Prince’s Los Angeles sojourn in January 1982 concluded with–and was likely scheduled around–the ninth annual American Music Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 25. He attended as a guest, not a nominee: the “Soul/R&B” category, for which he would have been nominated, was led by old-guard artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson–as well as his rival of two years prior, Rick James.
Since the conclusion of the Fire It Up tour in May 1980, Prince’s and James’ career fortunes had diverged in unpredictable ways. Prince, as we’ve seen, had become a critics’ darling, trading the commercial success of his second album for the underground credibility of Dirty Mind and Controversy. James, meanwhile, had faltered with the flaccid Garden of Love–the album he’d allegedly recorded with a synthesizer stolen from Prince–but bounced back with the following year’s Street Songs: a masterpiece that finally made good on his “punk-funk” credo while leapfrogging his one-time usurper on the charts. Prince may have won 1980’s “Battle of the Funk,” but at the AMAs it was beginning to look like he’d lost the war, with James nominated for three awards–Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Album (which he won), and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Give It To Me Baby”–plus a proxy Female Artist nomination for his protégée, Teena Marie.
It’s thus intriguing that only a few days before the awards, on January 21, Prince recorded a song that both satirized and propped up his critics’ darling status, while also lightly mocking the cultural rivalry between L.A.–home of Sunset Sound, Warner Bros., and the AMAs–and its older, snootier cousin to the East, New York City. The song, one of the highlights of his fifth album 1999, was called “All the Critics Love U in New York.”
Like many Midwesterners, Prince’s relationship with New York was complicated, and more than a little fraught. He’d visited the city for the first time in 1976, shopping his demo tape to labels with little success. When he did land a deal the following year, it was with the Burbank-based W.B.; but even then, New York tastemakers remained indispensable to his success. Many of Prince’s most important early live dates outside Minneapolis took place in New York: i.e., the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village in February 1980, and the Ritz in East Village in December 1980 and March 1981. After the release of Dirty Mind, drummer Bobby Z recalled, “Only when the critics, mainly in New York, wrote about it, saying it’s great, did something happen. The critics got it and it opened a new audience for Prince” (Nilsen 1999 74).
Yet if “All the Critics” is a thank-you to Prince’s early boosters in NYC, it’s a decidedly ambivalent one. The lyrics take on the voice of a pep-talking industry type–Howard Bloom, Steve Fargnoli, take your pick–to extol the cosmopolitan virtues of the Big Apple for an up-and-coming artist like Prince: “Why you can play what you want to / All the critics love you in New York / They won’t say that you’re naïve if you play what you believe / In New York.” The repetition of the phrase “…in New York” at the end of each line has the air of a backhanded compliment–as if to say, all the critics may love you in New York, babe, but it’ll never play in Peoria.
By the second verse, the song’s point of view appears to shift. Prince is now giving his own pep talk: “Purple love-amour is all you’re headed for, but don’t show it,” he counsels himself. “The reason that you’re cool is ’cause you’re from the old school, and they know it.” Later, he gets even more personal, murmuring “Don’t give up… I still love you,” as if giving self-affirmations in the mirror. The most autobiographical lyric comes halfway through the song, when he chants, “Body don’t wanna quit, gotta get another hit”: a desperate junkie’s mantra, recontextualized to suit Prince’s creative and professional addictions.
Other lines from “All the Critics” seem to pull self-consciously from punk and New Wave discourse. Prince’s axe to grind with “hippies”–to whom he crows “you ain’t as sharp as me” and instructs to “take a bath”–may seem inscrutable to contemporary ears, but it makes perfect sense in the context of punk’s disdain for the previous generation’s counterculture. So, too, does his startling proclamation, “It’s time for a new direction / It’s time for jazz to die”–an echo of the “Year Zero” pronouncements of groups like the Clash (“No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones / In 1977”), with an added Oedipal dimension when one recalls that John L. Nelson was a frustrated jazz musician.
Even more future-facing is the music: a hypnotic man-machine groove, which Prince polishes to a chromium gleam. “All the Critics” fades in over the street traffic sound effects from 1999’s previous track, “Lady Cab Driver,” with a driving Linn LM-1 beat taking the lead over a pulse of burbling bass and keyboards. A distorted synthesizer squeals like a noisy tire. The only elements in the mix that sound as if they were played by human beings are the bass, which emerges from the murk to riff lithely against Prince’s vocals; and the guitar, which appears a third of the way into the song, swathed in feedback like the similarly noisy solo from “Private Joy.” Toward the end, both guitar and synth mimic sirens while Prince has some fun imitating a police radio transmission: “Yes, we’re certain of it,” he says, between squawks of white noise, “He’s definitely masturbating.”
The title and lyrics of “All the Critics” obviously point to New York, but the music evokes another metropolis that would be even more important to Prince’s artistic development: Detroit, Michigan. A few months before Prince recorded “All the Critics” in L.A., Detroit-based electronic musicians Juan Atkins and Richard “3070” Davis had released “Alleys of Your Mind,” their debut 12″ under the moniker Cybotron. The song, with its application of Kraftwerk’s smooth synthetic textures to the Motor City’s increasingly post-industrial landscape, is widely considered to be the first Detroit techno record. Soon after its release, it was placed into rotation by influential radio DJ Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson, who would have played it side by side with contemporary Prince tracks like “Controversy” and “Sexuality.” Given this, as well as Prince’s noted predilection for soaking up the local night life while on tour, it seems likely that Prince would have heard “Alleys”–or its more uptempo, propulsive B-side, “Cosmic Raindance”–and taken it as a challenge to up his own game with electro experiments like “All the Critics.” The influence clearly went both ways: 15 years after the release of 1999, for example, Detroit techno musician Kenny Dixon Jr. (better known as Moodymann) slowed down and chopped up “All the Critics” for his own “U Can Dance If U Want 2.”
Appropriately, however, the early trajectory of “All the Critics” would come to its end back in Prince’s own hometown of Minneapolis. During his March 8 date at First Avenue (the club formerly known as Sam’s), Prince introduced the song’s live debut with an audible smirk: “This is a new song… Probably won’t be out for another year…or six.” It actually only took about seven months, but his point was well taken; the ensuing performance sounds like the future, with Dr. Fink’s and Lisa Coleman’s dueling keyboards and Dez Dickerson’s earth-shattering solo (“Let him out of his cage!”) adding raw flesh and blood to the song’s cyborg skeleton.
As one of Prince’s most tensile early jams, “All the Critics” cast a long shadow over his live career–particularly in the 2000s, when he began to indulge the title’s crowd-pleasing potential for local shout-outs. One such rendition, “All the Critics Love U in London,” showed up on the Indigo Nights compilation of aftershow tracks from Prince’s 21-night stand at the O2 arena complex. It’s a fine jam, with a funky clavinet part by longtime keyboardist Morris Hayes and a closing solo by James Brown/Parliament sax legend Maceo Parker; but it’s an awfully long way from the youthful arrogance, provincial tensions, and futurist ambitions that fueled the still-definitive original. No one but a 23-year-old Prince could have recorded “All the Critics Love U in New York”; little wonder, then, that when he graced the AMAs with his presence again three years later, it would be as a performer and three-time award winner.
(Thanks to UMB on Twitter for sharing this great piece on the connections between Prince and Detroit techno/Chicago house, which reminded me of the Moodymann track and really helped connect the dots.)