From a very early age I began to associate Prince with my cousin. Bear with me. She was a good twelve or so years older than me and after finishing school she went to live in America for a couple of years and, similarly, Prince came to represent everything that was exotic and American in my mind with that oh-so-feminine falsetto and slick proto-Saved By The Bell loud suits. When she'd periodically return home she'd take with her the best America had to offer a seven or eight year-old: Reese's Pieces; peanut butter-filled M&Ms; LA Lights with and without peanut butter filling- it was like Christmas twice a year to compound real Christmas. Good thing we didn't go to church, then. So anyway, Prince for me exemplified this high life I imagined my cousin was living over in Cape Cod, Massachusetts- a location I correctly identified as a cross between bustling New York City and a small fishing village in the west of Ireland. In other words, he was hot shit
And I hated him.
I hated his stupid high voice, I hated his stupid hair and you better believe I hated him for wearing a red suit. Remember what I said about Christmas? It didn't apply to this guy. It was only as the years rolled on that a few wrongs seemed to be righted. First off it became clear that he was singing falsetto on purpose and that wasn't actually his real voice. Next, I began to notice that a lot of musicians actually adored the guy (not least my cousin, who saw him live when he forgot his name and had the ticket stub to prove it). Slowly it began to become apparent that he was actually the purveyor of many of those classic tracks I had stored in my consciousness and attributed to nooneinparticular: Raspberry Beret, When Doves Cry, Gett Off, 1999
, you know the ones.
As Prince's fifth album, 1999
predates my grudge by fully twelve years. In 1982, it became his first top ten album; this was no doubt aided by the dubious practice of counting double-vinyl release twice. In retrospect- hell, it was probably so at the time- it's unfathomable that we could deny him the honour, but it's a bothersome piece of trivia nonetheless. 1999
came quickly on the heels of the classic Dirty Mind
, two albums which though reasonably successful were more revered by musos for their scope and genre-hopping eloquence than by his intended mass audience. It's no coincidence that Prince's first four albums are so conspicuously underrepresented in later compilations- they didn't achieve their intended purpose of making the artist then known as Prince an artist known by everyone. If 1999
didn't succeeded in realising him goal, it certainly laid the "black carpet," so to speak.
patrols much the same territory as his other '80s compositions: sex, race, social issues and liberal applications of, umm, more sex. The title track kicks off the pop side of the album- the first four tracks were all singles- a funky party anthem which has thankfully dated with far more grace than its title. An apparent protest against nuclear proliferation, '1999' was originally conceived as a three-part harmony. The verse was however re-written in the studio to accommodate three lead vocalists, each trading phrases, which created a sort of Family Stone vibe which acts in contraposition to the more aggressive, clipped delivery of the chorus.
The next two tracks are more "pure pop" though sticking closely to the party soul which pervades through the album. 'Little Red Corvette' was originally the b-side to '1999' before achieving chart success of its own merit, becoming his biggest hit to date. The Beach Boys parallels are more than likely coincidental, however it's by no means an exaggeration to place Prince and Wilson in the same category at this time, young men caught between realising a fuller, more personal artistic vision and writing hit singles about fast cars and faster women; there's even a happy synthesis as Prince's coveted corvette is one of his now legendary thinly-veiled sexual metaphors (can you drive?)
As a piece of music, 'Little Red Corvette' is the least interesting on the album, though sure to elicit the most immediate emotional reaction. Similarly, 'Delirious' is one of the simpler compositions on the album, though instead of the breezy synth-heavy approach Prince instead adopts a strong fuzzy bass-line to give the song a nouveau-rockabilly feel, inadvertently charting the tiny step one needs to take from 12-bar blues to slick dance-floor soul. The album cut of final single 'Let's Pretend We're Married' is an indulgent seven minutes in length, perhaps itself an overarching sexual innuendo, setting the tone for the blunt machismo of this proto-rap track which culminates in Prince proclaiming: "I want to fuck
the taste out of your mouth!" Charming.
These four tracks alone suffice to explain why 1999
was the pop sensation it was, and as a whole it's undoubtedly a landmark pop album in tandem with Dirty Mind
and Purple Rain
, however there remaining tracks are equally if not more interesting for their non-adherence to pop rules. All the singles were cut down from five minute-plus durations, yet it's the uncompromising 'Lady Cab Driver' and 'Automatic' which truly push things musically, taking in almost eighteen minutes as a pair. Both deal with the singer's favourite subject with the rigorous attention to detail for which he's legendary. 'Automatic' is Prince's very own ode to bondage which he so graciously limited to just nine and a half minutes of pop minimalism, as paradoxical as the term may seem. He utilises little more than a drum machine and sparse bass to keep his sonic experimentation in check, an early vision of his later, more heavily orchestrated, flirtations with sound effects. 'Lady Cab Driver,' from the 'Darling Nikki' school of borderline obscenities, walks a similarly risqué track of highly charged sexual bravado and trials in funky synth-pop.
Though it would be remiss and even insulting to profess that there's just two
sides to Prince, it's a useful analogy to draw in this instance. The two sides of 1999
, despite their huge similarity, are perfect examples of the two ways in which to digest Prince's music, and the two ways in which his music is meant to be taken. On one side we have the timeless pop songs which Prince would so effortlessly produce over the next decade without ever becoming staid or repetitive yet, on the other side, we have a Prince who exhibits all the same pop sensibilities and ability coupled
with an insatiable lust for endeavour and exploration which drove him to redraw the boundaries of pop music in the '80s. It may come across as indulgent and even trite in places, despite my championing of his experimental virtues, but it"s certainly not an album that's revered for arbitrary reasons.
Returning to an original point, it's arguably as much down to chance that Prince became a pop sensation in 1982 and '83. OK, maybe the double album theory is a little watery, but there's another story. MTV was in its infancy and of the few who were making full use of video's capability as a medium, two were already soul legends: Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.
So maybe it was just because he was black.