Top 5: Prince’s purple reign begins with these 5 albums
OPINION: These five albums—'1999,' 'Purple Rain,' 'Around the World in a Day,' 'Parade' and 'Sign o' the Times'—show Prince’s extraordinary versatility as a musician.
So, Stevie Wonder may have had the best five-album run in modern music history, but dammit, if one of his musical sons didn’t rise up and give him a run for his money. I’m talking about Prince, the hardest working man in show business. He lived, ate and breathed music. He barely had any other interests. He was constantly recording, writing, rehearsing and performing all day, every day, and when the stars aligned, Prince unleashed a string of albums at a level rarely heard. Albums where he sang, wrote, performed and produced almost everything. Albums that remain timeless to this day. But there’s one thing—Prince is seen as this solo genius, and that’s real. He was, but there are other people in this story—people who were critical to making this period better than any other in his life.
In 1982 when Prince was 24, he recorded 1999, a funk-pop dance record that pushed him to a higher level of fame but more importantly, it was the beginning of his long-term collaboration with guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman. Coleman joined Prince’s band first during Dirty Mind, and in time, her girlfriend Wendy found her way into the band. They were lifelong friends who had grown up in musical families. Their fathers were famous L.A. session players, so they came to Prince with a wealth of musical knowledge. As Prince, Wendy and Lisa talked about music and played together, Prince was influenced to move from wanting to shock people to grown and ready to ascend to rock royalty.
So 1999 gives us all these funky hits—”DMSR” and “Lady Cab Driver”—but it also gives us the roots of the rock that would lead to the rock album Purple Rain—songs like “Little Red Corvette” and “1999.” But for me, the monster unforgettable song here is “International Lover,” the funny, sexy romp where he’s describing sex as a metaphor for flight.
Prince recorded fast. He made a song a day every day and sometimes made two to three songs in a day. But on Purple Rain, he was forced to take a slower approach and have more time to think about the songs because the movie took time to make. People in his band told me that fact, that he had to take more time with Purple Rain, which is what truly separates it from the rest of his catalog and leads to an album that sounds so epic. But it was also built, of course, on Prince’s desire to be a huge star, and he understood that making rock music was the way to get to the highest level. Purple Rain did, indeed, turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world thanks to an all-out rock assault where he talks about wild sex on “Darling Nikki,” and love on “Take Me With U,” and family on “When Doves Cry,” and ego on “Baby I’m a Star,” and heartbreak and redemption on “Purple Rain.”
The next year, in 1985, he returned with something entirely different—Around the World in a Day, which is much more psychedelic, playful, philosophical, and innocent than Purple Rain. Now he was talking about peace, utopia and harmony. It was like his childlike side coming out to play. For example, where “Darling Nikki” on Purple Rain was about him getting dominated by a woman with a mansion, “Raspberry Beret” is about him meeting a woman who walks into a store where he’s slaving away in and losing his virginity to her in a barn. It’s a much sweeter take on the sex story song, a genre he mastered.
In 1986, he came back with his eighth album in nine years, and again, it’s a whole new vibe. Parade is jazzy, European, minimalist, thoughtful and deeply influenced by Wendy and Lisa. “Kiss” is the monster single, but my favorite here is the lush “Mountains.” Perhaps the most haunting song is “Sometimes It Snows In April,” a ballad about the death of a friend and maybe Prince’s saddest song ever. After Prince died, the Revolution got back together to perform, and Wendy sang lead on “April,” and she broke down in tears because the moment was so much.
In 1987, Prince dropped what may be his greatest sonic achievement. Yes, Purple Rain is astounding, but my God, the soulful double album Sign o’ the Times is surreal. He tells us the world is falling apart in the single “Sign o’ the Times,” then gives us joy in “Play In the Sunshine,” and gives us his incomprehensible but unforgettable stories with “Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish and Coffee.” There are epic love songs like “Forever In My Life,” and “Adore,” and “U Got the Look,” and “ I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” There’s also the gender-bending song “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which flows out of Prince’s feminine alter ego Camille.
Sign o’ the Times came after the Revolution had been broken up after Prince had fired Wendy and Lisa because he wanted to move in a different direction, but this album was recorded before they left, so it still had their influence. After that, Prince moved into a new era in his life. But Lord, these five albums—1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade and Sign o’ the Times—show Prince’s extraordinary versatility as a musician. There are all different sorts of styles in that five—funk, rock, art, dance, soul. This was the culmination of a youth spent focused on becoming a rock star. He was, like Stevie, a one-man band, one of those singular genius talents who can do everything, just like a guy who came later who had probably the third greatest five-album run in modern music history. A guy named Kanye…
Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
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