(Featured Image: At Unique Records, San Francisco, 1978; photo stolen from Noisey.)
There’s a famous story, originating with former Warner Bros. executive Lenny Waronker, about the 1977 test session in Los Angeles where Prince first demonstrated his ability to self-produce. “As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. “He looked up and said, ‘Don’t make me black.’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy” (Star Tribune 2004).
It’s important to note that, when Prince asked Waronker not to “make him black,” it was less an expression of internalized racism than one of pragmatic frankness. As we’ve noted before, Prince was acutely aware of the hypersegregated nature of the pop music market in 1978–not least because his own hometown of Minneapolis was among the most musically segregated in the country. His desire to be a “crossover” artist was fed in part by his vaunting ambition, of course, but also by the simple fact that if he didn’t break out of the R&B charts, his own city wouldn’t play him on the radio. So from the beginning, he struggled against being pigeonholed as an “R&B” (read: Black) artist.
The trouble was that “making Prince black” was the only way Warner Bros. knew how to sell him. When For You was released on April 7, 1978, the label struggled to get it reviewed in mainstream (again, read: white) publications; the only consistent national coverage came from African American-oriented teen magazines like Right On!, Soul Teen, and Black Beat. To be fair, some of the blame for Prince’s initial failure to cross over rested with his material: as many reviewers have observed, despite Prince’s protestations and aside from a few unusually muscular guitar parts, the majority of For You fits squarely in the Black soul and funk traditions. With one key exception, that is: the very last track, “I’m Yours.”
“I’m Yours” starts out as another funk song, with a syncopated drumbeat and some distinctly Larry Graham-influenced slap bass. After just a few measures, however, the song morphs abruptly into pure arena rock; its fiery, multi-tracked guitar riff sounds more like it belongs on an early Foreigner record than on the debut album from “the next Stevie Wonder.” The effect is jarring, but not in a bad way: listening to For You in retrospect, this is one of the few moments when Prince’s genre-bending later persona comes into sharp focus. Certainly, Prince seemed to recognize the rock-inflected sound of “I’m Yours” as his future musical direction. In the years to come, he would shift further and further away from conventional R&B, finally breaking through to the rock market with 1980’s Dirty Mind.
All of which is not necessarily to say that fans of hard rock in 1978 would have dug “I’m Yours” if they’d had the chance. You’ll notice that the group I referenced for comparison was Foreigner, who have never exactly been synonymous with raw heaviosity. At the same time, even those listeners who’d bought that band’s self-titled 1977 debut (or similar M.O.R. rock records of the era, such as the debut albums by Boston and Toto) probably would have found Prince’s riffage a bit too heavy, and his vocals–still the same fragile falsetto as on ballads like “Baby“–excessively light in the loafers. The fact is, Prince was doing something that hadn’t been done before, blurring the lines of both race and gender presentation; most listeners in the late 1970s would have lacked the proper aesthetic framework to make sense of it. Even today, opinions seem split on whether “I’m Yours” works or whether it’s a muddled, awkward attempt at blending two discrete genres.
I, if you can’t already tell, fall firmly in the “works” camp. Yes, as a hard rock fan I find Prince’s guitar playing a little mannered for my tastes, on this track and on several others. But he makes it work for him; because here, as ever, he’s presenting himself as a softer, more feminine take on the classically phallic guitar god. It’s striking that, while it couldn’t be more musically distinct from its bookend on the other side of the album, “I’m Yours” is expressing an idea remarkably similar to “For You.” Prince’s lyrical persona is offering himself up to us–as listeners and as romantic/sexual subjects–in ways that most male rock artists, Black or white, simply do not do: “Take me, baby, I’m yours.” Hell, at one point he even claims to be a virgin, singing, “Never have I ever made love before”–just try and find a song by, say, KISS that takes on that position. With “I’m Yours,” Prince turns a style that is typically used to express blunt, macho sexual dominance into an act of blissful submission–and he still makes it rock. The result is disarming, subversive, and sexy. And while Prince would sound better in a hard rock mode in the future–see, for example, 1979’s “Bambi”–I’m struggling to think of a time when he did so without also succumbing to the genre’s more regressively boorish lyrical impulses.
One last thing to note about “I’m Yours,” which will become more important as we continue, is the minor dispute over the song’s authorship. According to former Grand Central drummer Charles Smith, the aforementioned Larry Graham-style bassline was actually developed by Prince’s friend and former/future bandmate, André Anderson. In fact, Smith told biographer Per Nilsen, “André’s vibe is all over that record… I saw them rehearse the songs before Prince cut the tracks. They did the basic work, the ‘skeletons,’ for the album in André’s house” (Nilsen 1999 41). Smith’s story certainly fits the known timeline of the song, which was initially demoed at Moonsound in 1976, while Prince was still living in André’s basement. And, as we’ll see, André was indeed heavily involved in the early formation of the artistic persona that tends to be attributed to Prince alone. Whether he played a major role in crafting “I’m Yours”–or the rest of For You, for that matter–is tough to say with any certainty. It seems clear, however, that the seeds of discord that would come to a head between Prince and André in the early 1980s were planted early in both men’s careers.
So there we have it: we’re officially done with the songs of For You. Tomorrow, I’d like to take a step back and evaluate the album as a whole, in the form of a roundup post; then, next week, I’m going to do something a little different, and look at it again from an alternative angle. After that, we’ll move on at last to some more of the ephemera from the period immediately surrounding Prince’s first album. Oh, and on Saturday I’ll be wrapping up my series of Prince (Protégé) Summer guest posts on Andresmusictalk. Stay tuned!