Prince Albums From Worst To Best

Paul Natkin Archive/Getty Images

Prince Albums From Worst To Best

Paul Natkin Archive/Getty Images

NOTE: This feature was published in 2014, two years before Prince’s untimely death, and does not include Plectrumelectrum, Art Official Age, or the Hit n Run albums.


In baseball, the five-tool player is kind of a bullshit concept, but it connotes a particular beauty. The five-tool player hits for power, hits for average, throws well, fields well, and roams the basepaths like a guerilla warrior; when the term “five-tool” is deployed, it implicitly presents these skills as equally weighted. As the greatest solo pop artist in American history, Prince boasts an unprecedented skill set. He writes, arranges, sings, plays, dances, and performs, all like a motherfucker. He busts taboos, flashes unstoppable ambition, blends genres together like paint. Ballads and rave-ups, autobiography and fantasy, sexual abandon and divine devotion. He’s Willie Mays and Ken Griffey, Jr. and Rickey Henderson and Bo Jackson. He’s Paul McCartney with the funk, Stevie Wonder with the freakiness, Joni Mitchell with the proper respect.

Respect, as you know, is also kind of a bullshit concept. Your favorite songs may not grace anyone else’s mixes; your favorite artists may not have ever left town. A century of recorded music has given us a galaxy of worthy tunes. But the gravitational pull of Prince is strong; it has few equals. If you dig people standing tall in the major-label machinery, he’s your standard-bearer. Practically anyone trying to marry pop songcraft to idiosyncrasy is in his debt: OutKast. The-Dream. Beyoncé. Juan Atkins. Of Montreal. Autre Ne Veut. Sky Ferreira. With astounding ease, he gave us dozens of evergreens and deep cuts, concept albums and slamming soundtracks, Anna Stesia and Bambi and Darling Nikki. At his peak, he was essentially a one-man record industry. He handed Sinead O’Connor and Chaka Khan the biggest hits of their careers. After seven years gone, Kid Creole And The Coconuts — a sterling act in their own right — rode “The Sex of It” back into the UK Top 30. Stevie Nicks, Sheila E., Sheena Easton, and the Bangles went Top 10 Stateside with Prince tunes. He’s been sampled by Nine Inch Nails, covered by Sufjan Stevens, pastiched by Weird Al.

Even with all this, his grandest legacy could be how he put so much of himself on wax while holding so much in reserve. His boldest thematic throughline would surely be sexuality: the pleasure of pursuit, the promise and demonstration of ecstasy. Yet Prince’s carnality exists in this weird middle ground between entertaining nonsense and raw reportage. It’s an obsession, but when it’s depicted, it’s rarely done obsessively. The same thing applies to his spiritual journey, which has traversed all the stations from guilt to exaltation. He’s pledged to Jehovah’s Witnesses — and has gone on record with his unease about everything from substance abuse to cussing to (tragically) non-heterosexuality — but it’s been no obstacle to his ardor. He’s still a flirt, and he’s still wickedly funny in his low-key manner. (On Dutch TV, he once explained his conviction about birthdays thusly: “I don’t celebrate birthdays, so that stops me from counting days, which stops me from counting time, which allows me” — and here he drops into a fey Southern accent and rises into some doofy shoulder-rocking, to a massive cheer — “to still look the same as I did, ten years ago, just like that lady said.”)

Fortunately, Prince’s reputation has rebounded from a dark period, when he was locked in battle with his record label, declaring himself a slave to the endless glee of late-night TV hosts. Once free from his contract, he initiated a years-long re-evaluation of the standard distribution model, experimenting with subscriptions, MP3 stores, albums packaged with newspapers and bundled with concert tickets. The records themselves were often uneven — to his unrealized chagrin, the major-label paradigm nurtures quality as much as it quashes it — but they always offered Princemusic, a heady blend of styles and passions that added to our conception of the man, even if they didn’t shore up the legacy. But when you’re the forever king, your legacy is already written. Not to say that he’s always reigned securely. Like Michael Jackson (a ruler of another galaxy, even if critics dreamed of a real rivalry), Prince worked to rule the charts without forsaking his black audience, which put him in a prolonged repulsion/attraction cycle with hip-hop before he matured into his current role as a funky elder statesman. Too smart to self-destruct, too restless to fully settle into a stylistic cul-de-sac, he’s now a living treasure, the greatest, weirdest gift ever sold.

Today, Prince’s biggest-selling album (having moved more than 20 million units worldwide), Purple Rain, turns 30. To celebrate, we’re taking a deep dive into the man’s prolific, magical career. What follows is a ranking of most of Prince’s studio LPs and soundtracks — though we limited what Wikipedia calls his “internet albums” to 1998’s The Truth and 2003’s Xpectation, which means you won’t find a few of his more esoteric releases (2004’s The Chocolate Invasion, for instance, or, um, 2004’s The Slaughterhouse) included here. That still leaves us with more than enough music for several lifetimes — and considering Prince’s continued vitality and infamous vaults, he’s probably got another few lifetimes’ worth of music ahead of him, too. Let’s go crazy.


The Black Album (1994)

The Legendary Black Album it's often called, but fans didn't even have to wait seven years. Legends usually take a little longer to marinate. Still, in pop terms, seven years is a lifetime. When The Black Album was originally slated for release, Nirvana's drummer was Aaron Burckhard; when it finally came out, Kurt Cobain was seven months gone. Between 1987 and 1994 was "Da Butt," As Nasty As They Wanna Be, Fear Of A Black Planet, "Unfinished Sympathy," The Chronic and Kill My Landlord. The Time reformed and broke up again. Alexander O'Neal had stopped charting. The ascendant American pop producers were people like Teddy Riley and the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis -- both former members of the Time -- splicing R&B with hip-hop DNA, invigorating the former and further popularizing the latter.

All this to say that while The Black Album may not have started many fires in '87, it was a damp cloud in '94. The forays into rapping are tin-eared, the funk flat and devoid of frills, and the ballad ("When 2 R In Love") already issued on Lovesexy, and in a much more forgiving context. This would have been his first major misstep, and despite all the reasons given for the record's shelving, it's likely that he (and Warner Bros.) knew it. Sign O' The Times was still spawning singles; there was no need to flood the market. (It's worth noting that Prince was never really on board with issuing this record; it was a contractual move on Warner's part.) It wasn't an issue of his losing the touch -- the replacement, Lovesexy, is one of his best -- but of losing his vision.


Planet Earth (2007)

Prince has spent his third millennium selling records by every means except for content. Planet Earth was, essentially, a clever way to sell out concert dates; it was famously included with copies of Britain's The Mail on Sunday in advance of a seven-week residency at London's O2 Arena. The CD was also included with the ticket, which came in handy for referring to the songs he wouldn't play. "Guitar" got the live treatment; it was the leadoff single, and it pairs U2's latter-day rock sense with Bono's famous sense of humor. Why wouldn't it get paired with "Take Me With U"?

To his credit, Prince beefs up his arrangements, especially compared to the last few records. Instead of the standard MPLS treatment, "Chelsea Rodgers" is legit disco, with Prince ceding a good chunk of mic duty to Shelby J. It's still a Momus-style song portrait on a bigger budget, but it's sweet. Plus, all the handclaps and frantic horn charts disguise the pedestrian melody. The rest of the record doesn't have this kind of cover. "Planet Earth" has the distinction of being overstuffed and undercooked, with hokey synth tone and electric sitar and a rawkin' solo competing to hit you the hardest with the message. "Lion Of Judah" offers an interesting kernel -- the superstar as avenging angel -- but slaps it on a Morrissey MIDI. Were it not for the creative accounting, the return of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to the fold would have been the lede. But of Prince's compatriots, only Morris Day could've knocked this thing closer to the proper axis.


Lotusflow3r/MPLSound (2009)

It may be a cheat to talk about these records together - Lotusflow3r features a gaggle of guests, while a Q-Tip appearance is the only non-Prince element on MPLSound - but screw it, they were released on the same day, as part of a three-disc set that included protege Brea Valente's Elixer. The distribution model this time was a digital release on a Prince-owned site, followed by a exclusive priced-to-move CD deal with Target that got him to #2 on the Billboard 200. The care devoted to the rollout doesn't extend to the content, much of which was pieced together over the previous four years. ("U're Gonna C Me" was released as an MP3 in a previous form in 2001. Its drums date to '84.) The referents are even older: there's a cover of "Crimson and Clover" spliced with "Wild Thing," a song titled "Wall of Berlin" - a precious phrase already deployed on 3121 - and yet another better-days jam. That jam would be "Ol' Skool Company," delivered through his whiny-kid processing. I don't know what's more bizarre: his assertion that once upon a time, "there wasn't no shorties in sight," or his belief that the radio wasn't always controlled by The Man. A half-hearted jab at TARP sits next a half-complete list of his drummers, while a 57th-generation DJ Mustard synth cycle lolls in the background.

Listening to Prince's last 15 years of output can remind one of Southern Soul - the post-'70s genre that caters to an older audience with the winking familiar. Southern Soul isn't about returns to form, or reliving the glories of Hi or Stax. It's about the now: recorded with liberal synthesized instrumentation, playing to the shared experiences of its audience. As such, it's utterly charming, and deserved to be appreciated on its own merits. In that sense, tracks like the cod-Italian guitar instrumental "77 Beverly Park" and the yearning, piano-led pop-rocker "4ever" offer pleasure, if they can be divorced from the history of their creator. Of course, it's that history that's always invoked when Paisley Park fires out a new offering. And double (triple, but still) offerings like this would seem to show a man for whom scripting a tight set -- Q control, in other words -- is a concession he's unwilling to make. So we get the aimless igneous rock of "...Back 2 the Lotus". And the squishy Fergie tribute "Chocolate Box". And the lo-cal political grumble of "Colonized Minds," which finds Prince doing a digital Dylan while defending his business practices.

Speaking of, though, I'd still take a third-millennium Prince release over, say, a Dylan record from the '80s, or a Macca record from the '90s. The loudest gripes over late-period releases are reserved for those who established the most formidable reps. Everyone else ends up on the A.V. Club's Inessentials list. Like a select number of greats, Prince has offered so much while withholding an equal amount. Listening to his middling albums, then, becomes a kind of dumpster dive, where his current mood and concerns and consumption habits may be divined.


Chaos And Disorder (1996)

You can only fire fuck-you’s so often before you start amassing collateral damage. This would've screamed "contractual obligation" even before he wrote "Originally intended for private use only, this compilation serves as the last original material..." in the liner notes. There was one single, and it was awful: "Dinner With Dolores," a crude chanson, a shameful shaming. How bad is this? A blues-rock song makes its stylistic debut. The record is smeared with negativity and torpor, one rote, stuffed rock tune after another.

There is a gem here: "Right The Wrong," a clopping pop-soul number that finds Prince dipping into a Texan accent while narrating the death of a wronged Native American man. He goes on: "Didja hear the one about the boy, just 17/Three years' hard time for stealing ice cream?" It sounds like a joke, but that was the sentence Dehundra Caldwell initially got for a first offense. Then he segues into a high-stepping New Orleans-style passage and closes with a punk rock chant of the title. The chorus could've been sung by the Monkees! Folks inclined to goofiness may go for "I Like It There," a sleazy rocker that cops from Wreckless Eric, compares his love to an abortion that dare not be performed, and uses the phrase "emotional ejaculate" right before a budding generation of indie-rock critics could get to it. So rude.


Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1999)

1999. This was supposed to be Prince's year. The Crystal Ball set was a heavy stroke on the portrait of The Artist as an injudicious man. The culture's horizon had returned to Europe: glorious and disposable pop and dance riddled the charts, and while Prince had only recently become disposable, he knew glory. But two labels helped to scotch his year. Less than three months before Rave, Warner Bros., dropped The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale, a smash-and-grab compilation heavy on soul and absent of anything recorded in a half-decade. (Somehow, someone at Warner managed to get three singles greenlighted; a fourth, the sub-two minute piano rave-up "The Rest Of My Life," was released in Japan.) And Prince's current partner, Arista, was in thrall to a strategy that could be summarized as "...and friends." "Smooth," the leadoff single from Santana's Supernatural, was in its third of twelve weeks at #1 when Rave was released. Industry legend Clive "Meat Loaf just didn't look like a star" Davis whispered into Prince's ear, and poof! Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Maceo Parker, Chuck D, Eve, and Gwen Stefani appeared.

To add to the intrigue, The Artist intimated that this would be his first record with someone else manning the console. It turns out he meant the record would be credited to the Love Symbol, but "Prince" was the producer, but if any of his post-dominance pop efforts could use some distancing, this is the one. The guests, generally, don't intrude -- DiFranco is consigned to acoustic duty on the ballad "I Love U, But I Don't Trust U Anymore," and while Crow gets to blow the harp on "Baby Knows," her vocals could have been duplicated by any Paisley Park hanger-on -- but the list of names reinforces the sense of bloat. Even the best cuts loiter instead of linger. Instead of a vintage spoken-word interlude, the slow-jam surrender "Man'O'War" rehashes the same lines over and over. The mincing "Undisputed" nods to the alley-cat growl of "When Doves Cry," and it boasts a baroque breakdown and a solo that sounds like George Harrison in a NASA training tank, but its trendsetting boasts are undone by the same old Chuck D tags. The less said about his free-associative rap, etc. "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold" was a minor chart hit, but it seems to have been written from the seemingly-cynical title outward: a winning chorus surrounded by Latin/rococo mush.

Things are so bizarre, in fact, that for the only time in his discography, a cover is the highlight. Crow's "Everyday Is A Winding Road" is converted from rootsy delight to coolly existential funk. The refrain becomes a high-stepping celebration; you can practically hear church bells. And the rewrites are absolutely precious. (Sample: "I've been living on compliments and herbal tea.") "Hot Wit U" is summer-soaked, maybe a little bog-standard, but Eve's guest turn marks the first time Prince allowed a thematic equal on record who wasn't Morris Day. "I'm supposed 2 tremble cuz they call U 'The Artist'?" she asks. "Treat U like a freak of the week and have U hiding from me." Rave didn't send Prince into hiding as such, but there was no tour to support the record. While Larry Graham preached the gospel of the Witnesses, 2000's Hit N Run tour offered classic cuts only. Five years would pass before Prince chose to re-establish his pop bonafides.


20Ten (2010)

And suddenly, before he became The Prince Formerly Known As An Artist: a spark. That it comes on his most unimaginatively titled record, delivered with European newspapers and boasting a cover that looks like the genesis of someone's C+ Parsons project, is pretty damn amazing. But hey, here's "Everybody Loves Me," a twerpy power-pop number with hammy piano turnaround and a chorus like a career coda. And there's "Beginning Endlessly," a cosmic pickup the soldiers forth on a vacuumed-out Euro synth hook and the drums from Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Even the more rote numbers get goosed with throwback instrumental treatment, like the glam synths on "Lavaux" or the Chic guitar clip in "Sticky Like Glue."

But the lingering impression isn't of a gift to loyalists, or even an idle thumbing through his catalog. It's of defensiveness. The game is given away on the first track: before issuing a standard lament for the ice caps and a stock plea for unity, he laments all the "electromagnetic pop" on the radio. His solution is a bottle of 1999, mouldering in the back of the fridge. Back in '96, he could title a song "Jam of the Year," knowing there was a decent chance he'd be right. 20Ten has "Future Soul Song"; presumably, our interstellar overlords centuries hence will go batshit for fussy production and placeholder "sha la la"s. If you're up for a goof, point your CD player to track 77, "Laydown," where our man drops a rippity rapp containing the phrase "the purple Yoda."


Xpectation (2003)

While the release of a jazz record may not have been xpected, Prince had obviously xperimented with the form before. The son of a jazz musician, he'd always had an affinity for the genre. In the '80s, he spearheaded a few xtracurricular projects in a fusion vein, such as The Family (founded with three members of the newly broken-up Time) and the numerology-oriented Madhouse. In his solo work, of course, it was always present, from "The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker" to "Mountains" to Kamasutra, the soundtrack to his wedding credited to The NPG Orchestra. And anyway, after raiding vaults with a hunger to make Bonnie Parker jealous, it was time to toss the fans something truly new.

This album features an xtra-special guest: violinist/crossover sensation Vanessa Mae, who brings xquisite texture and some nice interplay with organ and guitar. (The latter has never sounded so Sharrocky.) Throughout, Prince is happy to cede the spotlight, double-tracking her on "Xemplify," allowing her the occasional chamber-music xcess. "Xhalation" is almost entirely hers; the host lays Fender beds while she speaks beautiful, languid phrases. Saxophonist Candy Dulfer gets one hell of a moment on the xceptional cut "Xpectation," a New Orleans-flavored funk number. Dulfer translates vintage Prince melodies against the man's wah guitar, the tone stretched so far it sounds like a tribute to Mae. Dulfer gets a bit rote on "Xotica," which, despite the title, is a plainly pretty ballad once bassist Rhonda Smith gets to wax tender in the spotlight.

You can argue that any dude in a turtleneck with a goat patch could have released this set, but that'd be missing the point. There's a dedication to Prince's output that borders on madness – begging for another forum member to mail you an alternate bootleg configuration, nurturing a rage toward Jehovah's Witnesses -- but when it comes to one of the baddest songwriters to walk the earth, it's only natural to trace those giant steps. Xpunging this record from his catalog is akin to xiling a major part of his musical personality. Even a cheery, inessential cut like "Xemplify" says something about a titan who's xuviated labels and hacked out his own trails over five decades. The man's proven good company for a long while, and his elliptical xcursions are just part of the conversation.


Musicology (2004)

Is there anything sadder than the words "a return to form?" They say volumes less about the object than the speaker: someone yearning to be delighted in a familiar way, someone who demands heroism or nothing, someone who's not up for finding their way into a dispatch from where the artist is now. But it's just as sad when the artist buys into it. The title track is one of those noxious back-in-the-days tracks, its shuffling funk masking the terror that time is marching on. He name-checks the usual suspects: Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, Chuck D, Jam Master Jay, offering easy succor to one half of his audience, condescension to the other. For an advance on the mainstream (Columbia distributed the record, the first such arrangement in five years), it sure looks like a white flag.

It's the new tricks that tend to excite. Prince cribs from Missy Elliott for a brief chant on "Life O' The Party"; on the track, he unveils a new persona: an unwelcome party trickster. "When U read it in the paper 2morrow," he promises, "U gonna hang Ur head & cry." He's been many things in his career, but a purple Cat in the Hat is something else. The staccato funk of "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance" shares DNA with all those twitchy hip-hop hits from the dawn of the decade; it sounds like an attempt to create the sparest, flattest funk imaginable. Speaking of Missy, there's an uncalled-for joke about her body on "The Marrying Kind." An unholy synthmetal baroque set piece, it finds Prince goes full heel as he schemes to poach his friend's girl. It ain't pleasant, but it's compelling. So is "Cinnamon Girl," a pop-rock tune -- complete with a terse riff on the refrain -- about the casualties of the War on Terror. What it lacks in eloquence ("9/11 turned all that around"... ouch) is balanced by punch and empathy. Give the man credit: he's not trying to rewrite "When You Were Mine" or "Controversy". (Whether he could is certainly up for speculation.) Instead, he's updated the Minneapolis sound, only without the sense of possibility. The grooming is impeccable, but he was always more interesting when he didn't give a fuck what he looked like.


The Rainbow Children (2001)

Fun fact: Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Bible Student movement (which in turn birthed Jehovah's Witnesses), professed, for a little while, a doctrine that identified the 144,000 members of the true church as "faithful and discreet slaves." Over time, the honorific migrated to a few other groups within the church; in 2012, it was announced that the phrase applied to the Governing Body of elders who guide the Witnesses from their Brooklyn headquarters. The irony of becoming a slave so soon after breaking with Warner Bros. might have tickled Prince, who was introduced to the faith by legendary bassist Larry Graham over the course of several years. The Witnesses, like damn near every Christian sect, have a long legacy of racism, but these days boast a larger percentage of minority adherents than most anything else. Around this time, stories of Prince the proselytizer hit the music press: secondhand accounts of a slight millionaire (often in disguise), earnestly reading from the scriptures.

It would seem that his faith has had a profound centering effect; The Rainbow Children, for better and worse, is one of his most settled collections. Sure, it starts off a bit gonzo, with Prince, dropped to a subterranean pitch, intoning the tale of the Wise One and the Resistor over a soul-jazz groove. Eddie Gayle it ain't, but the funk eventually asserts itself, along with an orchestral swirl scuttled by the mix. This is no "Temptation": there's no true sense of drama or angst. It approaches the blissfulness -- if not the creativity -- of a devotional Alice Coltrane cut. The predominant tone is of the Fender Rhodes, pooling like melted glass, sighing with the serenity of the saved. That doesn't make this a boring document by any stretch -- "Digital Garden" is a potted mystical history of the witnesses, relating the banishment of evil, approaching creative rights in a sideways manner, deploying some vintage guitar rev. "Family Name" is a fuzzed out epic, a technological meditation on race, history, and the politics of naming that makes room for a little fun. (If you want to access the network, you gotta clench those cheeks.) There's also three references to names that sound intended to be… er, Jewish? A compelling -- and ultimately, problematic -- listen.

But it's not just schooling he's after, but testifying. "Everywhere" is skittering and ecstatic, an uptempo hymn with a killer horn chart and the familiar cadences of American Christian worship music. "Last December" is an elongated exhortation to spiritual unity; Graham's here in support, as are a group of vocalists dubbed Milenia, but no one speaks truth to power quite like Prince's fuzz solo. And because it wouldn't be a Prince album without his getting his dander up, there's "The Everlasting Now." It's a washed-out Minneapolis groove notable for a lyrical debt payment to Sly Stone and some stripper-and-rapper-shaming. After a beguiling solo in the Latin mode, he punches through the fourth wall ("U know, this is funky, but I wish he'd play like he used 2, old scragglyhead"). Then, the sound of a slap. "We want Prince," the background chant goes; as far as he's concerned, everything's swell.


N.E.W.S. (2003)

Any concerns that Prince had entered Permanent Funk-Jazz Mode were wiped aside when he and Beyonce performed a medley of hits -- a couple of his, a couple of hers -- at the 2004 Grammys. Musicology followed two months later, and it's all been vocal work since. And even if he'd gone on to release work that was never worse than Diamonds And Pearls, it'd be a shame. Musicians ought to work out of their orbit more often; even if the results aren't spectacular, the familiar language is vitalized by the new. And it wasn't like this was a doom metal record (although, holy hell, yes); it's more like the fusion passages he used to drop once upon a time.

But the non-purple players cannot be fronted on. John Blackwell (drums), Eric Leeds (tenor and bari sax), Renato Neto (piano and synths) and Rhonda Smith (bass), all seasoned NPG hands. Prince's is a compositional skill set, so while N.E.W.S. has a programmatic feel -- each track is exactly fourteen minutes long, probably because PYRAMIDS -- the jazz heads provide a gutbucket vibe for their employer to bounce off of. "North" is anchored by Smith's bullfrog figure; Prince and Leeds attach and break apart. "East" begins with Arabic scales on what sounds like a clavioline, joined in turn by Blackwell's skittering groove, then a brief Leeds/Prince pairing. After a pause, some of Prince's most metal playing: it ain't Zorn, but Sharrock's pretty close. "West" starts with the smooth stuff before segueing into a trebly funk passage, closing out with a Prince solo pitched somewhere between his early-'80s proggy stuff and his demolition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the next year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. And "South" lets the band kick some outer-space funk before an organ part of Jon Lord-level heaviness breaks it up. There's no pretending that this isn't for the diehards primarily, or that it's even a coherent collection, but it's great to see a man with so many ideas let some new ones loose.


3121 (2006)

The second release from Prince's march back into the common pop consciousness, 3121 is an attempt at speaking the language. Time was, he used to write the grammar; Musicology was the public's refresher course. But would relevance come via an outside producer? Hell no. But Paisley Park isn't soundproof, and there are snatches of Rodney Jerkins, Timbaland, and other producers of the moment, or at least a recently passed moment. There's Auto-Tune on "Incense and Candles," as well as a programmed tattoo that might've come from the Dungeon. (The vocal processing, while communicating ecstasy, does so in a diminished type of way, similar to Kanye West's imminent, much more barren Auto-Tune work.) With its opening drum track, the Támar Davis duet "Love" feints toward throwback house, but it ends up as "Kiss" filtered through a Pussycat Dolls track.

As you might expect, the strongest cut plays to his vintage strengths. "Fury" is airtight synthrock, recalling the glories of the Oberheim years while adding the wrinkles of overlapping solos and an "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi version) vocal attack. "3121" is demented funk, with atonal chicken scratches and a synth riff that flaps like a broken porch screen. And yet, the impulse to get, um, stanktified eludes him: "Beautiful, Loved And Blessed" is a trad gospel duet with Davis, with transcendence (to say nothing of lovely harmonies) nowhere to be found. It doesn't help that her first verse, addressed to the Most High, could've been written with Prince in mind: "When you found me/I was just a piece of clay/I was formless, you gave me a new name…" "The Word" works better, and it's a quease-making possibility that it's because Prince focuses on evading wickedness, instead of running to God. Nagging cadences are the order, from his verses to the sax honk, and the result is a spiritual slinkiness. The album bested Musicology's chart performance, dethroning the High School Musical soundtrack from the Billboard apex. But the marketplace was a different place from just two years prior, and the album has stalled at Gold certification. With the follow-up, Planet Earth, Prince bypassed the normal distribution methods, focusing instead on driving ticket sales. Hey, he's always been a genius.


The Truth (1998)

Being a one-man industry isn't all it's cracked up to be, as Prince learned with the bungled rollout of yet another multi-disc set. His first wholly independent set, Crystal Ball was three CDs of outtakes and remixes. Prince held off release until he received a minimum number of orders; those who pre-ordered were directed to a website to print liner notes, a vexing decision made worse when the brick-and-mortar versions included liners. More consternation came with the content: a majority of recent-vintage cuts, many edited down from bootleg length. After extended delays in getting the set to production, Prince tossed in Kamasutra (a programmatic set credited to The NPG Orchestra, crafted for his marriage to Mayte Garcia) and The Truth, his quietest collection to date.

The tracks are all built around Prince and his acoustic, but there's room for distorted vocals, dolphin sounds (ugh), synths … enough added heft to give The Truth an intimate, rather than unfinished, feel. A couple of the cuts (the rapper-baiting "Fascination" and the butch wish-fulfillment of "Man In A Uniform") qualify as funk. It's a complete record thematically as well, with his Gaian manifesto "Animal Kingdom" (key couplet: "If God wanted milk in me/The breast I suck would have a line around the hood") sharing space with the wistful daisy-chain memories of "Circle Of Amour." "Don't Play Me" could be the best explicit defense Prince has ever mounted, as he coolly dispatches racists and industry doubters with equally credible parries. The vibe is loose but not careless; the format compels him to find natural stopping points, and his voice remains a marvel. Perhaps it's all the milk he hasn't been drinking.


The Gold Experience (1995)

"What's my name, baby?" Prince inquires of his soon-to-be wife, Mayte Garcia, on "Shhh." "I love U" is the answer. He was placing a rather large bet on his audience feeling the same way. His war of attrition with Warner had so vexed him that he renounced his name, adopting the notorious Love Symbol -- which looks like the representations of Mars and Venus paired with the Trystero horn -- and negotiating for the release of lead single "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" on Al Bell's independent Bellmark label, a year and a half in advance of the album. On February 20, 1995, he gave an acceptance speech at the Brit Awards, having won Best International Male Solo Artist (over Youssou N'Dour, Warren G, Bryan Adams, and Luther Vandross). "Speech" is stretching it; he spoke fewer than 20 words. "Prince. Best? The Gold Experience. Better. In concert, perfectly free. On record..." -- and here he turns to his right, smiling shyly -- "Slave. Get wild. Come. Peace. Thank you." The word "SLAVE," drawn on his right cheek, said far more.

The Gold Experience is regarded, to this day, as The Artist's strongest work since Sign O' The Times. It contains one of his biggest singles, the trad, twinkly "Most Beautiful Girl," which hit #3 in America and topped the British singles chart for two weeks. Also, it's got "P Control," quite likely his best album opener: a gonzo loper in the P-Funk mode dedicated to a girl who's about her ends. The chorus alone is falsetto lightning, streaking across the sky.

While Gold boasts some tunes, its inventiveness finishes behind its competence. There's pop-rock in the typically Prince mode, and there are the horndog funk numbers. "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World," with its nagging, naked melody and crystalline production, is possibly the biggest departure on here, if only for its throwback couples-skate essence. Or perhaps it's "Dolphin," with its surprising chord changes and twee reincarnation theme. It's certainly not the sour MPLS grooves in "Billy Jack Bitch," a putdown -- complete with vocal samples from Fishbone's "Lyin' Ass Bitch" -- that finds him wielding the word he's proscribed just six songs earlier. "319" -- the best song The Power Station never released -- is probably best known for its inclusion on the Showgirls soundtrack. (Prince was apparently super into Elizabeth Berkley.) The final cut is "Gold," a fine enough rock ballad anchored with plodding quarter notes and fluttering synths. It wears its borrowed wisdom like revealed truth, but there's a neat little solo and at the end you're named a member of the New Power Generation, so that's pretty cool, right?


Parade (1986)

The curls are slicked back, and the man's strapped to impress. The first four tracks are a suite of sorts: leadoff "Christopher Tracy's Parade" begins with a stirring horns-and-woodwinds arrangement, "New Position" builds a funk jam around a steel pan, and the cod-ESL of "I Wonder U" is his first album track led by another vocalist (Wendy Melvoin). But after the galleries of previous years, this can't help but seem like a shelf of miniatures. Things pick up in the second half, though: "Mountains" has a rollicking, advancing groove with a laconic horn chart that surely owes something to prime Mike Jackson; it's the best song on the record. The deathless "Kiss" is all dry punch and tiptoe groove, and though ten million replays may have stayed its force, it still boasts some great couplets and one of his tightest vocals. "Sometimes It Snows In April" closes things out with a piano elegy, a sensitive, languid performance that loses a little shine when you remember he's singing to the character he played in Under The Cherry Moon, for which this record served as the soundtrack.

The film's French setting reveals itself here and there: in "I Wonder U," in the cod-chanson of "Do U Lie?"; its nature as a period piece crops up in "Under The Cherry Moon," which marries a beguiling gondola-paddle of a melody with distracting drum cutoff. There's even an instrumental interlude, the featherweight "Venus De Milo." It's one one-thousandth the tune that P.M. Dawn's Prince-inspired "Downtown Venus" is, that's for certain. Had this album, and that film, come out today, I can't even imagine what the Internet would do. This being 1986, all Prince had to do was dust himself off and drop another masterpiece.


Music From Graffiti Bridge (1990)

The script began after most of the songs, which isn't an indictment of either per se, but the germ for Purple Rain the film sprouted in '82. According to Terry Lewis, the movie was conceived as a Time piece, then morphed into a Purple Rain sequel. Music From Graffiti Bridge, then, is a true soundtrack, one that hangs well sonically without a worldbeating single. The sound's beefy, which works well for guests like the Time (whose gigolo routines tended to be more entertaining and closely-worn than Prince's) and George Clinton. "Release It" is basically a JB bridge stretched to full-length, with "Funky Drummer" replaced by the also-fearsome "Squib Cakes" by Tower Of Power. "Love Machine" is a Morris Day/Elisa Fiorillo duet. Fiorillo, an old Jellybean Benitez cohort, plays her part like an R-rated Paula Abdul; she lacks heft, but there's a direct playfulness that no amount of Princely pitchshifting could duplicate. (Although the sampled guffaws are plenty goofy.) The laughter continues on "The Latest Fashion," a Prince/Time collab that finds the master ceding graciously to his friend's cockeyed magnetism. At times it's so frantic it could be a Shocklee production.

Though the record's by and large about the funk, it kicks off with a rock'n'roll tune -- "Can't Stop This Feeling" -- that could've been some Kenny Loggins nonsense but for a masterful transition through the bridge and Prince's transcendent falsetto. Oh, and there's some guitar arpeggios to further kick up some dust. "Elephants & Flowers" is a jagged hard rock/psych combo; Prince sounds a bit rough, at least until the multi-part shoutout to the Father. On "Melody Cool," he finally pairs himself with a singer of sainted reputation; Mavis Staples, who plays the song's title character in the film. Before, his guests could pass muster in the Warehouse; Staples rocks the churchhouse. It's still not a great cut. Neither is the title track, which plays like a Christmas single from Prince and Jim Steinman. His guitar soars along the inspiro melody line, longtime arranger Clare Fischer detonates orchestral land mines, and his backing singers (including Staples, Sheila E. and protégé Tevin Campbell) struggle to make any sense of the message.


Love Symbol (1992)

For a glimpse at the struggle for Prince's artistic soul, listen to "My Name Is Prince." Reportedly a tune for which he had to battle mightily, he frontloads the song with throat-rending braggadocio: a creation myth. Then comes the threat of beatdown, but it's strictly musical, followed by some standard all-that-glitters line and some good old eschatology. Then he just tosses it over to Tony M. It's a bid for hardness undercut by his usual interests, a hip-house track that thinks it's 2nd II None. Fortunately, it's chased by "Sexy MF," wherein Prince hews closer to what he knows: erections and infatuation and the French Riviera. The rhythm guitar carries a constant chime, the horns kill with a thousand cuts, and it has an all-time vocal hook. That's his kind of cleverness.

After peeks at the Lord in judgment, Love Symbol (which I think is the consensus substitute title) works a more mystical cosmology, painting the kinds of divine imagery not seen since Judee Sill was walking the earth. There's a benevolent angel in "7," an evil angel resisted in "The Sacrifice Of Victor"; the frantic seduction song "The Continental" finds Carmen Electra asking our hero to "imagine you're making angels, angels in the snow." The promised land is found far beyond Paisley Park, and you gotta fight through a mess of plagues and dark souls to get there. Plus, there's all the counting: multiple ticks to seven, a host of numbers from one to a hundred million. It's led by the divine "7," a swashbuckling, psychedelic journey loaded with close harmonies, swaddled in echo. It peaked at 7 on the Hot 100, which must have vexed and pleased Mr. Nelson in equal measure.

I haven't mentioned the album's conceit yet -- a series of skits in which Kirstie Alley's reporter tries to coax Prince out of his shell -- and that's because we have playlists now. Artists ought to go where their interests lay, but their own celebrity is the quickest way off the cliff. Musically, he cuts a new path: reggae! "Blue Light" codes as lovers rock, but it's actually about blue balls, mostly expressed through Prince's thudding, decidedly non-island stickwork. Michael B., on the other hand, nearly steals the show on "Love 2 The 9's," switching from delicate intricacy to leaning in on the funky sections. It's not a coincidence that the NPG tracks are the best performances here. "The Morning Papers" has some towering passages, swells created by performers on their A game, capped by a squealing solo that, while mixed a little low, is a fine callback to the days of "Purple Rain." And they keep "3 Chains O' Gold" on the right side between epic and merely theatrical, turning a Steinmanesque exercise into something genuinely harrowing, feinting with a flute solo before loading up on a delicious twin-guitar attack and a choir(!).


Come (1994)

The Black Album was due later in the year, but this is the real darkness. Joe S. Harrington once wrote that the genius of Steely Dan's Katy Lied was that the weakest song was slotted leadoff. In that case, give Prince the goddamn Nobel Prize for Musicology: "Come" is eleven minutes of Prince crashing one sexual ship after another onto a fine bass groove. His powers of seduction have deserted him. Not that his pillow talk was universally compelling, but it was invigorated by conviction. Here, we get an embarrassing reenactment of cunnilingus and two couplets that could be read as scatological (cf. "It's no wonder there's a puddle there/Holding it in 4 so long" and "U should get that shit started/U can change your underwear".

On the whole, though, this is a fine record: tight-lipped and stark. The conversational register is employed heavily; tracks like the downtempo "Space" and the punishing funk number "Pheromone" get over on earworms. "Dark" is the purest soul slow burn he ever recorded, oozing that nightclub feel with some of his best male backing vocals. After dipping into veiled biography on Love Symbol's "The Sacrifice Of Victor," he drops the metaphor for "Papa," a ghostly strut that talk-sings its anguish until the capper: "Don't abuse children… or else they turn out like me." The band strikes up a fearsome Parliament howl, but after what we just heard, the attempt at universality only hurts. The self-abnegating "Solo" is his slowest album cut yet, barely more than Prince and a judiciously portioned harp. It's a combination of "Motherless Child" and Edith Piaf, a startling ride across the full range of his vocals.

This was Prince's final Warner Bros. album under his birth name; weary of his label's constantly pumping the brakes on his release schedule, pushed to the brink by its cancellation of a distribution deal with Paisley Park Records, he raided his vault for Come. (Ironically, Warner couldn't resist pushing The Black Album out in limited release before the end of the year.) Prince being Prince, he couldn't resist the lure of ambition, at one point considering a three-disc release. In the end, he chopped up an ocean-sounds-and-narration track and sowed it into the record (Closing cut "Orgasm" is the largest fragment.) He had his mind set on The Gold Experience, to the point of lobbying for a simultaneous release. But bank vaults land harder than all others, and despite his making his feelings clear with a funereal cover (Prince standing in front of ornate church gates, his dates of birth and "death" printed under his name), it was Come that was released, and Come that was savaged as yet another puzzling turn from pop's onetime savior.


1999 (1982)

Having spent the last two records separating the sheep from the goats, Prince was ready to call everyone home. He did it, of course, with a fever-dream about performance anxiety. This was his longest record to date: six cuts are over six minutes; three of those are longer than eight. It also represented his largest collection of synthesized sounds; his crew is limited to voice and clapping duty. He'd found his groove, and he ran it out. The record is frontloaded with the hits, the first of which is the indelible, self-aware title track. It begins audaciously: Prince is relegated to third in line for the mic, but he also gets to brag that he wrote this massive Carnival-style jam in his sleep. "Little Red Corvette" is itself a lucid dream, a Freudian battle between confidence and security, and "1999" got reissued a second time on the strength of "Corvette"'s chart performance; that time, it stuck. The triptych of wheedley synths reaches its apex in "Delirious," a rocking blues reduced to a twee essence.

The trap was set, and listeners who got that far were treated to the man sans metaphor. "Let's Pretend We're Married" twinkles like wedding bells, but the synthbass runs like a racecar as Prince gets progressively more louche. Eventually, he dispenses with singing entirely, in case even that obscures his lust. The piano-led slow jam "International Lover," which again swings in that mid-period Joni fashion, drops to earth as soon as he begins his sexual-pilot act ("If for any reason there is a loss in cabin pressure/I will automatically drop down to apply more"). He pulls a variation on the trick for "Lady Cab Driver," a disco/funk number that begins in ennui ("Trouble winds are blowin', I'm growin' cold/Get me outta here/I feel I'm gonna die") and completely derails with a spoken interlude that depicts -- at best -- intense sex in which every stroke is a strike against family, politicians, and Disneyland tourists. (The tourists get mentioned twice, which makes one wonder about how strictly the height requirement was enforced at Space Mountain.)

Dialogue aside, the second half of the record is riddled with long static stretches. Soon enough, he'd tighten up his compositions; after that, he'd simply stock up on verses and solos. Here, he's drunk with possibility, just listening to the tones go. However, the most arresting song in the back half, "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)," gets out in a mere four minutes. But he would've been excused for lingering among the grey-sky synthbeds and detuned motif -- a hook wrung out and inverted. It inspires his wildest cry and his sharpest art-pop instincts.


Batman (1989)

When he went in, he went in. Batman is written from the perspective of the movie's principals, but like any decent comic book writer, Prince uses his characters to mouth his concerns. "The Future" starts with a tautological joke ("I've seen the future and it will be"), delivered in a low worried tenor. The percussion -- what sounds like a rubber cowbell -- allies the track with the club; Prince shortens the Joker's Smilex to just "X." This being a soundtrack to a proper Hollywood film, the synths sound like strings, and orchestral bits pop up here and there. (This being a Prince joint, he includes a hoary joke about an organ.) His power ballads have lost their juice: "The Arms Of Orion" is a bog-standard duet with Sheena Easton -- who acquits herself decently -- that can't improve on that awesome title.

But "Orion" is just a temporary bringdown on an otherwise excellent party record -- and that includes "Batdance," the cutup funk instrumental that topped the charts worldwide. It opens with irresistible sequencing, then Prince adds some always-welcome shredding before dropping some mid-tempo funk that's heavy on sampled dialogue. And his best axework wasn't even there -- it was on "Electric Chair," yet another would-be hair metal anthem that flew over a lot of Aquanet'd heads. "Trust" has homeopathic levels of highlife; it bounces so well that it's all Prince can do to hang on. Ironically, "Lemon Crush" leaves less of an acidic aftertaste than R.E.M.'s orangey single from the previous year; it could be the low-end motif, which sounds more than a little like "Thriller." On the whole, this is one hell of a dance record, a glam slam that more than fulfilled his Warner agreement.


Emancipation (1996)

Though he wouldn't pick up his name until he got his publishing back, this record really does represent Prince's freedom. Freedom from his label, freedom from the hitmaking game, freedom from limitations: one hundred eighty minutes of music, an unprecedented issue. The man's output is such that every six months could've seen the equivalent of Sandinista!, a notion that he might still view as tragic. He didn't take his freedom for granted, pushing the record on Letterman, Oprah, Today, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and The Chris Rock Show; on November 12, he played a set at Paisley Park that was broadcast live on MTV, BET, and VH1. Bill Bellamy and Phish were there.

Even for three CDs, the record feels casual, not careless. The indulgence is primarily found in the running time, not in stylistic exploration or indulgent linking tracks. As this and subsequent releases proved, an emancipated Prince was a relaxed Prince, free to frolic in the groove, even to take on others' hits. (There are four covers. The best is his squelchy version of the Delfonics' "La-La (Means I Love You)" -- the song's best jump-off until Ghostface. Second place goes to "I Can't Make U Love Me," which veers into comedy when Prince refers to his "bedroom slash church.") You can distill a fine one-disc set from this mash, but the point is to drink from the juice of Prince's mind-grapes. Being loosed didn't mean more freakiness -- Warner Bros. pressed up enough nastiness for 2,000 Live Crews -- it meant connection (to his audience, to whatever muse had him at the moment) on his terms.

So it's not exactly true that Prince freed himself from the hitmaking game, of course. There were no more executives to send him back for a single, but that also meant standing by his own picks. He didn't send out perhaps the strongest pop cut on the record: "In This Bed I Scream," a wry, bass-led number with one of his best synth hooks and a wounded guitar outro that fulfills the title by itself. Leadoff track "Jam Of The Year" was released as a live version, and he borrowed the title for a world tour, but on record it's prime funk, with an unforgettable falsetto hook and some startling house-style vocals from Rosie Gaines. "Sleep Around" goes is a full-band dance number, slamming and gliding, the kind of visionary disco that works in any era. Emancipation offers his strongest funkwork in some time. His beef with rap was long settled; his dips into a hip-hop mode -- the occasional obvious or ham-fisted sample drop aside -- come, on the whole, quite natural.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the times is the second disc, devoted to his new wife Mayte Garcia. Warner Bros. might've moved the strongest cuts onto a single disc, or made the whole set a standalone, or forced him to make it a limited-edition wedding favor. Under the NPG regime, it's its own program, a complete course of pillow funk, synth-draped slow jams, and acoustic-led, martially girded odes to his unborn child. It's intimacy without the ick, personal without being inscrutable. Prince's ballads never impressed critics like his uptempo style-melders: their loss. The existential, cinematic "Saviour" and the snapping, love-stoned "One Kiss At A Time" are among his most classic cuts. Every one's not a winner, of course. He gives a couple of instantly-dated hails to the Internet Age (you can hear more from the fake dialup effects than guest vocalist Kate Bush on "My Computer"); "Jam Of The Year" speaks more to his new reality than the explicitly behind-the-scenes stuff, like "Emancipation." And the drumming (partly Prince, partly Kirk Johnson) doesn't have the facility of a Michael B., who's only on three cuts.


For You (1978)

Just 18 when he started recording the album, Prince constructed entrance and exit signs with uncanny prescience. "For You" is 68 seconds of gobsmacked a cappella harmonies, devotional and harrowing, built from his full vocal range. "I'm Yours" is stadium funk, with hair-metal curls, a bass solo, and an almost subversive impulse to tuck his rough falsetto into the fully-loaded mix. In between, he lounges around the R&B landscape. He didn't invent the explicit metaphor, but "Hey, lover/I got a sugarcane/That I wanna lose in you/Baby can you stand the pain" (from "Soft And Wet") is one hell of a contribution to the tradition. The slow jams are gorgeously ornamented. The uptempo cuts are peppy -- modern ears who demand dissipation from their R&B may require recalibration -- and boast a complete sense of melody. Apart from the bookends, the most ambitious statement may be "So Blue," a jazzy Joni tribute (with a Windham Hill intro) that pairs perfectly with Hejira's "Blue Motel Room." Keep in mind, if you didn't already know, that save for Patrice Rushen's synth work on "Baby," the man played every instrument on the album. Prince's career gigging and arranging in Minneapolis translates seamlessly to his debut; he's got a complete band's sense of dynamics. "Just As Long As We're Together" casually dispatches a guitar solo for which any arena rock act would've ritually sacrificed a lighting guy. The tendency for one-person bands is to ride on one element -- a loop, a steady drumbeat. Not so for Prince, who demonstrates an ability to take his foot off the brake at any time.

For You suffers in comparison to the string of records he would issue in the following decade. (One wonders what its reputation could be today if he'd titled the record 4 U.) No less assured than anything the man did, For You had no major hits -- "Soft And Wet" peaked at #92 on the Hot 100 chart, #12 on Hot Soul -- and displays a stylistic consistency he would soon abandon. And the style in question -- synth-heavy lovers' funk -- hasn't exactly skyrocketed in esteem since the late '70s. This record sets itself apart through sheer virtuosity, sure, but also by how Prince inhabits the soundspace. Vocal takes play off each other, peel away and mass again, curl up in the instrumental beds. Prince released his record eight months before Marvin Gaye, the master of the mic, dropped the epochal Here, My Dear. Gaye's record was funkier in a more traditional sense, and the interior he constructs is barely enough for one. Like so much of Prince's subsequent work, For You is inviting, patient, and earnestly interrogative. Every single track addresses a lover. And while his genre hopping garnered him the most praise, it's wonderful to witness him here, at the beginning, of one strong mind.


Around The World In A Day (1985)

After skipping an entire calendar year working on Purple Rain, Prince got back on track with Around The World In A Day. It's considered, famously, a psychedelic retreat from the big freaky tent of the previous record, and a lot of that is due to the one-two salvo of the jangly, joss-stick-studded title track and the achingly empathetic stroll of "Paisley Park." Together, it's Prince pulling his people to a heavenly enclave: specifically, the place where, as the prophecy held, Hey Man… Smell My Finger would be tracked. But mostly, the palette was condensed, not swirled around. His piano figures prominently, especially on the set pieces "Condition Of The Heart" and "Temptation." Where his instinct might previously have led him to the ol' six-iron, here he makes his dramatics the old-fashioned way, with talking and the space between. The latter begins as a sludgy blooz, but his repeated invocation of temptation gets you worrying. For good reason, it turns out: the throb subsides, the garish sax joins the keys, and God commands His subject to death for choosing sex over love.

Even the political stuff is more muted. "America" has the expected martial backbeat, but it's more of an in-the-pocket funk jam than a lacerating statement. (It's got a tasty, high-pitched guitar figure, though.) "The Ladder" aims for universal allegory but ends up as a soul-roots casualty, puffed with the empty air of pop saxophone and the rote backing vocals, which make one long for the disconcerting flatness of Wendy and Lisa's dialogue on "Computer Blue." Elsewhere, though, his veer towards the basics pays off. "Tambourine" is a dry, percussion-heavy workout -- it's practically a tone poem. He was too smart to make "Pop Life" a standard fame lament, instead stringing it up on fusion chords, shooting it through with meandering synthwind, and spending most of his time sympathizing with the struggling.

The record's pop claim comes, of course, from "Raspberry Beret," the man's peak as a classical songwriter, rendering a wrong-side-of-the-tracks story with economy and wry humor. The aching string arrangement puts this over the top, but the whole cut's riddled with finely realized lyrical details; musically, his best choice might have been to let his backing singers send the chorus home. It's just one more perfect single from Prince Nelson. He relegated another one to b-side status: "She's Always In My Hair," a blown-out funk-pop number that switches from dread to infatuation and back again. Twelve years later, for the Scream 2 soundtrack, D'Angelo would boost the guitars and cut possibly the finest nu-rock song of the decade.


Diamonds And Pearls (1991)

Hip-hop was a mighty flood, welling from below, covering the earth. More than a few boats were lifted, and a lot of good folks drowned. So adept at toggling between musical signifiers, Prince seemed to view rap as a child's puzzle, but one that quickly and obviously eluded him. The Black Album offered two cracks at hip-hop, one a side-eye (and side-mouth) take on the phenomenon, the second some pitched-down inside-baseball bullshit. There was also the funk vamp "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton," as if Dr. Dre was losing sleep over how much Prince's bass popped.

By Diamonds And Pearls, Prince threw up his hands and went in, coming up with "Gett Off," a tangy mix of CL Smooth and the Bomb Squad. He's content in his lower register, hanging back while the flute hook and his bgvs cover the high end. It was a hit, but unlike "Cream" and "Diamonds And Pearls," it missed the top ten, which probably averted some future tragedy. It may be the best thing on the record, but the softer stuff hits with a force and volume not seen since his early days. "Strollin'" has that Nightfly feel, a peppy smooth-jazz ode to a slightly smutty summer date. The title track gets airborne on a five-note bass figure, dispensing the stale "pearl/girl/world" rhyme scheme with the master's touch. He cooks up a kind of auteurist bubblegum soul-pop on "Walk"; the ghost of "Funky Drummer" haunts the backbeat, and car horns finish the wordless melodic hook.

Oddly, it's the famed Minneapolis sound that hits less hard, sounds less urgent. Newly promoted New Power Generation member Tony M flexes brawny over the static funk "Jughead"; he continues the Chuck D-jacking on "Push," which can't figure out the scratching but totally gets the peculiar string cross-melody. Give Prince credit, though: his rap kinda predicts ODB. He calls himself "Daddy Pop" here, just one more nickname he takes for a walk; on the track by that name, Rosie Gaines' keyboard bottles some of that bygone blue-eyed R&B sound while her employer does some top-40 self-mythologizing. Relatively speaking, Prince would spend the next couple years in the chart wilderness. "Cream" -- an alternate-universe Billy Idol smash with Gaines's "96 Tears" organ -- is his last Number One to date. He went fishing for more of that crossback love, and spent the next few years -- unfairly, of course -- as a punchline, the very definition of a pretentious artist. But had he not earned that pretense?


Dirty Mind (1980)

Despite what the title told us, Prince was still focused on domination. In doing so, he dropped a gauntlet on an entire decade to follow. "When You Were Mine" is power pop of the first order, hammy shoo-wop backing vocals and all. The synth forays are fantastic, undergirding "Dirty Mind" with New Wave propulsion, and doing Patrick Adams proud with Matt "Doctor" Fink's freakout on "Head." There are even a few punkish touches: the no-wave hammering on "Sister," for instance. "Partyup" (allegedly originating with the impeccable Morris Day) is an anti-war jam that could've come out of DC; it ends on the chanted couplet "you're gonna have to fight your own damn war/'cause we don't wanna fight no more" -- the perfect bridge to 1981's Controversy.

Not that the record doesn't deliver on the dirty: it's positively filthy, a series of Dear Penthouse letters. In three consecutive tracks, he freaks a stranger, spunks on a virginal bride, and gets fucked by his older sister. Perhaps he was daring his growing audience to come along, perhaps he was claiming new thematic territory in one stroke, perhaps he was just compelled to get this shit out there. No matter which, it's all rendered with a lot of fun, Lisa Coleman's flat line readings as The Bride notwithstanding. By 1980, Prince was feeling it. The dewy ballads are gone ("Gotta Broken Heart Again" clocks in under 2:20, and it features a Chuck Berry-style rhythmic solo), and the freaky content finds vessels to match. Having set his course, Prince's next move was to steer into the crest.


Prince (1979)

Like so many of Prince's breakthroughs, this one came on his terms. Pun intended -- the high-stepping "I Wanna Be Your Lover" drops a sly joke ("I wanna be the only one who makes you come/running"), then chases that with the uncut version ("I wanna be the only one you come for"). (For good measure, he states his desire to be his lover's brother, sister and mother, establishing the peculiar totality of his vision of devotion.) Shorn of the second half's extended jam, it became his first pop smash. After a record full of close comfort, he started to stretch as a lyricist in ways small and grand. "When We're Dancing Close And Slow" ups the orgasmic ante ("I want to come inside of you/I want to hold you when we're through"). "Bambi" would be, essentially by default, the best hair-metal song for years: his guitar struts on the chorus and muses during the first solo. It's also incredibly homophobic and misogynistic. And sometimes, he transcends words entirely: check the charged breathing during the militant disco of "Sexy Dancer." Right before the dawn of house, he was practically jackin'.

The sound has opened up; his rock and R&B chops are merging into a particular pop strain. "I Feel For You" is a sort of spiritual twin to "I Wanna Be Your Lover," a jaunty expression of sexual affection that could've come from whatever less-poisoned pen Steely Dan left to molder in the desk. (Chaka Khan slapped an electro chassis on the tune and rode it to her only Top Ten hit in The Year of Our Prince 1984). Not that his instincts were flawless: the Side Two opener, "With You," is the type of cloying ballad a young Michael Jackson was always getting saddled with; its sequencing (immediately after "Close And Slow") makes it come off like an apology for overstepped bounds. The drawn-out album closer, on the other hand, is a triumph. "It's Gonna Be Lonely" is set up with a guitar figure crafted from blown glass; the chorus, full of dramatic stops and synth twinkle, put this in constant rotation at God's roller rink.


Controversy (1981)

I'll be honest, though: two things he's never gotten a grip on are fonts and album covers. (My top Prince covers, from 5 to 1: For You, Lovesexy, Parade, Dirty Mind, Sign O' The Times. It falls off pretty hard before there.) Controversy foregrounds a wax Prince on a pedestal, bugging out in front of some goofy headlines.

"Was it good for you? Was I what you wanted me to be?" he asks in the title track. He could be talking to a lover, or the folks who bought Dirty Mind. If the answer was "yes," they were in for a treat. Prince describes and invites scorn in equal measure. Some albums have intermissions; Controversy has a refractory period. "Do Me, Baby" is almost indescribably wonderful, and an early opportunity for Prince to (presumably) practice his acting chops. Wailing and cooing, talking dirty and inexplicably political ("I'm not gonna stop until the war is over"), he climaxes twice -- you can practically see someone putting a cape on him, James Brown-style -- the second time complaining about the cold before New Age keyboards come in and we all ponder the void.

There's an added muscularity to this set, even as Prince starts employing a feminine-coded vocal style in earnest. (Once again, he plays damn near everything on the record.) On the multitracked harmonies of "Private Joy," he sounds like one of his protégés. There are the squeals on "Sexuality." And of course, there's "Do Me, Baby," which comes off as silly to those without ears to hear, but astoundingly open otherwise. The title track adds a new color to his emotional palette: poignancy, courtesy of the refrain, with its twiddly synth riff and the two central questions of Prince's life. "Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?" I think I know the answers. I think. The track slams with that Minneapolis sound, all grunts and drums hitting like whips. It's a classic, despite (or because of) a heavy-handed recitation of the Lord's Prayer and a group chant about everyone being naked. Dirty Mind was about setting and embodying expectations. Controversy was about confounding them.

With all that said, I'll demonstrate my hopelessness by repping for "Jack U Off" as the album's peak, with an indelible synth chirpily echoing a blistering array of jaunty couplets -- pleas, really, for a little manual fun. It's chintzy and bouncy and perhaps the best pure pop moment of the decade, even taking into account Madonna, the Gap Band and Scritti Politti.


Lovesexy (1988)

It's all in the bottom. Specifically, Prince's bass and Sheila E.'s drums, which appear on about half the album. The bulk of Lovesexy is a nonstop funk blowout -- the album was originally issued unindexed for the Fuller Prince Experience - with a full stereoscape loaded with sonic nuggets. The horns -- typically a weak spot for Prince -- are urgent, putting over opener "Eye No" with a sticky motif and goosing "Alphabet St." and "Positivity" with judicious shine. Conceptually, the warp and weft of Prince's primary concerns (your pleasure, his pleasure, the wickedness of man, the plight of racism's victims) are woven better than ever. He swings from seduction to exhortation to admonishment, sometimes within the same song, and never in any particularly hectoring way.

Lovesexy was famously issued in place of The Black Album, a slamming, prickly set that was to be released without any identifying info, and was shelved for one of many possible reasons. (A bad ecstasy trip is the leading theory at the moment.) It's a testament to Prince's prolific gifts that what is essentially a stopgap release could feel so vital. The recurring lyrical touches -- "Eye No" shares the "rain is wet" hook with "Lovesexy" and the character Spooky Electric with "Positivity" -- just add to the conceptual feel of the record. And, again, this thing gives off sparks. "Alphabet St." is a glammy thumper undiminished by a flailing rap from dancer/choreographer Cat Glover that ends with "jerk it like a horny pony would." "Dance On" alternates a sunshine hook with a list of indictments. Bass sixteenths hammer down the urgency; Prince uncorks an uncanny impression of Cynthia Robinson on Sly And The Family Stone's "Dance To The Music." "Glam Slam" is dream-pop with a gloomy prog chaser, like Paul Williams collaborating with Czesław Niemen. It gives way to the penitent "Anna Stesia," built around a simple but forward-thinking keyboard figure; it sounds like pop future -- specifically, Lady Gaga.


Sign O' The Times (1987)

A double album born from the wreckage of two others, one of which was a project entirely sung as a pitched-up female alter ego. A follow-up to the merely pleasant soundtrack for a savaged flop of a film. The result of rushed sessions -- performed by one man after the dissolution of the band that helped him record a diamond-selling album -- and a record label that balked at issuing the planned three sides, trimming the tracklist and sending their star back to find a hit single. Chaos and disorder, surely, but no one was better suited to take all that compression and fire out galaxies. Sign O' The Times was, once again, Prince at his best, which is to say, at all of his bests. The eclecticism so prized by critics and fans is dropped like a gold gauntlet, with nods to gospel, noise pop, hip-hop, sunshine pop, and (back again) rock 'n' roll revivalism. He was forsaking mere detours -- or, rather, he was incorporating them into a roadmap of astonishing detail.

The record begins with the title track, a brooding scan of the landscape that grooves with sly irony. It didn't herald a concept album. It was more like the apotheosis of his pleasure-as-escape aesthetic: the lamentation that must precede the new kingdom. And that would make the next two cuts a transition period -- Prince has to surrender to the frantic rock and roll of "Play In The Sunshine"; on the slamming funk number "Housequake," the singer (credited as "Camille") spends a good part of the track assuming that we have no idea what's happening ("bullshit!"). But he was still pop-minded. We'd figure it out, even if his most obsessive, sampler-flagellated sex jam ("It") immediately precedes his most endearing pure-pop number, "Starfish And Coffee," with its backwards backbeat and perpetually-cycling piano chord. The hit the label requested ("U Got The Look") doesn't surface until the second disc, but its presence isn't abnormally anticipated. It's nominally a duet between Camille and Sheena Easton, but it's more of a threesome: registers meshing and clashing, Prince serving as his own factcheckin' cuz on how long his girl actually took to get ready.

It's the multiplicity of voices that mark this, in retrospect, as a transitional album. (His last great power-pop song, "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man," also does this.) Prince had always taken full advantage of his continental vocal range. Now, he stretched his range further with technology, experimenting not just with pitch but with information overload. "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and "Strange Relationship" are, again, credited to Camille, but Prince keeps out of the realm of mere androgynous fiddling, crowding the topline with a host of mid- and low-range vocals. Sometimes they serve the thrust of the song; sometimes they pull against it. Likely, a lot of this stems from the rushed, first-idea-best-idea nature of the SOTT sessions. He'd always had more songs than outlets; now he had more tones than vehicles with which to outfit them.

Even with the clever sequencing, anyone with a passing knowledge of the various abandoned projects preceding SOTT will detect the stitches. "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" is presented, like several cuts on Purple Rain, as a live-studio hybrid, a Parisian party jam propped up with the Winkie Chant and Sheila E.'s double-time phone recital of Edward Lear's "The Table And The Chair." Better is the track into which is crossfades: "Adore," the sound of fifty Princes slow jamming their target into surrender. Pledges of eternal devotion trade places with Morris Day-style primping ("I'd like 2 think that I'm a man of exquisite taste/A hundred percent Italian silk imported Egyptian lace") and sly vanity (U could burn up my clothes/Smash up my ride/Well... maybe not the ride"). Eric Leeds provides fire-escape sax, Prince contributes cod-electric sitar plinks; he wraps up with an exquisite, sanctified choral arrangement. It's just one of a host of killer ballads, from the trad lounging of "Slow Love" (tender care given to the elongated vocal lines), to the subtly rutting Sly Stone homage "Forever In My Life," to the gloomy, genderbent "If I Was Your Girlfriend," to the astonishing Britrock "The Cross," the most devotional song in his catalog (Non-Pussy Division).

If we're taking in the big picture (which we probably do too much, but whatever), 1987 was a transitional year. New jack swing was still on the horizon. Eric B. and Rakim were just now ringing in hip-hop's Golden Age. The vital American hardcore scene was in idle, waiting for the impending major-label gold rush to inspire some proper opposition; recent promotions Hüsker Dü and the Replacements turned in fine if modest work. Bruce Springsteen, whose big-tent Born In The U.S.A. edged Purple Rain in terms of commercial success and mainstream acclaim, retreated to his baleful instincts on (the again, fine) Tunnel Of Love. Sign O' The Times was the statement of the year practically by default; it cruised to the biggest-ever win in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll. But even in a more stacked year, it would have been a monumental work. Curious and confident, melodic and funky, aching and tortured and blissful, it solidified Prince's status as pop's great adventurer. And like any great explorer, he tended not to concern himself with past discoveries.


Purple Rain (1984)

Most folks get one chance to make a big impression. If anyone bought 1999 for ten variations on the title track -- and surely there were thousands who did -- they were in for a disappointment. It fell to Purple Rain to be Prince's grand pop exclamation, a near-perfect marriage of worldview and sonic construction. And, of course, he didn't rely on the record; there was also Purple Rain the film, a heady little origin story that put his magnetism (if not his acting chops) on full display. Also appearing in the film's several concert sequences -- nothing gets you cred like being the star onstage -- are the Revolution, credited on a Prince record for the first time, appearing on a whopping five tracks, three of them initially tracked in concert.

And what tracks they are. "I Would Die 4 U," slotted after the sweaty fatalism of "When Doves Cry," offers a kind of divine uplift, a perpetual ascent over industrial sixteenths and swooning synth stabs. As a statement of deity (he's a dove, he's a messiah, if you're evil he'll forgive you by and by), it was much more threatening to the established order than "Darling Nikki," the song that actually caught the horrified eye of Tipper Gore. But the arrangement twitches and Prince consoles; it winds up being the most human cut here. "Purple Rain" could be the decade's greatest power ballad, with a perfectly modulated vocal terminating in a heartswell of a chorus. His classicist guitar solo and gorgeous, wordless falsetto are related dialects; together, they're the transcendent peak of an already-formidable catalog.

After the rampant id-eology of his last few years, Purple Rain was a baldly calculated offering. There's nary an ounce of fat in the compositions; the perturbing sexual monologues are gone; "Darling Nikki" excepted, the horniness has been swapped out for a more familiar eroticism. It's yet another credit to the man that he could, essentially unassisted, back his way into a pop powerhouse. All this without masking his idiosyncrasies, just adjusting their levels. Two of Purple Rain's evergreens are a Sunset Strip punk 'n' roll rage against apocalypse, and a sexually charged tableau that morphs into familial psychodrama. No one has made a record like this, before or since.

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