It wasn’t simply that Prince was a singular talent. He was different. It was the way he melded his God-talk, his lust, and his fondness for funk, pop, rock and r&b into a spare and (then) shocking whole. Never mind the envelope-pushing, though. That was just one way of getting your attention. The dude made catchy music that felt both old and familiar, modern and classic. It really was a new sound.
Always searching, always dissatisfied, always bold, he did in the 80s what Bowie had done in the 70s. So fully had he absorbed his craft—the cream of what other musicians had done and were doing— he became expert at competing with himself, since no one else could. Part of the fun of following Prince during his heyday (i.e., the decade he emerged as a full-blown star) was watching him do a new take, a different spin, on what he had proven he could do just by breathing.
In the 90s, right up until his death this year, Prince seemed to grow bored with the game. He had gained a rather cantankerous image as a control freak who pushed band mates and fans away with his constant need to change (or weird) things up and limit access to his life and music. But none of it ever pissed me off. To me, it just raised his mystique, even if I was mostly unimpressed with the music he released. To me, nothing could detract from that sweet spot he had claimed in the early 80s, when he was liable to wear a trench coat and bikini briefs, and sport a paper-thin mustache, while cranking out tight, minimalist sex beats.
The first two cuts from Controversy (1981), “Sexuality” and the title track, pick up where the Dirty Mind (1980) album left off—with Prince disavowing labels and norms others might want to pin on him, insisting on his right to party up, get down, and find succor in a world that knows no bounds where race, sex and gender are concerned. Lyrically, the songs feel jumbled, like he’s courting big concepts that don’t really signify for him outside of the buzz words he’s turned into their titles. That’s OK, though. The real star is the music, which drops, bumps and bounces with a rhythmically phat sense of propulsion. All of which leads to his best slow jam, the insanely lubricious, melodious “Do Me, Baby,” a vocal performance that, in the space of a song, takes his previously thin, nervy delivery and transforms it into a wild display of screams, moans and falsetto yelps that hold no peer in Prince’s catalog. It’s the climax of the album, and it’s only the third cut in. Three tracks of assured body music—one a steady stomp, one a coiled whomp, and one a slow build of vocal pyrotechnics—and the first side of this oft-overlooked album is complete.
But “Controversy,” “Sexuality,” and “Do Me, Baby” form a perfect trio, an apt demonstration of the man’s skill and range—instrumentally, vocally, and lyrically—at a time when he was fighting to make his mark, doing shit almost no one else was doing, sticking his neck out when he still ran the risk of being pelted with beer cans*. Together, they capture the bare essence of the Prince sound (itself a fantastically bare aesthetic—a one-man show behind, and in front of, the boards, with only a few instruments on hand), as well as any album he released prior to Purple Rain.** No Revolution backing him up, no strings or horns thrown into the mix. Just a rude boy wonder who wishes we all were nude—programming his Linn drum machine, playing his guitar, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, slapping his bass, and teasing with his androgyny. Daring us to funk with him.
*Famously, Prince opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1981 tour of America, and was booed off the stage for the sheer outrageousness, the “novelty,” of his look and approach. (When in fact it was just another version of the same titillation folks like Jagger and Presley had gone for, back when they were pups on the scene.)
**He did, of course, return to this oddly spacious but airless sound again, most noticeably on parts of Purple Rain, Parade, and Sign O’ the Times (not to mention all of The Black Album / The Funk Bible). But, for my money, it gelled on the string of albums he made in the early 80s.