“I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James griped to Britain’s Blues and Soul magazine in 1983. “He’s out to lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest” (Matos 2015). It was the first public shot across the bow in a years-long, mostly one-sided beef between the godfather of “punk-funk” and the young upstart who first rivaled, then surpassed him. But it was hardly the first time these titans had clashed: James’ comments were transparently rooted in tensions from three years earlier, when Prince was the opening act for his early 1980 Fire It Up tour. And it was just before his tour with James when the “mentally disturbed young man” debuted his most notorious song about oral sex, “Head.”
(Featured Image: Back cover of Prince, 1979; photo by Chris Callis, © Warner Bros.)
Well, here we are: another album’s worth of posts complete. I’d always preferred Prince’s second full-length to its predecessor, For You, but I rediscovered it in a big way while writing about it for this blog. Critical consensus tends to cite 1980’s Dirty Mind as the moment when the pieces all fell into place, but I’d actually argue that it happened here first: whatever it is you like about Prince, you can find it on his self-titled 1979 album. Unless what you like about Prince is Tony M’s raps, I guess. You’ll have to wait about 12 years for those.
Anyway, here’s how I rank the songs, at least at the moment. Feel free to let me know your own rankings in the comments:
8. “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” For the record, there’s a big gap between this and “With You”; I gave other songs an edge just because I prefer burners to ballads. A gorgeous, dreamy, arty slow jam, brimming with potential for even better things to come.
7. “Still Waiting” Prince at his most R&B-classicist. Like I said in the original post, it doesn’t hold up quite as well against later songs in this vein, like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”; but it’s heartfelt and expertly crafted, and it really came alive in concert.
6. “Sexy Dancer” I used to think this song was dated because “disco”; now I listen to it and it just feels ahead of its time. Early electronic music, from Frankie Knuckles to the Egyptian Lover, owes a lot to “Sexy Dancer.”
4. “I Feel for You” Maybe the most head-slappingly obvious shoulda-been-a-single in Prince’s discography. Chaka’s version is great, of course, but “I Feel for You” was pure pop-soul perfection from the start.
3. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” Speaking of shoulda-beens, the fact that this wasn’t a hit in early 1980 blows my mind, and is a testament to the absurd level of segregation (not to mention homophobia) in the music industry at the time. It’s arena-level power pop that out-Bostons Boston, but it missed the Hot 100 because the guy wailing on his guitar looked “ethnic” and dressed “queer.” Disco Sucks sucked.
2. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” Predictable choice, I know, but it’s just so goddamn good. Prince’s first major hit, and his first absolute classic song. That’s worth celebrating.
1. “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” Now, for a less conventional choice: I know I said I prefer burners to ballads, but I fucking adore this song. I don’t even have that much to say about it, specifically; it’s just so wonderfully Prince. One day, I want to listen to this song the way it was meant to be listened to: in a bubble bath, surrounded by caged doves.
As you can see, the tag cloud has shifted significantly from last time:
André Cymone is still Prince’s most important collaborator, but L.A. is starting to catch up with Minneapolis as the center of his universe. That, of course, will change very soon. And hey, here’s a piece of data that might only be interesting to me. I was worried I was writing less about the tracks on Prince than I was about For You, so I went ahead and ran the numbers: average post length was 1,383 words for the former, 1,379 words for the latter. Guess we have ourselves a sweet spot.
I have to say, I’m super excited about the coming weeks, and if you’re reading this now, I hope you’ll stay on board. Next week, as I mentioned yesterday, we pick up with the Rebels side project; then it’s on to one of my all-time favorite records, the aforementioned Dirty Mind. And somewhere in there, I’ll be working in another experiment in alternate history, plus reviews of the new books by Ben Greenman and Mayte Garcia. This April, for obvious reasons, is a sad month for Prince fans; but we’re also lucky, because he’s left us such a wealth of material to remember him by.
I’ll see you next week for a new, “proper” post. In the meantime, here’s the Spotify playlist, if that’s your kind of thing:
(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1980.)
According to engineer Bob Mockler, “Our competition on [Prince] was Michael Jackson and Kool and the Gang, and I think we looked them right in the eye” (Brown 2010). Indeed, they did: the album went Platinum, peaking at Number 22 on the Billboard 200–just nine spaces below Kool & The Gang’s Ladies’ Night (though it fell significantly short of Jackson’s blockbuster reinvention as a solo artist, Off the Wall). As noted before, debut single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was also a hit, topping the R&B charts and reaching Number 11 on the Hot 100. After that, Prince lost its momentum: second single “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” reached Number 13 on Hot R&B Singles, but missed the Hot 100 entirely; “Still Waiting,” released in March of 1980, did even worse, peaking at only Number 65 on the R&B chart. But the album remained an unqualified success; in many ways, it was the bold opening statement For You should have been. And it introduced several of Prince’s most enduring, important songs: not just “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, but also “I Feel for You,” even “Sexy Dancer.”
Looking back, however, the most pleasurable moments of Prince, for me at least, are among its least celebrated. As I discussed last week, “Still Waiting” is an overlooked gem; “Bambi,” while backwards in its sexual politics, is among Prince’s finest rockers; and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is another potent early sign that the kid was more than just a raunchier Stones to M.J.’s pop-funk Beatles. But maybe my favorite of them all is the song’s closing track, the majestic “It’s Gonna Be Lonely.”
(Featured Image: Sam Cooke by Michael Ochs, 1959.)
In late 1979, an interview with Prince appeared in the African American teen magazine Right On! The interviewer, Cynthia Horner, was one of the up-and-coming artist’s earliest champions in the media, yet even she was not spared the usual quirks of his interactions with the press; to her growing exasperation, Prince spent most of the article deflecting her questions with flirtatious evasions. But then, just as Horner seemed about to give up and asked him the hoariest teen-mag question in the book–does he have a girlfriend?–Prince gave a response that feels disarmingly real: “I had one but she left me. I wrote some songs about it on the album.” At her expression of disbelief–“Do you know how many young ladies would love to fill her shoes?”–he replied, “That’s why she left me” (Horner 1979).
It’s perhaps a tribute to Prince’s growing facility as a pop songwriter in 1979 that I never suspected the songs of love and heartbreak on his second album were inspired by real women; they feel much too universal in their vagueness, like the dozens of songs for imaginary girls by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, Prince suggested to Horner–and the various biographies agree–that several of his songs from around this period were inspired by his early girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Upsher, you might recall, was probably Prince’s first “serious” relationship; when he moved into his house on France Avenue in Edina, she was the one who helped decorate and made it feel like a home, rather than a glorified studio space. Due to the deliberate fudging of Prince’s age around this time, she’s often assumed to have been his high-school sweetheart; biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, however, have clarified that they didn’t begin dating until around the time he signed to Warner Bros.–though he did apparently nurse an intense crush for her in high school, while she was seeing his close friend Paul Mitchell (Hahn 2017).