Published Dec 01, 1999On his otherwise great new album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, Prince slaughters a version of Sheryl Crow's "Every Day Is a Winding Road," a pop song with the chorus: "Everybody gets high, everybody gets low." There are obvious reasons why this song hits home with the purple guy. Since his first album was released in 1978, he's walked a fine line between being one of the century's great musical minds and being afflicted with one-note artistic diarrhoea.
It's not easy, or cheap, being a Prince fan. But there are several reasons why we stick with "that skinny motherfucker with the high voice" and the notorious libido: he's the music nerd from the unhip snow belt town of Minneapolis who has resisted all racial, sexual and musical boundaries and labels, offering a sense of cultural freedom that instils hope in a cookie-cutter culture. The name change to an unpronounceable, androgynous symbol may have been a daft move, but it's in step with his quest to transcend any limitation he can. As he sang on 1981's "Controversy," "People call me rude/ I wish we all were nude/ I wish there was no black and white/ I wish there was no rules."
Signed to Warner, who wanted Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire to produce first album For You. Prince's manager convinces Warner executives to let the young Minneapolis hotshot run his own show by letting him loose in a studio while they posed as janitors to observe him recording and playing 27 instruments himself. They acquiesce to his genius, and the 19-year-old Prince still holds the title of the youngest producer ever credited on a Warner release.
His first band is consciously multi-racial and gender-inclusive, including future Revolution members Dr. Fink and Bobby Z. He meets Bob Marley with plans to record together, but Marley is put off when Prince shows up in a g-string. Self-titled album scores #1 R&B hit "I Wanna Be Your Lover."
Dirty Mind is the best of his early self-performed albums, with nary a weak track and more of a rock influence. Keyboardist Gayle Chapman, who objected to the song "Head," leaves his live band, and is replaced by her sister Lisa. Opens for Rick James on tour, who becomes intensely jealous of the leopard-skin-bikini-clad upstart. Showing the first signs of restlessness, he creates The Time with old friend Morris Day, writes all the songs under a pseudonym and fictionalizes a rivalry to boost his own profile.
The 1999 double album produces three amazing and enduring singles, but electro-funk drum programming makes eight-minute jams monotonous; it's the first sign that the budding genius doesn't have an eye for quality control. Later disowns album as a transitory stage. "Free" shows first sign of his much-discussed Joni Mitchell influence. Launches girl trio Vanity 6, who tour with the Time and the Revolution. Fires Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from the Time for working on outside projects; they would later become one of the '80s most successful production teams.
Spends last six months writing the music and preparing for feature film debut, Purple Rain. Vanity splits just before filming, replaced by Apollonia. Final album versions of "I Would Die 4 U," "Baby I'm a Star" and "Purple Rain" recorded live at a Minneapolis show that was also the stage debut for guitarist Wendy Melvoin. Starts working with longtime engineer Susan Rogers, one of his many favoured non-subservient female collaborators (unlike his proteges), including bandmates, video directors, and tour managers.
"When Doves Cry," a daring rock/dance hit for the absence of bass, becomes his first #1 hit — recorded and mixed, solo, in a single day. The symbol that will later become his chosen name appears on his motorcycle on Purple Rain's cover shot. The film becomes biggest rock'n'roll movie since A Hard Days Night; the score wins an Oscar. He co-writes and produces Sheila E.'s The Glamorous Life, writes for Apollonia 6 and the Time's third album, which they actually play on. Cyndi Lauper records "When You Were Mine"; Chaka Khan records "I Feel 4 U."
Records Around the World in a Day as soon as the six-month Purple Rain tour ends, refusing to milk that album's massive popularity. Around the World is released in April, and he immediately begins work on Parade and his directorial film debut, Under the Cherry Moon. Co-star Kristin Scott Thomas later recalls him as being "prudish." Prince's fictional sidekick in the film is named Tricky. Founds Paisley Park label. The Time disband and Prince launches The Family to showcase new girlfriend Susannah Melvoin, Wendy's twin sister, who will record the first version of future Sinead O'Connor hit "Nothing Compares 2 U." Begins longstanding collaboration with orchestral arranger Clare Fischer.
Parade stands as his best paisley pop album of the '80s. Spawned #1 single "Kiss," a song sung in his best falsetto, and the playful video finds him tapping his most feminine impulses. Conversely, Under the Cherry Moon is universally panned and disappears quickly. Records sessions for an aborted album called Dream Factory with the Revolution; three tracks make it onto Sign O' the Times. Bootlegs of these sessions were rumoured to feature Miles Davis on trumpet, but are in fact played by longtime Prince collaborator Atlanta Bliss. Starts tradition of avoiding American tours, focusing instead on Europe. In autumn, he disbands the Revolution after a tour widely hailed as their peak performances; only Dr. Fink remains. Begins preparing for a solo three-record album called Crystal Ball; trimmed down, it's eventually released in '87 as Sign O' the Times; a single album of outtakes was planned, using the alias Camille, who is credited with several lead vocals on SOTT. Writes a cocky letter to Miles Davis urging a collaboration because "a lot of people have to find out who you are," and signs it "God." Records a track for Davis's Tutu album, but retracts it when he figures it won't fit in.
Sign O' the Times is widely acclaimed as his most diverse and rewarding album; CBC's Brave New Waves later selects it as best album of the '80s. European SOTT tour filmed for concert movie of same name, rush released to compensate for skipping North America. The Black Album is given a catalogue number and set for a December release. After pressing a single acetate to play at Sheila E.'s birthday party, bootlegs appeared on the street within days. Pulls the album at the last minute, telling his personal assistant that it was "evil." Becomes one of the most sought-after bootlegs until Warner officially releases it in 1994 to fulfil obligations during contractual disputes. Builds Paisley Park studio in a suburb of Minneapolis — says the cold keeps the bad people out. Jams on drums with Miles Davis on New Year's Eve. Produces and writes album for instrumental combo Madhouse, led by his horn section.
Lovesexy, supposedly the antidote to The Black Album's "negativity," wields feel-good single "Alphabet St.," but most of the album's good ideas are buried under overproduction that will mar his '90s work. This is also the first time he uses the phrase "new power generation." Begins working with soul legend Mavis Staples, writing tracks for her album Time Waits for No One.
Scores Tim Burton's Batman film, and the album's success (three weeks at #1) apparently convinces him that pointless musical masturbation could be lucrative; it would be the last time he could get away with it, despite repeated tries. Had to be convinced to take the job, and did so primarily because Warner wouldn't let him release another "official" Prince album until 1990. Signs George Clinton to Paisley Park. Has tumultuous six-month relationship with Batman star Kim Basinger, whom he recruits to pant and moan on 12-inch "Scandalous Sex Suite." She co-wrote an initial draft of Graffiti Bridge, apparently more hideous than the final product. David Sylvian's future wife Ingrid Chavez gets the lead in the movie when Basinger splits. Collaborates with Madonna on "Love Song" from her Like A Prayer album; he reportedly recorded his own version of that album's title track, still unreleased.
Starts filming Graffiti Bridge, which he wrote and directed as a sequel to Purple Rain, in February. Releases film in November, after editing it in hotel rooms via FedEx while on the Nude Tour in Europe. It barely makes it into theatres; album barely registers on the charts. Ghost-writes new album by the Time, Pandemonium. Last remaining Revolution member, Matt "Dr." Fink, leaves the band. Meets Mayte Garcia for the first time; she will become NPG's choreographer and his future wife.
Diamonds and Pearls introduces his '90s backing band, the New Power Generation, which unlike the Revolution, will be a revolving door lineup. Album wields four hit singles, his best showing since Purple Rain. Incredibly embarrassing and dated rapping by no-talent Tony M sabotages the album's pop smarts. The "Gett Off" single is one of his most dense delights, sounding like a jam between Terminator X, Natacha Atlas, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Parliament and Hendrix; the full-length remix CD single is as rewarding as the whole album.
The "symbol" album stands up well, featuring a diverse collection of tracks led off by "My Name is Prince" and the live-off-the-floor "Sexy MF." Its worst moments again suffer from overproduction: "3 Chains of Gold" makes Queen sound like Jonathan Richman. The album was accompanied by a hilariously bad full-length video collection starring Mayte. Signs new $100 million, six-album deal with Warner, a bad move for both parties; the label anticipates high returns in order to just break even. This is the beginning of the end of his popularity, his creative freedom, and possibly his sanity. One year later, he announces that he's retiring from studio work and will fulfil his contract with previously unreleased material.
Triple CD set The Hits/B-Sides is released, just in time to remind audiences of his brilliance at the same time he begins to get loopy. The Hits discs feature some new gems, but are far from thorough; the glorious B-Sides make the collection absolutely indispensable. Co-writes with a seldom-discussed idol, Kate Bush, on her Red Shoes album. On his 35th birthday, he announces his name change. Tells MTV reporter to "just call me darling."
Combined from studio outtakes, Come is a surprisingly cohesive collection of horn-heavy soft-porn funk — in this case, a good thing. Had this been a bootleg instead of a corporate toss-off (pun intended), Come would be held in higher regard. Warner closes Paisley Park Records, which — unlike Maverick, run by Warner labelmate Madonna — never released a hit album. Warner under-promotes Come, delays The Gold Experience and releases The Black Album to piss off the petulant artist. In spite, Prince records the unspeakably cheesy "Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and releases it on his new NPG label; it goes to #1 in Britain, #3 in the U.S. Also compiles 1-800-NEW-FUNK compilation of dumped Paisley Park artists for NPG Records.
The Gold Experience sums up everything wrong with '90s Prince: snippets of great ideas, executed in most maudlin fashion imaginable. Liner notes, written by his hometown pop critic, are surprisingly critical of his recent work. They also detail the after-hours workouts he'd been performing with the new NPG in Minneapolis, workshopping new material, reinventing his oldies, and playing covers. He does, however, rediscover the electric guitar solo. Appears at Brit Music Awards with the word "Slave" written on his cheek, which will remain for all his public appearances that year. After Prince-friendly executives Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker leave Warner, so does Prince, much to all parties' delight. He writes and produces Mayte's Children of the Sun album, as well as NPG album Exodus .
Chaos and Disorder is recorded in ten days as a kiss-off to Warner, with plenty of bile spilling into his most rock album since Purple Rain — great groove, ridiculous lyrics. The refreshing garage rock/funk gem proves that the less he thinks about production value, the better. Scores Spike Lee's film Girl 6 with three new songs and older tracks. On February 14, he marries Mayte in Minneapolis. In November, he launches triple CD Emancipation, on NPG distributed by EMI; the first single is a syrupy cover of the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow" — not a good indicator of quality. Another cover, Joan Osbourne's "One of Us," fits perfectly amidst his oeuvre. Overall, Emancipation encapsulates his patchy decade by featuring a single CD's worth of his greatest work since Sign O' The Times, as well as plenty of hopeless dreck. New band features Montreal natives Rhonda Smith (bass) and Kathleen Dyson (guitar); "In This Bed I Scream" is a public plea to Wendy, Lisa and Susannah for reconciliation, while they're still waiting for a personal phone call. Mayte gives birth prematurely to a boy afflicted with "clover-leaf syndrome" deformity; he dies a couple of weeks later, right around Emancipation's release date. In a bizarre move, Prince fulfils video, interview and release party obligations, yet during his Oprah interview, he doesn't admit anything is wrong with his child.
Meets with Madonna to discuss incorporating NPG into Maverick. EMI executive who signed Prince is fired. Writes symphonic piece "Kama Sutra" for Mayte. Inducts George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic into the Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame. Chaka Khan and Larry Graham join his band; he releases their solo albums on NPG in '98.
In a decade marked by left turns, The Truth is an acoustic guitar album that displays a delightful and seldom-heard side of Prince. Sadly, it was only available as part of the five-CD package Crystal Ball, which featured three CDs of rather ho-hum outtakes from the past ten years, as well as the NPG Orchestra performing the 41-minute "Kama Sutra." Initially an internet-only release, even his most masochistic fans got fed up when they were billed months before the set was mailed to them — and a couple of weeks after it arrived in some stores. Also releases NPG album New Power Soul, with two songs dating back to Revolution days.
Starts off his year by recording faithful remake of "1999" with Doug E. Fresh, Rosie Gaines, and Larry Graham to compete with Warner's pre-millennial reissue. In April, he announces that he will re-record his entire 17-album Warner catalogue. Around this time, he also sues one of his bigger fanzines for unlawful use of his symbol; the case is later dropped. Announces new compilation of unreleased and reconstructed Revolution tracks entitled Roadhouse Garden. Plans to follow George Clinton's lead by releasing a seven-CD set of samples from his catalogue for DJ/producer purposes. Warner releases The Vault, a collection of his jazzier obscurities that's better than expected.
Rave Un2 to the Joy Fantastic marks his return to a major (Arista) and a bevy of oddball guests: Chuck D, Sheryl Crow, Eve, Maceo Parker and Ani DiFranco. Most fit seamlessly into the album's sunny guitar pop vibe, a focused work like Emancipation should have been. The only thing stopping it from being a hit is the public's exasperation with his behaviour.