About a year after the release of Prince’s Dirty Mind album, Music industry publication Billboard attempted to answer the question “What is Black music” by creating a Black Singles chart.
Reductionist tactics like Billboard’s are worthy of a lengthy post, but I’ll say only this for now: Black creatives and their output over the years have suffered from a crisis of identity or an assault against their respective existences. I’ll let you figure out if these crises have been driven by marketing convenience or some other intention …
Which brings up another reason to praise Prince’s contributions to music: he fought, and won, creative battles against the industry and its market, which made entry easier for Black musicians like Janelle Monae and many others.
This background stayed in my mind when I compiled my list of nine Prince albums I tend to keep in high rotation. Any omissions are no reflection of the quality of Prince’s other works, nor the number of recordings sold. The Brother released many great albums. Aside from the first album mentioned, my choices are in no particular order.
With the qualifying remarks out of the way, read on …
SIGN O’ THE TIMES (1987)
There was never a struggle in my head to choose my favorite Prince album. SOTT has consistently kicked my backside slowly with its brooding production, lyrical symbols and imagery. The album not only became Prince’s boldest social statement of his career at the time, but the release also provided one of the most comprehensive shape-shifting tours of American music history without ever once sounding unfocused or tacky. I’m sure he surprised many with the title track, which has a Hip Hop-ready beat; the continent-hopping, guitar-driven intensity of “The Cross” and the Retro-Soul styling of “Adore.” A perfect album.
Prince’s most revealing view inside his world for Pop listeners prior to Purple Rain‘s entry to the world. Fans of 80s rock forms were slayed by tracks like “Little Red Corvette” — a song that’s not about a car or even a woman, per se — while Funk lovers received their fill with “D.M.S.R.” “All the Critics Love U in New York” dared you to find a label to attach.
What was the libidinously nasty Prince’s 1981 answer to the Moral Majority, the dawning of Reaganism, the threat of nuclear war and the murders of our Black boys? A poetic device for social justice shrouded in layers of sexual icons, as well as Innovative Afro-Synth, Rock and Funk flavors. Meanwhile, the critics want you to pay close attention to Prince’s inappropriate use of mascara…
AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAY (1985)
Anyone who calls this set a Beatles album is a lazy listener, or they only chose to look at the cover and listen to “Paisley Park.” Although I think of this follow-up to Purple Rain as an Afro-Psychedelia Soul album disguised as trippy Pop, I can understand how people who were introduced to Prince through the previous album can have a Whiskey-Tango-Fox-Trot moment. “Relax and listen. It’s all good” is the best advice I can offer.
To interpolate a Nikki Giovanni lyric, Prince is so infinitely badazz that even his mistakes are on point. His publicly-judged hasty replacement to the shelved Black Album is a nonstop 45-minute funk-n-grind story of God, love, sex, self and empowerment. In what I consider #PrinceProblems, the astral expectations set by his earlier albums, coupled with people’s habitual pattern of judging an album by its nude cover caused them to sleep on a solid set. But if your world says “falling off” is an album that only reaches the far edge of Milky Way goodness instead of Andromeda and beyond …
DIRTY MIND (1981)
I call the album Roots Prince, Vol. 3 for the way a retrospective listen to this and Prince’s two earlier releases can form a manifesto of sorts for what the superstar-in-waiting would build from years later. Dirty Mind keeps the sexy, thumping New Wave Funk party going from beginning to end without a slow song for a break, but with a sprinkling of messages against prejudice and war.
Roots Prince, Vol. 2 provides early proof that the teenaged star views Rock (“Bambi”) and Funk (“I Wanna Be Your Lover”) on the same continuum while many of his peers viewed them as separate worlds, or even sources of racial and cultural conflict.
Come on, who else other than Prince made the funkiest song of 1986 that NOT HAVE ANY BASS IN IT? “Kiss” shows Prince was operating on a different level from the rest of us humans. The rest of the album shows similarly engaging arrangements. “Sometimes it Snows in April” is a heart-tugger.
FOR YOU (1978)
Roots Prince, Vol. 1 is an impressive debut for the 18-year old who embraced the R&B and Disco sounds of the time without being trapped by them. When compared with Prince’s eventual evolution, he sounds amusingly innocent here.