and R&B players before him—Berry would double notes or truncate chords to thicken the riff’s tone as opposed to playing single-note runs—comes to mind here.

Synthesizers predominate 1999 and half of Purple Rain, but if an instrument can be said to be the “lead” on Around the World and Parade, it’s acoustic piano. This is in large part due to the heavy influence of Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman, who along with Wendy Melvoin was Prince’s major collaborator during the time. (“Around the World in a Day” was initially written by David Coleman, Lisa’s multi-instrumentalist brother, with Prince adding his own contributions later.) It also seems safe to guess that Prince—a born contrarian with the patience of a gnat—would likely have been interested in switching directions after something as successful as Purple Rain anyway. Wendy and Lisa’s interest in the Beatles and Joni Mitchell (Lisa’s Joni fandom seems to have redoubled Prince’s own—shortly after she joined the band, during the Dirty Mind era, he began thanking Mitchell in album credits, made “Joni” one of the headlines on the newspapers on the cover of Controversy, named the Time’s Ice Cream Castles after a line in her song, “Both Sides Now,” and invited her to the debut playback of Around the World in a Day), as well as road manager Alan Leeds and his brother Eric’s love of jazz, gave him some definite directions to move in.

The video for “Raspberry Beret” is one of the clearest examples of Prince’s nonchalance about potentially decimating his audience. Right before the song’s first verse begins, Prince has a lengthy coughing fit; Wendy Melvoin, smirking in the background, can barely contain her laughter. Prince had always brazenly fucked with public perception and expectation, from the hard left turn of Dirty Mind to the simple fact of being a black musician playing rock and roll during a period when the FM radio format AOR, or album-oriented radio, stood for, as many wags put it, “apartheid-oriented radio.” But his older public toying had a purpose: He was a relative unknown, and he wanted to make sure you remembered him. Now, with the exception of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, Prince was the biggest pop star on the planet, and he was willfully screwing with people—not tweaking them as he gave them what they essentially wanted, but outright challenging them. He was already a fairly unlikely star, going mega during a period where black performers made nicer than at any point since before Chuck Berry. (The other biggest black stars of the period were Jackson and Lionel Richie, neither exactly paragons of bold sexuality.) Purple Rain had succeeded by softening the edges of his persona and bolstering the rock. Now he was… a hippie who bullied people with his bodyguards?

Some damage control was attempted. Prince did a pair of rare interviews, with Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen, a Minneapolis native then on the magazine’s staff, and on-camera with MTV. Neither interview was particularly revealing, but they did help humanize him a bit. In both, Prince was adamant that he was a regular person who didn’t live in a walled-off castle, isolated from the world. At one point during the MTV interview, Prince was asked, “Speaking of movies, tell us as much as you can about Under the Cherry Moon.” His reply: “Ooooh.”[10] A whole lot of people responded in kind, though the tone of their “ooooh”s was a lot less polite.

Bad publicity was one thing, critical drubbing another. Around the World in a Day was criticized as uneven, but Under the Cherry Moon was the first unmitigated disaster of Prince’s career, savaged critically and doing just as badly at the box office. But if the movie showed Prince as, to put it kindly, overly self-interested (“An outrageous, unmitigated display of narcissism” as the San Jose Mercury News put it, was a more typical response), so did its soundtrack, Parade—it’s just that the album worked and the movie didn’t.

Parade will always mean more in Europe than in America. Here in the States, Parade was widely received as another frustratingly uneven collection that nevertheless showcased more sides of him than any other of his albums. This view has been amended over time; Parade is now considered an avant-garde funk masterpiece. (It was reported that D’Angelo and the Roots warmed up for the recording sessions of D’Angelo’s 2000 album Voodoo by playing Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Parade straight through, in order.) In Europe, though, Parade announced Prince as a man of the world, getting his quirks across more fully, and with more nuance, than any of his previous albums, without flattening them out with Purple Rain’s stadium-ready “big sound.” It seesaws from minimalist funk and bare-bones ballads to thicker, almost orchestral numbers. Clare Fischer, the string arranger who had first worked with Prince on 1985’s The Family, an ill-fated side project meant to be a kind of white, new wave Time (“We’ve got to go after some of that Duran Duran money!” he is quoted as telling engineer David Rivkin in Alex Hahn’s 2003 bio, Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince), is all over Parade, and his ornate, cross-cutting style both sweetens and adds dissonance to the songs.

Here, Prince has a firm hold on that which slipped just away on Around the World. “Mountains” is bright-eyed psych-pop grounded by a chunky acoustic guitar and lifted by a supple, Stax-y horn chart played by Eric Leeds and Matt Blistan (whom Prince renamed Atlanta Bliss). The grooves nudge away from Prince’s usual flat, declarative style, the most jagged of his career: “New Position” rocks the funkiest steel drum motif ever, “Girls & Boys” is so loopy it almost tips over, and “Kiss” is the greatest single Prince or damn near anyone else has ever made, freeze-dried funk that defrosts one mouth-watering drop at a time; listening to it is like finding a strip of sheet metal that’s actually a strawberry Fruit Roll-Up, and chowing down. The ballads are ethereal, fitting the French locale of Under the Cherry Moon, but they’re also pure Prince—”Do U Lie?” pirouettes on a coy, assured melody; “I Wonder U,” sung by Wendy, has flutes and strings that circle around each other, music-box-like, over deep-tuned percussion; and “Sometimes It Snows in April” is melodramatic bullshit that Prince’s subtle, arcing, totally committed vocal sells like ice to penguins.

But once “Kiss” went to No. 1 and Under the Cherry Moon died its death, Prince was in trouble. Parade didn’t sell very well (one million as opposed to Around the World’s three million as opposed to Purple Rain’s ten). He was also beginning to generate a lot of soundalikes (maybe another reason he switched gears so quickly, completely, and readily): Records like Ready for the World’s “Oh Sheila,” Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl,” Sly Fox’s “Let’s Go All the Way,” Jermaine Stewart’s highly ironic “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off,” and the Jets’ “Crush on You,” all more or less aped Prince. Then there was the fact that the biggest and best of these hits were coming from ex-Time members turned writer-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jam and Lewis, along with former Time keyboardist Monte Moir, had accepted an assignment to produce the third album by Michael Jackson’s TV-star kid sister, Janet. The bristling, angular, synth-dominated funk of 1986’s Control soon dominated black pop the way Purple Rain had in 1984 and Thriller had the year before that, and it made Jam and Lewis the hottest producers in pop. It was sort of like Prince—only without the knottiness, the willful obscurity, the titanic ego that kept tripping over itself, and therefore a lot easier to sell.

He’d also managed to piss off a significant portion of the black audience. He’d long expended his more self-consciously “black” material on the Time, who were now finished. With the exception of bassist Mark Brown and Prince himself, the Revolution was white, and increasingly, the charge went, so was his music. And the most infamous moment of his second movie (besides its star’s death scene) was the moment he fled his character’s idea of a nightmare—a dark-skinned black woman. “Vernon Reid saw Cherry Moon in Brooklyn with a theater full of gaga black teenage women,” Greg Tate wrote in the Village Voice, quoting Reid as saying of that scene, “It was like watching Prince tell them, ‘Y’all ain’t shit to me.’”[11] Increasingly, the audience Prince spent half a career cultivating seemed to be saying the same thing to him.

[4] I’m extrapolating from the numbers provided by the City of Minneapolis’s 2000 Census Report, archived online at , which show that Minneapolis’s non-white population in 1970 was 27,986 (6.4% of 434,400 total population); in 2000, it was 133,432 (34.9% of 382,618 total population). The bulk of the city’s non-white population has traditionally been black or African-American.

[5] Peter S. Scholtes, ““First Love” ,” City Pages , 3 September 2003.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Note: This may not be an actual rumor, but something the author made up for fun.

[8] Actually, how “typical” the crowd was depends on when the video was made. If it was made after Prince’s groundbreaking early tours, where he was booked in rock clubs as well as on R&B bills, opening for Rick James, and began cultivating the crossover audience he craved, then the “Dirty Mind” video is a terrific snapshot of a moment where the pop marketplace seemed up for grabs and rock and funk’s underground audiences were converging, a golden subcultural era. If it was made before then, the video is one hell of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

[9] Dave Hickey, “Mitchum Gets Out of Jail,” from O.K. You Mugs , ed. Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Vintage Books, 1999, p. 17–18.

[10] Transcript of MTV interview, Blues and Soul magazine, April 1986.

[11] Greg Tate, ““Painted Black” ,” Village Voice , April 14, 1987.