Prince's musical ability is unlimited, he plays almost every instrument (is a really outstanding guitarist and bass player), is a great composer and lyricist and was on the sharpest edge of the 80ies when it comes to production. He masters lots of genres, but the first and foremost musical style Prince is known and respected for is probably the funk.
Prince’s grasp of musical styles is quite staggering in its breadth. What makes him so unique is his ability to absorb many different influences and fuse them with his own sound to create an original style. Prince is rarely seen as an innovator such as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and Miles Davis are. However, borrowing ideas is not in itself a weakness, the question is whether anything new is created from the influences and if the whole becomes more than the sum of it parts. Prince’s records have defied established musical formats and genres, inspiring critics to come up with labels as ‘dance rock’, ‘new wave funk’, ‘funk rock’ and the “Minneapolis sound”. Often labelled a workaholic, Prince does not consider creating music to be work, instead to him it is simply “a fact of life, just like breathing”. He worked round the clock, where studio technicians had to be replaced. “I felt like I was sitting in the studio with a modern-day Mozart”, says a recording engineer who worked with Prince. “He came in and played the drums and you wouldn’t be hearing anything but the drums. The tape would be virgin! Then he’d put everything to the drums: bass, keyboards, guitar and background vocals. Then he did a serious lead vocal. If we started a song in the morning, it was rare that we didn’t finish it that night, that’s why it sounds so fresh. You were exhausted because this was a guy who’d work for 24 hours straight, then sleep for four hours, then work for another 24 hours. We worked so many Christmas Eves and New Year’s days. I’v put 15 years of work in 5 years.” (Per Nilsen, Prince: the first decade, Fire Fly Publishing 1998).
You can listen to the funk mix/compilation here.
1. For You (For You, 1978)
The first official Prince song ever to be put on vinyl, the opening track for his first album “For You”. Prince only was 19 of age, but insisted by Warner Bros. he would produce the album himself. This was unheard of but Warner gave in when Tommy Vicari was brought in as a sort of supervisor. Prince plays all the instruments, did all the vocal tracks and off course wrote all the material. Critics liked the album and thought of Prince as a new wonderboy, a “Stevie Wonder” like artist.
2. Soft & Wet (For You, 1978)
Prince’s first single and his first sexual implicit song. It takes little guessing what is “Soft & Wet” when he’s singing about the love he feels and wants to make.
3. Just As Long As We’re Together (Disco Mix) (For You, 1978)
The second single taken from the album and a disco track. It has a nice bassline and some funky keys. This is an extended version with some jamming in it. The song was already recorded to prove Prince’s talent to the Warner executives and was re-recorded for the debut album.
4. I Wanna Be Your Lover (Prince, 1979)
The first single of the second album and Prince’s first ‘hit’. It reached nr. 11 on the Billboard top 100. Again a groovy bassline, some funky keys and sexual content: I wanna be the only one that makes you come…. running. And Prince as the self confident lover: “there ain’t no other, that can do the things, that I’ll do to you”. A trademark of Prince (the so-called Minneapolis sound) is already here: synths take over horn parts.
5. Do It All Night (Dirty Mind, 1980)
After the first two more ‘standard’ funk/disco/r&b records, with his third album Prince finds his own voice. According to The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), "Dirty Mind remains one of the most radical 180-degree turns in pop history." Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times described the music from the album as "confident and highly danceable blend of post-disco funk and tasty, hard-line rock". Prince's songwriting contains prominently sexual lyrics. Keith Harris of Blender characterizes its songs as "confessions of a sex junkie" with "new-wave funk". The album also had Prince’s first rocksong: “When You Were Mine.” “Do It All Night” is about sex and an uptempo funk-wave song, it was the opening song of the Dirty Mind tour.
6. Controversy (Controversy, 1981)
A true Prince classic. with a funky “chicken grease” (as Prince calls it) on the guitar, a pumping bass line and some synth effects. The lyrics create more confusion about Prince (who knowingly was creating mystique), also to shake of his “new Stevie Wonder” image. Controversy raises questions like: Do I believe in God, do I believe in me? Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?
7. Sexuality (Controversy, 1981)
“Sexuality is all I never need, sexuality, I’m gonna let my body be free.” It’s a sexual song, but with another dimension. As you can say “Uptown” (on “Dirty Mind”) was Prince’s first non-love/sex song (it’s about a place where people are left free and can party and love without restrictions), “Sexuality” gives notice of the second coming, the need for revolution and a “new breed”. “We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race. New age revelation, I think we got a case. (…) We need a new breed, leaders stand up, organize. Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read. No child is bad from the beginning, they only imitate their atmosphere.” “Sexuality” is a fast-paced track, built around a synth bass line and drum machines.
8. Irresistible Bitch (B-side)
This song was the B-side of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” of the “1999” album. It’s about a jilted lover who treats his woman well, but gets treated badly in return. The backing vocals are by Wendy & Lisa, members of his touringband The Revolution. There are synths, live drumming en drumming machines. The track received equal airplay as the A-side and qualified to chart.
9. Little Red Corvette (1999, 1982)
“Little Red Corvette” was his cross-over record and made it to the top 10. Probably the most ‘poppy’ song Prince did until then and the key to his stardom. When this song was on MTV, the “1999” tour suddenly ‘exploded’ and the public became more and more mixed. It’s about a one-night stand with a beautiful, but promiscuous woman. He urges her to ‘slow down’ and ‘find a love that’s gonna last’ before she destroys herself. The classic guitar solo is by Dez Dickerson.
10. Something In The Water (1999, 1982)
According to the Rolling Stone Album Guide, “1999” may be Prince’s most influential album: it’s synth-and-drum machine heavy arrangements codified the Minneapolis sound that loomed over mid-‘80s r&b and pop, not to mention the next two decades worth of electro, house and techno. The album’s critical and commercial success (his first top 10 album) marked the beginning of two years of intense activity which, via massively successful tours, hit singles and a Hollywood movie, would make Prince arguably the biggest male musical star on the planet next to Michael Jackson.
11. Linn Drum Track (unreleased)
In the early ’80’s Prince was a pioneer with drum machines and synths. The Linn LM-1 drum machine was his favourite and gives the drum sound to many of his songs. The machine made it possible to work even faster. This sound is without a doubt a key to the “Prince sound” (although many other musicians like Human League, Donna Summer, Peter Gabriel and others also made use of the machine), Prince probably was most creative with it. This is not a song, but probably a rehearsal or try-out with this drum machine. It’s funky though!
12. Baby I’m A Star (Purple Rain, 1984)
The “Purple Rain” album was Prince’s definitive step towards stardom. The album stayed on nr. 1 for 6 months and the singles “When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Purple Rain” and “I Would Die For You” were all top 10 hits. The album is recorded with The Revolution and probably Prince’s most poppy and rock oriented. “Baby, I’m A Star” is written in 1982 and stresses out Prince will be a star. “I don’t wanna stop, till I reach the top”. (In the 1992 track “My name is Prince” Prince sings: “I’ve seen the top and it’s just dream, because woman and fancy clothes, they might save your face, but they won’t save your soul”). Revolution member Dr. Fink gets a call-out in the song to deliver a synth solo. It’s a great funk track and a live favourite. The song also contains an unusual chant played backwards at the beginning and end of the song: “Like what the fuck do they know? All their taste is in their mouth. Really, what the fuck do they know? Come on baby, let’s go crazy!”
13. Tamborine (Around The World In A Day, 1985)
After the huge commercial success of the “Purple Rain” album, movie and tour, Prince chose to deliver a highly experimental album, “Around The World In A Day”. It was an important step in Prince’s musical evolution, incorporating new instruments and musical styles. With the psychedelic vibe, it drew numerous comparisons to The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. The hit was “Raspberry Baret”, but Prince wanted the album to be listened to as a whole. “The Ladder” marks an important lyrical and spiritual dimension to his lyrics. “Tamborine” is nice live drummed track with a funky groove and deals with lust and a need to settle down.
14. Girls & Boys (Parade, 1986)
“Girls & Boys” comes from the “Parade” album, a soundtrack to the movie “Under the cherrymoon” which wasn’t a great success. The music however is great. “Girls & Boys” is the first Prince single with a real saxophone on it. The arrangements are rather complex, but still it’s very funky. Background vocals are by Sheila E., Wendy & Lisa.
15. Kiss (Extended Version) (Parade, 1986)
“Kiss” was the first single of “Parade” and made it to nr. 1. It’s a typical Prince song, in the ‘minimalistic’ style of “When Doves Cry”. An electronic funk track with an irresistible poppy edge and great lyrics. “You don’t have to be rich, to be my girl, you don’t have to be cool to rule my world.” A classic Prince quote: “You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude.” The song was intended for Mazarati (still heard on the backing vocals), but Prince took the song back. The extended version has extra instrumentation and extra text between Prince and Jill Jones and a humorous dialogue between a wife and her husband watching Prince on television.
16. Sexual Suicide (outtake)
Prince started experimenting more towards ‘real’ and more complex funk, rather then the more ‘electronic’ or poppy sort. With Eric Leeds on saxophone and Sheila E. on drums he brought in more musicianship. “Parade” was to be the last album with The Revolution, only Dr. Fink stayed on. Prince started working on new material, resulting in things like “Sexual Suicide” and the “Sign Of The Times” album.
17. Sign Of The Times (Extended) (Sign Of The Times, 1987)
A classic opening track of a classic album: “Sign Of The Times”. The double album was Prince’s most diverse to date, featuring a wide array of musical styles –rock, pop, soul and funk- with various cues taken from dance, electronic, and jazz styles as well. For many critics, this album is Prince’s magnum opus. In the Rolling Stone Album Guide the album is called Prince’s best, the most complete example of his artistry’s breadth, and arguably the finest album of the 1980s. The track “Sign Of The Times” is a sparse funk track, with an electronic, almost techno feel. The lyrics are on the depressing state of the world and show Prince has matured.
18. Le Grind (Black Album, 1988)
After “Sign Of The Times” Prince starts touring with a new band including Sheila E., (drums), Levi Seacer jr. (bass), Eric Leeds (sax), Atlanta Bliss (trumpet), Boni Boyer (keys), Dr. Fink (keys) and Miko Weaver (guitar). This becomes a tight unit and a lot of material is recorded. “Sign Of The Times” does not become the success Prince expected it to be (U2’s “The Joshua Tree” takes the Grammy for best album) and he isn’t happy with the criticism that he’s lost touch with his ‘black’ roots. From this “fuck you” mode he records the “Black Album”. The music comes to straight funk as anything Prince had recorded. There’s also a hiphop/rap parody (“Dead On It”). When the albums are pressed and ready for shipment, Prince decides he doesn’t want this negative album to see the light of day. It maybe has become the most bootlegged album of all times. “Le Grind” is a straight funk number about sex (“up and down, like a pony would”). The bass playing is funky and loose.
19. Escape (B-side of “Glam Slam”)
In reaction to his negative period during the “Black Album”, Prince finds a new spirituality and is eager to be positive. “Lovesexy, the feeling you get when you fall in love, not with a girl or a boy, but with the heavens above.” Don’t do alcohol or drugs, be nice and trip on a party bass. “Escape” says: “Don’t get on the scale if you ain’t got the weight, is more hard to love than it is to hate. Free your mind from this ratrace.” The music sounds fresh and full of ideas.
20. Lovesexy (Lovesexy, 1988)
The “Lovesexy” album brings on a ‘new’ Prince, it’s his gospel album. “This feeling’s so good in every single way, I want it morning, noon and night of every day. With it I know heaven is just a kiss away.” Recorded in just 7 weeks, the views on “Lovesexy” are mixed. Some say it’s the best Prince has to offer. It’s a new funk sound, with so much going on you’ll discover new elements everytime you listen to it. Lyrically, it gives spiritual meaning and criticism on society, while the relationship with woman is more mature than just the ‘lust side’ of it. Others state it’s “overproduced”. In Europe, Prince is now seen as the ‘new Mozart’ whereas in the US his momentum has passed.
21. The Future (Batman, 1989)
The “Lovesexy” album was a commercial failure, maybe because of the album cover (Prince reborn/naked on a flower with a fallus symbol). Prince decided to make music for the Batman movie (director Tim Burton was a huge fan and asked Prince). Prince quickly came up with an album, talented as he is to place himself in someone else’s position. On the Batman album he plays the role of Batman and Joker, so it’s a continuation of the Lovesexy “good / bad” theme. As Batman he sings “The Future”, a minimalistic electronic funk track which denounces the use of violence and drugs (xtc). “And if there’s life after, we will see, so I can’t go like a jerk. New world needs spirituality that will last.”
22. Partyman (Batman, 1989)
As The Joker Prince sings “Partyman”, a funny, uptempo funky track with sampled horns and a speeded up Prince voice. The video (directed by Albert Magnoli, also director of “Purple Rain”) is great.