“What’s missing from pop music is danger,” Prince was quoted as saying in a 2006 Guardian interview. “There’s no excitement and mystery.” Danger, excitement and mystery were Prince Rogers Nelson’s calling cards from day one. At the precocious age of 19, he released his debut album, 1978’s For You. From there, he used his platform as an outrageously attired, unapologetically sexy performer (who just so happened to be a virtuoso musician and an innovative studio genius) to craft some of the most taboo-cracking, musically forward-thinking hits to every break the mainstream.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” (1979)
A “restrained, carefully crafted funk exercise” is how The Los Angeles Times described Prince’s first hit single in a review of the singer’s L.A. debut at the Roxy in November 1979. In retrospect, that’s a cautious assessment, but it’s understandable: Prince was but 19 at the time, and his brash, flamboyant style still hadn’t fully distinguished itself from the disco landscape. But the seeds were there. After the weak showing of his first album, 1978’s For You, Prince wrote “I Wanna Be Your Lover” with a vengeance, intended for R&B singer Patrice Rushen. Where one might hear “carefully crafted,” the song actually packs a boldly sculpted beat, the singer’s spine-tingling falsetto and a sleek revamping of the disco template. With “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” Prince threw down his glittery gauntlet – from there on out, the world had to meet his challenge.
“When You Were Mine” (1980)
According to legend, the greatest New Wave song ever written about a bisexual love triangle came to Prince at a Florida hotel room after he’d declined a band Disney World excursion. Or, according to another story, it came to him in a Birmingham, Alabama hotel room while listening to John Lennon. Either way, the second track on 1980’s Dirty Mind, is a tense and tight New-Wave-funk masterpiece that’s as much Blondie as James Brown. Cyndi Lauper covered it three years later on her breakthrough album She’s So Unusual, and would say she “loved the way the story in the song read, and the sound was that synthesizer sound with the stick-drum on one-three – it was a different herky-jerky sound.” Mitch Ryder and Crooked Fingers delivered stripped-down rock and folk versions, but nobody captured the spirit of Prince’s original, which has the feel of a Roman Bacchanal taking place at CBGB’s.
The Moral Majority was on the rise in 1981, emboldened by the January inauguration of Ronald Reagan. By November, a funky reaction appeared in the form of “Controversy.” With an airtight beat and synthetic, P-Funk-esque grooves, Prince’s 13th single counterbalanced the conservative backlash against anything – music, movies, TV, books, sex – that threatened to liberate America from the post-Seventies doldrums. Aiming a rolled eye at all the rampant public speculation about his preferences and politics, Prince offers more questions than answers – “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”; “Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” – while potentially baiting the Jerry Falwells of the world by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the sound of Prince hijacking American morality and making it his plaything.
When Prince recorded 1999 – the album lead by this single – he would go all day and all night without rest, turning down food since eating would make him sleepy. Prince’s apocalyptic anthem was released in 1982, just as Cold War tensions were reaching absolute zero. Nuclear war, it seemed, was only a matter of when, not if. Into that atmosphere Prince detonated a song so brazen, it stares into the abyss and winks: “But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” The end of the world has never sounded so sexy.
“Little Red Corvette” (1983)
The chorus of Prince’s first Top Ten hit suggests it’s a straightforward car song. But look beneath the hood and it’s all supercharged sex (the flipped wordplay on “Trojan horse” is especially inspired). Despite the bedroom allusions and those more straightforward (“Girl, you got an ass like I never seen”), the song resonated on mainstream pop radio, thanks mainly to its irresistible sing-along chorus. The story goes that Prince came up with the lyrics while riding in Revolution member Lisa Coleman’s hot-pink Edsel, but in the spring and summer of ’83, there was nothing flashier than Prince’s ‘Vette.
“Delirious,” Prince’s second Top 10 single is a loose, funky romp updated with new sounds – the Linn drum machine (popularized by Devo, Gary Numan and Michael Jackson) and a synthesizer for the buzzy, addictive hook. It all walked a fine line between commercial and experimental; between pop, R&B and New Wave. Said Matt Fink, keyboardist in Prince’s band the Revolution: “To some extent, he was trying to make the music sound nice, something that would be pleasing to the ear of the average person who listens to the radio, yet send a message.”
“When Doves Cry” (1984)
The heart of the Purple Rain soundtrack and the biggest hit of 1984, “When Doves Cry” showed how experimental pop music could get, making the most mainstream moment in America conform to the avant-garde. With no bass line and Prince wailing over guitar, synth and drum machine, “When Doves Cry” sounds as cold as a tense relationship can feel. His engineer recalls that the artist, who played every instrument on the track, instantly knew the impact the single would have on music. “Nobody would have the balls to do this,” the Purple One reportedly told the engineer. “You just wait – they’ll be freaking.”
“Let’s Go Crazy” (1984)
After “When Doves Cry” dominated pop radio throughout the late summer and early fall of 1984, the Number One smash “Let’s Go Crazy” was as much a victory lap as an advertisement for the Purple Rain feature film. The full-bodied funk rock flourishes and allusions to Jimi Hendrix were made with the help of the Revolution, who briefly became the most famous backing unit in America. “Some of the band members came up with their own parts,” engineer Susan Rogers told Billboard, noting Matt Fink’s jazzy piano solo in the middle of the track. “Matt, knowing Prince so well and knowing what he liked, got that solo on the third take and we kept replaying it over and over again, because it was just great to listen to.”
When the enormous success of Purple Rain generated murmurs that Prince was selling out to the AOR crowd, he told MTV in 1985, “I was brought up in a black and white world. Yes, black and white, night and day, rich and poor, black and white. I listened to all kinds of music when I was young… I always said that one day I was gonna play all kinds of music, and not be judged for the color of my skin, but the quality of my work, and hopefully that will continue.”
“Erotic City” (1984)
The “Let’s Go Crazy” B-side was not only one of Prince’s funkiest jams but also the world’s introduction to Sheila E. Carried by a slithering bass line and sweetly simple keyboard riff, Prince fluctuates his voice on one of his nastiest songs – though the use of “fuck” or “funk” has been contested. In the late Nineties, when inducting Parliament-Funkadelic into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Prince revealed that he had recorded the song immediately after seeing the group live at the Beverley Theatre in California. “It was frightening,” Prince said. “14 people singing ‘Knee Deep’ in unison. Clinton later returned the love with a cover.
“Purple Rain” (1984)
In an interview with Mojo in 2013, Stevie Nicks revealed that Prince had originally given her a demo of “Purple Rain” and asked her to contribute. She turned him down, saying, “Prince, I’ve listened to this a hundred times, but I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s a movie, it’s epic.” The entire genre of power balladry met its match with “Purple Rain.” The title track of Prince’s signature album, it’s performed at a climactic point in the film, which lends it even more gravitas. As if it needed it. Cradled in strings, echoes, and a gospel chorus, then topped with a sky-splitting guitar solo, it’s a culmination of all the influences Prince had been absorbing throughout his rise to fame in the early Eighties, from rock to pop to soul.
“I Would Die 4 U” (1984)
On “I Would Die 4 U,” Prince tossed aside gender roles, societal standards and mankind in general – “I am not a human, I am a dove,” he proclaimed – in the name of love. It didn’t hurt that he swaddled his mission statement in silk, courtesy of his Revolution backing band, because the quickest way to the heart is often through the hips. Neither Revolution keyboardist Dr. Fink nor Prince could play the bass line manually, so they rigged up an interface to lock a sequencer up to the drum machine. “We did some groundbreaking technological things that day,” Fink remembered.
“Darling Nikki” (1984)
One of the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy 15,” “Darling Nikki” is supposedly the song that inspired Tipper Gore to form the PMRC in the first place. Never released as a single, the Purple Rain track nonetheless found itself blasting out of the stereos of fans (including Gore’s then-11-year-old daughter) when the album became a massive hit in 1984. “I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,” sang Prince in the first verse, leaving nothing to the imagination. Later, the Foo Fighters recorded their own version and Prince wasn’t too happy. “I don’t like anyone covering my work,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2004. “Write your own tunes!”
“Take Me With U” (1985)
Though only the fifth biggest single off Purple Rain, the elegant, crystalline duet with Apollonia Kotero – originally intended for Apollonia 6’s self-titled album – transcends both the album and the decade that birthed it. From the arresting drum-solo intro (which doubles as an equally stunning bridge) to the breathless exchanges between the two singers (“You’re sheer perfection”; “Thank you.”), the song instantly earned a place in the pantheon of classic love jams. “I don’t have an expiration date,” Prince said in an interview with The Word in 2004. “Take Me With U” is proof.
“Raspberry Beret” (1985)
When it first debuted in Spring of 1985, with Purple Rain‘s earth-moving electro-funk guitar-epic success mere months earlier, “Raspberry Beret” sounded way too … simple. Prince as a part-time counter-boy seducing a customer with great chorus, one could dig; but after Bobby Z’s crazy electronic drums opened the account, why retreat into plain acoustic guitar and simplistic keyboard strings? Compared to its now almost-as-legendary B-side, “She’s Always in My Hair,” “Raspberry Beret” felt like a drop-step. Now, it seems obvious that it was a chance to explore more psychedelic pop songwriting. That too became part of Prince’s arsenal – the same one that would manifest itself in the Bangles’ hit “Manic Monday” – not deep personal thoughts, but a day’s diary set to music. After the seemingly limitless aspirations of Purple Rain, it was this simpler poetry that actually proved that maybe Prince’s creativity had no limits.
It was 1986, post-Purple Rain, when Paisley Park sound engineer David Z got a call from Prince to join him in Los Angeles. When he arrived at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound studios, Z was handed a cassette-recorded demo — a verse, a chorus and a little acoustic guitar — intended for the band Mazarati. Z would later tell Mix Magazine it sounded like a Stephen Stills song. He and the band tinkered with it for a few hours, recorded a version and called it a day. When Z returned to the studio the next morning, Prince had stripped off the bass and hi-hat, added the iconic riff and recorded his own vocals. “This is too good for you guys. I’m taking it back,” Z recalled Prince saying. Warner Brothers begged to differ; they said the track sounded unfinished, but Prince won the ensuing fight, and the single ultimately slingshotted to Number One.
“Sign O’ the Times” (1987)
“Sign O’ The Times” may be the oddest of Prince’s lead singles. The man was at the height of his commercial and critical success, and his previous album Parade – a delirious tour into French jazz-pop that yielded the all-time funk classic “Kiss” and the cinematic debacle in Under the Cherry Moon – had taught his audience that Prince could be wonderfully unpredictable. Yet “Sign O’ The Times” sounded like nothing he had done before. The starkly minimalist track found him playing blues guitar over a Fairlight synthesizer, and wailing over the world’s troubles. “Man ain’t happy truly until a man truly dies,” he sings. Engineer Susan Rogers, who worked on the track along with keyboard programmer Todd Harriman, told Billboard, “He was coming down from the headlines of his huge success and he was aware that his audience was changing and things were changing for him. So it may have been a little bit darker in that respect.” Peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at Number Three and topping the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll for single of the year, “Sign O’ The Times” was an affirmation that Prince’s audience would follow him anywhere, no matter where he led them.
“U Got the Look” (1987)
In his sped-up, androgynous “Camille” voice, Prince introduces this hard-slamming funk number as the ultimate battle of the sexes: “Boy versus girl in the World Series of love.” The girl was Sheena Easton, who recalls that he’d already finished the track before contacting her. “He said, ‘Do you want to just come in and sing some backup vocals on the choruses?'” according to Easton. “So I went into the studio, and because I didn’t know I was singing against him… I was all over the place – and he said he kind of liked that, so he expanded it into a duet.” The boy, of course, was Prince himself, cooing with self-assured, flirtatious aplomb.
“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (1987)
At a certain point, Prince’s formidable gifts as a polymath began being taken for granted. In addition to his skills as a singer, songwriter, performer, mogul and multi-instrumentalist, though, there’s one role he’s never gotten enough credit for: storyteller. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” was released in 1987, when Prince had cemented his place as a funk icon. But he turned his ninth album Sign O’ the Times into a smorgasbord of sounds and approaches – including this short story in power-pop form whose narrative is a poignant, sharply etched portrait of a would-be lover who doesn’t want to be a rebound. “Everyone has their own experience,” he told the NME in 1996. “That’s why we are here, to go through our experience, to learn, to go down those paths and eventually you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don’t have to come back again.”
“Alphabet Street” (1988)
The lead single from 1988’s Lovesexy shows how Prince could create fully realized funk from bare-bones elements. Jagged funk guitars and Levi Seacer Jr.’s bouncing bass line combine with Prince’s street-corner cool for a track that sounded absolutely bracing in the increasingly cacophonous context of late-Eighties pop radio. An extended breakdown featuring horns and an exhilarating rap by Prince protégé-choreographer Cat Glover turn up the heat and extend the party. The legacy of “Alphabet St.” continued through samples – hippie-hop collective Arrested Development’s much-lauded 1992 single “Tennessee” caused them to pay Prince $100,000 for their unauthorized repurposing while beloved weirdos Ween used Prince’s song-opening “No!” to mask the naughty words in their breakthrough “Push Th’ Little Daisies.”
“Thieves in the Temple” (1990)
Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to 1984’s iconic Purple Rain was Prince’s final film role. But unlike its heralded predecessor, the accompanying soundtrack would far outshine the film. “Thieves in the Temple,” a brooding, spiritual meditation on lies, rejection and soul-searching that hit Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100, was a last-minute addition. With a Middle Eastern flavor, almost operatic vocals and an agitated feel, it was a decidedly new vibe for Prince. And one in which he didn’t feel comfortable residing for long. “I feel good most of the time, and I like to express that by writing from joy,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “I still do write from anger sometimes, like in ‘Thieves in the Temple.’ But I don’t like to. It’s not a place to live.”
Legend has it, Prince wrote “Cream” while standing in front of a mirror, and, really, is there any doubt? Why else would he sing, “You’re so good/Baby there ain’t nobody better” on this impossibly slinky Diamonds and Pearls hit — his last Hot 100 Number One.
“Diamonds and Pearls” (1992)
A sultry ballad of a title track off Prince’s 1991 album, “Diamonds and Pearls” was a Number Three hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and, more importantly, one of the most prominent instances in which the Purple One’s new backing band, the New Power Generation, stepped to the forefront. With NPG singer Rosie Gaines providing backing vocal support atop seductive synthesizer, Prince sings: “If I gave you diamonds and pearls/Would you be a happy boy or girl?” echoing the nearly-identical lyrics he’d sung a decade earlier on 1982’s “International Lover.” The album was largely panned as Prince’s response to hip-hop, but Diamonds and Pearls‘ title track intricately wedded the singer’s love of glitz and glamour with a distinct, ever-evolving pop-R&B sensibility.
In the midst of his rebranding as an unpronounceable symbol, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince expanded his sonic palette on “7,” tapping into tablas and sitars, widescreen multi-tracked vocals and a sample of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.” Of course, given his out-there status at the time, Prince may have also been dabbling in numerology– seven represents the seeker and the searcher of truth, though it’s also entirely possible the seven he rails against are folks at Warner Bros. Records. Was he fighting for freedom? Searching for respect? Looking for easy access to your boudoir?
“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” (1994)
In 1993, Prince had changed his name to a symbol, was in a creative rut and was fighting with Warner Bros. over creative control. He realized he didn’t need help from a major label when he released “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” on indie label Bellmark. Prince reportedly spent $2 million out of his own pocket to promote the single. It turned out to be his biggest hit in years. The gorgeous falsetto-steeped ballad has clean funk guitar touches and keyboards, but Prince lets his gift for melody do most of the work. It was originally written for his future wife, choreographer, Mayte Jannell Garcia. She later recorded her own version, “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.”
“Black Sweat” (2006)
Released as the lead single from his 2006 album 3121, “Black Sweat” may be the best of Prince’s late period singles. Reminiscent of “Kiss,” it’s nothing but drum machine rhythms, glorious falsetto and a noodle-y synthesizer melody that hearkens to the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm.” “I don’t want to dance too hard, but this is a groove,” he sings. “I’m hot and I don’t care who knows it… I’ve got a job to do.” “Black Sweat” may have only simmered on the charts, peaking at Number 60 on the Hot 100, but it helped 3121 debut at the top of the album charts, and earned a handful of Grammy nominations. More importantly, it was a timely reminder that Prince will always have the funk.