Monday, May 29, 2017

Purple Power Rankings #405-391: I Think My "Love Machine" is Broken...

405. Undisputed (Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, 1999)
--An old, uninspired Chuck D. laying down bars over synthesizers seemingly left untuned since the Controversy days. This one set the disappointing tone of the entire Rave album early on: Bring in an all-star cast, then don't let them do much of any importance. For his part, Prince brings in a boast about starting trends rather than following them, then saddles it with a Moses metaphor. Not the way to get back in touch with the streets.

404. Love Machine (Graffiti Bridge, 1990)
--Elisa Fiorillo's album I Am was criminally slept on. Her turn on this track as the vocal stunt double for Ingrid Chavez's drunken angel? Eh, not so much. Meanwhile, Morris Day and Jerome Benton get roped into being surrogate mouthpieces for Prince's "let's get this chick in a bubble bath" fetish. All three performers deserved better.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Purple Power Rankings #420-406: "Come" Already, Wouldja?

420. Push (Diamonds & Pearls, 1991)
--In which the Don of the Purple Mafia boasts about "snatchin' up kiddies like a circus clown" and uses "asunder" as a verb ("No man should asunder the joy that another man found"). I'm pretty certain both offenses could land one on a watch list of some sort. Much like on "Jughead," we get raps from Prince, Tony and Rosie, and finally Tony finds a beat on which he can outrhyme somebody. (Sorry, Rosie.)

419. The Arms of Orion (Batman Soundtrack, 1989)
--We just keep telling ourselves "it's from a movie." The problem with "Orion" is that it probably has less to do with its superhero source material than any other song on the Batman soundtrack. And very few of them have much direct connection in the first place. This one might have been more at home in a Disney flick.

418. Crazy You (For You, 1978)
--A ballad that casts into doubt some of the reputation of Prince's debut album. The production of For You went too long and cost too much, but "Crazy You" doesn't sound like it took much time at all. It's atmospheric, with some beautiful acoustic guitar work, but it's also a fragment. One clunky verse, one two-line chorus, and we're moving back to the dance floor. Thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Purple Power Rankings #433-421: Yes, "Poom Poom" is About What U Think It Is

"Hmm, tastes like...what was her name again?"
433. Until U're In My Arms Again (Newpower Soul, 1998)
--Aural diabetes. A ballad so saccharine, it would make Diane Warren puke.

432. My Little Pill (Old Friends 4 Sale, 1999)
--It's easy to look askance now at any reference to popping pills in Prince's music--and in his later years, there were many, even on otherwise upbeat tracks like "$". This leftover from the aborted I'll Do Anything soundtrack was probably the first, and it's easily the bleakest. This is what depression sounds like, and it was only slightly less disturbing then than it is now.

431. Somewhere Here on Earth (Planet Earth, 2007)
--Prince had an avowed distrust of cell phones, and it left him open to ridicule about continuing to reference obsolete technology ("In this digital age, U can just page me/I know it's the rage, but it just don't engage me"). The singer's Luddite tendencies aside, this cloying ballad simply ends up somewhere close to "Solo" in its overwrought attempts at emotion.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Purple Power Rankings #448-434: How U (Don't) Wanna Be Done

It's hard to question the methods and madness of genius. After all, theirs is a lane which most of us will never be capable of hitchhiking next to, never mind driving on.

Still, even Prince's most die-hard fans can point to the odd track that simply makes them ask, "Brother, what the hell were you thinkin'?" In a career that spanned almost 40 years and probably 1000 songs, released and unreleased by himself and others, there were bound to be several lapses of inspiration.

Even under the restrictive guidelines of this Project, there are quite a few royal missteps. With this inaugural edition of the Purple Power Rankings, we present the most egregious.

448. Tell Me How U Wanna Be Done (Crystal Ball, 1997)
--A pointless remix of the second half of Love Symbol's "The Continental." This was included on Crystal Ball while joints like "Electric Intercourse," "Neon Telephone" and "Wonderful Ass" were bypassed.

This was my most severe bone of contention with the Crystal Ball compilation, as "Dark" and "Pussy Control" also got retreaded with inferior remixes. But their originals rate near-classic status on my board, so they're more forgivable than this waste of time.

447. Wedding Feast (The Rainbow Children, 2001)
--This was aural Russian roulette, as Prince took the chance that his listeners wouldn't simply yank the CD and pitch it into the garbage once this operatic assault began. Points for the absurdist sense of humor ("Not just a vat of chitlins/Or turkey meat U C/We R what we eat/So we must eat a leaf"), but damn. Sticking around was a great reward ("Everlasting Now" and "Last December" are a tremendous closing pair), but how many survived Prince's channeling of Mel Brooks to get there? 

446. Orgasm (Come, 1993)
--"Private Joy"'s guitar line, crashing waves, and 10-year-old squeals from Vanity. Exhibit A for Come's cut-and-pasted reputation.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Get Yo Groove On (All of Them, In Fact): Prince's Songs and the Project

"Dearly beloved, we R gathered here 2day 2 get through..."

...what, exactly? What is this Purple Power Project?

As discussed before, it's an attempt to compare and contrast Prince's different eras and styles, tracking his evolution from doe-eyed charmer to fire-strumming sexual evangelist to label-baiting cypher to grown-and-still-sexy soul man. The central thrust (heh) of this effort will be the Purple Power Rankings, which are exactly what they sound like.

Various publications have done their top 50, 100, or whatever Prince tracks, but here we go all the way. These rankings will encompass ALL the unique songs (448 of them, give or take) from 36 official, widely-released Prince albums. This means:
  • The previously unreleased tracks and B-sides from The Hits are included, but other B-sides only found on their respective singles ("Rock & Roll is Alive," "Loveleft, Loveright," etc.) are not. These will likely be broached in their own separate post;
  • "Moonbeam Levels" is included thanks to its official release on 4Ever;
  • Remixes from other compilations, like Ultimate Prince, are not included; 
  • Remixes included on two different albums ("Funknroll," "Pussy Control," or "This Could B Us") are included, but "When 2 R in Love" is not included twice, since it was unchanged from The Black Album to Lovesexy;
  • NPG Music Club albums like The Slaughterhouse and The Chocolate Invasion are not included. Neither are N.E.W.S. or One Nite Alone...Live;
  • Crystal Ball and The Truth are included separately, despite the fact that the latter was not available separately in the shops. Kamasutra, however, is not included;
  • Goldnigga and Exodus are not included, since they're credited to the New Power Generation and lead vocals are mostly handled by Tony M. and Sonny T., respectively. New Power Soul, however, is included because it's a Prince album in all but name, with his picture on the front and his vocals on every track;
  • Albums by proteges like Sheila E., Jill Jones and The Time are not included, regardless of his level of creative input;
  • And finally, in case you're wondering, yes, the rankings will be revised on the fly once the Purple Rain remaster hits in June. The third disc of Vault gems like "Electric Intercourse" and "Father's Song" will be added.
We'll make the occasional diversion into other topics, to be sure, but everything will keep veering back to the Rankings (or the Big Board, as I'll sometimes refer to it). The current goal is to get out two posts per week, each about 10-15 songs deep. Tell your friends, because I need as many people as possible to keep me accountable.

So, we'll get started in a couple of days with my selections for Prince's 15 WORST songs. What are your picks?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Year Later: Even After His Death, Prince Remains the GOAT

Collage courtesy
I suppose it's appropriate for a new Prince-related site to launch with a simple sentiment of great significance to the purple faithful. And that sentiment is:

Welcome 2 the Dawn.

As I compose this post, we're closing in on midnight, bringing us to the one-year anniversary of the icon's transition to "the Afterworld," as he termed it in the indelible intro to "Let's Go Crazy." Celebrations of his life and legacy abound in Minnesota, locations all over the world, and on countless media outlets across the dial.

BET is blowing up its various platforms to pay tribute. Minnesota radio station The Current is devoting practically its entire weekend to his recordings. And of course, his devoted fam worldwide will be pulling out their favorite (or even least favorite, it's all good) albums and blasting them from the car speakers at maximum deciballs.

I got that last out of the way with a couple of runs through Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic earlier this week. Calling Rave, or any album, his weakest--more on that in time--is like calling Martha Hunt the least attractive Victoria's Secret Angel. You're still not going to find too many pieces of superior work on God's green purple Earth.

The hard part about evaluating one's favorite artist is finding the desire to avoid hyperbole, lest you come off as a slobbering fanboy/fangirl. I have a friend who considers 311 the greatest band of all time, a position which strikes me as exceedingly difficult to defend, but you do you, right? The thing with Prince is that I always refer to him as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time, for the acronym-challenged), and to my mind, that position is extremely easy to defend.

The purpose of the Purple Power Project is to do exactly that: defend the position of Prince as the greatest pure musical force in rock 'n' roll history, while simultaneously maintaining the self-awareness to point out those moments when he dropped the ball. Even Babe Ruth struck out from time to time, and Prince was a man much more concerned with prolific production than exhaustive quality control.

My second favorite artist of all time, George Michael (yes, 2016 TRULY sucked in terms of vanishing idols), was quoted after his passing as saying that Prince "didn't know how to edit himself." It sounds fairly harsh, but doesn't it occasionally ring true? Say, on the middle third of Chaos & Disorder?

That prolificity, however, is the very quality that separates Prince from all the other pretenders to the summit of rock's Mount Olympus. Think about this one simple test: How many individual musicians throughout history could you lock in a studio alone on a Friday night, then let them out on Monday morning and be handed a fully written, recorded and produced album?

John Lennon? Quite possible. Same with Paul McCartney.

Bob Dylan? Maybe.

Bruce Springsteen? Sure, but the album may just be stark acoustic guitar (see Nebraska).

Elvis? Shiiiiiiiiiit, no. He's on the Mount Rushmore of performers, but it took a village to build his extensive catalog.

Madonna? Michael Jackson? Not hardly.

For all the shit that hip-hop artists catch for not being "real musicians," Kanye West could damn sure crank out an album from scratch over a weekend, but even in such a producer-centric genre, he's an outlier. Maybe current performers like Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran could one day reach that level of productivity, but none of them will ever crank out genuinely interesting work with the staggering regularity that Prince managed in his prime.

Perhaps that's what hurts most in knowing that he died at such a comparatively young age. It took the Grim Reaper to dam that waterfall of sound.

We can't look forward to a potential collaboration with Kanye, Bruno or Kendrick, or a true studio duet with Beyonce.

We have to look backward, wondering what other scraps are in The Vault (capital letters deserved) and how they compare with the pieces that he did deem worthy of inclusion on some of his 32 (or 39, or 42, or even 51, depending on how broad your definition of the term "Prince album" may be) official releases.

"Not what I meant by Pussy Control, Donnie."
We can only imagine how a man who was already legendary for throwing epic shade would have aged into that unfiltered, zero-fucks-left-to-give state that makes you an asshole if you're under 70, but amusing once you pass it.

And perhaps most intriguing of all: How in the world would the sparingly political Prince have reacted on November 9 to the news that "President Donald Trump" was officially a thing?

As a white guy from Indiana who's pushing 40, I tend to get asked why I identify so intensely with Prince, as opposed to, say, fellow Hoosier homeboy John Mellencamp or Michigan neighbor Bob Seger.

It can't just be my age, because all three were doing yeoman work when I was coming up during the '80s, albeit with Seger on the downslope of his mainstream popularity. Besides, it may sound truly odd, but the song that first smacked me across the face and said, "PAY ATTENTION, DAMMIT!" wasn't "Kiss" or "Sign o' the Times" or even any of the Purple Rain behemoths, although I was well aware of and enjoyed all of those tracks.

Nope, it was this one:

Don't ask me why the MTV world premiere of "My Name is Prince" was the moment I knew I had to race to the mall and start snagging cassettes that following weekend (and yes, I started with the Love Symbol album). I thought the accessories were cool, especially the gun mic. The track remains slammin' to this day (although I now have enough knowledge of good hip-hop to realize just how, um, underqualified Tony M. truly was).

The true music junkie discovers every artist through one particular song, sort of like the other kind of junkie stumbles in through a "gateway drug." And "My Name is Prince" was my gateway drug. From there, the highs kept coming. Given that I was 14 at the time--and already thinking about getting laid approximately 4,794 times per day--the frank way in which Prince approached sex was shocking, titillating and addictive all at the same time.

First came the unedited version of "Sexy MF," which made me dream about entering a school talent show with some benign pop ditty, then switching that out at showtime for some true nasty. On other albums, tracks like "Let's Pretend We're Married," "Sexuality," and "Darling Nikki" melted my synapses in a totally different way than they did for people like Tipper Gore.

Then we reconcile that with his more spiritual bent, which lends balance to all the lust and ably sums up the struggle inside all of us--you know, the one that our more evangelical brethren fight their hardest to disavow.

"And God Created Woman." "Thunder." "The Cross." "The Ladder." Even "Temptation," which put the chaste/sinful dichotomy on full blast, up to and including the inner dialogue with the Almighty. Only Marvin Gaye or perhaps Leonard Cohen (seriously, fuck 2016) have ever managed to straddle the extremes with effectiveness approaching Prince's. (If you're not quite familiar with Cohen's freak flag, read this.)

I've never been a man of any spiritual denomination, having absolutely no use for any form of organized religion. But the way Prince brought the church home to his listeners on tracks like "The Cross" made God sound like the coolest, most loving cat in all the cosmos. The sex was the sugar helping the gospel medicine go down.

Toure broke it down for us thusly:

"This is the erotic intertwined with the divine. The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other, but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one. Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex."

Most artists can only handle one niche, whether it be raunchy sex songs, chaste love songs, "uplifting" self-empowerment anthems or strident political songs. The trick is to find the sweet spot enough times and mine it for all the sales one can generate before the public catches on that you're simply saying the same things over and over again. It's bound to happen to Kelly Clarkson sometime soon, right?

Prince had no such concerns, bouncing between concepts like a Superball and hitting all of them at least once on nearly every album. The politics may not have always sounded convincing (see "Baltimore"'s naive rhetoric about "[taking] all the guns away"), but dammit, it was 10 times more effort than Bruno Mars was putting in, and I mean no disrespect to Bruno whatsoever.

Finally, the sheer breadth of musical styles blew me away. Even on Symbol, the pounding funk of "My Name is Prince" and "Sexy MF" gave way to the artful power balladry of "The Morning Papers," the torchy seductiveness of "Sweet Baby" and "Damn U" and the gospel-drenched soul of "The Sacrifice of Victor." Now, the less said about misguided hip-hop like "The Flow" or the overwrought cabaret of "3 Chains o' Gold," the better, but again, they were still risks worth taking.

What, CNN, run out of room to mention Bernie Worrell?
It didn't span the globe the way Sign o' the Times did, but neither has ANY OTHER ALBUM IN HISTORY. (Yeah, I said it. Fight me.) Soul, rock, funk, R&B, electro, French chamber pop: Prince made at least a pit stop in nearly every genre short of Norwegian death metal or soul-food opera (whoops, forgot "Wedding Feast"). Who else could spin you around so often in so many ways? David Bowie (thanks again to 2016 for being the rampaging bitch of years) was one of rock's greatest true chameleons, but he changed from album to album more than song to song.

Even songs that haven't aged as well as the evergreen Purple Rain classics are still, at the very least, fun to listen to in the right mood. And in the end, that--and not some quest for mythical depth and significance--is what music needs to be about.

NEXT: So what's this blog about, then?