How must it have felt to be Prince in August 1984, in the Olympian position of simultaneously having the Number 1 single, album and movie in America? According to the man himself, terrifying. “We looked around and I knew we were lost,” he recalled. “There was no place to go but down.” He was right about that. We remember him as one of the titans of ’80s pop but Purple Rain’s chart trifecta was unrepeatable. In commercial terms he stumbled as often as he soared, and people weren’t inclined to give this aloof, fruity genius an easy ride. He has courted audiences rarely and reluctantly, seeming to believe that success should be as inevitable as a chemical reaction in which talent and perseverance naturally produce sales and acclaim.
You could never say he doesn’t put the hours in. Since his debut album, 1978’s For You, only seven years have gone by without a new Prince record, and that’s not counting the armada of bootlegs laden with unreleased songs and live performances. At his peak he was so prolific that he could consign potential hits to B-sides (17 Days, Shockadelica) or gift them to other people (Manic Monday, Nothing Compares 2 U). Nor did he repeat himself. While his first two albums advertised a merely proficient student of funk and disco, he proceeded to forge his own unique language of pop, using anything from jazz to house music to new wave to psychedelia to mutant genres that still don’t have names. In his ’80s pomp he behaved as if the usual rules simply didn’t apply.
There were times he was forced to concede that they did: the night he was booed offstage by Rolling Stones fans for playing his opening set in a trenchcoat and black underwear; the ridicule dumped on his Jazz Age comedy Under The Cherry Moon. But when the gambles paid off everyone heard about it. Who would have banked on avant-garde Freudian funk storming the charts before When Doves Cry made it so? Who else could sack his entire band and then assemble black music’s answer to The White Album (that would be Sign O’ The Times) almost single-handed?
The hits are idiosyncratic enough but once past them you enter a labyrinth of outlandish ideas and one-off experiments. Songs don’t do what they’re meant to: basslines vaporise, his voice warps into new personae, sleaze mingles with spirituality and utmost sincerity vies with goofy humour (people forget how funny he is). Maybe he feels that if he can’t keep people wondering, on some level, what the hell he’s up to then it wouldn’t be any fun.
In the ’90s, when his lopsided war with the industry led Jay Leno to label him “the artist who formerly sold albums”, his creativity didn’t so much desert him as overwhelm him. There are wonderful moments on every album; it’s just hard work digging them out. But while Prince’s back catalogue has no consistent sound it does have a unifying philosophy. It has all stemmed from the same maddening, intoxicating self-belief.
When Purple Rain was at its imperial heights, Prince provoked a media backlash by going for a Mexican meal instead of joining pop’s legends at the recording of We Are The World. The decision epitomised his sense of wilful apartness. His name is Prince, and he doesn’t care what you think. Dorian Lynskey @Dorianlynskey
1. I Feel For You (PRINCE, 1979) This giddy disco romp feels lightweight only compared to what came next and it later worked wonders for Chaka Khan.
2. Head DIRTY (MIND, 1980) Prince unleashes his libido on this outrageously filthy tale of deflowering a bride on her big day.
3. Something In The Water (Does Not Compute) 1999, 1982 Clattery, agitated synth-funk mirrors Prince’s bafflement over a woman who doesn’t want to sleep with him.
4. Erotic City (LET’S GO CRAZY B-SIDE, 1984) A breezy dancefloor come-on featuring protégée Sheila E. Listeners can decide whether he really wants to “funk” till dawn.
5. She’s Always In My Hair (PAISLEY PARK B-SIDE, 1985) A whimsical acid-rock love song from his utopian Around The World In A Day phase.
6. Mountains (PARADE, 1986) Co-written with Wendy and Lisa, a love-will-save-us Biblical allegory with horns fit to level the walls of Jericho.
7. The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (SIGN O’ THE TIMES, 1987) Why Dorothy Parker? Why does the track sound like its drink’s been spiked? What exactly is going on? A mesmerising enigma.
8. Joy In Repetition (GRAFFITI BRIDGE, 1990) An hallucinatory late-night tale of sex and music, climaxing in one of his most eloquent guitar solos.
9. Loose! (COME, 1994) A shame this screamingly aggro rave smackdown was squandered on a flop album. Like Prince reimagined by The Prodigy.
10. Black Sweat 3121, 2006 Stripped down to a tight groove, Prince restates his relevance like a boxer returning to the ring. “I got a job to do.” Indeed.
Nominate your own Prince favourites in the comments below.