“Purple Rain” At 40

Forty years ago, the musical world shifted on its axis when Prince and The Revolution dropped Purple Rain. While that sounds like a long time ago, it’s also difficult to imagine a world without it.

Purple Rain was Prince’s sixth studio album and arguably his masterpiece. It delivers a high bar of ‘80s synth, soul, funk, and R&B plus shots of brilliant estrogen from band members Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, and Apollonia. Purple Rain more fully explored Prince’s signature blend of spirituality and sexuality while providing a master class in danceability. It’s the soundtrack to the movie but it stands perfectly on its own.

Purple Rain’s first track, “Let’s Go Crazy” delivers Prince’s iconic spoken-word lead: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to this thing called life…” His brief sermon morphs into a clang of bass, guitar, and heavy beat, jolting the listener onto the dance floor. “Let’s Go Crazy” celebrates the joys of letting loose. Rife with elevator imagery, juice, and spirit, it’s also filled with poignance as Prince alludes to the tragic fate he didn’t know awaited him: “Pills and thrills and daffodils will kill…hang tough, children!”

Things chill with the sweet “Take Me With U,” a shortish number that honors idyllic, wholesome love. Prince is joined by singer Apollonia who brings an endearing harmony to the mix. “The Beautiful Ones” is a ballad of love gone wrong. He builds from melancholy pondering to laying his broken heart open as he screams “Do you want him/or do you want me/’cause I want you.” Sung mostly in his trademark falsetto, Prince reveals a world of psychic pain.

Things funk up with “Computer Blue,” an angsty contemplation of romantic discontent, filled with guitar distortion and synthesizer action. Its trippy vibe may be an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. Ahead of his time as always, he’s likely alluding to computer pornography as an Rx for his frustration (“‘til I find the righteous one…computer blue.”).

The erotica continues with “Darling Nikki,” a wild ode to a one-night stand. Deliciously kinky, it’s the track that offended Tipper Gore sufficiently to get her to create the “Parental Advisory” sticker that ironically helped boost sales on many record albums. “Darling Nikki” contains a musical Easter egg: played backward, Prince’s final incomprehensible lyrics translate to: “Hello, how are you?/I am fine/because I know the Lord is coming soon.” Once again, sex and spirit keep close company.

Side Two opens with “When Doves Cry,” an aching reflection on Prince’s romantic and family troubles. The imagery of a weeping bird of peace is powerful, and the absence of a bassline gives it an otherworldly quality.

The shortest track is “I Would Die 4 U,” which mixes maestro guitar licks with melody and sentiment. It could easily be Prince’s appreciation of a romantic partner but is believed to be his homage to God.

The penultimate “Baby I’m a Star” brims with joy and triumph. A dance track for the ages, Prince struts his genuine star quality as his self-esteem builds. (“Hey! Look me over! Tell me, do you like what you see?”) This is all funk and polished disco, along with a sweet reveal of personal mojo.

Purple Rain concludes with the track of the same name, one so blisteringly beautiful that it may well be the song that best defines Prince Rogers Nelson. Here’s his interpretation: “When there’s blood in the sky…red and blue = purple. Purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith…guide you through the purple rain.” His impassioned wail at the 3:13 mark is tear-inducing; the guitar solo speaks as eloquently as the lyrics.

Happy anniversary to Purple Rain, an album so badass that it will be on playlists forever. It was Prince’s first to top the Billboard Charts, scored three Grammy Awards, and is one of the best-selling albums ever. Purple Rain is a masterwork that will live on.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo: Fair use image of Purple Rain




6 comments on ““Purple Rain” At 40

  1. Stephanie

    Love this piece Ellen. I haven’t thought of Purple Rain in years. You brought me right back to my angsty, thrilling, devastating and often joyful adolescence.

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thank you so much, Stephanie! That’s wonderful to hear. It has the same precise effect on me. Music is beyond powerful…especially when it’s Prince.

  2. Jan Bernstein Chargin

    This album was my constant companion, playing through the headphones of my Walkman. On campus, at home, on the Greyhound bus. Thanks for the trip back in time.

    • Ellen Fagan

      My great pleasure, Jan! I love the image of you gettin’ down to this classic. It will be in my cells forever.

    • Ellen Fagan

      I love this image of you commuting to the strains of Prince. &, boy, do I relate to it. Thanks so much, Jan!

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