Great musicians always evolve and Prince Rogers Nelson was no exception. Before his tragic passing in 2016, he gave the world 40 studio albums displaying a range of genius and innovation. The first was 1978’s For You. It’s a majestic debut that sets a high bar.
For You was released by Warner Brothers on April 7, 1978. They had the vision to support a mostly-unknown Minneapolis musician who was still a teenager at the time. In a display of support rare at the time and unimaginable today, Warner Brothers gave Prince an advance of $180,000 to create three albums. In a piece of prescience that should surprise no one, Prince insisted on handling all the production chores himself. He spent all but 10 grand on the first album alone in his zeal to craft a polished, curated display of his work. He alienated some people in the process and was left exhausted by his efforts. But it was worth it for his debut album credits: “Produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince.” How’s that for throwing down a gauntlet?
He even turned down the studio’s professional photographer for the album cover. He used his own image, a close-up of his face illuminated by candlelight, all piercing brown eyes, abundant afro, and subtle ‘stache. It’s a young, more vulnerable Prince.
We first hear his glorious falsetto on the opening track “For You,” which can be viewed as a mission statement for aspirations borne out over his lengthy career. A little more than a minute long, totally a capella, and consisting of his vocals layered on top of one another: “All of this and more is for you [the listener]/with love, sincerity, and deepest care/my life with you I share.” It’s a quirky, angelic intro to an LP that holds value both on its own and as a historical document.
It swings into “In Love,” a startlingly impressive first instrumental track, a superb funk and R&B tune with great bounce and syncopation, catchy riffs, and a disco overlay appropriate for the time. There’s a tinge of the eroticism that will define Prince’s music going forward, but this is mostly an unjaded love song that deserves renewed appreciation.
Another stellar dance number is “Soft and Wet,” which goes further enough with unfettered sexuality that it wasn’t a great candidate for radio. But what a fabulous song! This was the only hit track from the album, reaching #92 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #12 on the Hot Soul Single chart. It’s a piece of naughty polished Prince that would have been at home on his later albums.
“Crazy You” is a mellower ballad, with gentler vocals contrasting with the bloop-y background instrumentals. It’s a sweet tribute to his love of a woman he can’t quite pin down…and doesn’t feel the need to.
Next up is a track that, at about six and a half minutes, takes up a lot of audio real estate on this already short-ish (33 minutes total) album. “Just as Long as We’re Together” is an anthemic love song, celebrating Prince’s adoration for someone he doesn’t wish to tie down or obligate, but who makes him happy just as she is. The bouncy refrain “Just as long as we’re together, everything’s all right” serves up a delicious earworm.
The song “Baby” is a departure from Prince’s visions of sex and romance. This contemplative ballad is more familial than anything we’ve come to expect from him, delivering the dilemma of a man whose girlfriend gets pregnant as he tries to do right in a challenging situation.
About midway through, “My Love is Forever” hints at Prince’s future as one of the major guitar gods. It begins as a subtle, boppy tune, with some burbling background sounds that give it a throwback air until Prince funks things up. Another example of Prince’s musical shape-shifting is on the next track, “So Blue,” a rejected lover tune that could play like an old-timey chanteuse number in different hands. But Prince (and his flawless falsetto) keep a steady groove throughout.
The last track begins a trope that Prince would trot out in subsequent albums…namely, jolting the listener into another dimension by changing out the genre and ending the LP on a completely different note. “I’m Yours” is a mind-bending closer with his mad “Guitar Hero” riffs and funk that gives way to hard rock, something he handles with maestro skills and confidence. “I’m Yours” invigorates and sets us up for musical miracles to come.
For You may not be Prince’s finest hour, but make no mistake – it’s a stunning piece of work from a new artist who knew even then that he was the master of his own creative process. Each track is cleanly executed and the production values are buffed to a high gloss. (Prince himself bemoaned in later years that For You was “too perfect…too scientific.”) Here was a young man who knew his value and took the golden opportunity given him by Warner Brothers to make a debut album that would show the world what he had to offer.
While his first dedication in the album’s liner notes is to God, For You differentiates itself from his later work, which famously glorified eroticism and spirituality, often in the same sentence. The spiritual element is pretty much absent here, but his celebration of sexuality will be familiar and appreciated. For You is a noble outing that served as an elegant starting point for Prince’s wild musical ride. It went on for many years…but, sadly, not nearly long enough.
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