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.
As we noted last time, the late spring and summer of 1981 was an extraordinarily prolific time for Prince; it was also a notably experimental one. The artist’s home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen allowed him to try out new musical styles and approaches, without having to beg W.B. for expensive L.A. studio time. It’s thus no coincidence that the resulting album, Controversy, would be his oddest and most indulgent to date. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in the “odd and indulgent” category was “Annie Christian”: a tuneless, four-and-a-half-minute slice of apocalyptic post-punk that isn’t quite like anything else in Prince’s catalogue.
“Annie Christian” begins with a manic-sounding drum machine pattern, quickly interrupted by an atonally pulsing synthesizer and a sound effect of a tolling bell. The closest thing the song has to a hook is the cascading synth line that follows, as shrill and piercing as an early cellular ringtone. Prince recites the lyrics–a fever dream of the End Times as mediated by CNN–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.
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: Following last month’s post on “Do Me, Baby,” I knew I wanted to give André Cymone another, proper sendoff before he disappears from our pages until 1984. So, here’s the latest in my series of thought experiments, imagining an alternate reality in which André, not Prince, was the Grand Central member who went on to greater solo success. For anyone just dropping in, the idea here is to bring attention to the web of contingencies that shaped Prince’s career; to shake up our sense of inevitability and offer a glimpse at one of the many possible alternatives had things gone even slightly differently. It’s also, in this case, an opportunity to reevaluate Cymone’s legacy beyond his friend’s deceptively long shadow. As always, have fun and don’t take this too seriously. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week!
For a brief but significant period in the 1980s, the cutting edge of R&B and pop could be found in the unlikely locale of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Known as the “Minneapolis Sound,” this unique hybrid of funk, rock, and nascent electronic and New Wave styles emerged almost organically from the Twin Cities’ small but vibrant Black communities in the late 1970s. It thus wouldn’t be fair to give a single artist credit for “inventing” the genre; but the fact remains that when most music fans think of Minneapolis, one man in particular comes to mind. I’m talking, of course, about André Cymone.
Around the same time that Prince was co-opting Flyte Tyme for his project with Morris Day, he was also falling out with another of his oldest comrades: the co-founder of Grand Central and his closest musical partner, André Cymone.
André’s and Prince’s musical fates had been linked since the moment they first locked eyes in the Bryant Junior High gymnasium. Both were budding multi-instrumentalists, the children of talented jazz musicians: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play bass with Prince’s father, John L. Nelson. Both, too, possessed a preternatural drive far beyond the norms of their age and circumstance. “There was a sixth sense between the two of us,” Cymone told Billboardin 2016. “It’s something that doesn’t happen, I don’t think, very often where you find two people come together who are really passionate about what they do at a time when they’re both growing and learning” (Cymone 2016).