Note: This is my third and last post on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. If you haven’t already, please read Parts 1 and 2 first.
July 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the self-titled debut album by the Time; so, I decided to commemorate the occasion by bringing back Darling Nisi and Harold Pride for one of our trademark track-by-track deep dives. As always, the conversation left me thinking about the album in new ways: from KaNisa’s interpretation of it as Prince’s tribute to the funk music of his youth, to Harold’s insight on its significance to the development of electronic dance music. I remain grateful to be able to talk about music with these two brilliant people.
Last time, I promised I’d have another podcast episode ready in less than the almost two-year gap between our Prince (1979) and Dirty Mind episodes; and, technically, I did make good on that promise, since it’s “only” been 10 months since Dirty Mind last September. But for real, I’ll be back much sooner this time–like, probably around this time next month. So, if you haven’t already, subscribe to Dance / Music / Sex / Romance on your podcast provider of choice; and, if the spirit moves you, you can even leave a review! You’ll be hearing from me again very soon.
Way back in February of 2020, I asked Darling Nisi and Harold Pride to record a third episode in our series of in-depth retrospectives on Prince’s albums, this one for the 40th anniversary of 1980’s Dirty Mind. The podcast was intended to predate De Angela Duff’s DM40GB30 symposium, which in those simpler times was still scheduled to be held in-person at New York University.
Well, you know what happened next: DM40GB30 was delayed, then went virtual, while I slipped into a pandemic-related depression fog that only lifted, appropriately enough, after I participated in the virtual symposium back in June. Meanwhile, the podcast continued to lavish in the D / M / S / R Vault (a.k.a. the “Documents” folder on my computer) until the end of last month, when I was promptly reminded of just how laborious a task editing a three-hour podcast recording can be.
Now, the wait is finally over: the D / M / S / R podcast is back, in all its wildly self-indulgent glory. I want to thank everyone for their patience, and assure you that there won’t be a two-year wait before the next episode; in fact, I’d recommend you go ahead and use one of the links above to subscribe on your podcast service of choice using one of the links above, because I’m aiming to put out one of these bad boys (i.e., podcasts, not necessarily review episodes) per month. As always, let me know what you think, and feel free to leave a review on your podcast provider if you’re so inclined.
Note: Please be advised that this post contains frank and uncensored discussion of lyrics which explicitly reference sexual assault.
There are any number of reasons why Prince may have left a given song in the Vault. There were, of course, the spatial limitations of recorded media: by 1982, Prince was producing more music than could be accommodated on two 12-inch sides of vinyl–hence why 1999 ended up as a double album, and why his singles increasingly came backed with non-LP B-sides. There were instances where a certain song may have been deemed too similar to another that ended up making the cut on the album: see, for example, “Turn It Up,” which some believe was left off 1999 in favor of “Delirious.” There was also an even simpler explanation, per Prince himself: “If any track is unreleased, it’s because it’s not done,” he reportedly told Dan Piepenbring, the co-author of his unfinished memoir, in 2016 (Prince 2019 16).
The particular song Prince was discussing with Piepenbring was “Extraloveable,” a widely-bootlegged track recorded at the beginning of April 1982 and not officially released until 2011. Taking Prince at his word that the song wasn’t “done” until Andy Allo rapped on it, I won’t write about it until we get to that point in our chronology; but I will posit a theory that there was another reason why it didn’t see the light of day. As anyone who’s heard the original version can attest, the song takes a turn in the last minute and a half or so. After six minutes of gently cajoling the listener to take a bath with him, Prince suddenly becomes menacing: “I’m on the verge of rape,” he grunts, repeating himself for good measure. A blast of discordant synthesizer noise takes over the mix, as if the song itself has begun to malfunction. “I’m sorry,” Prince intones in his detached android voice over the ongoing din, “but I’m just gonna have to rape you. Now are you going to get into the tub, or do I have to drag you? Don’t make me drag you.”
Prince was obviously no stranger to aberrant expressions of sexuality at this point in his career: on “Horny Toad,” he had imagined himself as an obscene phone caller, a groper, and a stalker; perhaps most notably, “Sister” had described an incestuous relationship of dubious consent. But the former song was obviously played for laughs, while the latter crucially depicted Prince as the victim of abuse, not the perpetrator. Interrupting an exuberant, sexy frolic to outright threaten sexual violence was clearly a bridge too far, even in the thick of Prince’s “Rude Boy” era. Which makes it all the more surprising that he did it again with another unreleased track recorded in the same year, “Lust U Always.”
In late April 1982, the majority of the tracks Prince had completed for his fifth album fell under one of two categories: extended electro-funk grooves (“All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.”) and slippery R&B slow jams (“International Lover”). But the song he recorded on April 25, just five days after “D.M.S.R.,” was an outlier both on the album and in his career to date: a theatrical rock ballad with vaguely propagandistic undertones called “Free.”
From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”
Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.