How does one shed new light on a piece of artwork as brilliant and timeless as Prince’s 1985 masterpiece “Raspberry Beret?” Here’s my take:
For months now on the Daily Prince posts I’ve had a recurring topic. I believe it was most prevalent when I wrote about “Darling Nikki” back in mid-May. If I’m going to compare Prince songs and rate them, is it possible to rate them purely based on their music and rule out popularity and cultural relevance? It’s difficult to make the argument that “Darling Nikki” is better than “Purple Rain” simply because everyone knows “Purple Rain” and only Prince fans know “Darling Nikki.”
I’ve put a lot of thought in to this topic for reasons that escape me. These are just the topics that race through my brain while I’m lying awake at night or while driving my truck. I believe the the main factor in my struggle to ignore the popularity of one of his songs when rating them is that I’ve known the hits for most of my life. If you’ve been reading this blog long enough you know that I first heard Prince when I was six or seven years old and fell in love with “Little Red Corvette.” At that age I couldn’t go to the record store and buy 1999, but I sure as hell would sit by the boom box and wait for “Little Red Corvette” to play on WIXX.
I always loved Prince’s music growing up, but I only heard the hits. Never had the albums because I simply couldn’t get them. By the time I was old enough to choose the music I was listening to and had a few bucks to buy the occasional CD, Prince’s popularity had waned and I had moved on to 90’s hip hop and R&B. It wasn’t until about 2001 that I really dove deep in to Prince’s discography and discovered everything he had done throughout his career. So, with that in mind I’ll go back to the comparison I made earlier. How can I argue that “Darling Nikki” is better than “Purple Rain” when I can vividly remember watching MTV at my grandma’s house as an eight year old just waiting for the video for “Purple Rain” to come on? “Darling Nikki” is relatively new to me by comparison and by the time I fell in love with the song it had been nearly 20 years since it peaked in popularity. I don’t have those childhood “Darling Nikki” memories, and that’s probably a good thing, right?
The way I deal with this internal conflict is simple: I have a mental list of my favorite Prince hits, and another list of my favorite deep cuts, album cuts, or whatever you want to call them. It’s not like I have them down on paper or anything, but by the time I’m done writing this Daily Prince blog I might, since I’m assigning scores to all of these songs for some reason. If you put a gun to my head right now and said, “What are your favorite Prince songs?” first off, why would you do that to me? Second, in some order my answer would be something like “The Beautiful Ones,” “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” “17 Days,” “Computer Blue (Hallway Speech Version),” and “Mountains.” When you rightfully reply that I’m an ostentatious douchebag for picking a bunch of songs you’ve likely never heard and demand that I pick some songs you know, then I’d say, “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Gett Off,” “7,” and “Raspberry Beret.”
In fact, of all of Prince’s “hits” I’d call “Raspberry Beret” my favorite. I put the word “hits” in quotes because I’m not sure where the line is drawn, especially with someone like Prince. For instance, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” hit #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart but would most people call it one of Prince’s hits? For most artists that would be a career maker. For Prince it’s an afterthought…and apparently it was re-made by Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block in the late-90’s?!? Oh, the crazy shit you can learn from Google! I better alert my wife. Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that I was originally going to say that of all of Prince’s #1 songs, “Raspberry Beret” is my favorite. Guess what? “Raspberry Beret” somehow never hit #1. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 but was boxed out of the #1 spot by Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill.” Man, I must’ve been happy as hell that week in 1985 because I loved that song, too. Duran Duran was the shit. “A View to a Kill” was a motherfucker but it was no “Rio.”
Now that I’ve established that “Raspberry Beret” is on my short list of favorite Prince songs, let me explain why. Yes, of course, the music is amazing, but “Raspberry Beret” is Exhibit A for me in the argument that Prince wasn’t just a virtuoso on multiple instruments, but also a brilliant songwriter/lyricist. Have you ever heard a more artful tale of someone losing his/her virginity? We all know Prince can paint a nasty picture if he wants to and he’d done more than anyone’s fair share of that by 1985. Instead the guitar and sex god we all loved from 1999 and Purple Rain flipped it on us. He added some lovely strings and started singing in great detail about a girl who walked in through the out door. He sings “I think I love her” about a girl who “wasn’t too bright, but I could tell when she kissed me she knew how to get her kicks.” Prince claimed the song wasn’t autobiographical and there’s no reason not to believe him, but when he sings lines like, “rain sounds so cool when it hits the barn roof and the horses wonder who you are,” it feels too specific to be made up. Prince paints a vivid picture with his lyrics on “Raspberry Beret” like few others ever could.
Here’s my final thought on “Raspberry Beret.” I’ve heard many talk about how Prince’s music changed after Purple Rain. How he tired of everything Purple Rain-related and had moved on. I’ve done it myself on this site. People cite “Raspberry Beret” as an example of this shift. As it turns out, Prince actually originally recorded it in April of 1982 before he even recorded “1999” or “Little Red Corvette,” much less his hits from Purple Rain. The version of “Raspberry Beret” we all know and love from his Around the World in a Day album was recorded in September of 1984, but his first recording of it took place three years before it became a hit. I have scoured the internet (as much as I’m willing to safely, anyway) for the original version of “Raspberry Beret” but was unable to find it. I’d love to compare it to the one that was released.
“Raspberry Beret” is a classic. A pop music masterpiece. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite songs of all-time. If you don’t like it, I’ll probably have to fight you.