Prince: the second decade

22:34, Jun 09 2011

Just over two years ago I decided to write a post about Prince. It's a huge career to take in of course so I wrote this. A survey of his first decade in music (1978-1988); I called the blog entry Prince: A decade of Genius. It seemed fair. He released an album every year. He made three films, had numerous chart hits and he wrote plenty of other material, including releasing huge amounts under various alter-ego/pseudonyms. He was one of the biggest stars of the 1980s.

The general feeling with Prince is that the first half of that first decade is close to perfect. Everything up to Purple Rain - and if there are some slight wobbles he finished strong with Sign O' The Times.

But what happened next?

Well, it's time to look at that second decade (1989-1999). Why is it time? Well, I've just always felt that it's too easy to write it off as the decade where Prince lost quality control in his quest for total control. It tends to be people that haven't done the listening that say that.

So, by all means click on the link (here it is again) for a refresher of the first post. And now we'll look at how Prince finished the 1980s and what he did across the 1990s.

First up was the Batman soundtrack which works for the film and seems to exist as its own album-length version of the movie (the movie if Prince directed it). I wrote about this recently as part of The Vinyl Countdown (click that link to read my memories of the album). The Batman soundtrack is, arguably, the end of the golden run. Many people had written him off by the time of Lovesexy but the Batman album has aged remarkably well. It's a short, sharp blast of the many sides of Prince. It's one of his tightest albums. By that I mean you get a snapshot of everything Prince does without the ephemera, segues, failed experiments and indulgences.

It would be the last indulgence-free Prince album for at least half a decade. It would be the last very good indulgence-free Prince record for a decade and a half.

Graffiti Bridge was a half-hearted Purple Rain follow-up/tie-in. The concept paper-thin and not able to sustain itself; it seems Prince gives up on the movie halfway through. The album was overly long, overly complicated but it contained some great cuts. As (pretty much) all Prince albums do. The Question Of U for a start - still a live favourite and a chance for Prince to lay out some of his signature guitar wailing. And then there was the single, Thieves In The Temple. It also showed that even when Prince goes long - too long, as is usually the case - he also goes wide. The depth in this album is shown by Prince reintroducing Mavis Staples - before it was hip and trendy to introduce a legend to a new audience. It wasn't just lip-service as Prince went on to produce "comeback" albums for Staples.

But he hadn't - really - had a hit since 1987's Sign O' The Times material.

And then Diamonds And Pearls arrived (1991) and Prince was back in the charts, back on top with controversial videos and live appearances. I don't like the Diamonds And Pearls album, but it does show an artist trying to assimilate hip-hop trends and dance music within his own established pop-funk framework. And if it failed (for me) as an album it succeeded with four awesome singles (Gett Off, Diamonds And Pearls, Cream and Money Don't Matter 2 Nite). Examples of Prince the pop-song writer at his best across ballads and radio-funk; the album is one of his best-sellers.

Prolific as ever, the next album will be remembered - mostly - for ushering in the name-change. O (+> (or "Love Symbol") was the name of a double-LP length album; the CD format proving to be the worst excess for Prince's indulgences. But the album's title became Prince's moniker. The story of it as a conflation of the male/female gender symbols went from being how Prince saw himself to fusing with his fight against the major label that released his material. Prince refused to be called Prince - he was an unpronounceable symbol. It made it very easy for people that didn't listen to the new music but did read the music-press headlines to laugh at someone who had always had his eccentricities painted as perversions. He then called himself Slave - even saying that the symbol stood for the word slave at one point.

It became hard to care about the music. It was a tough time to be a fan. And it was a real shame because, although overly long as an album, the Love Symbol record was bursting with ideas and creative playing. The New Power Generation had struggled to really make itself known on Diamonds And Pearls but this combo was cooking with gas now. The big songs were My Name Is Prince and Sexy MF but, as usual with Prince, the hit singles only told half the story. The Morning Papers, Love 2 The 9s, I Wanna Melt With U, Damn U, 7 and And God Created Woman were all strong songs.

He was back to calling himself Prince for the Come album. But it was subtitled 1958-1993, in effect announcing that he was killing off the Prince character; it was the death of himself as the record company feud was mentioned in any Prince conversation now; always at the expense of the music.

If any Prince album was deserving of a bigger audience it's Come. It was slipped out when people were too busy discussing the perceived weirdness and gall. The opening title track glides along for over 10 minutes; it's sexy and groovy. It sets up an album full of clipped funk (Pheromone), black humour (Papa), brave vocal performances (Solo) and one of the best songs he's ever written (Letitgo). The album was available in bargain bins a month after its release.

Pumping the albums out now to simultaneously appease and frustrate Warner Brothers, Prince decided to release The Black Album; bootlegs had been in circulation since it was shelved. This was the dark sister volume to Sign O' The Times and/or Lovesexy. It's Prince combining the Sly Stone and George Clinton auteur funk influences. It's dark but it shines. It made sense in 1994 - maybe more so than (it would have) as a 1980s record. But it was a limited release. And the Prince/Symbol/Slave/Warners debacle continued to overshadow the music.

The next official release was The Gold Experience. It's one of my favourite Prince albums - the awesome P Control announces the album's intentions. From there it's a long, always enjoyable ride through rocked-up funk and a few soul ballads. (Shhh is awesome). It's as strong as the Batman album but twice as long - again the CD format proved to be one of Prince's worst enemies. Prince seems more committed on this than on anything since Sign O' The Times. It's the best aspects of Love Symbol and Come but with a harder edge, it's stronger, sharper - more together, more real.

After a bunch of overly long albums Prince chucked out Chaos And Disorder; you could never make much of a case for this album as essential but it's guitar-driven, it's short, punchy and it is not without its charms. It's by no means a total turkey. But its near-instant bargain-bin status suggested that. Actually there was some real groove on Dig U Better Dead and the opening, title track. Dinner With Delores feels like a return to Sign O' The Times and I Rock, Therefore I Am would have lifted Diamonds And Pearls up and away from its plastic/gimmick feel.

Prince was most definitely a symbol/Symbol when he released the triple album, Emancipation. I was convinced, for the longest time, that this album was a giant dud; a mess, a catastrophe. It is nothing of the sort. Taken as individual albums - three 60-minute experiences, best listened to in isolation - play one disc, don't listen to the others in the same day - it's some of his strongest work of the decade. And if disc three was released as a solo album it might have been his biggest hit since Batman. Rather than just painting Slave on his face, Prince was singing about it. And he offered reminders of the dirty, twisted pop/funk hybrids with Face Down.

But the marketing and the circumstances again killed any chance the album might have had.

I don't have much nice to say about Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. It's my least favourite of Prince's albums. And after a tough decade as a Prince fan/apologist I had - for just a year or two - given up. (I think I had to).

Of course he released a killer live show on the back of this. And I was a fan again.

Prince's recorded output across the second decade of his professional career (1989-1999) is vast and problematic. He didn't really release anything to rival that first decade's highs - but really, that's asking a bit much. Compare Prince's 1990s against his 1980s work then think of The Rolling Stones' 1980s output as attempting to hold a candle to their late 1960s/early 1970s material.

Prince's music in the 1990s took a back seat to his image. And his image took a back seat to his image troubles. And those image troubles clouded people's understanding of what Prince, as musician, was trying to do and who he was trying to be.

But all of this was alleviated by stunning live performances; the recruitment and development of a phenomenal band (NPG) and strong statements as an independent artist; one with a prolific work rate.

I could never argue that his material in the second decade was pioneering or cohesive or worth a thorough re-examination, but I do think that it's unfair and thoughtless to disregard it completely.

Prince makes albums and leaves them to stand for what they are and what they're worth. In that sense his work rate and philosophy can be compared to Neil Young and Frank Zappa. The good stuff shines, the bad stuff is never explained away, it's left as a curiosity. I happen to think there are plenty of magic moments within the curiosities released between 1989 and 1999.

There's a great compilation (a two or three CD equivalent) to be made from the best of his material in the second decade.

And what was passed off by the press as someone a bit bonkers is actually a proud, defiant artist refusing to play ball. Yes, you could argue that Prince bit back at a system that encouraged, developed and ultimately made him. But he also made a lot of money - and gathered a lot of kudos - for the system (as well as himself).

I'd take a lot of the music from Prince's second (inferior) decade over many artists' alleged best.

So, what about you? Are you a Prince fan? Did you stick with him through the tough years of commercial and critical decline? Or were you never a fan? What are your favourite albums or songs or moments from the "Slave" years and beyond?

Do you still - or did you ever - think of Prince as a genius? Or do you feel he really lost his mojo?

What are your thoughts on Prince? Specifically the second decade...

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