24 January 1993
S-590 62 Linghem, Sweden
Though I haven’t yet read all of Uptown #7, I’d like to offer a few immediate comments. First, I’m pleased to see an issue devoted entirely to Prince’s studio recordings, released and unreleased. This is the kind of thing I subscribe to Uptown for; issues (and most individual articles) on live performances leave me cold.
Second, I found Magnus Nilsson’s article on “The Funky New Album Entitled D” stimulating reading—as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Magnus doesn’t really tell us how he thinks the album stacks up against others—his paragraph on that issue is a little wishy-washy. Is it better even than Diamonds and Pearls, which also “lacks classics”? What’s a Prince “classic” and how many of them are there? Does the record point Prince in any new directions, beyond merely continuing along the basic band-oriented, eclectic path of D&P? How is Prince’s work with the band evolving? (Does it matter, for example, that in all but two cases Prince takes sole composition credit—the case only with “Thunder,” I believe, on the previous album?) Does Tony M. do more or less harm than he did on Diamonds? Has Levi Seacer been a good influence on Prince’s music? Shouldn’t Prince just go back to doing everything himself?
Let’s go a bit deeper into a few of these points. The first thing to do is speak the dirty little secret of Prince criticism: something happened to the Purple One after Lovesexy—something not all that healthy. I suppose it’s legitimate to compare various tracks on Graffiti Bridge to Prince’s earlier work, because the album seems intended as a rehash. But to say that anything on the last two records “wouldn’t be out of place on the Black Album” or “sounds a lot like the Sign o’ the Times period material” is stretching it a bit.
The comparison game is fun, and easy* (“Morning Papers” < “Another Lonely Christmas”; “The Continental” < “New Position”); but it isn’t very profitable. Prince’s sound has radically changed in the last five years—as radically as it did after Prince. “Blue Light” sounds to me as much like Sign o’ the Times as “The Continental” does—which is to say, not very much at all. Even if we leave aside the differences, say, between Michael B. and Sheila E., or Levi and Wendy, or even Mayte and Cat, Prince’s singing alone is a very different proposition, for better or for worse. Just because he sings falsetto occasionally, he isn’t inviting (or meriting) comparisons with the “Prince period” or the “Controversy period.”
Prince’s work from Batman forward has shown a certain strain, and in many cases a lack of inspiration, which has not been helped by his erratic commercial fortunes. The presence of Tony M., for one thing, shows a certain calculation. The case of “Cindy C / Positivity” excepted, rap has always seemed an affectation in Prince’s work, rather than something instinctive or organic. As a texture, rap works okay on “Love 2 the 9’s,” but it sounds tacked-on rather than natural, and I can imagine the song’s having been better with some other varying element. (I also doesn’t help that Prince plays the same trick on “The Continental.”) Tony M. is a positive disaster on “The Max”; he’s best on “My Name Is Prince,” which is for all intents and purposes a rap song to begin with—and the only halfway decent rap song Prince has ever written, unless you count “Dead on It,” which I’ll bet he’s really glad now he never released. In the end, I’d be happier if he just kept producing records for T.C. Ellis and went back to writing songs for himself that are suitable to him.
To cease beating around the bush, I have to say I don’t find any of Prince’s records since 1988 all that satisfying. The standard for “average Prince” these days is a bit debased. On the other hand, your definition of a “Prince classic” has to be pretty strict to exclude everything on D. How many of these classics are there? By Magnus’s own criteria, if “The Continental” and “7” are four-star songs, there couldn’t be too many more than a dozen or 15 five-star songs. (My own list would include “When You Were Mine” and “Uptown,” but not “Dirty Mind” or “Head”; “Erotic City” and “Lady Cab Driver,” but not “1999” or “Purple Rain”; “Kiss,” “Strange Relationship,” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” but not “Housequake” or “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”; “Lovesexy,” but not “Alphabet St.”; and nothing from the last four albums.) It’s easy to say that Dirty Mind, 1999, and Sign o’ the Times are five-star albums, but it gets a lot tougher when you try to measure songs that way.
As for rating the songs on the new record, once one accepts the premise and the star system, I generally agree with Magnus’s opinions, though I differ on a number of particulars. In general, I think D is a better record than Diamonds and Pearls—in other words, the best of a mediocre lot—though that would have been more apparent without those stupid “segues,” not to mention “Blue Light,” “Arrogance,” and “The Flow” (which is a mockery of the D&P outtake). Six of the remaining songs are clearly best—“Excellent Prince” or just slightly lesser, to use Magnus’s term. The top tier—the four-star songs—are “Love 2 the 9’s,” “The Continental,” and “7.” On the next rung—at three and a half stars—are “Sweet Baby,” “And God Created Woman,” and the sorely underrated “The Sacrifice of Victor,” which is at least as good as “Sign o’ the Times” (and funkier). If Prince had just released these six songs and called it a day, D would be a four-star album, in a league, say, with Purple Rain. (Lovesexy gets four and a half stars in my book; the underrated Parade three and a half; and it’s all downhill from there.)
In other words, I don’t disagree much with Magnus on the great ones, but I have some problems after that. I hardly think “3 Chains o’ Gold” is worse than “Arrogance” and “The Flow,” which are the ones I’d call “Poor Prince.” I get the “Bohemian Rhapsody” comparison, and believe me I’m no fan of Queen. But a more apt comparison is probably the Parade-era operetta, “In All My Dreams,” which I agree is less pompous than “3 Chains,” but not exactly worlds better. (In any case, “The Continental” and “3 Chains” would be out of place on Parade.)
I’d give “3 Chains” a couple of stars, and the same to “The Max,” on which I think Magnus misses the boat entirely. Not only is Tony M. unbearable, so are those annoying sound effects, including the “ethereal” whine (also sampled on “My Name Is Prince”); this effect may have worked on the “Cream” maxi-single, but it makes no sense on “The Max.” The production is also a mess; the song might have had potential, but I’ll bet it’s entirely unlistenable within two years (the way “Graffiti Bridge” is unlistenable now). Anyway, “I Want to Melt with U,” essentially the same song, is better—I’d give it three stars.
Also rating three stars from me is “Sexy MF,” another tune Magnus gets wrong. Of course it sounds “more like James Brown than anything Prince has done before.” That’s the point—it’s a parody. (And in case you missed it on Sign o’ the Times, “Hot Thing” is a Rolling Stones parody. God knows whom “Dead on It” is supposed to parody.) I can’t decide, though, whether “My Name Is Prince” is worth three stars or only two and a half; ask me in a year. That leaves “Morning Papers,” which I’d give two and a half; “Blue Light,” which earns a star and a half (it’s obviously better than “The Flow,” though not by much); and “Damn U.”
Now, “Damn U,” which I’d call “fair Prince,” doesn’t remind me of “Slow Love” at all. It seems to me I’ve seen this kind of comparison in Uptown before—every mushy ballad is another “Slow Love” or “Adore,” every seduction tune another “Do Me Baby” or “International Lover.” But it’s not a very precise comparison. “Slow Love” was a throwback to early 70’s Nashville and Southern soul music, the school of Dobie Gray and Al Green. It shouldn’t be confused with “sophisticated” ballads like “Damn U” (or “unsophisticated” ones like “I Love U in Me”), which have completely different production values. “Damn U” is closer to northern 70s soul by such outfits as the Stylistics and Bloodstone. “And God Created Woman” and “Adore” blend elements of both sounds.
That pretty much sums up my take on the new record, which I’d award three stars on the whole. Like Magnus, I don’t hear any classics, unless we broaden the term “classic.” (If you’d include “Purple Rain,” I’d include “7.”) But, like him, I do hear some strong songs. It’s not a return to the glory days in any way, but it’s Prince’s best record since Lovesexy, at least to my ears, which have admittedly grown somewhat desperate lately. (Maybe someday I’ll send you my complete list of song ratings, if I ever get around to it; it could be an amusing exercise, but on the other hand I do have a life.) As for Prince’s direction, I’m not sure I like it; he doesn’t seem to be following his instincts, and if he is I’m afraid he’s finished. It’s probably a good sign, though, that he seems to be moving back toward solo composition. I don’t care if he’s self-indulgent (witness Crystal Ball), as long as he’s not contrived.
Let me just add my thanks to Per Nilsen for his valuable archival and historical work on the unreleased Prince material—I look forward to more in the future. I also hope you keep updating us on new bootleg releases—there are in fact a great many I’ve seen advertised for sale which you haven’t yet listed in “Data Bank.” (For example: His Majesty’s Pop Life, Heaven Must Be Near, Funky Vibrations, Jewels from the Vault, The Rare Mixes, Symbolism, etc., to name the studio work.)
Also, if you haven’t seen it, the American rock Magazine Creem has just issued a cover story on Prince. I haven’t read it yet, but if you’d like a photocopy, I’d be glad to send one along.
Keep on stimulating—
* I use the “<“ symbol to mean “is based on” or “derives from” or “sounds a lot like”; however, the mathematical meaning is valid, too.
First published in Uptown magazine (April, 1993)