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Ephemera, 1983

Irresistible Bitch

Whether or not Prince intended “Irresistible” as his tip of the hat to the burgeoning rap scene, he was happy to take credit for it in retrospect.

From his debut through 1999, Prince was releasing albums at the steady clip of one per year–with side projects the Time and Vanity 6 doubling, and then tripling, his output in 1981 and 1982, respectively. But as his attention turned to the development and production of his first feature film, the release schedule inevitably slowed. The year 1983 would be the first in half a decade without a new Prince album on shelves.

As it happened, this arrangement served his record label just fine. “Warner Bros.’ pop department worked really hard to launch Prince to pop radio,” recalled Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in Warner’s “Black Music” division. “But there never was time. As soon as something was starting to happen on pop radio, the next album arrived. The fact that we weren’t getting a new album in 1983 ended up being a tremendous blessing because it gave us more time” (Nilsen 1999 119).

For Prince himself, the “blessing” was considerably less tremendous. “Delirious,” the third single from 1999, had released on August 17 paired with “Horny Toad,” an outtake of similar style and vintage. But the fourth single, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” wasn’t due out until November; and Prince, who had recorded enough music that year to fill a whole LP and then some, was itching to put out something new. According to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, the hyper-prolific artist spent his time at Sunset Sound on September 16 reviewing two prospective B-sides: “G-Spot,” which he’d tracked in May and would later dust off for protégée Jill Jones; and “Irresistible Bitch,” the latest version of which had been recorded just a day earlier. “Not surprisingly,” Tudahl writes, “he chose his most recent work” (Tudahl 2018 170).

Prince in 1981, not far from the initial tracking of “Irresistible Bitch”; © Lynn Goldsmith, prints available for purchase from Morrison Hotel.

By Prince standards, though, “Irresistible” was already ancient history. His original version of the track dated back to the weeks before the Controversy tour in November 1981. Recorded at the Kiowa Trail home studio and sequenced in a kind of medley with “Feel U Up” (another song he’d pull off the shelf more than once in the years to come), it’s a brittle punk-funk groove built around a mewling Oberheim OB-X line, bolstered with funky live bass, rhythm guitar, and a clattering Linn LM-1 beat. The lyrics–credited, on a handwritten sheet pictured in the liner notes for 1999 Super Deluxe, to one “Jamie Starr”–find Prince reprising his trusty cuckold role, familiar from songs like “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About),” “When You Were Mine,” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” “All my partners ask me why I take so much abuse,” he groans. “Why am I so faithful, honey, why are you so loose? / Why am I the one who never gets to take you home / They don’t know the things u do to me when we’re alone.”

The second verse–later swapped to take the place of the first–digs up an even older reference to “Thrill You or Kill You,” André Cymone’s main contribution to 1979’s unreleased Rebels project. That song began with the terse couplet, “Call your ass up on the phone / Your mama tells me you ain’t home.” “Irresistible” revisits the scenario, except this time the intelligence comes straight from the other man’s mouth: “Every Friday night I call your butt up on the phone / A deeper voice answers and it says you’re not at home.” It’s possible, of course, that the similarity is just a coincidence; but Prince’s well-documented willingness to mine old material for ideas–not to mention his, let’s say, cavalier attitude toward Cymone’s intellectual property–suggests otherwise.

In any case, “Irresistible” does more than just echo Cymone’s song; it also complicates it, to its unqualified benefit. The most charitable way to read “Thrill You or Kill You” is as a dark character study of a toxic man driven to distraction by sexual jealousy–a funkier update of the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life,” right down to the chilling intimations of violence against women. But the narrator of “Irresistible” never seriously considers leaving his tormentor, much less murdering her: The whole point is that he can’t get enough, to the point that he’s willing to let her sleep with other men, drive his car, and even steal all his money as long as it “keeps [her] by [his] side.” Even the misogynistic slur in the title doubles as a crude term of endearment.

The Soulsonic Force rendered in appropriately cartoonish form for Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree; photo stolen from Page 45.

The original version of “Irresistible” doesn’t appear to have been in the running for 1999; according to Tudahl, though, Prince came back to the track not long after he finished the album, on September 7, 1982. His re-recording is not currently in circulation, but reading between the lines, it seems to have been the source for the song’s final vocal track, which replaced the 1981 take’s frantic, adenoidal shouts with a smooth, low-register quasi-rap.

Rap music, of course, wasn’t an unknown quantity at the dawn of the 1980s. “Rapper’s Delight,” the debut single by Englewood, New Jersey trio the Sugarhill Gang, had released within a month of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in September 1979; by the week of January 12, 1980–the same week Prince’s breakout single reached Number 16 of the Billboard Hot 100–it had cracked the Top 40, the first song of its nascent genre to do so. But there’s reason to believe it took a few more years for the new sound to pique Prince’s interest. By late 1982, he would surely have been aware of artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Warp 9, and the Soulsonic Force, whose milestone singles from that year–“The Message,” “Nunk” (a portmanteau combining “New Wave” and “funk”), and “Planet Rock,” respectively–ploughed an Afrofuturist furrow similar to his own recent sonic innovations. Certainly, critics took notice of the parallels: In his review of 1999, published in the December 9, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone, Michael Hill writes that “Prince works like a colorblind technician who’s studied both Devo and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force,” and cites the chant from the end of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” as a “rap wildly mixing the sacred and profane” (Hill 1982).

Whether or not Prince intended “Irresistible”–or its future A-side, for that matter–as his tip of the hat to the burgeoning rap scene, he was happy to take credit for it in retrospect. “All this gangsta rap, I did that years ago,” the Artist then-Formerly Known as Prince told Alan Light for VIBE magazine in 1994 (Light 1994). Later, in an interview with filmmaker Spike Lee, he expanded: “On the rap tip… it is an old style and I have always done it kind of differently–half sung, you know, like ‘Irresistible Bitch’” (Lee 1997).

[Rap] is an old style and I have always done it kind of differently–half sung, you know, like ‘Irresistible Bitch.’

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Indeed, Prince raps so “differently” on “Irresistible” that it barely scans as an homage: As Mike Joseph writes for Diffuser, his “conversational tone… has very little in common with the booming rap style” of contemporary M.C.’s like Bambaataa or the Furious Five’s Melle Mel (Joseph 2018). The music, however, is a different story. When Prince revisited “Irrestible” at Sunset Sound in September 1983, he reworked the track entirely: “eliminating several of the instruments and sounds to make it much more sparse” (Tudahl 2018 168). He also added some new elements–chiefly, a cavernous kick, snare, and hi-hat groove based on the one Morris Day had played on “Cloreen Bacon Skin” that March.

The introduction of the “Cloreen” beat turns “Irresistible” into a different bitch altogether. Prince augments his live drums with odd, machinelike whirs (created, per Tudahl, by looping and reversing a recording of himself repeating the phrases “I want you” and “irresistible bitch”) and synthesized tubular bells–a possible callback, suggests Noisey’s Joe Zadeh, to the 1981 New Wave-rap crossover hit “Rapture” by Blondie. The result is a kind of cyborg groove: organically in the pocket, but still futuristic.

It’s this sound, more than anything Prince does vocally, that would ultimately allow “Irresistible” to leave its mark on the emergent genre that helped inspire it. Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin (himself no stranger to organically futuristic beats) would sample one of the bell hits from “Irresistible” for L.L. Cool J’s 1985 track “Dangerous.” Meanwhile, Los Angeles electro-hop pioneer the Egyptian Lover basically used the song as a template for his whole sound, with shades of “Irresistible” cropping up on classic club records like 1984’s “Egypt, Egypt” and 1986’s “Freak-a-Holic.”

© Warner Bros.

For Prince, the final touch to be added to “Irresistible” were backing vocals by his increasingly prominent bandmates, Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin. It’s a canny move, not least because putting the title’s ugly second word into two pretty, feminine mouths helps to dull its misogynistic edge. But the single’s vocal credit to “Wendy and Lisa” also subtly primed the audience for a dyad that would be front and center in the following year’s Purple Rain album and film. It wasn’t the first time the pair appeared together on a Prince release (they had previously sung backup, along with Jill Jones and Vanity, on the 1999 album track “Free”), but it was the first time they were billed as a unit: the introduction of a joint “brand” that persists to this day.

Upon its release as the B-side of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “Irresistible” managed to generate some modest chart action of its own, peaking just outside the Top 50 of Billboard’s Dance/Disco chart in early 1984 (Joseph 2018). It seems a shame, then, that Prince never capitalized on the club play by releasing an extended mix. Tudahl writes that the 1983 recording of “Irresistible” originally came in at just over six minutes; after cutting it down, Prince laid aside the last 90 seconds for a potential 12″ version that never came to be (Tudahl 2018 171-172). As it stands, the end of “Irresistible” feels like a bit of a tease. Following a breakdown punctuated with wild drum fills, Prince shifts back to the main beat over swirling synths and a chorus of his own backing vocals chanting, “Everybody / Everybody dance.” Then, just as the tension reaches its peak, it abruptly cuts off and we’re back to the refrain. The final seconds over the fade offer a tantalizing glimpse of a new passage, with Prince resuming the “Everybody dance” chant in a higher register; but for now, at least, that’s all we get to hear.

Still, Prince hadn’t entirely worked “Irresistible” out of his system. At First Avenue on June 7, 1984 (his 26th birthday), Prince and the Revolution debuted a new arrangement driven by Wendy’s frantic chicken-scratch rhythm guitar, which segued into a similarly James Brown-inspired rendition of “Possessed.” That same pairing would return, in truncated form, for the latter half of the Purple Rain tour in spring of 1985. Finally, almost a decade later on the Act II tour, Prince and the New Power Generation would trot the song out yet again, putting the emphasis on its rap-inspired verses in an effort to shore up their hip-hop credibility. None of these versions, however, knocked nearly as hard as the one Prince recorded at Sunset Sound in mid-September 1983. When it came to “Irresistible Bitch,” the third time really was the charm.

Thanks to Ann Schurhammer-Leistikow for becoming my latest supporter on Patreon. And of course, thanks to everyone for reading. See you again soon!

“Irresistible Bitch”
(Kiowa Trail, 1981)
Spotify / TIDAL

“Irresistible Bitch”
(B-Side, 1983)
Spotify / TIDAL

“Irresistible Bitch”
(Prince and the Revolution: Live, 1985)
Spotify / TIDAL

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