dance / music / sex / romance is fast approaching its third year, so to celebrate, we’re going…backwards? That’s right, to mark the 40th anniversary of Prince’s debut album, I thought now was the perfect time to go ahead with an idea I’ve been toying with for a while: our own sub-series of review podcasts looking at each of Prince’s albums in isolation.
I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, it’s a way to bring those of you who have been listening to the podcasts but not reading the blog into the loop on my chronological Prince project–and also a way for me to work through some of these albums before I can get to it with my glacially paced writing schedule.
Second, I’ve known from the beginning of this project that if I really wanted to do Prince’s catalogue justice, I would need to incorporate more voices and perspectives than just my own. We all have our biases and blind spots, and as a Prince fan I am acutely aware that one person’s sentimental favorite can be another’s unlistenable mess (and vice versa). That’s why I asked my friends Harold and KaNisa, both of whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Prince’s career dwarfs my own, to join me. I think you’ll find that our tastes and opinions both intersect and diverge in a lot of interesting ways, which allowed us–and hopefully, will allow you–to take a different perspective on some of these songs and the context in which they were created.
I hope you enjoy this new approach to an album that remains underappreciated in Prince’s catalogue. If you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on your streaming app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and if you’re so inclined, leave a review! No matter what, thanks for listening, and see you again soon.
Note: In the last several weeks of writing about the songs on Prince’s debut album, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.
Well, it took a little longer than planned, but we’ve officially finished Prince’s first album! For You was a lot of fun for me to revisit, because like many who got into Prince through his ’80s work, I never really listened to it all that much. It’s still far from my favorite Prince album, but looking at in depth has given me a new appreciation. Not only is it an ambitious and beautifully crafted record, but it also provides some fascinating glimpses into Prince’s musical future: the sounds he would further refine, as well as the stylistic dead ends he’d cease to pursue. If you’re a serious Prince listener–and if you’re reading this blog, I can only imagine you are–then you absolutely need to give For You a fair shake.
So, to that end, here are all nine of my posts about the album, in ascending order of my personal preference:
9. “So Blue” Like I said in the original post, this feels the most like filler of anything on For You; having said that, however, there are so many interesting little sonic touches that make it a pleasure to listen to. Most artists would kill to have Prince’s filler.
8. “My Love is Forever” Maybe the most dated song on the record. Love that guitar tone, though.
7. “Just as Long as We’re Together” A virtuoso performance on just about every level, but a little precious for my tastes. Still, you can’t deny the kid has talent, and the “Jelly Jam” coda knocks.
6. “Baby” The most conventional late-’70s R&B track on the album; but Prince’s more-falsetto-than-falsetto voice, and the unusually mature lyrical themes, demonstrate that there’s something much more interesting at work.
5. “Crazy You” A real sleeper; this one went from one of my least favorite tracks on the album to my top five. It’s slight and arguably underdeveloped, but the vibe is undeniable. If he’d put it out in 2016 instead of 1978, hipsters would have already developed a whole subgenre around it, like beachwave or space calypso or some shit.
4. “For You” This used to be the only song on the album besides “Soft and Wet” that I really loved. It’s no longer that, but it’s still up there. Prince’s vocals are breathtaking, and the chutzpah it took to make this the opening track of his first album is admirable.
3. “In Love” I used to think it was “too disco”; now I enjoy its funhouse-mirror version of the Minneapolis Sound. And who among us wouldn’t let 19-year-old Prince “play in their river?”
2. “Soft and Wet” Easily the most “Prince”-sounding song on the album, and not coincidentally the only one that tends to be anthologized. I’m not mad, though; it’s a great track.
1. “I’m Yours” Man, did this song ever grow on me. The guitar pyrotechnics are amazing, of course, but the extreme contrast between Prince’s sledgehammer riffage and his overtly fey vocals is what makes it for me: it’s not quite like anything else in rock. Like I noted in the post, this song more than any other on the album would determine Prince’s musical direction for the next several years; it was definitely the right call.
Like I said yesterday, we’ll be spending one more week wrapping up For You, with a different kind of post I’m trying out for fun. Then, the following week, we’ll pick up with some of Prince’s 1978 home recordings. In the meantime, check back on Saturday for the last of my Prince (Protégé) Summer guest posts on Andresmusictalk. You can also check out the growing companion playlists on Spotify and TIDAL below, if that’s your thing. And, again, thanks so much for reading!
There’s a famous story, originating with former Warner executiveLenny Waronker, about the 1977test session in Los Angeles where Prince first demonstrated his ability to self-produce. “As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He looked up and said, ‘Don’t make me black.’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy” (Star Tribune 2004).
It’s important to note that, when Prince asked Waronker not to “make him black,” it was less an expression of internalized racism than of pragmatism. As we’ve noted before, Prince was aware of the segregated nature of the pop market in 1978–not least because his own hometown of Minneapolis was among the most musically segregated in the country. His desire to “cross over” was driven in part by his vaunting ambition, of course, but also by the simple fact that if he didn’t break out of the R&B charts, his own city wouldn’t play him on the radio. So from the beginning, he struggled against being pigeonholed as an “R&B” (read: Black) artist.
The trouble was that “making Prince black” was the only way Warner Bros. knew how to sell him. When For You was released on April 7, 1978, the label struggled to get it reviewed in mainstream (read: White) publications; the only consistent national coverage came from Black-oriented teen magazines like Right On!, Soul Teen, and Black Beat. To be fair, some of the blame for Prince’s initial failure to cross over rested with his material: as many reviewers have observed, despite Prince’s protestations and aside from a few unusually muscular guitar parts, the majority of For You fits squarely in the Black soul and funk traditions. With one key exception, that is: the very last track, “I’m Yours.”
The sessions for Prince’s debut album at the Record Plant went from October 1 to December 22, 1977, with overdubs completed at Sound Labs in Los Angeles, early January 1978. The project began smoothly enough: “It took Prince a couple of weeks to sort of warm up to us, but after that we got along really cool,” assistant engineer Steve Fontano later recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “He absorbed things and learned very quickly… I think he was impressed with the set-up. It was a very professional studio with a 24-track and platinum records on the wall” (Nilsen 1999 36-37). As we discussed a few weeks ago, Prince had grudgingly accepted the appointment of Tommy Vicari as an “executive producer” to supervise the project; he was a quick study, however, and exercised full creative control. “The situation didn’t allow Tommy to be an opinionated producer,” Fontano told Nilsen. “And Prince is not the kind of artist who asks, ‘Well, what do you think?’” Vicari “may have made suggestions like ‘why don’t we try this?’ or maybe done an edit, something of that nature,” but his role was ultimately limited to “making sure everything was recorded properly… and put on tape in a professional manner” (37).
But as the sessions continued, Prince’s perfectionism became an obstacle. “He wanted everything to be just right,” his manager at the time, Owen Husney, said to Nilsen. “He was into it totally. I remember David Rivkin having conversations with Prince saying, ‘You know, your vocals are too on. The harmonies are too exact. You’re spending too much time to make the album perfect. Don’t make it perfect’” (Nilsen 1999 37). In a 1981 interview with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, Prince agreed with this assessment–though, characteristically, he laid much of the blame on Vicari’s shoulders. “He was supposed to help out and cut corners…basically teach me the studio,” he recalled, “but he didn’t. So I took a long time to do the album…it was pretty painstaking.” Later in the interview, however, he admitted his own role in the “painstaking” process: “I wanted to make it good, and bereft of mistakes, and in the process it took a long time to make… It was a perfect record, and um, I don’t know, it was too scientific, I guess” (Sutherland 1981).