Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?
Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”
More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.
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.
Visit the website of Pepé Music Inc. and you’ll find an entire subpage dedicated to what they call the “Prince Connection.” “We want to set the record straight!” the copy reads, and proceeds to outline the “enormous contributions” made by a man named Pepé Willie to Prince’s success: presenting its claims alongside a large and byzantine flow chart that purports to illustrate “the intimate involvement” between Willie and Prince, but, to be frank, only manages to dramatize a confusing intersection of music industry and family relationships. Yet the “Prince Connection” page also makes a trenchant point about its subject–one that will become something of a recurring theme in the early years of Prince’s musical progression. “No one,” the copy declares, “makes it completely on their own!”
Willie’s own career is a testament to that adage. He made his entrée into the music industry via his uncle, Clarence Collins, a founding member of the Brooklyn Rhythm & Blues vocal group Little Anthony and the Imperials. Willie spent his teen years in New York and Las Vegas in the 1960s, working as a valet and road manager for the Imperials. During those years, he encountered the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Elvis Presley; he also learned a little about the business and craft of songwriting. After a stint in the armed forces, Willie then moved out to Minneapolis in the early 1970s and married a woman named Shauntel Mandeville–who happened to be the first cousin of Prince Rogers Nelson.