rince is in a field. Where? We don't know where. Why? We don't know why. And really, we don't care much. But as the story goes, Prince somehow experiences a vision in a field where the letters "G-O-D" are presented to him. He interprets it as a sign that he needs to embark on a new personal and musical direction, one he calls "Lovesexy," which, from the recorded evidence, seems an awful lot like the euphoria that sometimes follows a nervous breakdown. Having at last achieved the kind of artistic and popular success he only dreamt of as a boy growing up in Minneapolis, to the casual observer, such a precarious emotional state might seem strange. But "strange" is only the beginning of what has been going on with Prince for the last whirlwind year and a half.
Let's go back a bit. It's late 1987 and Prince has clearly established residency at the upper-echelons of culture and society. He is on a roll, with his double-album opus, Sign o' the Times, now widely and immediately regarded as one of the finest albums of the eighties. And the accolades are well-earned: mostly performed solo, SOTT confidently and brazenly runs the stylistic gamut from hot candlewax soul to rousing guitar pop to genderbending robot-funk without ever once getting tiresome. Of course, Prince always has had a tendency to let his ego run wild— it is, as a matter of plain and simple fact, an endearing trait of most geniuses— but on SOTT, freed from the confines of his band, the Revolution, reigning in his wilder tendencies, the quality allows him to indulge his inner Tin Pan Alleycat.
Really, it can't be any better. Despite the fact that his lead single, the title track, is so minimalist it makes the previous year's "Kiss" sound like The Ring of the Niebelungen by comparison, the song races to #1 on the pop charts, his fourth to reach the top spot. Prince is the toast of popular culture, the master of many media, and releases an acclaimed concert film of the album. There is almost nothing left to conquer.
But something is getting at him. Prince has been a star for four years now and is as busy as ever, working on reams of material for himself and others, like Sheila E. and the Family. Much of this material he has no intention of ever releasing to the public. Several of his own projects, multi-album affairs prospectively titled The Dream Factory and Crystal Ball, have dribbled into one another, some tracks showing up on subsequent albums and as B-sides. At the same time, his longtime relationship with Susannah Melvoin, his muse, is coming to a slow, painful end, and he's cutting off friends and bandmates alike (like Susannah's sister, Wendy, and her partner Lisa) with hardly a word of explanation. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that Prince is completely isolating himself.
The depression sends him further into creative overdrive. He continues to record almost constantly, choosing not to tour SOTT in the States. Prince spends his restless nights alone with engineer Susan Rogers recording countless tracks, including subversive party anthems like "Le Grind" and the Cindy Crawford-tribute, "Cindy C.," some simply as a way to blow off steam, a practice made easier now that he's unencumbered by a regular band. Electronically processing his voice from a cavernous basso-profundo to a high-pitched, adenoidal whine, he has begun singing about and from the perspective of alter-ego characters, with names like Camille and Spooky Electric, even considering releasing an album of the former's work at one time (and arguably releasing one by the latter at another).
It's at this point that Prince's obsession with identity— hitherto a strength— is beginning to consume him.
"She Got You Tied With A Golden Rope" : Camille
Making her debut on SOTT, Prince chooses to feature Camille on the more sexually-charged, carnal romps like the steaming, "Housequake" and "U Got the Look." The ambigenderous Camille (slyly referred to as "he") allows Prince the freedom to indulge his more feminine side, appearing in sexually confused confessionals such as the magnificent "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and "Strange Relationship." In the context of the double-album sprawl of SOTT, her presence seems charming, a studio-processed sleight-of-hand that adds some variety to his one-man show and makes the Revolution's absence less noticeable.
A fascinating, extended version of "Housequake" that remains unreleased, shows this Prince at the peak of his powers; at over seven minutes, the almost dubby mix features a chorus of Princes led by Camille calling, responding and jiving while the song passes through bass grooves ranging from a jazzy walk to popping funk, all punctuated by fuzzy metal power chords, wailing guitars and JB horns, supported by a typically crisp electronic beat and working itself into a feverish pitch. Brass aside, it's all Prince, and it's stone-cold brilliant.
But as time goes on and more of her songs see the light of day, it becomes apparent that the songs featuring Camille reveal a darker, witchier tone than songs like "Housequake," with dry, bare and cold arrangements that suggest a new wave Sly and the Family Stone.
The strangeness begins to take shape on songs like the unreleased "Rebirth of the Flesh," with its gargantuan metal riff, slamming beat and sing-songy chorus, delivered with a supremely squelchy, over-the-top Camille vocal. But it really flowers with songs like the nasty nursery-rhyme porno, "Scarlet Pussy," ostensibly "written" by Camille as well. The song revels in raw, sexual innuendo, its slow vamp providing the bed for a Greek chorus of varispeeded Princes to sing about a feline protagonist who mercilessly taunts her victim, making him shoot his "ego all over his sheets" (a declaration of feminist power if there ever was one). "Scarlet Pussy" is a hilarious addition to Prince's catalogue.
"Shockadelica," though, is positively sinister, addressing Camille's black magic sexual spell and the power it has over him. Combined with a snappy electronic rhythm track, mid-period Sly guitar chops and layered, processed vocals, it's easily one of his finest songs. Both "Shockadelica" and "Scarlet Pussy" appear later as B-sides, suggesting Prince's obsessive need to get some of the stranger Camille tracks out, even if an entire album of them proves too disarming for release to the general public.
In his 1988 tourbook, he will explain in his inimitable scrawl what's going on in his Prince-ly bean, describing the Camille character in terms that recall "time upon a once" a scrawny, serious and lonely boy and are strikingly similar to the Prince who grew up alone in his basement in Minneapolis in the late sixties. He writes of Camille trying to "silence his critics" by finding a "new color": not purple, but the color black.
"All The Sisters Like It When U Lick 'Em On the Knees" : The Black Album
It is not lost on Prince that ten years of sexual ambiguity, affairs with big-titted Latinas and Joni Mitchell references in his lyrics have essentially blanched his image to the point where he is viewed by his public in terms almost completely lacking any racial context. Given the predominant "one-world" hippie strains strewn periodically throughout his music and lyrics, one might be predisposed to think Prince fancies this racial freedom an advantage.
But even though it's only been a year since the much-lauded James Brown-style soul revue of the Parade tour, Prince is very concerned about his audience, a sizable number of whom are teenage white girls. After the whispers of "sell out" from the black community following some of the so-called "straight-ahead pop" on SOTT, Prince wants to make music that America's black population can again embrace. But at the same time, he's got a slight problem: he despises the lack of musicality in the music now emerging as the "new black music": hip-hop. In true Prince style, he adapts quickly and shamelessly, recording songs that both embrace the trend and flatly dimiss it (to embarrassing effect on the latter, with "Dead On It").
The result is that his new direction is not a particularly clear one. Still, he presses up several of the Susan Rogers party tracks with a few of the darker ones, like the macabre gansta rap of "Bob George," as a birthday party acetate for drummer Sheila E. Prince considers releasing the record, provisionally entitled The Black Album, in an unmarked, plain black sleeve with no credits. Its music is strange, and in some ways more conceptually intriguing as an album than musically engaging, though its jukebox of "black" styles and dark humor are fairly compelling.
However, Prince reconsiders putting The Black Album out at the last minute, sending the record into history as a Lost Masterpiece and setting off a pop culture firestorm, stoked by reports that Prince himself considers the music "evil." Reviewed in many publications much as an official release, The Black Album winds up being bootlegged heavily; with every new generation of cassette dub, the lyrics (especially those that seem to describe a voodoo ritual with animal blood) get progressively less intelligible and more mysterious, while the bass gets murkier. Murkier and heavier.
"Welcome To the Funk Bible" : Lovesexy
"Tricked" by Spooky Electric into delivering the "dark side of him" on The Black Album, Camille had "figured out what to feel." On Lovesexy, we get a lot of that feeling. More of a piece than any of his records hitherto (the CD has but one track index), Lovesexy is Prince's raison d'etre, the place where he attempts to formally reconcile his carnal obsessions with the spiritual. Until now, the former has been shockingly explicit, offending mothers everywhere to great acclaim, while all the god-talk has been vague and hamfisted. And if the disturbing, renaissance-styled nude cover snap of Prince among floral stamen and the like is any indication, Lovesexy isn't likely to be much more of an assurance to Mom. But the songs within compellingly lays bare the struggle and confusion within Prince's soul, his sexuality and spirituality are all here at once, naked, conflicted, and torn.
Musically, if SOTT had allowed Prince to draw strength from the spirit of a Cole Porter, 1988's Lovesexy finds him getting in touch with his inner-Ellington, relying more on arrangement than songs. The New Power Generation, largely consisting of the group Madhouse plus Sheila E.'s percussives, have a much snappier, brittler and more, in some ways, harsh electronic sound than their predecessors. After years of pointedly minimalist arrangements, several tracks sound as if Prince, in a rush of devotional urgency, is desperately trying to cram everything he can into the stereo spectrum.
"Eye Know," the album's opener, establishes the aesthetic, with the maximalist jazz-funk orchestra, replete with pointillistic muted trumpets, a shouting chorus of background singers and rappers, as well as a popping rhythm track, noodly keyboard doodles and countless melodies and countermelodies. Where "Kiss" was lean, taut and smooth, this is busy, jittery and a little bit ugly even. In fact, only the following track, the nostalgic "Alphabet St.," returns Lovesexy to the aesthetic of yore, with its a simple story about impressing chicks with a "right rad ride" supported by an equally basic three-chord harmonic progression, arrangement and singalong melody. In many ways, the song is a kiss-off to the old Prince, the dependable Prince. His songwriting prowess hasn't abandoned him exactly, more that songs—traditional ones, anyway—aren't really saying everything he needs them to anymore.
And from the twisted psychedelic guitar and spacey background vocals of "Glam Slam" on, it becomes clear that Lovesexy's songs aren't going to fit into any genre either. As always, influences come and go, but none really stick. Instead, the lasting impression is, like "Eye Know," that of an extended gospel funk jam, with hyperactive and blaring orchestration (in another unreleased extended mix during this period, this time of "Alphabet St." ironically, the refrain "this is not music/this is a trip" can be heard repeated in the background).
Muddled lyrical narratives emerge, concerning salvation, doing battle with the devil and killing Spooky Electric (clearly now Prince's pet name for his own darker impulses). Nearly every song clings to an intense devotion, constantly—and perhaps intentionally—confusing the sexual and spiritual, simply expressed in the title track ("I want it so much in every single way/I want it morning, noon and night of every day"). The sentiment is further expressed by way of social concerns, first present in "Sign o' the Times," as they return in the form of street crime (vividly recreated on the violent proto-breakbeat of "Dance On") and AIDS ("Positivity"), the latter finally finding him pulling off the heaven-hell passion play in an urban setting.
Beginning with an extended (and excessive) baroque solo keyboard prelude that announces a simple piano figure, "Anna Stesia" is clearly positioned as the album's conceptual centerpiece, presenting Prince on the altar, tormented by otherwordly longing; demanding to be "ravished" in the "right way," the song's mantra refrain builds into a thrillingly shrill gospel climax, a testimonial of his faith. In something. "Anna Stesia" is Lovesexy in a microcosm: religious, sweaty, indulgent, and brutal.
But it's perhaps the song rescued from The Black Album, "When 2 R In Love," that may be at Lovesexy's emotional core. A simple soul ballad commonly noted for its x-rated content ("The thought of his tongue in the V of her love"), upon closer inspection makes clear how desperate for genuine affection the man really is ("Come bathe with me/Let's drown each other in each others emotions"). Considered against the record's freakish obsession with salvation, the pleading and masochism of "When 2 R In Love" betrays more than a hint of sadness and futility.
And ultimately, for all of its "postivity," Lovesexy really isn't all that happy of a record, its upbeat party vibe undercut by demons both mythical (his fascination with Spooky Electric and the devil) and personal (the loss of Susannah Melvoin and the Revolution), not to mention the very real urban decay that, despite his status as America's most famous black entertainer, he seems resigned to simply observe from the sidelines. Dance on, indeed.
The Future : Batman and Beyond
Lovesexy proves to be an end of sorts- albeit one without any obvious new beginnings. Shortly after the Lovesexy tour, Prince parts ways with Sheila E., firing most of his band for the second time inside of 18 months. He's flattered and intrigued that Tim Burton wants to work with him on the new Batman movie, and holes himself up again in the studio to write material he hopes will be used, not just in the background, but to further the movie's narrative, similar to an opera. Though the songs aren't coming to him as easily this time, but he presses on.
It's an image worth pondering for a moment. Maybe, when you cut past the instrumental and songwriting virtuosity, the funny voices and characters, what is left is a man alone in his recording studio for days at a time. It's no wonder he's pondering the notion of abandoning his solo act to bring in a living, breathing soul band into the fold. In spite of all his success, maybe that boldness so confident and intense can't help but betray just a hint of lonliness not unlike that sad, little boy, "Camille." Time upon a once.
For further research on Prince:
Guide to Bootleg Material
Prince In Print
Catch-all Prince Site