In the wake of Prince’s death, Worldmusicfests’s staffers and contributors are looking back on some of their favorite albums by the beloved icon. Check back this week to relive the Beautiful Ones with us.
Prince didn’t go around endorsing Bob Seger, yet he’s why the Detroit legend warrants a mention in 2016. The legend goes that Prince saw Seger thrilling arenas and wondered why his Silver Bullet Band was so popular. “Well,” Revolution keyboardist Dr. Fink told him, “he’s playing mainstream pop-rock.” It was safe — America loves good-ole-boy rockers.
Back then, Prince had only recently broken through with 1982’s 1999, and although “Little Red Corvette” was one of the first videos to bust MTV’s racial barrier, Prince wasn’t the Purple One yet. He still had the backhanded distinction of being an “urban musician,” which is really a roundabout way of saying, You get the black audience, which is cool, but you’re not quite good enough for the white majority.
The tidbit about Seger led to “Purple Rain,” an arena-filling climax that now doubles as Prince’s eulogy. The desire to make such an anthem symbolized Prince’s ambition; it’s roughly the ’80s equivalent to the “stadium-status” vision that marked Kanye West’s jump from Late Registration to the (coincidentally?) purple-hued Graduation. It was the world or nothing for Prince: He, an “urban act,” demanded a movie deal before re-signing with his managers, then made a soundtrack that blended icy studio technology with gospel messaging, and melded the funk with soul-burning guitar solos.
Most people fail when they make such a leap. Imagine a staircase in the dark and reaching for that extra step — some sprain their ankle, but not Prince. The stuffy execs went all in after Purple Rain killed it at the box office nationwide. The soundtrack became and remains the most important album in Prince’s catalog. “The best” is subjective: You’ll see that superlative move from Dirty Mind, to Controversy, to 1999, to Sign o’ the Times, to the Love Symbol Album. His number of credible “best albums” proves that Prince was a chameleonic genius. But his mythology actually starts with his sixth album, Purple Rain.
The color purple became a feeling, a shared experience in 1984. Despite the three decades of platitudes and the creative ambition that warrants them, it’s worth noting that very rarely does Purple Rain feel overwrought with any sense of forced gravitas. This is an album packed with dense production (the intricate overdubs, tight drum machine patterns, indelible synths), virtuoso musicianship, and Christian ideology. But the whole record feels weightless, whirring in perpetual suspension. Fans of Purple Rain’s genius were addicted to that gossamer quality. Sure, the lyrics to “When Doves Cry” read melodramatically on paper — but with Prince, it’s less about biography than it is about whether your hips are ready. On “The Beautiful Ones,” his falsetto and screeches sweeten and writhe in the keys’ airy ecstasy. “I Would Die 4 U” has some of Purple Rain’s most blatant Prince-as-messiah imagery, but the bridge’s beautiful riff blankets the preaching with a melody of indelible, innate joy.
The running theme throughout Purple Rain is ascension. Every song centers around some voyage toward a spiritual or sensual climax. Even “Darling Nikki,” grounded by lust, ends in a backmasked mini-sermon. The album’s intro, “Let’s Go Crazy,” promises a biblical post-corporeal journey, and the closing masterpiece’s baptismal actualizes that promise. You could feel that in the throngs of mass singalongs — congregations, really — the night Prince died. “Purple Rain,” like the rest of the album, epitomizes Prince’s career-long thesis, linking spiritual purity and bodily orgasms as synonymous rather than contradictions. “The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other,” Touré recently wrote in The New York Times, “but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one.”
And he did this while simultaneously becoming a centripetal force in mainstream culture. Purple Rain went 13 times platinum and the movie pulled in nearly $70 million in the box office. Prince levitated over that extra step in the dark and brought us along with him.