Growing up with Prince
BY DAVID BROWNE
"IT MAKES ME DANCE, it makes me cry," Prince purrs on the title track of his tenth album, "and when I touch it, race cars burn rubber in my pants." Longtime Prince fans (you know, the kind whose eyes mist over when recalling the Minneapolis Wunderkind's funk-infested pre-1999 era) have been waiting for him to sing these types of lyrics for years. And if you don't pay close attention at first, Lovesexy does indeed sound like old times. When he slyly sings, "Now come on and touch it, eye no U will love it," in the same song, the mind reels back to the days -- almost a decade ago -- when Prince pushed the barriers of racial and sexual expression as he sang of oral sex and of getting extremely chummy with his sister.
That is where the similarity to the salacious Dirty Mind-Controversy era ends, however. At the threshold of thirty, Prince may still be obsessed with the pleasures of the flesh -- the in-the-buff cover shot is more than ample evidence of that -- but the Prince of Lovesexy is a different man from the teenager whose first Top Forty hit, "I Wanna Be Your Lover," sneaked in lyrics like "I wanna be the only one you come for." Dense and murky even during it peppiest moments, Lovesexy catches Prince in moods we normally don't associate with him -- frisky but contemplative, sly yet introspective. "It's time 4 new education, the former rules don't apply," he announces at one point, and he spends the rest of Lovesexy demonstrating just what those new rules are.
Beyond anniversaries and personal matters, Lovesexy arrives at a pivotal moment in Prince's musical career. While he's spent the last few years broadening the musical palette with soul psychedelia, movie soundtracks and the inspired patchwork quilt of last year's Sign o' the Times, plenty of lesser lights have built on his early trademarks, to the point where even a relatively flaccid talent like George Michael can successfully out-Prince the originator on "I Want Your Sex." Prince's initial retort was to whip out the now infamous "black album," originally scheduled for release last winter. Crackling with James Brown horn licks, assorted grunts and groans, guitar leads that burned into your skull and enough expletives to make the PMRC open a new branch, the album was shelved at the last minute for unspecified reasons in favor of Lovesexy, a new record (save for one track) that's as complex and indecisive as the black album was locomotive and sexual.
Lovesexy can be playful, too, when it wants to be. "Come a butterfly straight on your skin/U go 4 me and I come again," he squeals in "Glam Slam," a paean to simple physical urges. "Lovesexy," which plops his deepening voice in a bedrock of plush funk, also romps in sexual bravado: "Dig me now/Anyone that's ever touched it -- they don't want nothing else." Fortunately, Prince still has enough of a sense of humor to mock his own bragging. In the spoken-word vamping that ends the song -- "You want me to walk right down your halls/You want me to swim in your love sea, don't you, baby?" -- he distorts his voice electronically, from a low growl to a squeal, as if mocking the sexual zeal with which he's become synonymous.
Those blatant allusions to the earlier, hornier Prince could have easily deteriorated into self-parody; indeed, Lovesexy could well have had the dubious honor of being the first Prince record to take its cue from his own past, becoming his first regressive album in a career characterized by large strides. But thanks in large part to the seven-piece band with which he recorded the album -- and which played on last year's European tour and in the Sign o' the Times movie -- Lovesexy reveals how intricate and complex Prince's concept of funk has grown since 1980's Dirty Mind. "Eye No" opens the album with a jumbled barrage of Sly Stone wails, fatback bass lines, a grinding sax, wah-wah guitar and swarming backup vocals that continually collide with each other.
Similarly, the album's first single, a self-confident blast of bragging called "Alphabet St.," starts with chunky guitars and percussion, takes in bassist Levi Seacer Jr.'s popping bass line and meanders into a rap and full-band vamp. The riveting "Dance On," a more urgent and nihilistic take on the party-till-the-apocalypse theme of "1999," is anchored by a machine-gun-like synth-bass part, squawking horns and Sheila E.'s jazzy, stuttering drums. By comparison, the linear grooves and near-disco rhythms of early classics like "Sexuality" and "Uptown" sound malnourished and underdeveloped.
Tracks like "Alphabet St." and "Eye No" are important in the context of Prince's recent work, for they show he hasn't his touch for inventive dance music; even the relatively uneventful "Glam Slam," which sports the album's blandest melody, puts every Prince clone of the last five years to shame. But a good chunk of Lovesexy isn't concerned so much with getting that special someone into bed as it is with making that elated feeling last. "When 2 R in Love" -- the lone holdover from the black album -- is a cushy R&B ballad tailor-made for the Stylistics. Couched in a warm bed of funk, Prince's wavering falsetto pleads, "Bathe with me/Let me touch your body 'til your river's an ocean....Can U hear me?" (The difference, though, is that a group like the Stylistics would probably never sing a line like "When 2 R in love -- their bodies shiver at the mere/Contemplation of penetration.") Likewise, the swirl of gorgeous harmonies in "I Wish U Heaven" may sound comforting, but it can't conceal the lyrics' nagging sense of uncertainty. "Doubts of our conviction/Follow where we go," he nearly whispers, and sure enough, by the end of the song, the relationship is over. "If I see 11, U can say it's 7," he concludes with more a sigh than a growl. "Still, I wish U heaven."
The new, humbled Prince singing these songs comes to a crux on "Anna Stesia," a slowly simmering ballad that brings Lovesexy's allusions to failure and a loss to a (pardon the pun) head. An exercise in controlled intensity, the song builds from its simple piano-and-voice intro ("Have U ever been so lonely that U felt like U were the only/One in this world?" he softly intones at the song's beginning) to its shattering finale of synth blasts and guitar bursts. But as the layers of instrumentation build, so does self-doubt. "Maybe I could learn 2 love, I mean the right way, I mean the only way," he exhorts before turning to God: "Save me Jesus, I've been a fool/How could I forget that U are the rule?" Ultimately, the answer to this vague sexuality-versus-God issue goes unresolved -- the song ends with the repeated lines "Love is God/God is love/Girls and boys love/God above" -- but the quest itself makes a captivating ride.
"Anna Stesia," as daring in its own way as "When Doves Cry" or "I Wanna Be Your Lover," would heave made a perfect finale for Lovesexy. Instead, that job goes to "Positivity," seven minutes of workmanlike grind on top of which Prince and band lay down a stream of positive advice: "Hold on 2 your soul/Don't kiss the beast, be superior at least.... We got a long, long way 2 go." Although the sentiments are certainly admirable, the somewhat dull melody and overlong arrangement are anything but, and Lovesexy ends on something of a stalled note. "Positivity" is too simplistic a finale for a work that can't begin to answer its questions of love, sex, God and morality, and it blunts the albums overall impact. Maybe Prince preferred to end the record on an upbeat note so as not to discourage those listeners introduced to him via the ejaculating guitar in Purple Rain or the powerful pop of "Little Red Corvette." But It wasn't necessary: the most successful moments on Lovesexy prove that the hardest questions may not lend themselves to easy answers but make for much better music.
The best pop music does not reflect events so much as it absorbs them". Greil Marcus on Sly Stone's 'There's A Riot Goin' On'.
Over a decade ago, in a attempt to place Sly Stone, Greil Marcus - the most scholarly of rock critics - evoked the myth of Staggerlee, "an archetype that speaks to fantasies of casual violence and violent sex, lust and hatred, ease and mastery, a fantasy of style and steppin' high". Sly's post-'Riot' life and work bore out Marcus's eerie prediction of a man at war with - and on the run from - himself. Since vintage Sly Stone, black American music has given us no one so spooked out, so momentarily in tune with events, so much a product of the times. Unitl Prince.
So, where do we place Prince? With one single 'Sign O' The Times', he compacted Sly's previous dread testament, tackling the terminal zone AIDS, crack culture, urban and global paranoia over a searing, strung out funk that made it the 80's apocalyptic dance anthem.Alongside the delicious teasedout creation that was 'Kiss' and the clipped and chunky clout of the current 'Alphabet Street'.
Prince has reigned supreme in the singles stakes. On album, it's been a different story. His work rate and willingness to experiment meant 'Parade' was patchy, 'Sign o' The times' too long and 'Black' too throwaway to make it into the marketplace. Hot on the latter's bootlegged heels comes 'Lovesexy' and the title alone should tell you this ain't the Purple One's most serious outing.
'Lovesexy' comes wrapped in a much publicised package: Prince in the altogether, posing tastefully in front of a gilded lily with nary a glimpse of the - if we're to believe his back catalogue - overworked purple pecker. Small percies ! The lily does have a pretty provocative stamen poking out in the general vicinity of Prince's nether regions. (Dictionary definition of stamen - "the male reproductive organ of a flower, consisting of a stalk bearing an anther in which pollen is produced").
Thankfully, for us hay fever sufferers, it is not a scratch 'n' sniff sleeve. Inside, 'Lovesexy' trails the usual prince signatures - sex, dirty talk, the weird (Catholic ?) spirituality (guilt ?) that slips in and out (sorry) of his work, some eclectic party funk and a smidgeon of social commentary. As usual, the ideas come so fast and furious they often overpower the songs. 'O No' begins with a girl's voice intoning lovers' doggerel and a male counterpart welcoming us "to the new power generation". "The reason my voice is so clear", he adds, "is 'cos there's no smack in my veins". Over a cluttered cyberfunk, God battles it out with the powers of darkness - narcotics and drink - as a drug free Prince adds his voice to the "just say no' brigade. Alongside Side Two's opener, the awesome 'Dance On', it's the only song here that fractures the 'Lovesexy' obsession with the dual pursuit of sacred and profane love.
By now, it should be clear that sex is Prince's sole narcotic, a drug habit that thrives on a constant fix of phallic funk and the physical purgation of much of this music. Where Sly/Staggerlee saw salvation in hedonism and self immolation, Prince views sex through purple tinted specs as the means and the end. Desire is both fuel for his fantasies and raw material for his art but, from 'Dirty Mind' on, you just gotta wonder about the credibility of such obsessive aural exhibitionism.
Prince's recreation of himself as some kind of sexual deviant, albeit with an attendant spiritual morality, often finds it's strongest representation in the miasma of effect that crowd around these songs like a chorus of Times Square pimps and voyeurs. Between 'Eye No' and 'Alphabet St.', we gatecrash a party, listen in to some disembodied coke babble, hang out with a gaggle of gig gatecrashers and drugheads whilst a preacher's voice implores us to "praise God with the fruit of the vine". Between the depraved and the divine, the shadow of Staggerlee is just visible. But in the ensuing physical playfulness, Prince pushes knowingness into the background preferring to indulge a (naughty) childlike glee in sins of the flesh.
'Glam Slam' hits the treble button, basks in the harsh glare of guitars, multi-layered, vaguely acid tinged, splintering a fragment of soft core titillation: "Heavy feathers flicka nipple/ Baby scam water ripple...Come a butterfly straight on your skin/ U go 4 me and I come again...This thing we got - it's alive !' Praise the lord and pass the Ecstasy.
'Anna Stesia' is more seriously provocative, sampled orchestral strings announcing a spartan groove that, alongside 'Alphabet St.', is the first side's strongest statement. This is spaced out, slow and sexy superfunk with a direct lineage that stretches back to Sly's primal prototype - say 'Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again'. Only, Prince splices up the funk with techno-overload and the now prerequisite carnal-spiritual contradication.
'Dance On' starts Side Two with a heavy duty slab of social realism a la 'Sign O' The Times'. Here, Prince's worldview is refracted through newsreel footage, inner city survival and a startling Madhouse stutter-funk that strafes the speakers. As a glimpse into His Majesty's political overview, 'Dance On' takes a revisionist line - " It's time for new education, the need a new power structure that breeds production instead of jacks who vandalize". From here on in, it's back to the heavy duty pleasure principle.
'Lovesexy' itself steals the '1999' riff outright for a sex-is-the-ultimate-drug song; the guys pump it up in the background and the girls go for telephone sex that has Prince "drppin', all over the floor". 'When 2 R In Love' wanders intact off the 'Black' sessions, a song of whispered secrets - "the brightest star pales next to your sex" !? - and the closest he comes to total immersion in the empire of the senses. The music is soft focus, the message is soft porn. For adults only.
Finally, 'I Wish You Heaven' - throwaway by Prince standards - and the elongated statement of intent that is 'Positivity'. In here, you can hear Sly/ Staggerlee, the roots and the death rattle, the sound of what Prince terms "Spooky Electric". Unlike the previous role model, Prince holds back from the edge of the darkness that enveloped Sly. "Don't kiss the beast," he drawls unconvincingly as the chorus your soul". The last words on the record are "We got a long long way to go" and the last sound is lapping water.
Submerged in some weird sin, Prince renounces the old myths and swims against the current tide. On this evidence he is in no hurry to get there, preferring to relish the fun of the journey.
'Lovesexy' finds new ways of saying the same things and only occasionally does it reflect life outside Prince's hermetically sealed world of fetishistic love and attendant guilt. playful and perverse, he remains a willing sinner whose Purple prose and indulgent pop still triumphs over the best of the rest. 'Lovesexy' may be a major rumpus but it's a long way short of a 'Riot'. (8/10)
Sunday, May 15, 1988
PRINCE SHOULD HAVE HAD A BETTER BLUEPRINT
Great musicianship and unlimited imagination aren't enough when you don't have a plan.
"Lovesexy" is another cluttered mess of a Prince album, remarkably similar in shape(lessness) and sound to "Parade," causing one to wonder just what Prince believes is the purpose of his own music. At times (""Dirty Mind," "1999," "Purple Rain," "Sign O' The Times"), Prince focuses on the traditional singer-songwriter's mandate: creating likable songs for public consumption.
But, like Bruce Springsteen, Prince apparently feels an occasional need to pull back from mass popularity with albums that concentrate more on his personal hang-ups than on pop-song craft. "Controversy," "Around the World in a Day," "Parade" and now "Lovesexy" all fit into that category. All are challenging, creative and bursting with ideas but hardly the sort of records that are played over and over again.
In the '60s and early '70s, a multilayered, thematically tangled album like this would have been assumed to be about (or inspired by) drugs, but Prince dispels that notion before singing a note: "Welcome to the new power generation," he coos. "The reason my voice is so clear is there's no smack in my brain."
What there is in his brain is another question. Prince's twin obsessions are God and sex, and they've never been so confusingly set against (or with) each other as on "Lovesexy."
Lyrically, the album is a psychiatrist's casebook. "Maybe I could learn 2 love if I was just closer 2 somethin', closer 2 God, save me Jesus, I've been a fool, how could I forget you are the rule," he sings in the droning piano ballad "Anna Stesia." And in the plodding, urgent guitar showcase "Positivity" that closes the album, Prince urges us to resist "Spooky" (the devil?): "Don't kiss the beast, We need love & honesty, peace & harmony, Positivity, Hold on 2 your soul."
He invokes the struggle between heaven and hell on the opening "No," a Madhouse-styled funk workout in which he urges, "Say no - If U want a drug other than the God above. No if U need a drink every single day."
Great music has been written about good vs. evil; gospel comes quickly to mind, but other forms of pop, from protest folk to soul music, also cover the same ground. Prince is a brilliant enough artist to transcend any and all genres with his music, but he's not brilliant enough to convince us that there's anything deeper to these songs than craving sex and feeling guilty about it.
"Lovesexy" has almost too many good musical ideas, distributed densely and haphazardly through a collection of nine songs mostly unworthy of the effort. Had Prince recorded this album a week later, I suspect the songs would have sounded quite differently - though not necessarily any better. Only "When 2 Are in Love" - a gorgeous ballad reportedly held over from the unreleased "Black Album" - and "I Wish You Heaven," a simple, hard-hitting midtempo benediction, seem to be clearly conceived, finished compositions. "Alphabet St." and "Dance On" feature exciting, original syncopation but never really go anywhere as songs.
The whole album plays like a quick blast from Prince's subconscious, a week in the life, a hasty note from a troubled soul. My advice would be to slow down and think things through before writing again.
- Rick Shefchik
Published: Monday, May 9, 1988
pop: Prince comes up with another winner
LOVESEXY -- Prince (Paisley Park): After the mostly one- man approach of last year's "Sign O' the Times," Prince has taken most of his latest touring band into the studio and come up with another expansive, varied and thought-provoking record; like "Sign," it's long on artistic ambition, but it may end up short on hit singles. It certainly has a controversial angle; last December, Prince was supposed to release "The Black Album," a sexually explicit, hard funk record that would have carried a warning sticker because of lyrical content. Prince himself pulled the album back, but bootleg copies from England have been circulating in the states.
"Lovesexy," the Minneapolis prodigy's 10th release, is tamer by comparison, though there are still plenty of ear-catching sexual references and a nude shot of Prince on the cover (naughty bits hidden, thank you). But that's just one part of another lyrically enigmatic record -- something Prince specializes in -- that also includes religious overtones and anti-drug references; "The reason my voice is so clear is there's no smack in my brain," he raps at the start of the album. And during "Dance On," he urges teenage drug pushers to "get your money straight."
All this is laid atop another of Prince's musical pastiches, a mixture of styles he's taken a step further this time. A wide group of musical colors -- house-style funk, high-tech synthesizers, Eastern flavorings, hard rock guitar, late '60s psychedelia, rap, jazz saxophone lines and explosions of brass -- are splashed through each song, blurring and blending stylistic divisions. This sometimes leads to excess -- such as "Positivity," the record's long closing track -- but Prince uses it mostly to his benefit on songs like "I-No," "Alphabet Street," "Anna Stesia," "Dance On" and the title track. Due in stores Tuesday, "Lovesexy" may take some time for listeners to get a handle on, but the process is certainly enjoyable and worth the effort.
-- GARY GRAFF
Tuesday, May 10, 1988
By JONATHAN TAKIFF, Daily News Staff Writer
He's always been a controversial figure, a brilliant media manipulator. But this spring, Prince has outdone himself, priming the promotion pump like it's never been primed before.
Much fuss has been made about the "unauthorized" release of his ''black" album, another set of dreamy songs in the neo-Beatles mode of Prince's 1985 "Paisley Park." Originally scheduled for late winter release, the "black" album was pressed, then pulled back by the artist - possibly because this fashion-watcher feared that the LP's psychedelic style was again becoming passe.
Still, advance copies of the "black" LP have been circulated, bootlegged, reviewed (favorably) by the trade press and in recent weeks even played on some California radio stations, teasing the heck out of Prince's fans.
Now, the heat gets turned up with the authorized release of his ''Lovesexy" album hitting record stores today. It's guaranteed to keep the Prince of rock and soul in the center of controversy all summer long.
Just get a gander at that cover shot! Wearing only his birthday suit and a faraway gaze, Prince is posing in the classic vamp style of a Vargas fantasy girl, with hands and knees discreetly covering his privates.
But unlike those Playboy magazine sex objects, the Prince of Purple Passion isn't just teasing. Hot-blooded lyrics and jack-hammer rhythms leave little to the imagination on this recording. "Jerk your body like a horny pony would," squeals Prince on the first single from the set, "Alphabet Street." "You want me to swim in your love seed," he murmurs in the title track. "Have U ever wanted 2 play with someone so much U'd take any one, boy or girl?" he asks leadingly in "Anna Stesia."
None of this stuff should shock longtime fans. Prince has been running around in his underwear, simulating sex acts on stage, for almost a decade. And he's always let it hang out in panting, lascivious lyrics that give the Parents Music Resource Center plenty of fuel for their anti-rock crusade.
"Lovesexy" is not without its redeeming sense of social consciousness, though. Prince's basic contention is that sexiness is next to godliness, when the act is an expression of love. Even when it's not heavenly, sex still beats a lot of other vices, such as war, alcohol and drugs.
"Welcome to the new power generation," he declares at the opening to ''No," the LP's leadoff track. "The reason my voice is so clear is there's no smack in my brain." Later, he sings, 'Say no, if U want a drug other than the God above . . . Say yes, if U want this feeling called love."
Musically speaking, it's easy to see why Prince has opted to market ''Lovesexy" over the "black" album. The frantic, fresh sonic soup he's swigging here is sure hip to what's happening in the street.
"Alphabet Soup," "Lovesexy" and "Dance On" woosh by on a bed of rap- style disc scratching and electronic drum rhythms, blended with the heartbeat of Prince's bright electro-pop keyboards and rock guitar.
"Lovesexy" and "No" are strong in the vogue of Chicago-style House music - arranged with bluesy horns riding high on a rubbery funk bottom. James Brown, look out!
And for them that dig the Prince of production at his most grandiose, the Indian-flavored raga rock of "Gran Slam," anthem glory of "Anna Stesia" and multi-layered changes of "Positivity" will slay 'ya and (kama) sutra.