In the words of Ice Cube, today was a good day. I got the kids ready for school, had my bowl of Cheerios, watched the new Ted Lasso, and then killed time until 10:00 AM. By the way, if you’re not watching Ted Lasso on AppleTV+, do yourself a favor and drop the $5 for a subscription so you can watch the best show currently on TV. Anyway…
10:00 AM is the time my local record store, The Exclusive Company, opens on a Friday. By 9:45 I was literally pacing around my house. Why? If you haven’t been paying attention, today is Sign ‘O’ The Times Super Deluxe Edition Day! This is better than Record Store Day. No offense to RSD, a holiday that I truly love, but there’s never been a RSD record that I awaited with the same anticipation as this. Finally a remaster of SOTT and dozens of vault tracks, too?!? This might be the best box set of all time. Actually, what am I saying? Of course it’s the best box set of all time. So, back to my dilemma. What time should I leave? I really don’t want to be standing at the door when they open like a psycho, but what if they only have one copy and I somehow miss it?
My timing was perfect as I arrived at 10:03 AM. Early enough to grab the only copy I saw on the shelf, but not so early that I looked crazy. In fact, there were two other customers already in the store when I walked in, so if anything, I was late. I walked around the store trying to casually flip through some other records while holding that monstrosity with one arm. Not sure if you’ve ever carried a 13-LP box set around before, but it’s not light or convenient to carry. After flipping through the jazz records looking for the new Bobby Hutcherson Blue Note Tone Poet record with no success, I decided I wasn’t kidding anyone. I didn’t need to buy any other records on this day. When I headed to the checkout the guy behind the counter said, “Wait, this set came in a cool box with a peace sign on it and I saved it. Let me grab it for you.” My mind immediately started picturing some cool packaging that would make for a good rare Prince collectible. Instead, it was literally just a cardboard box with two peace signs on it. Still…very cool gesture by the guy at the record store to grab it for me. Much appreciated.
Ten minutes later I was back in my house boring my wife to death, raving about the gorgeous packaging and the massive 125-page book full of pictures, stories, and liner notes. For the next few hours I geeked out on the floor with my new records like a kid on Christmas morning. I started at the beginning and listened to the original remastered SOTT even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times. It’s not like it ever gets old. The second set of LPs was the promo mixes and B-sides. I’ll admit, I finally got impatient and skipped a few minutes when I got to Side 2 of LP4 that featured over 15 minutes of “Hot Thing.”
Here’s where I was smart…or dumb…I haven’t decided. You tell me. LPs 5-10 are all vault tracks, and that’s what I’ve been drooling over for the past several months since this set was announced. How often do you get to listen to six LPs of unreleased Prince music from his prime? I want to savor and enjoy it. I only listened to LPs 5-6 today. I’m saving the rest. Instead I played them twice to familiarize myself with the new music. I know I have the rest of my life to listen to this “new” Prince music, but it’s only new to me once. I want to let this excitement last for at least another day. There was enough greatness in those two LPs to last a long time anyway. “Power Fantastic” is so good it’s almost tear inducing. “Can I Play With U?” features Miles fucking Davis and is every bit as cool as I hoped. “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” version with horns is every but as strange and jarring as I expected. The recently released “Witness 4 the Prosecution” which continues to get better with every listen. I just laid on my floor, read liner notes, and listened to Prince. What a wonderful day.
All I could think about while I listened was the greatness of Prince. I read an article by Mobeen Azhar on bbc.com wondering if SOTT is the greatest album of all time. I read Dave Chappelle’s stories about how Prince was an inspiration for him. Everything written in the book celebrated Prince’s legendary vision, drive, work ethic, creativity, and fearlessness. It’s not that I didn’t realize it before, but something about reading it while listening to dozens of songs that all came out of the mind of this one man in such a short amount of time struck me. We were so lucky to be here occupying the same planet as this otherworldly talent while he was here. I don’t believe we’ll ever see anything like him again. The landscape has changed too much. I don’t think another Prince is possible in 2020.
In the midst of all of this Prince merriment today it occurred to me that I needed to write something. I clicked the button on the old Prince Song Randomizer and it landed on “Controversy.” Speaking of something that’s not possible in 2020…
“Controversy” is the opening track to Prince’s 1981 album of the same title. Controversy was Prince’s fourth album sandwiched between his 1980 critical breakthrough Dirty Mind and his 1982 popular breakthrough 1999. Dirty Mind shocked the world with its suggestive lyrics coming from a 5′ 3″ light skinned black man in a trench coat, leggings, bikini briefs, and makeup. Prince was smart enough to take everything that made him scandalous and turn it in to a brilliant song.
“Controversy” is part funk, part new age, but the genre that comes to mind when I hear Prince music from this era is punk. I know “Controversy” doesn’t sound like punk in the way The Sex Pistols or The Clash do, but it has a punk sensibility. Prince was as anti-establishment as anyone. “Controversy” comes out of the gate asking, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” In the middle of the album version of the song Prince starts reciting The Lord’s Prayer. At the end of the song he repeats the chant, “People call me nude. I wish we all were nude. I wish there was not black and white I wish there were no rules.” This black dude in 1981 made a music video strutting around a stage made to look like a church with a stained glass window in bikini briefs and makeup taunting the world while reciting The Lord’s Prayer. I ask you: What has ever been more punk than that? Prince not only knew how to play damn near every instrument, how to write music, how to sing, and how to perform, he knew how to push people’s buttons and get their attention.
I have one other completely useless observation about “Controversy” that I’d like to share. I’ve been playing around with some DJ equipment in recent months. I’m not good at it…yet. My favorite thing to do is mess with the tempo on songs. “Controversy” is brilliant as is, and it already clocks in at 7:15, which is plenty long for most. However, if you simply drop the tempo down to 92 BPM but keep the pitch normal, I promise you it’s the funkiest thing you’ve ever heard. It also extends the song several minutes. “Controversy” is one of Prince’s finest works, but it’s incredible slowed down. When this COVID bullshit finally ends and we can get back to something resembling regular life, we’re having a gigantic party, I’m DJ’ing, and I’ll be playing my slowed down version of “Controversy.”
So, at the end of the day, not only have I had an amazing time listening to new Prince music, but I got to break down one of the best songs in Prince’s early career. “Controversy” is not only essential Prince, I believe it tells you everything you need to know about him at that time. Making genre-bending music and breaking all the rules. It’s one of Prince’s first truly brilliant pieces of work in a career full of them.
Before I go, one more thing: I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how Prince recorded enough music for multiple albums during the SOTT era. First there was the Dream Factory project he was working on with Wendy and Lisa in early 1986. When The Revolution disbanded, he created the Camille persona and eventually an entire album. Then he decided to combine the two in to a triple album called Crystal Ball that Warner Brothers asked him to edit down to a double album. The SOTT Super Deluxe Edition finally makes all of the music from these aborted albums available to us and I’ve created each one of them as playlists in Apple Music. Feel free to check each one of them out and get an idea of what Prince was working on in 1986 before he trimmed it down to arguably his greatest masterpiece, Sign O’ The Times. The only song missing is “Rockhard in a Funky Place” which appears on both Camille and Crystal Ball and ultimately ended up on The Black Album but isn’t available for streaming on Apple Music. Enjoy!
The first Prince record I bought was the US promo 12″ single of “Controversy” that I very stupidly got rid of a few years later since it was the same as the LP cut. Yeah, the one in the black cover. I used to hear it on WPRK-FM college radio and a year after seeing the videos for “Dirty Mind” And “Uptown” somewhere pre-MTV, I was convinced. His synthesis of Funk and New Wave was peerless. The only artist looking to Sly Stone and moving forward. Way forward. I may have to try that BMP trick and see what I think. Subtract the Punk speed from the Funk.
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