Let’s Live-Blog: The Beginning Of New Discovery: Prince

The last time I did this, I was writing about Bruce Springsteen. I sat down to write about Born To Run because I’ve always hated The Boss. And who are we if we are not challenging ourselves – even if it’s on the smallest level of listening to music?

Feedback was ample from friends everywhere about the post. A friend from high school told me that it reminded him of NPR Music’s “You’ve Never Heard…?!” blog feature that All Songs Considered assigns to its’ interns. Then, my brain started thinking.

So, I’ve decided to start a new feature here where I live-blog records that are famous that I’ve never heard before. It’s less a review (or more a review) and more of a song by song breakdown and reaction. And for this installment, I’ve decided to start tackling (a long over-due education of) Prince.

I’ve been putting this project off for some time. But right now, I’m about halfway through ?uestlove’s new memoir “Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According To ?uestlove.” I highly recommend it to any fan of music – particularly anyone who loves vinyl collecting – period. It’s an amazing story of how Amir Thompson became ?uestlove. It’s also a terrific portrait of black Philadelphia. MOST importantly, this book has me listening to The Roots, finally, and intently. (Not to mention the sweet cover art for the book, a nice nod to rock art past.)

But it also makes me want to know everything ?uestlove knows – which is impossible. So I figured I should start listening to as many records, that are new to me, as possible.

And at first, I tried making a list of every music mention in the book – song, artist and album – but that proved too hard to keep track. It was like keeping a list of all the words he was using. And while I thought it might make for an interesting listening and writing project, it was daunting. So instead, I am taking baby steps to try and expose myself to as much old music as possible. Prince just seems like a good place to start.

Did you know that he has thirty Top 40 singles? Did you know that he’s won a Grammy, Golden Globe AND Oscar? That he’s produced ten platinum albums? But for me, the biggest shock is that he’s from Minneapolis. Why is that a shock? Because when you think of genre defying, explosive soul and funk music, you don’t think of Minnesota. (You tend to, usually, think of that annoying band everyone likes.)

I wanted to start with Purple Rain but I’d rather do it bigger and start with Prince his second release, out in 1979 and his second release for Warner Brothers.

1. I Wanna Be Your Lover: Wow, this so isn’t what I expected it to be. And while this is hard to imagine, this is actually the first time I’m consciously listening to Prince. I had a friend in high school (who is now married) who encouraged me to listen to Musicology (his 2004 release) and I totally blew it off. Woah! Synthesizers, in 1979. Pretty sure these were cutting edge then/it’s just that not a lot of people were using them, right? No wonder Prince has these chops. I am really just shocked by the fact that he’s from Minneapolis. Like, really? Looks like this track has been covered aplenty and people have likely sampled it, because this groove is silk smooth. Two weeks at #1 on the charts, in December of 1979. (Other big hits from then was “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” by Barbara Striesand and Donna Summer, “Babe” by Styx and “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes. Woah, I am learning. Just check out the album art from “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, its…something?)

2. Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?: This seems like a mix of so many decades and genres. But no, Sarah, you must remind yourself that this came out in 1979. (Note: there is serious shoulder dancing going on right now.) So much has happened since then, musically, socially, sonically and everywhere else. I wish I could hear this in 1979. HELL, I wish I was alive in 1979. So, Prince produced this record too. I like that, artist control. AND he toured this record opening for Rick James (who had yet to release “Super Freak (Part 1).”) AND guitar solo. Definitely that 80s feel we’ll all get later.

3. Sexy Dancer: And there’s that bass I’ve been hearing so much about in ?uestlove’s book. ?uestlove talks a lot about Prince and being majorly obsessed with him. (He also tells the story of hiding Prince cassette tapes in his drum heads from his uber-religious parents. I guess a song called “Sexy Dancer” with all this heavy breathing  and “I want your body/want your body” would have any parents upset.) I wonder what people would do if this record came out now? Would it be regarded with throwback production like Random Access Memories is discussed? Or would people be like, “wow! This guy is actually doing composition on his record. Who cares about his heavy breathing! Listen to that guitar work!” (Or, minus the heavy breathing, isn’t that what “they’re” saying about RAM?) I can see why ?uestlove talks about Prince so much. If I was him – and DUH this is a stretch – no wonder it inspired him as a drummer and a DJ. This music is pretty radical for funk that was made so late in the decade. The piano solo happening about 4:00 into “Sexy Dancer” is really killing it. PLUS, it sounds so electric.

4. When We’re Dancing Close And Slow: All of the sudden he slows it down. Prince has a range. And he also sounds a lot like a woman. As I’m learning about Prince, I’m wondering how many times his vocals have been compared to Michael Jackson. OK, so Off The Wall also came out in 1979, two months before Prince. Maybe the vocals on Prince sound like the little kid version of MJ on “Ben” – but that’s just it. MJ was a LITTLE KID then. For as sexy as Prince was considered at this time, and always?, it’s kind of unusual since his voice sounds so child-like and feminine. But I guess that was the appeal of his sexuality. He appealed to women and men. (Wait, he does, right?) Wow, “When We’re Dancing Close And Slow” really isn’t my thing. I will say, four tracks in, I’m already preferring Funky Prince to Romantic Prince. Although the background synths and the acoustic guitar work is filling the atmosphere nicely. 

5. With You: OK, another slow jam. Not sure how much of this I can take. Let’s do some Prince reconn. A Google Image search results in a lot of cat-like faces into the camera and semi-creepy facial hair. And that Prince smirk. You know the one I mean. I’m not even a Prince “fan” (yet) and I know the smirk I mean. Wow, these vocals are quite something. Very Michael Jackson, only he hasn’t quite done it this way yet, as an adult. No wonder Prince sold so many records. And he sure is arranging this album well: heavy disco and funk followed by slow jams. “I only want to be with you” with guitar fills through the synths, what’s going on here? The more I look at Google Images of Prince, the more I question what his sexuality is. I KNOW that’s the appeal, but, I JUST WANT TO KNOW. Who do you REALLY love Prince? Or is that part of the game. Does no one really know? Does anyone even care anymore? I mean, slow jams have NEVER been my thing, so this part of the record is laying dull for my taste.

6. Bambi: Finally, ROCK GUITAR. This is what I needed. Wake me up Prince, scream some more and vibe all over that guitar. The thing might be for me, that I can’t look at images of Prince while listening to Prince. His voice is throwing me off enough. But finally some core guitar work is finally showing up. The slow jams, man, I’ve had ENOUGH with the slow jams. (Although, I get a feeling there will be more to follow.) WAIT, so this record was recorded in Los Angeles in April and June of 1979. Off The Wall was ALSO recorded in Los Angeles from December 1978-June 1979. (Woah!) And we’re assuming that Prince hadn’t heard MJ’s record until after he was done recording Prince. Now, I hear those “rock” “influences” with the solo on the back end of Bambi.” But I’m not sure why it just fades out? Maybe he didn’t know how to end the song? And who is Bambi? A lover? A friend? I want to know. 

7. Still Waiting: This is some smooth rock.  I’m not sure what category I would put Prince in at this point. He’s all over the place. No wonder people put him in his own category. Last.fm says that only 1.3 million people listen to him (but that’s just last.fm users) and its over 26 million listens. Which seems low considering his detailed, documented popularity. (Maybe that’s also because most last.fm users are nerd white people who listen to indie rock. Pleaes correct me if I’m wrong.) Noted by last.fm that his biggest hit was off Purple Rain “When Doves Cry.” Why did I go with Prince again? And not Purple Rain? Maybe it’s this piano solo right now, Ooo! and layered Prince vocals! Dig it, man. Wow, not even All Music has personnel listening for this record. Unless it’s common knowledge that Prince play all the instruments on this record and I’m just EXTRA late to the game. I would really like to know who played what on this recording. Hmm, lots of fade outs on this record. The true meaning of pop music, perhaps?

8. I Feel For You: More disco, let’s do this. Lots of synth. I’m not sure what I was thinking with this, but this is NOTHING what I expected Prince to sound like. Is this cultural? Do people just sit around listen to Prince? Or Prince? Or is it because I’m a white girl from New Jersey listening to Prince 34 years after its’ release? “Baby when I lay with you/there’s no place I’d rather be.” There are some serious pop lyrics happening in here. “I Feel for you/I think I love you.” I will say, I’m digging these synths. And these horns showing up, they’re pretty modulated, but I’m pretty sure that makes it much cooler. ?uestlove has sent me in the right direction. SHIT, chords moving up and down the keyboard, we dig that. There is some serious ground work in this record for decades of music to come.

9. It’s Gonna Be LonelyWow, we’ve reached the end of the record pretty quickly. I guess it’s only 41 minutes long. There is so much charm in here. A lot of it isn’t music I would listen to, but if it was late in the car and I was night driving (not my best quality, night driving) I would listen to this record. Is it hard to digest something when you’re listening to it for the first time and writing about it simultaneously? I will say “when you’re loving me/it’s gonna be lovely” so far is my favorite slow jam from this record. Can we talk about the album art for this record. Essentially, it’s just a photo of Prince with his shirt off. And perfectly feathered hair. I’m very impressed with his grooming, honestly. I guess in 1979, when a man was well groomed, he was well cared for by the ladies. There’s a lot more synth in here than I thought there would be. This record’s wikipedia page says that Prince didn’t become a cult figure until his NEXT record came out, Dirty Mind. Maybe I should just sit and listen to the entire Prince discography and write about it for you, Internet.

While we rap up, like I did last time with Bruce, I’m going to start the record over again. And shoulder dance a bit for you. The guitar sound on this record is so smooth. As if it was digital. I find myself skipping the slow songs (except for “Still Waiting” – looks like we have a slow jam winner with this one) and re-enjoying the fast tracks filled with guitar and synth – are we surprised by this? I will say that the most surprising thing about this record is his voice. I want to figure out Prince and Prince. What is it going to take? Do I have to be his lover?