They said it couldn’t be done but here I am standing triumphantly at the mountaintop. This is the final post in a 10-post series. If you missed the earlier posts and would like to read them, here they are:
Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
I’ve had a lot of friends and relatives come to me at some point in the past 10-15 years and say, “When did you get so crazy about Prince? I don’t remember you listening to Prince.” Where do I start…
A few weeks back when I wrote my first post about my ten most influential albums, I mentioned my earliest memories of listening to music. The two artists I mentioned were Duran Duran and Michael Jackson. There was a third at that time. From the moment I saw Prince strutting around on a soundstage in his purple sequined trench coat singing “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” (the videos are identical) sometime in late-82/early-83 I was certain he was the coolest person I had ever seen. He slid down some kind of fireman’s pole, did the splits multiple times, and had a guitarist (Dez Dickerson) that I thought looked like California Angels 1st baseman Rod Carew (he didn’t…but I was six years old and had never actually seen a black person in my life). What wasn’t to like? He sang about cars and a distant future where the sky was purple…or so I thought at the time. I loved it. The first record I remember owning was a 45 of “Little Red Corvette” that my mom bought me at Shopko. My older brother must’ve felt the same way because he ended up getting the album. He promptly returned it to my parents when he realized it was something he shouldn’t be listening to. In my mind at that time, if he shouldn’t, I shouldn’t either. I mostly stayed away. I knew two Prince songs and that was it. Soon Michael Jackson took Prince’s place in my young heart.
Not long after that Prince resurfaced and upped the ante with Purple Rain. I don’t know what drew me to Prince at eight years old. He was crawling naked out of bathtub. He wore makeup and strange outfits and had doves flying all over the place. Honestly, I wouldn’t have cared what he looked like if I thought the music sucked, but I do remember thinking those videos were the shit. I loved the music, even though I didn’t understand any of it. I got my hands on a Purple Rain cassette somehow and listened to it like crazy. I didn’t have a clue what “Darling Nikki” was about, but I didn’t care because I usually skipped what I considered to be “the weird songs” anyway. In my opinion, the weird songs were “The Beautiful Ones,” “Computer Blue,” and “Darling Nikki.” Once again, the lack of age-appropriate content was the only thing stopping me from full-fledged Prince fandom. Everyone on MTV was talking about the R-rated movie Purple Rain and there was no way I was seeing that anytime soon.
Fun side note: Now that I’ve purified myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka and seen Purple Rain countless times it’s funny to me that the songs that were supposed to be The Kid’s experimental shit that Billy the club owner hated are the same songs I identified as “the weird songs” as an 8-year-old.
For the next 6-8 years it was like that with Prince and me. An album would come out, I’d fall in love with the singles, but never owned the albums. I was finally able to purchase Diamonds and Pearls in high school, but by that time the quality wasn’t at the same level as peak mid-80’s Prince. Like the rest of the world at that time, I fell in love with hip hop instead, and Prince became a fun childhood memory for me similar to Duran Duran or Hall & Oates.
If you read my previous posts, you know what came next. D’Angelo took over from 1995 until my obsession with Voodoo finally began to subside slightly sometime around 2002. When it became clear that it was going to be a long wait for more D’Angelo and I was bored with everything else in music that wasn’t Soulquarian-related, I decided to start digging into D’Angelo’s influences. It didn’t take long to discover that D frequently referenced Prince as an inspiration of his. Listen to “Untitled” once and the influence is obvious. He also told tales of having to hide Prince records from a disapproving father. I wonder what percentage of Prince fans my age had to hide music from disapproving fathers. 80%? Also, as a father of three now I must say in defense of fathers everywhere, they had every right to be disapproving.
During this same time period I was also being sent to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, with some frequency for work. I realize that this is a hard left turn at this point in the story, but just follow me on this one. It’ll make sense. Every September/October for a few years in the early-2000’s I would spend a few weeks living in the Rhinelander Holiday Inn Express. I would work at a jobsite from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM (occasionally longer) seven days a week for 2-3 weeks. It was a lonely gig. As you can imagine, the office/IT guy is not the most popular guy at the construction jobsite. I’d sit in the trailer all day entering timecards, working in Access databases, and doing whatever else they needed. At 5:00 PM, I’d get a turkey sub at Subway and go back to my hotel room to play Madden until 10:00 PM. Exciting!
There was always a radio on in the job trailer and they had a surprisingly solid pop radio station in Rhinelander. Or maybe it was Wausau. Doesn’t matter. They played a lot of current pop hits and mixed in hits of the 80’s and 90’s. A lot of stations go too heavy on the new shit or just go all in on the classics. This station found a nice balance. It didn’t take me long to realize that my favorite part of the day was the 2-3 times they’d play something by Prince. It was time for me to revisit Prince and discover what D’Angelo loved so much about him. I made an extra stop after Subway one night at Rhinelander Wal-Mart – the only store I knew of in Rhinelander where one could purchase CD’s. They had exactly the Prince albums you’d expect: The Very Best of Prince, Purple Rain, and 1999. I purchased them all. My first listen was the Best of album and I discovered a few songs I missed over the years. Specifically, “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” and “Alphabet St.” Then I jumped into Purple Rain, an album with which I was familiar, but hadn’t listened to thoroughly in at least 15 years. Not only was it better than I remembered, but the “weird songs” I skipped as a child were amazing. What was I thinking skipping those songs so many years ago? Admittedly “The Beautiful Ones” is heavy for an 8-year-old. While I enjoyed this trip down memory lane refamiliarizing myself with Prince, there wasn’t anything particularly revelatory about those albums. They were a Prince refresher.
Finally, I sampled the forbidden fruit of my youth: 1999. That album was eye opening. Yes, I knew the first two tracks, “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” I also vaguely recalled “Delirious” from hearing it occasionally as a youngster. Then shit got good. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” was funky, filthy as hell, and immediately solved the 20-year mystery of why my brother voluntarily relinquished his Prince record. I sympathize with any 10-year-old that had to grapple mentally with hearing Prince say, “I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth.” “D.M.S.R.” is an 8-minute epic and I can’t believe I didn’t hear it until I was in my mid-20’s. That song should’ve been rocking every party. “Automatic” is 9:28 of freaky precision. Freaky because of the tightest drum beat of all-time, but also because of the lyrical content. I could continue, but you get the point. Nearly every song on that album was bringing something completely different to the table, and they were all great.
Listening to 1999 made me realize that there was a lot of Prince outside of the 20 songs on his Best of album that I was missing. I started going both directions chronologically. 1999 was released in 1982 and was my intro to Prince, but it was his fifth album. Hearing legendary early albums like Controversy and Dirty Mind for the first time made me realize how groundbreaking he really was. I can’t imagine how the world reacted to a song like “Head” in 1980. I was not even five years old at the time and was completely unaware. Purple Rain was released in 1984, but he continued releasing albums every single year. I had only heard one or two songs from each of them. We all know “Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” and “U Got the Look.” The lesser-known singles and album cuts from the mid-80’s might have been my favorite part of my Prince discovery. I was routinely having my mind blown by songs like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and “Mountains” more than 15 years after they were released. I continued to work my way through the 90’s, even attempting to get my hands on some of the NPG Music Club stuff that was only available online; an idea that seemed completely insane at the time, but in hindsight, was revolutionary.
Prince is a lot of things to a lot of people. Most obviously think of Purple Rain when they think of Prince. Some swear by Parade, Sign O’ the Times, or even Lovesexy. I can see the argument for Dirty Mind as well. To me 1999 was Prince at his…Princiest? His first big hits came from that album. He wasn’t a household name just yet. 1999 had peak funk and nastiness. The instantly recognizable Prince Linn Drum sound (or, what I used to simply call the Prince drum until I discovered that it actually had a name) started on this album. I’m not going to say 1999 is my favorite Prince album. I’m not going to say that it’s not, either. That really depends on how I’m feeling on any given day. It is the one that opened me up to what feels like a bottomless well of Prince music.
One more thought on Prince and D’Angelo before I finish. They are easily my two favorite artists. I frequently get lost thinking about how two people can be similarly brilliant yet have completely different approaches. Prince released 39 studio albums from 1978 – 2015. Many of them double and triple albums. It’s hard to get a grasp on the exact number of songs that is, especially when you start getting into singles with B-sides, live albums, remixes, etc. I’m not even talking about “the vault” yet. Just the stuff he released during his lifetime. I’ve read enough books about the man to know that he could’ve released so much more but held it back because of record label constraints. He had to create other bands and aliases just to get his music out. Imagine how Prince’s career would’ve been different if SoundCloud existed in 1983. My point is, Prince was constantly creating and couldn’t wait to get his music out in to the world. The traditional record labels couldn’t contain him. He was a pioneer of music streaming and downloads in the late-90’s.
Then there’s D’Angelo. Three studio albums in 25 years. One live album. A few appearances on soundtracks in the late-90’s. Where Prince would crank out a new song every day during some stretches in his career, D’Angelo seems paralyzed by his pursuit of perfection. Both approaches have their flaws. Prince released music he knew wasn’t up to his standards to get out of a record deal. D’Angelo’s discography is as close to perfect as one can get, but his average of one album every eight years drives fans like me crazy. Should Prince have been more judicious about the music he was releasing? Should D’Angelo lower his standards a bit to satisfy fans? Who am I to tell an artist when his or her work is done? I appreciate their different approaches equally. Their unique processes are a part what makes them who they are. I wouldn’t change a damn thing.
So there it is. My ten most influential albums. We started with Michael Jackson in 1983, added some hip hop, R&B, jazz, soul, funk, and ended up back in 1982 with Prince. The most recent album on this list is 20 years old. That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been music that I’ve loved in the past 20 years. The Roots, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Common, Amy Winehouse, Justin Timberlake, Janelle Monae, Childish Gambino, Rapsody, and Anderson .Paak have given me more than enough amazing music for a lifetime during this millennium. But, when I think of the music that influenced me as a person or just as a fan of music, you have to go back a bit further.
One final point I’ve found over the past several years, especially since becoming a vinyl collector: I continue to say that right now is the best time to be a music fan. I know it’s easy to get bummed out by the state of music, especially when you’re drifting further and further away from that target age for popular music like I am. I continue to believe that as bad as you might find the current music landscape, you’re just not looking hard enough. There’s someone out there making music you’d like, you’re just looking in the wrong places. With so many streaming services it’s easier to discover good music than it ever was. I used to pay $10 for one CD and wouldn’t know if it was any good until after I bought it. Now for $10/month and an internet connection you have the entire history of music at your fingertips. If you can’t find something new, do what I did. Take an artist you do like, find out who influenced them and start exploring. When I got tired of the current music I was hearing that approach led me to legends like Prince, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Ahmad Jamal, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock…the list goes on. Don’t be the person complaining about how the radio sucks. You’re not trying hard enough.
Thanks for reading!