(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1980.)
According to engineer Bob Mockler, “Our competition on [Prince] was Michael Jackson and Kool and the Gang, and I think we looked them right in the eye” (Brown 2010). Indeed, they did: the album went Platinum, peaking at Number 22 on the Billboard 200–just nine spaces below Kool & The Gang’s Ladies’ Night (though it fell significantly short of Jackson’s blockbuster reinvention as a solo artist, Off the Wall). As noted before, debut single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was also a hit, topping the R&B charts and reaching Number 11 on the Hot 100. After that, Prince lost its momentum: second single “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” reached Number 13 on Hot R&B Singles, but missed the Hot 100 entirely; “Still Waiting,” released in March of 1980, did even worse, peaking at only Number 65 on the R&B chart. But the album remained an unqualified success; in many ways, it was the bold opening statement For You should have been. And it introduced several of Prince’s most enduring, important songs: not just “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, but also “I Feel for You,” even “Sexy Dancer.”
Looking back, however, the most pleasurable moments of Prince, for me at least, are among its least celebrated. As I discussed last week, “Still Waiting” is an overlooked gem; “Bambi,” while backwards in its sexual politics, is among Prince’s finest rockers; and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is another potent early sign that the kid was more than just a raunchier Stones to M.J.’s pop-funk Beatles. But maybe my favorite of them all is the song’s closing track, the majestic “It’s Gonna Be Lonely.”
On an album that arguably set the mold for who Prince was as an artist–from the lithe, stripped-down Minneapolis funk sound to the brilliantly weird, pegasus-riding back cover–“It’s Gonna Be Lonely” feels to me like the most “Prince” of all. It’s a sleek, lubricous ballad, but not in the traditional R&B sense of “Still Waiting”; the blunt power chords beneath the chorus lend it a slight, but appreciable rock sensibility, while the swirling synthesizers sound beamed in from outer space: a glimpse at Prince’s early-’80s Afrofuturism to help close out the ’70s. And the vocals, as ever, are in top form: moving nimbly from the breathy croon of the opening verse, to the low, tongue-in-cheek murmur when he praises his lover’s “accent from Gay Paree,” all the way to the ecstatic peaks of the final chorus. For a song that’s ostensibly about dreading the end of a relationship, “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” can feel downright joyous.
But for whatever reason, Prince didn’t seem to care much for the track; according to Prince Vault, he never even played it live. The song’s afterlife, if we can call it that, is due entirely to the efforts of other artists. Most notably, Kanye West and producer DJ Toomp used an interpolated version of the guitar riff for West’s 2007 song “Big Brother,” stripping it down to its gleaming industrial core. It’s not for everyone, but it’s one of the more interesting (if nigh-unrecognizable) uses of a Prince sample by a hip-hop artist.
And then, of course, there was 2016, when Prince’s sudden death gave “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” a tragic new resonance. To be fair, it wasn’t the first song that came to most fans’ minds: “Purple Rain,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and, especially, “Sometimes It Snows in April” were much more popular songs of mourning. But for some of us faced with the prospect of a Princeless universe, “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” said it all. And in that, at least, there was one silver lining: with a tongue-in-cheek (but tender) cover version by Canadian indie rocker Mac DeMarco making the rounds on social media, one of Prince’s most underrated songs finally began to get its due. A dear price to pay, I know, but at least it’s better than nothing.
And that, my friends, is it: two official studio albums down, only 37 to go (I need to stop reminding myself of this)! Tomorrow we’ll have our usual roundup post, then it’s straight into the next project: an unofficial studio album by a band called the Rebels.