When you look up any artist in Apple Music they’ll give you a list of that artist’s “Essential Albums.” Most people have one or two, if any. Prince has five. 1980’s Dirty Mind. 1982’s 1999. 1984’s Purple Rain. 1986’s Parade. 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times. I suppose they can’t call every Prince album essential. They have to draw the line somewhere. I also can’t speak personally about the impact Prince’s early work had on the pop culture landscape because I was too young. In my opinion, Apple’s list is missing 1981’s Controversy.
Controversy slightly reined in the nastiness that made Dirty Mind so…dirty…and instead pulled back the curtain a little bit more on who exactly this Prince guy was. The incredible title track addresses some of that head on. Later in the album we hear “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” and “Annie Christian,” songs the likes of which Prince hadn’t released on his prior three albums. Everyone knew at that point Prince could bring the sexy with the best of them. We had heard very little about his social or political views.
That’s not to say that Controversy doesn’t bring the sex. “Do Me, Baby” is practically an eight-minute recording of Prince fornicating. “Jack U Off” is exactly what you’d expect based on the title. Even the upbeat post-disco dance floor song “Private Joy” has some nasty behind it. None of it is quite as explicit or shocking as “Head” or “Sister” from Dirty Mind, but there’s little – if any – dropoff in quality.
Planted firmly in the center of the Prince venn diagram that includes the categories social awareness and sex is “Sexuality.” “Sexuality” was the fourth single from Controversy. Prince performs all instruments and vocals on the song. The song opens with Prince’s signature “OWWWWA” screamed several times over an infectious beat. The bass and guitar follow, making this yet another early Prince funk classic. Prince uses the song to call for a sexual revolution. He’s looking for a world where people are free to be what they want to be.
Based on the title we’re led to believe he’s singing solely about sex, but the lyrics lead me to believe Prince is looking for something bigger than that. Here are the lyrics to the second verse:
C’mon everybody, yeah, this is your life
I’m talking about a revolution we gotta organize
We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race
New age revelation, I think we got a case
He follows that up with a repeated call for “reproduction of a new breed. Leaders, stand up, organize.” Did I mention that this is all sung over an outstanding funk/dance beat? Prince was amazing. That’s not to say that all is perfect on “Sexuality.” As the song continues Prince starts talking about “a world overrun by tourists with 89 flowers on their backs,” and how if children are “in the company of tourists, alcohol, and US history” they’ll be absolutely nothing. The train wobbles for a bit, but never comes completely off the rails. He does lose me a little bit. Maybe it made more sense in 1981.
Then there’s also a video to unpack. Like every Prince video pre-Purple Rain it’s a staged live performance with the band. Unlike his earlier videos, you get a lot of Prince’s personality in the “Sexuality” video. A lot of over-the-top facial expressions while he continuously addresses the camera. I was a big fan of Prince’s Controversy-era hair. It was mid-transition from his early long flowing hair and his 1999/Purple Rain Elvis Presley pompadour. We’ve established that he’s already got the cool hair and charisma going in this video. Then there’s the outfit. He’s taken the Dirty Mind trenchcoat, leggings, and bikini bottom look and added a tuxedo shirt, tie, and vest. If you’re not paying close attention it actually looks tame for Prince. Then you realize you can see all of his ass and legs.
Finally, there’s the neon green laser effect in the background, which I can’t help but think is some kind of reference to Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” video. In the MJ video he’s smiling away carelessly and dancing around in a sparkly, skin tight body suit. Prince gets up in front of the same green light and starts ripping off his clothes and fucking the camera with his eyes while he sings about how he’s going to let his body be free. I could be way off, but it feels to me like a blatant attempt by Prince to say, “This Michael Jackson dude and I are not the same guy.” Or, maybe they just liked the same green lasers, but I doubt it.
“Sexuality” is essential Prince and one of his best pre-1999 songs. He’s adding some personality to the sex while he continues to progress as a musician. I highly recommend it and the entire Controversy album to anyone unfamiliar with early Prince. Apple Music might not consider it essential, but I strongly disagree.