Is there anything to say about the Purple Rain album that hasn’t already been said? Let’s see…
Listening to the album as a 14-year-old, I was struck by the fact that no song sounded like anything I had heard before. Only “Take Me With U” and “Baby I’m A Star” were even describable to me. They could at least be placed loosely into existing categories: the perfectly crafted pop duet and the celebratory funk jam. Everything else seemed to arrive from another planet. This must have made Warner Brothers nervous. “It’s like nothing else on the radio today” may sound great to rock critics, but it gives A&R executives heartburn.
Remarkably, these songs haven’t become any less unique over time. There is still only one “The Beautiful Ones,” one “Darling Nikki” and one “When Doves Cry.” These songs were not just unique; they were inimitable, no matter how hard ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons worked to master the opening riff of “When Doves Cry.” The songs all knew how to make an entrance, too. When any of these songs comes up on shuffle, I know everyone reading this can identify them in a second or two.
If you were faced with the impossible task of defining Prince by one song, you could do a lot worse than “Let’s Go Crazy,” which features many different facets of the artist. It’s a rock song, but it’s undeniably funky. It has the characteristics of a great pop song, but it breaks pop rules all throughout. It’s about Heaven. Or sex. Or living for the moment. Or drugs. Or death. Or mental health. Or partying. Or the rapture. Lyrically, it’s both straightforward (“in this life, you’re on your own”) and cryptic (“look for the purple banana”). Regardless of what your personal interpretation is, you’re out of breath when the song ends.
Follow up “Let’s Go Crazy” with the irresistible “Take Me With U” and you can clearly see the potential for a blockbuster album. But Prince did not take the easy road to 20 million record sales. The album had only nine tracks, and he closed out the first side of the album with three consecutive eclectic songs that weren’t radio-friendly. Slippery When Wet didn’t have a “The Beautiful Ones,” Like A Virgin didn’t have a “Computer Blue,” and Thriller most certainly didn’t have a “Darling Nikki.”
“The Beautiful Ones” builds on everything that made the second disc of 1999 so compelling: the Linn drum machine, the Oberheim synths, and the sexual/romantic frustration that violently swings from self-pity to rage. But it marks a huge leap forward in terms of execution, maturity and, in particular, restraint. The track is spacious; it has plenty of room for guitars, background vocals or anything else in Prince’s tool belt. By this point, he had learned that less can be more, however, and so many of his greatest moments (“When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” “Sign O’ The Times”) would be defined as much by what is missing as by what is featured. This restraint builds the tension to an unbearable pitch in “The Beautiful Ones,” and when the impassioned vocals and guitar licks finally kick in, the payoff is exquisite.
The lyrics are straightforward for the most part, centered around the lines “is it him or is it me?” and “the beautiful ones, they hurt you every time.” Although the lyric that vaults the song towards its emotional conclusion (and the lyric that was broadcast to the crowd to introduce the song on the Purple Rain Tour) is “the beautiful ones, you always seem to lose.” I’ve always interpreted this lyric as a “I am okay; I just feel sorry for you” pivot, one that is hard to pull off when the relationship has literally floored you.
I’m probably exaggerating the significance of this lyric; maybe he just needed a rhyme for “confused.” Or maybe Prince himself is “the beautiful one” and he’s “singing to a mirror” a la “Cream.” His unfinished autobiography was tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones, for what it’s worth.
Then, all of sudden, Prince appeared in a gold-and-purple-striped pajama suit and told the crowd he was working on an upcoming memoir, which will be released next year by Spiegel & Grau. “It’s going to be called The Beautiful Ones,” he said, before asking the audience: “You all still read books, right?”
I miss that man more and more each day. But I digress…
There was no such restraint on “Computer Blue,” as Prince tossed a double album’s worth of guitar ideas at this track. At the heart of it is a lovely lyrical riff based on “Father’s Song,” which was written by Prince’s real-life father, and played on the piano by his onscreen father in Purple Rain. You may not hear people humming “Computer Blue” in line at the supermarket, but the song is a great example of Prince’s virtuosity on guitar.
For the casual fan, the first 14 seconds of the track have endured if nothing else. The opening drumbeat is infectious, and for 32 years, I’ve unconsciously rapped it out whenever I’ve knocked on a door. If you hear “bum, bum-bum, bum-bum-bum, bum-bum,” don’t worry, it’s just me. And, of course, the indulgent “is the water warm enough?” intro is burned into a lot of brains. If you go to the mall this afternoon and call out “Wendy?” as if you’re looking for a friend, at least one person will mutter “yes, Lisa” as they walk by.
As a 14-year-old, I found the robotic lesbian hygiene of “Computer Blue” strangely titillating. Which isn’t saying much: as a 14-year-old, I found pretty much everything strangely titillating. The matronly brassiere ads in the Sears catalog might as well have been Deep Throat. But shockingly, I didn’t find “Darling Nikki” to be particularly alluring.
Those of you who were around in 1984 remember how earthshaking “Darling Nikki” was. Before the internet, America wasn’t constantly distracted by new scandals and could really sink its teeth into a single impropriety. The shocking lyrics of “Darling Nikki” combined with the massive popularity of Purple Rain caused a huge uproar. It was as if Oliver North and Tammy Faye Bakker made a sex tape with a 2 Live Crew soundtrack, and it’s the reason we even know the phrase “Parental Advisory” today.
And somehow, I was unmoved. Prince has released a hundred sultry sex jams, and I’m sure there are a hundred more in The Vault. Most of them would make you blush even if they had no lyrics. By the time you hear the opening piano fill of “Do Me, Baby,” you know what you’re in for, assuming you had any doubts about a song called “Do Me, Baby” in the first place. But you wouldn’t turn the lights off, strike a candle, and play “Darling Nikki.” (Well, most of you wouldn’t.) The music is daring and brilliant, but it is intentionally cold and antiseptic to match the disturbing lyrics. And those lyrics left me more confused than aroused. I had questions.
Was Nikki looking at a magazine while she amused herself in the hotel lobby, or was she, um, using the magazine somehow? And why does she live in a castle? And wait… did Prince have to sign a waiver? Like the one my mom signed for me at the water park?
The ferocious stage-humping performance in Purple Rain probably didn’t help.
Call me old fashioned, but in my day, we would at least take a venue out to dinner a few times before we made sweet, gentle love to it. While Prince was hammering away at the stage, I sat in the movie theater watching like…
Digressing again. Sorry.
All in all, this is a stunningly challenging series of tracks at the heart of a blockbuster album, not even considering the backmasked prayer that concludes Side One. Side Two was just as remarkable, but exponentially more accessible. We’ll talk about it soon.