The Purple Rain era marked a subtle, yet perceptible shift in Prince’s attitudes toward sex. On 1999 less than two years earlier, he’d reveled in his libertinish “Rude Boy” persona: promising to “fuck the taste out of your mouth” on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” then actually demonstrating his technique on “Lady Cab Driver.” But by the follow-up album, his pendulum was beginning to swing away from the raw mechanics of lust, toward something approaching more conventional romance. “The Beautiful Ones” found him not just pretending he’s married, but considering it as a real possibility; “When Doves Cry” and the title track earnestly grappled with the dissolution of a relationship. Even “Darling Nikki”–the closest the album came to vintage, “dirty” Prince–treated its sexual encounter as a quasi-Satanic temptation, before ending with a palate-cleansing gospel coda.
It’s easy to assume that this shift was motivated by commercial calculus: Purple Rain was designed to be Prince’s entrée into the mainstream, and heteronormative monogamy plays better to “mainstream” tastes than unfettered promiscuity. There is doubtless some truth to that interpretation; but there’s also ample evidence to suggest that he felt a genuine conflict between his spiritual convictions and his carnal appetites. A song like “Possessed” (written during the 1999 sessions, and revisited in multiple iterations for Purple Rain) depicts the repentant “Rude Boy” as an unwilling vessel for “demonic lust.” “Love and Sex,” recorded at Sunset Sound on February 27-28, takes a different approach: envisioning an afterlife where the spirit and the flesh could exist in harmony.
A gospel song at heart, “Love and Sex” opens with an explosive fanfare, capped off by a patented Prince scream. The lyrics’ repeated reference to “the upper room” evoke the Gospels’ Cenacle, or the room on Mount Zion held to be the site of the Last Supper. More broadly, the term represents a sacred space of communion with Christ: the subject of Black Gospel hymns like “In the Upper Room with Jesus,” written by Lucie E. Campbell and most famously interpreted by Mahalia Jackson. When Prince mentions “the upper room,” though, he seems to be literally referencing Heaven; and when he sings, “Will He let you hurt me in the upper room?”, he’s asking if God will allow him to fuck there.
Prince weds this eyebrow-raising lyrical premise to one of his more chaotic arrangements: a loping Linn LM-1 beat augmented with a Yamaha DX7, live cowbell, and a strangled shout of a vocal. The DX7 was reportedly purchased especially for the session, and Prince puts his new toy to good use: most notably the iconic “Take Off” patch, which he layers over the opening drum pattern for an unsettling future-psychedelia effect. This off-kilter feel is intensified by a backwards guitar that wriggles beneath the surface like a primal urge. Yet for all its faux-druggy fripperies, the song never strays far from its gospel roots, with a call-and-response chorus (assisted by Jill Jones on backing vocals) that winks in the direction of the Staple Singers’ “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom).”
“Love and Sex” is a supremely confident piece of work: a spontaneous emission from a mad genius at play, operating at the peak of his powers. “You can feel a cockiness in his voice on this song,” engineer Peggy McCreary told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “You can tell that he thinks that he is hot stuff” (Tudahl 2018 279). And, indeed, Prince’s “cockiness” is clearly audible in the track–never more so than in the closing seconds, when the cowbell drops out and he smirks, “That’s right,” a hint of the Jamie Starr/“Morris Day” character creeping into his voice.
Yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to read the song as something of a cry for help. Prince injects a genuine-sounding sense of torment into melodramatic lines like, “How am I supposed to sleep / Without you in my arms?” And that’s without even going into his pervasive use of “hurt” as a euphemism for the sexual act, which is certainly what a Freudian would call “interesting.” Beneath all that manic energy and effortless charisma, “Love and Sex” is clearly part of the same lineage as future compositions like “Temptation”: songs that find Prince taking a hard look at the hypersexual persona he’d crafted for himself, and concluding that he doesn’t like what he sees.
Less clear, however, is just why this strain emerged in his music when it did. More than one former associate has made the connection between Prince’s growing religiosity during the Purple Rain era and the rekindling of his relationship with his father, John L. Nelson. In her liner notes for Piano & A Microphone 1983, Jill Jones writes that after Prince came home from a visit with Nelson, he’d “sometimes play spiritual tunes and impersonate how his dad would play them” (Jones 2018 8). Howard Bloom, the artist’s publicist at the time, took a rather less positive view: Decades later, he recalled attending a Purple Rain tour date (misremembered as “around 1986 or 1987”) and being taken aback by the segment where Prince stopped the show to speak with God. “Something became very obvious: part of his mind was Prince and part of his mind was his father,” he opined. “The voice of his dad was coming out in him, that was the voice that he would have interpreted as the voice of God. It was taking more and more control; it was asking for more and more control.” (Dyes “Truth” 2014).
But whether the nagging voice in Prince’s head was literally God, his father, or just his own conscience after the emotional wreckage of the 1999 tour, it would still be months before anyone else got to hear it–and decades before any but the luckiest got to hear “Love and Sex.” According to Tudahl, the track showed up on a cassette compilation assembled on March 19, most likely for consideration as a B-side; Prince Vault, meanwhile, claims that it was “at some point” considered for inclusion on Purple Rain, under the dimunitive title “Love ‘n Sex.” The track may also have been among those selected by fans in 2000 for the shelved Crystal Ball Volume II compilation–though that could also have been the unrelated song of the same title, recorded in January of 1986. In any case, it wasn’t until 2017, and the deluxe expanded reissue of Purple Rain, that most fans experienced this liminal moment in Prince’s spiritual evolution. “Love is more important than sex,” he’d famously declare on “Temptation” in 1985; but for a brief moment in the previous year, he’d tried his damnedest to make the two states coexist.