Bow Down by Devin Miles
With all respect to the late Michael Jackson… pardon me y’all, the great Michael Jackson… Prince was a King in his own right during the 1980s.
Growing up in the ‘80s when R&B still dominated urban radio, and before hip-hop evolved into Rakim vs. Kane/Biggie vs Pac/Jay-Z vs. Nas debates, the big “battle” was “who’s better- Michael or Prince?”. This was a contested topic not only around the way, but in the pop-oriented MTV world as well. Even in a time where urban radio and pop radio had dramatically different playlists (evidenced by how many ‘80s-era R&B classics didn’t even crack the Hot 100), Mike and Prince were the two whose music transcended race and musical genres. Every radio station, every video channel, every music magazine- regardless of which demographic they catered to- was featuring one or the other. And for a time, it was a legitimate argument that Prince was bigger than Michael.
Like many great artists, Prince’s arrival to that point definitely didn’t happen right away. He had hits such as “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Controversy”, but it wasn’t until 1982 when the true breakthrough moment came about. In a prime example of the longtime theory that anything with the right hook and music can be a hit, he dropped a song about the apocalypse that became a party anthem and one of the most-recognized singles of the ‘80s- “1999”. That single and the album of the same name made Prince a household name between ’82 and ’83. At the same time, he was making hits through other artists- namely The Time and Vanity 6- for whom he was not only writing and producing, but playing every instrument on their songs. Even with The Time, who was a band with capable musicians within it (including Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis) and led by Morris Day, they were all merely hired to play the music at the live shows, as Prince was the one playing every instrument heard on the albums.
With this success came another endeavor for Prince- his decision to make a movie showcasing his music and artists. Once Purple Rain went from an idea to a reality (with his label Warner Bros. initially scoffing at its existence), Prince and his band, The Revolution officially became the biggest thing going. The movie was huge, the album sold millions, every single was a hit, he took home a gang of awards, and the other acts in the film (The Time and Apollonia) became stars by proxy. Just as ’83 was the year Thriller made Michael the end-all be-all, ’84 was the year that the same happened for Prince.
I could be assuming by saying this, but after Purple Rain, Prince was probably wiping his ass with Warner Bros.’ money and getting more thrown at him to do whatever he wanted. If he so chose to let artists cover songs previously recorded by him (Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You”, Melisa Morgan’s “Do Me, Baby”), he did so. If he wanted to go under wild-ass aliases like “Alexander Nevermind”, “Jamie Starr”, and “Christopher” to write hits for pop artists like Sheena Easton (“Sugar Walls”) or The Bangles (“Manic Monday”), he did exactly that. Most notably, he began his own label Paisley Park, dropping albums by more of his proteges including Sheila E., The Family, and Mazarati (all of whom he was also doing the majority of the music for).
Being the artist he was, however, Prince was still determined to go right as he was expected to go left. As soon as the appeal of Purple Rain became his trademark, he gradually moved away from that sound and image, going in other directions with ‘85’s Around The World In A Day and ‘86’s Parade. With the Parade album also came some defining changes in his career. For one, it was accompanied by a second movie, Under the Cherry Moon, which bombed for the most part. Secondly, it only spun off one legit hit, “Kiss” (which, as big as it was, signified Prince only going one-for-four in singles). It was also the final album he recorded with The Revolution, after deciding to drop them at the conclusion of his ’86 world tour. As a result of that breakup, also went their album Dream Factory, which was already recorded and ready to go. Due to these changes, Prince experienced the beginnings of his troubles with Warner Bros. Records, which followed him for the next 10 years.
After Parade and all the changes that came with it (and the fact that every artist on Paisley Park not named Prince was catching bricks), he was met with resistance for his next project. He wanted to drop a triple album, which was given the thumbs-down, and he had to condense it to a double instead. In doing that, however, Prince pulled off another definitive album- 1987’s Sign o’ the Times. Not only was the music great (and possibly the most diverse of all his albums), but he was also back to making back-to-back hits, which put him back on top… at least until Michael Jackson’s Bad album came around that September. For the next few years, Prince dropped more albums with varying degrees of success. From doing the Batman soundtrack, to the ill-advised Purple Rain sequel Graffiti Bridge, to forming a new band named the New Power Generation, he stayed relevant for better or worse.
Then, he entered what can be described as the “dark ages” of his career, due to his increasing issues with Warner Bros. Between changing his name into “the symbol” and painting “SLAVE” on his cheek, Prince spent most of the early-to-mid ‘90s dropping albums that were struggling in sales and getting bad reviews. Most of these projects were put out with the sole purpose of fulfilling his contract with WB. As soon as he finished up his obligations with ‘96’s Chaos & Disorder, he was off on his own, dropping the triple album Emancipation at the end of that same year. Only opting to occasionally deal with major labels (Arista in ’99, Columbia in ’04, Universal in ’06), he’s mostly stuck to putting his work out independently.
In the years that have followed, Prince’s status as an iconic artist of his time has been restored. It’s no question that he gets the credit he deserves as a great musician, but it’s also been lost on a lot of people just how big of a deal he was in the ‘80s. For those who weren’t around for his prime years (and even some who were), it’s become easier to remember him for assless pants and changing his name into a symbol than his musical output and popularity. In fact, I recently had some dude tell me R. Kelly was a more versatile and talented artist than Prince ever was. Of course, that’s merely a man’s opinion, but does speak to how de-emphasized Prince’s musical influence and output has been over the years. Even Michael, in the darkest years of his personal life, didn’t have his importance as an artist downplayed like Prince seemingly did.
That aside, those who know, really know. Prince’s relevance to music in the ‘80s- whether R&B, Rock, or Pop- was NOT a pillow. He made music with influences ranging from ‘70s soul to country to gospel, and went through numerous reinventions. For me personally, his Revolution-era music was his best, while some are more partial to his earlier work, and others leaning towards his post-Sign o’ The Times material. Whichever way it went, from the beginning of the decade to the end, Prince was the shit. Game… blouses.