By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, albeit airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy pop hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331⁄3 revolutions per minute.
To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).
In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.
While guitarist Dez Dickerson’s most fleshed-out contribution to The Timewas the aforementioned “After Hi School,” it was his work as a lyricist that had the more lasting impact. Dickerson wrote lyrics for at least three songs recorded in April of 1981 and (most likely) intended for the new side project. Two of these, “Dancin’ Flu” and “I Can’t Figure It Out,” we only know as titles from The Vault; but the third, “Cool,” would become the Time’s second single and one of their trademark songs. “Prince called me up one day with the title and asked me to write some lyrics to go with it,” Dez recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “I called him back about 20 minutes later with the song” (Nilsen 1999 86).
According to Dickerson, the genesis for “Cool” came during the Dirty Mind tour, on a night when the band was hanging out with Warner Bros. A&R exec Ted Cohen. “I had this voice that I adopted at times, and, that night I just kind of got ‘stuck’ in it, cracking jokes,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir. “I fell into this thing where I kept telling Ted, ‘Ted, man, you bad! Ain’t nobody bad like you, Ted!’ Well, you guessed it–the voice and the phrase ‘ain’t nobody bad…’, which would later become the signature of the Time’s banter, came from that night” (Dickerson 137).
While I am skeptical of attributing the whole “Morris Day” persona to Dez alone–both Prince and André Cymone, not to mention Morris himself, are also on record as having used the hoarse, jive-talking “pimp voice” most publicly identified with the Time–it is certainly true that “Cool,” and Dickerson’s “ain’t nobody bad but me” lyric, played an essential role in bringing that persona to life. Equal parts smooth and clownish, “Cool” laid the parameters for the hair-slicking, Stacy Adams-wearing, two-stepping caricature from which Morris remains publicly inseparable to this day.
I’ve been trying to squeeze in at least one guest spot on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast per album, and for The Black Album I couldn’t resist taking on what is arguably its goofiest track, “Dead on It.” Listen to Darren and I dissect Prince’s skills on the mic here:
Allow me to begin this post with a few simple facts: when I first started guesting on Darren Husted’s chronological Prince: Track by Trackpodcast last September, I had just started writing about 1980’s Dirty Mind, and Darren was in the middle of 1985’s Around the World in a Day. Now, a little more than six months later, I’m a few tracks away from starting 1981’s Controversy, and Darren is over halfway through Come from nineteen-fucking-ninety-four. Whatever, it’s not a race, etc. Here’s us talking about “Papa,” one of the weirdest, toughest listens in Prince’s body of work:
For the first d / m / s / r podcast of 2018 (!), it was my pleasure to speak with budding educational historian and Prince scholar Kimberly C. Ransom. Kimberly presented at the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference last May–those of you who listened to my series of podcasts on that event probably heard her name come up once or twice–and her essay, “A Conceptual Falsetto: Re-Imagining Black Childhood Via One Girl’s Exploration of Prince,” was published last fall in the Journal of African American Studies’special Prince issue. If any of my listeners haven’t checked out that issue yet, I’m hoping this interview will offer some incentive: Kimberly’s essay in particular brilliantly interweaves her lifelong love for Prince with an incisive critique our often-pathologized discourses of Black childhood. She also has a surprisingly lovely singing voice.
As we embark on a brand new year of dance / music / sex / romance, allow me to direct your attention to our iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play feeds; if you feel compelled to subscribe, rate, or review us on your service of choice, it will be much appreciated. And of course, if you enjoy the podcast (or blog!), don’t be afraid to spread the word. Lots more exciting things to come!