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“Prince” At 40: Looking Back At A Purple Turning Point

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On Friday, January 5, 1979, a crowd of around 300 people stood outside Minneapolis’ own Capri Theater. Toughening out the wintry, zero-below brisk, they enthusiastically awaited the arrival of their hometown wunderkind, Prince, who was to take the venue’s stage that evening. This benefit gig was pivotal, as it was his first show since becoming a major label artist. Just ten months prior, he released his debut for Warner Brothers, For You. Eager to recoup his flagging momentum, he planned a star-making series of concerts in support of the album. But, this particular night wasn’t quite the homerun Prince or the attendees expected. Everything about it was tentative.

He was visibly agitated; turning his back on the audience, frantically prancing around the stage, and withdrawing from the show banter itself. His newly assembled band, consisting of childhood friend and bassist, André Cymone, guitarist Dez Dickerson, keyboardists Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink, and drummer Bobby Rivkin, were competent enough to lock in a groove but hadn’t found their footing as a fully developed band. Earlier that evening, Prince had mixed feelings towards the show.

“I’m nervous,” he told former Minneapolis Star music critic Jon Bream.”I’ll be terrified because it’s gonna take a while to block out the fact there are people out there. I find it extremely hard to perform for people.”

Related: “Lisa Coleman’s ‘Collage’: Life Beyond Prince”

When Prince and his band headed to the Capri stage a second time the following Saturday night, things got more shambolic. The technical disruptions, shabby stage routines, and lack of refinement were all the signs Warners officials needed to salvage matters concerning Prince’s career. Worried, the label withdrew all plans for Prince to embark on a major tour. At only 19 years old, Prince had arrived at a standstill: for the first time since his first manager, Owen Husney resigned due to personal and professional grievances with Prince, no one was overseeing his career. He also accrued large debt with Warners, after nearly exhausting the extravagant $180,000 advance the label granted him on the recording of his debut album. His debut flopped, only yielding a respectable urban base. He had already proved to Warner Bros. that his chops were a viable asset to their black music division’s marketing aspirations (with many going so far as to casting him as a logical descendant of Stevie Wonder). But he strived to be bigger than that.

 

Warner Bros. put Prince in touch with the Hollywood-based Cavallo & Ruffalo firm, a renowned management agency that was operated by two highly respected Italian business associates, Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo. Known for handling duties for the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Little Feat, and Weather Report, the two carried out Prince’s day-to-day requests and business dealings. Soon, the team appointed their senior employee, Steve Fargnoli as his manager. The management team would become a crucial fixture in Prince’s entire business sense and gave him a renewed lease of security for whatever vision he sought to venture. Sidestepping the financial and artistic strains that arose during the making of For You, Warner Bros. entrusted Prince to take the full reins of his next effort without the assistance of an executive producer on board. There was one catch, though: he needed a hit.

“I spent too much money in the studio for the first album so they looked at me like, ‘here’s a child in here trying to do a man’s job,’” Prince revealed in a July 1986 Ebony Magazine interview. “I’m really stubborn and I strive for the best, so I tried to do my best the second time around for the least amount of money. My second album cost $35,000, but the first one cost four times that amount.”

Black pop waved its colorful flag proud and free in 1979. Funk climbed to the mainstream. Disco still ruled though it met its first whiffs of backlash and scorn. Soul sat at the center of both worlds and veered into sleek, less serious modes. With an ear pressed against the emerging trends and sounds that were engulfing black pop, Prince went back to his old drawing board and crafted new material. Cut hastily at Burbank, California’s Alpha Studios, his self-titled second platter, Prince presents a confident artist testing the waters of his commercial viability. Whereas For You stumbled to configure a crossover identity alongside Prince’s R&B prowess, its follow-up was a reset, unabashedly trading elegant preciseness for razor-sharp accessibility. Rather than exacting every fine detail and utilizing dubious overdubs as he’d done for For You, Prince plugged a more immediate, assured style. The arrangements are crisp, straight, and lean, with approximate restraint. There’s a greater focus on variety, exercising and showcasing a swarm of styles. Sonically, Prince edges out the ethereal haze that marked much of his debut and facelifts his sound with a breathy, radio-ready touch. He’s deliberately gunning for hits and mainstream appeal to survive, not just at the expense of his unique virtuosity either.

Related: “Purple Reigns: Prince Album and Memoir To Be Released”

No song on Prince better emphasizes this aim than its classic opener and Prince’s R&B breakthrough, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Riding an ebullient pop-soul groove that unmistakably nudges funk and disco sensibilities, “Lover” is the first of Prince’s several love songs that frames him as a wounded, yet sensitive victim—the subject is a penniless, helpless underdog who’s desperately vying for the affection of a lady friend. Aside from his inadequacies, he proclaims to be different from other men she typically hangs around and goes the extra mile in proving why he’s the one and only contender to win her love. As the song progresses, Prince squeals and purrs an array of cushy, lascivious even, desires that are meant to woo her. The big, hymnal-like chorus manically expels his carnal, yet pleasing position front and center: “I wanna be your lover / I wanna be the only one that makes you come runnin’ / I wanna be your lover / I wanna turn you on, turn you out / All night long, make you shout / Oh lover, yeah, I wanna be the one you come for.”

If “Lover” chases behind innocent teenage lust, then its response record and Prince’s second single, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” fields the desperations of teenage heartbreak. Sporting a lively intersection of new wave, pop, and R&B nuances, Prince continues his lovesick victim narrative by spilling the frustrations about a self-absorbed, unappreciative woman who mistreats him. Given the song’s multi-genre accent, it’s interesting that the single wasn’t quite the crossover smash it was conceived to be. Though Prince flaunted a spirited power guitar solo that was very much in the mold of late 1970s AM rock, it was virtually ignored on the pop front. However, it became a Top 20 hit on the Billboard R&B singles chart in the fall of 1980. The album’s most racy excursion, “Bambi” is a searing MOR funk-rock number that revolves around a rather distasteful (and homophobic) male fantasy, where Prince sings about being enough of a lover who can redeem the flame of a lesbian who has no interest in men.

White-hot shakedowns such as “Sexy Dancer” and “I Feel for You” struts Prince’s disco mastery. The former is a throbbing, boogie-oriented instrumental that finds him lusting after an exotic dancer. Recalling the carnal desires of “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the latter flashes a rubbery funk groove that’s anchored by a simple, yet catchy melody before launching into an extravagant synth workout. Coincidentally, the song was originally written for jazz and R&B master Patrice Rushen, with whom Prince was rumored to be in love with. Five years later, in 1984, hip hop, R&B and modern dance worlds collided when funk goddess Chaka Khan famously put her edgy spin on it and took it to larger heights. That same year, pioneering electro and hip hop producer Egyptian Lover lifted Prince’s sensual breathing breakdowns from “Sexy Dancer” for his own futuristic funk classic, “Egypt Egypt.”

Perspectives on romance and vulnerability are finely embellished in the album’s featherweight balladry—the wispy “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” centers in on the quiet wonders of lovemaking and commitment, the placid country-pop of “With You” expresses the insecurities that arise in a delicate relationship, the doo-wop inflected “Still Waiting” mediates on the longing for a relationship, and the dreamy smooth soul of “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” stands as one of Prince’s most dramatic compositions, pleading for a failed romance to recommence.

As intended, Prince’s self-titled second take launched the rising Minneapolis virtuoso into commercial orbit. Retooling and remodeling Prince’s early career as a mystifying lover boy whose dashing allure and sweet falsetto could make females swoon and knockout musical gusto could leave anyone speechless, the million-selling album peaking on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart at #22 and #3 on its Soul Albums chart. While it demonstrated to Warner Bros. that he could be a viable commercial entity, Prince would later downplay the overall significance of the album. “The second record was pretty contrived,he admitted to pop music writer Robert Hilburn in a 1983 Musician interview. “After the first record, I put myself in a hole because I’d spent a lot of money to make it. With the second record, I wanted to remedy all of that, so I just made it a “hit” album.” Three years later, he revealed in an aforementioned Ebony interview that he never listened to his second album because crafting it was was a real pride thing.” Though criminally overlooked and overshadowed by later, greater triumphs, this stepping stone in Prince’s canon remains a crucial one, showcasing his growth spurt as a bona fide musician with impressive depth while keying the first rumblings of distinctive hallmarks that would usher in his forthcoming purple reign. Things would never quite be the same after this.

-Brandon Ousley

Photo: Prince in 1979/Warner Bros.

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