Prince released nearly 40 studio albums after the first one in 1978, For You, and every one is pure Prince. Like Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, two visionaries who inspired him, Prince wrote, produced and arranged all of his music.
For Prince, the issue was control of his craft. The labels could make or break a hit. But he took responsibility for his catalog, and what endures is some of the funkiest, boldest and most- challenging work in popular music.
“I am a musician, not a manager,” he told the Miami Herald in 1997. “The music is what I am in control of.”
Here are some of his finest, most-representative albums.
Dirty Mind (1980).
Prince’s third album is nearly a one-man-band performance that helped land him an opening spot on the Rolling Stones’ 1981 tour — for which he earned boos. Audiences then weren’t sure what to make of the diminutive funk rocker who performed (and posed on the LP cover against a backdrop of bed springs) in bikini underpants and who sang libidinous songs like Head and the title track.
Heard today, Dirty Mind is a genre-busting funk, pop, R&B and new wave classic that gave the likes of Cyndi Lauper a leg up on pop stardom (she covered When You Were Mine on her debut album, She’s So Unusual, three years later.)
Hefty and not entirely without filler, the double-vinyl 1999 became Prince’s breakthrough album on the strength of its singles Little Red Corvette, the title song and Delirious. Little Red Corvette’s music video was one of the first by a black artist to receive saturation play on MTV, helping Prince become a sensation like Thriller-era Michael Jackson.
Prince wasn’t as blatantly sexual on 1999 as he was on Dirty Mind or its 1981 follow-up Controversy. Those were tapes you had to hide from your parents. On 1999, he was finding ways to couch raunch in ever-more clever lyrics. If you think Little Red Corvette is about a car, you’re clearly not listening.
Purple Rain (1984).
Conceived as the soundtrack to a film, Purple Rain, along with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, defined popular music in 1984, arguably the greatest year for pop music of that decade.
Prince was joined by his backing band, the Revolution, for his finest album. Purple Rain is rapturous on the elegiac, anthemic title track; an energetic party-starter on Let’s Go Crazy, with Prince’s Jimi Hendrix-worthy electric guitar tag, and the propulsive Baby I’m a Star; filthy on Darling Nikki, which inspired Tipper Gore to push for ugly Parental Advisory stickers that obliterated album art for years on LP covers.
The set’s masterpiece, Prince’s greatest hit, is the minimalist first single, When Doves Cry. The rhythmic song ingeniously has no bass, but you would never know that.
Around the World in a Day (1985).
An excellent representation for how bold the artist could be. Purple Rain, which held the No. 1 spot for 24 weeks, turned Prince into a superstar. To follow, less than a year later, Prince delivered a chromatic, psychedelic pop confection, laced with worldly instrumentation — finger cymbals, oud (a type of drum) and the darbuka (a stringed instrument commonly used in Middle Eastern music).
Around the World in a Day, also recorded with the Revolution, drew comparisons to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a linkage Prince refuted. Strange as it seemed at the time, the set includes two of his breeziest, most infectious singles in Raspberry Beret and Pop Life.
Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987).
The sprawling album, Prince’s second double-disc set, finds the songwriter pondering weighty world issues on journalistic songs like the title track. (“In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name/By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same.”) There are also songs of gender identity (If I Was Your Girlfriend), spirituality (The Cross) and good ol’ rock and roll, I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.
Like the Rolling Stones’ acclaimed Tattoo You in 1981, Sign ‘o’ the Times was cobbled together from vault material but never felt like leftovers. Indeed, many critics (and fans) pronounce Sign ‘o’ the Times Prince’s masterwork.
The Gold Experience (1995).
The Gold Experience, released after Prince shed his name in a dispute with Warner Bros., over control of his music, was his best, most fully realized work since Sign ‘o’ the Times.
The 18-track album culminates in Gold, a tune that had much of the passion and holy fire of the Purple Rain title track. Gold’s closing electric guitar jam brought the house down when Prince performed it at the opening of his defunct South Beach club Glam Slam near the album’s release.
Gold is a brilliant indictment of the music business, told with considerably more smarts than that whole computer font for a name business he engaged in at the time. “Everybody wants 2 sell what's already been sold/Everybody wants 2 tell what's already been told/What's the use of money if you ain't gonna break the mold?/Even at the center of fire there is cold/All that glitters ain't gold.”
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