Review Summary: An achievement that becomes more impressive the more you think about it.
It's very inviting to compare Purple Rain
, and by extension, Prince to Michael Jackson. After all, these are the two most critically acclaimed and enduring pop albums of the '80s (perhaps only Born in the U.S.A.
can challenge their duopoly, if you class it as pop rather than rock), both were both era-defining and career-defining, and both were examples of black artists crossing over to a white audience at a time when that was still a pretty big deal.
Thing is, once you start getting down to the nitty gritty of that comparison, it's incredible how much it reveals about Prince. Thriller
, ultimately, was always going to be a success, and so was Off the Wall
- the only thing nobody could have predicted was the sheer scale of that success. Jackson had already been the star of a very successful band, and that exposure he'd had as part of the Jackson 5 meant that he had an extensive network of music industry movers and shakers that had invested in him and were determined to help him become a megastar. It would be grossly unfair to suggest that the path to stardom was entirely paved for him by other people, because doing that would mean dismissing all the talent and charisma that he undoubtedly had by the bucketload, but there's little denying that Jackson was in a much better situation than most when it came to establishing himself as a solo artist. He was also very handsome, which undoubtedly helps.
By comparison, Prince had none of that network, no name that'd been able to make for himself earlier, and without wanting to be personally insulting, although he's by no means ugly, he wasn't exactly the best looking guy in the world. What's more, especially in the early days, his music was naturally more sexually aggressive and niche-interest than Jackson's ever had been, or ever would be. (Even the stern defiance of a track like "They Don't Care About Us" is less offensive for most people to listen to than something like "Sexy M.F." - and that one was a single.) It's hard to picture now, simply because Prince eventually became so famous that he could do whatever he liked and it wouldn't affect his sales or stature, but could you imagine being the record company executive being asked to sign Prince in the late '70s? He had a wispy pornstar moustache, was only 5' 4" in heels, and had songs like "Head" and "Soft & Wet". Wouldn't you have laughed him out of the room? Wouldn't you have been amazed and amused that this kid, who looked like he weighed about 50 pounds and had been bullied every day of his school life, harboured ambitions of being the next James Brown? There's a reason 'that skinny mother***er with the high voice' became an unofficial nickname after Prince jokingly referred to himself as such on The Black Album
Yet, he did it. He did it because he was indefatigably, enormously talented, and impressively hard-working and prolific. He rode his talent and his natural charm to the point where he was being favourably compared to Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone by people who knew the originals well. He became a phenomenon and he did it in a way that made it seem like it was always destined to happen (rather like Hendrix did, in fact). Sure, he didn't shift the same number of units that Jackson did, but he was just as important a symbol of the era, and was just as treasured. He damn near matched Springsteen, Madonna, and Jackson when they were all at their commercial peaks, despite not having the history, the looks, or the obvious, well-crafted mainstream appeal that they had. When you really start thinking about it, that is a ridiculous achievement.
isn't Prince's best album for me - that came three years later with Sign o' the Times
- but it is his most definitive in the wider world's consciousness, and it's not hard to see why. For one thing, it boasts two utterly majestic singles in "When Doves Cry" and "Purple Rain", the first of which has proved its strength by being covered by literally hundreds of artists and still sounding good in most people's hands, the second of which is a spacious, gut-wrenching power ballad that has none of the faults or vices that the phrase suggests. Hell, if all power ballads sounded this good, I'm not sure I'd listen to any other genre.
It's just as important, though, that Prince was as good as anybody of his time at crossing over between genres. "Let's Go Crazy" is the most obvious example, a glammy pop-rock stomper with a ridiculous Hendrix-esque blast of flashy guitar soloing at the end, but the drums on "Baby, I'm a Star" are pure stadium rock too, "I Would Die 4 U" has a frantic, insistent rhythm that betrays a Hi-NRG influence, "Darling Nikki" has a lurching, spooked rhythm and an airy melody that makes the whole experience oddly Sgt. Peppers
-esque, and "The Beautiful Ones" is a classicist slice of soul in the mould of Al Green once the layers are stripped away. Most impressive of all is that this all sounds natural to him - the most telling criticism of Thriller
is that it lacks a little sincerity because Jackson's transparent and deliberate mission to appeal to every kind of music fan in the world is obvious when you hear it, but despite having just as wide a range, no such criticism can be levelled at Purple Rain
It almost goes without saying that this album is absolutely essential for an awful lot of people. Interested in pop? Essential. Interested in the '80s in general? Essential. Not sure why Prince is so revered and want to find out why? Essential. Unimpressed by his recent releases but fascinated by his still-spectacular live shows? Essential. But hey, you know that already, right? You've almost certainly already got a copy of this album, and if you haven't, you'll already have made your mind up about why you won't bother. That's a surefire sign of a record that became a phenomenon - and Purple Rain
deserves that kind of stature.