Yesterday, I once again had the pleasure of participating in the excellent #PrinceTwitterThread series organized by DJ UMB and Edgar Kruize. The current series is on 2014’s ART OFFICIAL AGE, and my thread was about my favorite track on the album, “U KNOW.” You can read my thread embedded below–but make sure you also check out the official @PrinceThread account on Twitter to read the threads still in progress! Everything so far in this series has been top-notch. Thanks to UMB and Edgar for the invite, and I’ll be back with a new post on “My Drawers” soon!
As a #PrinceTwitterThread reader as well as an occasional participant, I love seeing brainy fans go deep and surface all kinds of details and connections I never thought about before. But that’s not really what I’m doing today.
Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about where “U KNOW” figures into my own personal trajectory as a Prince fan, and what it means to me. Before we begin, here’s the song:
So, I’ve written a few times before about where Prince and I stood circa early 2014. Put it this way: he was like an old friend I’d fallen out of touch with. I still cherished the memories (‘80s albums), but we didn’t exactly talk.
I didn’t have the pleasure of, say, hearing the original leak of “The Breakdown” that @CaseyRain talked about last week, because I wasn’t lurking on the org or really in the fan community at all. And I regret it! I really missed a lot.
Now, I’m gonna say some things that are probably gonna get me in trouble, but bear with me because it’ll turn around. At the beginning of 2014, TO ME, Prince felt a little passe.
Now, to put this in context, keep in mind that I was born in 1984. When Prince and I lost touch, I was in my late 20s; he was in his early 50s and–while he still looked amazing!–definitely seemed his age.
Back in the 2000s, Prince was going through a period of legacy-building–he was very consciously presenting himself as an elder statesman, bringing back “Real Music by Real Musicians.” Which is laudable, but not exactly cool.
The Prince I fell in love with in my late teens, early 20s was this guy: Young, edgy, rebellious. He was totally punk rock!
Meanwhile, the Prince I actually got to experience in real time was this guy: An undeniably excellent musician (that never changed!) who dressed like he was on his way to church and constantly talked about how much better music was “back in the day.”
Now don’t get me wrong: I was still there for all the big pop culture moments of the mid-2000s. OF COURSE I was blown away by the Super Bowl and the R&R Hall of Fame, like every other right-thinking person.
But what I was not doing (certainly not after MPLSound) was checking for new Prince albums. By early 2014, he was–again, TO ME–the definition of a legacy artist.
Now put away the tomatoes, because here’s where it starts turning around. Right around this time, Prince was back in the news again, and for once it wasn’t because he was giving CDs away with a right-wing tabloid! (See Edgar’s intro thread for context)
I’d also seen some recent photos, and Prince no longer looked like a church deacon. Now he looked a little like a mustachioed Angela Davis, in his bug-eyed Purple Rain shades–sometimes with a third lens over the forehead. For the first time in years, I was intrigued.
Unlike many lapsed fans, however, it wasn’t “[The] Breakdown” that got me excited. I think I was a little too lapsed for that one–it just sounded like another latter-day Prince ballad to me (but before you get the tomatoes back out, I’ve since come around on it!)
Instead, the song that got me was–you guessed it–the one I’m talking about today, “U KNOW” (here’s another link, since I blabbed a lot after posting the last one).
Now, I’m sure there are some True Funk Soldiers out there scoffing about this. Because as many of you probably know–but I didn’t know at the time–“U KNOW” is barely even a Prince song.
It’s built heavily on samples from “Blinded,” an obscure 2012 track by Los Angeles-based R&B singer-songwriter @MilaJ. Let’s take a listen:
As you can hear, pretty much all of the musical elements of “U KNOW” are already there in “Blinded”: the main piano part, the swirling synth line, even the little “uh-huh, uh-huh” that Prince loops throughout his version. https://www.whosampled.com/sample/296603/Prince-U-Know-Mila-J-Blinded/
I can’t even definitively say that “U KNOW” is BETTER than “Blinded.” I happen to prefer it, but I’m obviously biased (my blog ain’t called http://milajsongs.org). Objectively, both tracks have the same chilled-out, sexy vibe.
But I think more than anything, it’s that vibe that got me excited about “U KNOW”–and, by extension, about ART OFFICIAL AGE itself. In 2014, I was getting into what we can call (for lack of a better term) “alternative R&B”: stuff like Frank Ocean, Blood Orange, and Jhéne Aiko.
(Side note, for those who don’t already know: Mila J is in fact Jhéne Aiko’s older sister. She also appeared as a child in the music video for “Diamonds and Pearls”–that’s her on the right in these photos from a thread by @IAmMissTLC)
I thought–and still think!–of these artists from the left field of Black music as Prince’s heirs apparent. But while his influence on the “PBR&B” aesthetic was obvious, I hadn’t heard much of that aesthetic filtering back into his own music–until then. https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/95-i-started-a-joke-pbrb-and-what-genres-mean-now/
“U KNOW” was the first Prince song I'd heard in ages that felt of its time–not aping his old sound or trying to recreate the music he grew up on in the ‘70s. But it also felt natural; not the “old man in the club” vibe of certain other Josh Welton collabs.
Now, again, in retrospect we know exactly why that is: Prince didn’t really craft this sound, he sampled it–and not very inventively at that. And for some out there–especially the “Real Music by Real Musicians” hardliners–that might disqualify “U KNOW” as a latter-day highlight.
But here’s the thing: Prince’s genius wasn’t just as a traditional musician and songwriter, but as a curator of sounds. He invented, sure–but he also stole. And, yes, his protests to the contrary, he sampled.
Many of Prince’s most celebrated songs are his own versions of New Wave, psychedelia, or other existing styles. Hell, one of his most famous Linn LM-1 loops is just a sped-up version of a stock pattern!
By sampling Mila J, Prince was tipping his hat to–and probably also subtly side-eying–a younger generation of artists inspired by him. Most importantly, though, he was showing he still had his ear to the ground. He wasn’t set in his ways.
Even the song’s construction–a largely undisguised sample used as the basis for a new composition–has more in common with 21st-century rap mixtapes than the capital-“A” album paradigm Prince usually touted.
This is not to say that the more conservative, backward-looking Prince was a thing of the past. As Edgar observed in his excellent thread last week, “THE GOLD STANDARD” was basically “Musicology, Part 2,” and a thread of nostalgia runs throughout AOA.
But at the time, as someone who could still feasibly claim the title “young person,” it was heartening to see Prince taking inspiration from younger people–not only Mila J, but also Kendrick Lamar and Coco & Breezy, designers of the “third-eye” sunglasses. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/meet-twin-sisters-who-designed-prince-s-third-eye-sunglasses-n582426
Finally–and I’d be remiss not to mention it on this of all holidays–“U KNOW” was SEXY. So many of Prince’s latter-day slow jams couldn’t seem to decide if he wanted to take you home or take you to Bible study; this one was unmistakably carnal. Yet classy!
And this is something for which I really can give him credit: The layered sighs (both Mila’s and his own) and little backwards-recorded flourishes play a key role in setting the song’s intimate, subtly freaky mood.
So, there you have it: The song that got me back on the Prince train in 2014. In a way, it speaks to some recent conversations about his status among young music fans (shoutout to @darlingnisi, who’s probably still fuming about my first few tweets)
I’ve heard it said often lately that Prince is only still relevant to the Gen-Xers and older millennials who discovered him in the ‘80s and ‘90s–after they (/we) are gone, his legacy will fade.
And sure, that might happen. But if it does, it will be a truly depressing end. Even at his most didactic, Prince never wanted to be a nostalgia act: When he preached about the good ol’ days, it was out of an intent to educate, not smug old-head self-satisfaction.
And “U KNOW” proves that he never lost touch. He surrounded himself with younger creatives to keep him relevant. And it worked: Shoutout to Certified Young Person @PlanetIndiaM, who recently shared that “U KNOW” was the song that made her a fan.
Stories like India’s are heartening to me; they give me hope that this body of work, which means so much to me, continues to resonate. And maybe, these stories are also an indication that Prince’s legacy will live on in ways–and through songs–us old folks never even imagined.
Thank you so much for reading, and thank you again to @deejayumb and @EdgarKruize for having me back. If you’re not already sick of me, you can find my work at http://princesongs.org. My latest post, on the unreleased instrumental “The Dawn,” is out now!
Last but not least, be sure to follow @PrinceThread and the #PrinceTwitterThread and #AOAThread hashtags for more good stuff on the way! Next up: @RShumays on another AOA track I love, “BREAKFAST CAN WAIT”!