Note: In the last several weeks of writing about the songs on Prince’s debut album, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.
The reclusive multi-instrumentalist known only as “Prince” may not be as much of a household name as, say, Shuggie Otis; but to aficionados of 1970s funk and soul, he inspires the kind of hushed reverence normally reserved for the likes of Stevie Wonder. In fact, Prince’s mainstream obscurity and cult notoriety are two sides of the same coin: both stem from his having released only one album, 1978’s For You, before disappearing from the music scene completely. Thanks to a decades-long process of discovery by collectors and rehabilitation by critics, however, in 2016 he stands as one of the great “what-ifs” of 20th century pop.
The story behind the making of For You is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. An introverted musical prodigy from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince signed a multi-million dollar contract with Warner Bros. Records when he was just 17 years old–which unsurprisingly made waves in the recording industry trades at the time. Also remarkable was the fact that, as a 1978 press release put it, “Prince did it all. Composed the music, produced the sessions. Played the instruments (drums, guitars, pianos, bass synthesizers and more) and sang all the lead and background vocals. He even wrote the string parts.” He was, according to legend (and the press release), the youngest producer in W.B.’s history as a label.
But Prince’s inexperience and perfectionism proved to be his undoing. The story goes that he blew through all $180,000 of his three-album recording budget on For You alone: holing up in the Record Plant for days on end, tinkering obsessively with the songs. When it was finally released, the album was a modest success: lead single “Soft and Wet” even reached Number 12 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles Chart (though it peaked at only Number 92 on the Hot 100). But the second single, “Just as Long as We’re Together,” stalled at Number 91 on the R&B charts; the album itself also dropped rapidly, peaking at only Number 163 on the Billboard 200. Prince did get some positive press from African American teen magazines like Right On!, where his soft, almost feminine good looks and ineffable air of mystery made him marketable as a pop idol. But the mainstream largely passed him by, and Warner ultimately decided that another album wasn’t worth the investment; after Prince made an awkward, tentative live debut at Minneapolis’ Capri Theatre in January 1979, the label cut their losses.
Which is a shame, because if nothing else, For You positively bristles with potential. The aforementioned “Soft and Wet” is futuristic funk, streamlining the pioneering synthesizer sound of earlier acts like Parliament with an added dose of fey, flirtatious sexuality. Closing song “I’m Yours” starts as a lite-funk workout, then transforms abruptly into full-blown arena rock. The opening title track, meanwhile, is lush baroque soul–not to mention evidence of how Prince managed to blow almost $200K on a single record–with a blissed-out a cappella chorus of multi-tracked Princes singing in unison. It’s like an R&B “Good Vibrations”; the kind of bold, hubristic statement you’d expect from an established artist with multiple successes behind them, not an upstart teenager who came out of nowhere and would return to obscurity just as soon.
There are also more predictable pleasures, albeit always with a subtle tweak. “Baby” is a note-perfect Philly soul simulacrum (had Prince ever even been to Philadelphia?), with lyrics about the decidedly unconventional subject of an unplanned pregnancy. “My Love is Forever” is chirpy disco, but with guitar leads more muscular than even Nile Rodgers would dare attempt. “In Love” also sounds decidedly of-its-time, but with lyrics (“I really wanna play in your river”) that are disarmingly frank in their eroticism. And on the soft songs–“Crazy You” on Side One, “So Blue” on the eccentrically-named “Other Side”–the 18-year-old shows a depth of musical range and vocal dexterity far beyond his years. For You isn’t earth-shattering, per se–there’s a reason why it didn’t set the world on fire when it came out in 1978–but its subtle blend of musical styles and Prince’s oddly demure lustfulness belie an inventive artistic persona that isn’t quite like anything else, before or since. It’s little wonder that several influential members of the new school of “alternative” R&B, including Frank Ocean and Janelle Monáe, swear by this relatively obscure late-’70s debut.
The afterlife of For You is even stranger than the story of its birth. Prince, as mentioned above, seems to have disappeared after he was dropped by Warner: presumably back to his hometown of Minneapolis, though conflicting reports also claim he became a successful session musician in L.A. It’s certainly difficult to imagine an artist as bold and ambitious as Prince clearly was leaving music behind entirely; there are thus numerous rumors of later maneuvers from behind the scenes. The tracks “Do Me, Baby” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” from the 1979 debut album by André Cymone–Prince’s fellow Minneapolitan, and his bass player at the ill-fated Capri Theatre show–are both heavily rumored to have been written by Prince; though they don’t sound quite like anything on For You, so whether it was actually him is anyone’s guess. There’s also been speculation that he played the guitar part on Lipps, Inc.’s 1980 single “Funkytown”: still the biggest hit ever to come out of the Twin Cities. Otherwise, all pop cryptologists have to go by is a string of little-known B-sides from Minneapolis-based artists like Sue Ann Carwell and Alexander O’Neal, with writing credits from suspiciously pseudonymous-sounding names like Joey Coco and Alexander Nevermind.
Meanwhile, the stature of Prince’s sole official release has only grown with time. The album was out of print for most of the ’80s, before receiving a spike of notoriety among crate-diggers in the hip-hop era: see, for example, the sample of “Soft and Wet” in RBL Posse’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” This led to the album being reissued in the early ’90s, along with a renewal of interest from critics and musical historians. Today, it’s a bona fide cult record, feted among artists and listeners on the left field of R&B, pop, and hip-hop for its unique, genre- and gender-fluid sensibility. Prince, meanwhile, has remained reclusive, though he’s presumably still alive: with the album’s 40th anniversary fast approaching in 2018, it would be great to see him come out of retirement and play some of these old songs for his new and growing fanbase. The world might not have been ready for For You in 1978, but I think it just might be ready now. Hopefully, wherever Prince is today, he realizes that.
(All right, that’s it, y’all…thanks for indulging me in this little A.U. fan fiction exercise. I’ll be back to my regularly-scheduled programming next week!)