The next Prince album was aptly titled Controversy. In terms of style, it was basically a sequel to Dirty Mind, only a little funkier and a little less raunchy. Sexual themes continued to abound, but this album also saw Prince waxing political (an area he first touched upon on “Partyup”). The title track, a synth- and guitar-driven heaping helping of funk, was one of Prince’s finest-crafted tunes and summed himself up nicely with lyrics that addressed his Rude Boy image, prejudice and spirituality.
The disc also contained the shuffling new wave funker “Sexuality” and the bass-powered “Let’s Work.” But, the record was not as focused as Dirty Mind. The flipside of the “Let’s Work” 12-inch single features the Dirty Mind outtake “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” and began a Prince tradition of putting unreleased material on nearly every single. Before the year was over, Revolution bassist Andre Cymone was replaced with Brown Mark. Cymone went on to record a series of marginal albums before reaping success as Jody Watley’s producer.
As if a single album wasn’t enough to produce each year, Prince brought forth the two-record set (now a single CD) 1999. This overwhelming accomplishment stimulated the masses and proved to be Prince’s breakthrough release. The album is the work of a genius tapping into the deep wells of his miraculous abilities. Superior in production, musicianship and, most importantly, songwriting to any of his prior releases, 1999 also found Prince straying from his falsetto to prove himself a singer of uncommon emotion.
It would be easier to list the LP’s shortcomings than its high points. The first three songs, “1999,” “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious,” were all pop hits, while “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic,” “Lady Cab Driver” and “International Lover” all scored at black radio. The album was both Prince at his most accessible and at his funkiest. There were a few misfires to be sure (observe the disturbing “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”), but if you want to check out pre-1987 Prince, 1999 is the place to start.
Prince’s triumphant year didn’t stop at 1999. Rumored to have stolen beautiful Denise Matthews away from Rick James while they were on tour together, Prince renamed her Vanity and placed her at the forefront of the lingerie-clad trio Vanity 6. Their self-titled debut is thought to have been almost entirely created by Prince. Regardless of who was involved, the record was an enticing blend of funk, new wave and unbridled sensuality. The girls’ limited singing and bimbo imagery precluded the LP from being taken too seriously, but songs such as “Nasty Girl” and “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” were fun and funky.
The Time returned with their second effort, What Time Is It?, and succeeded in building upon the momentum of their sterling debut. While still produced by Prince, the members of the Time are believed to have played a much larger role than previously. The result was an even better, more cohesive, fatter-bottomed collection. Lengthy throwdowns like “Wild and Loose,” “777-9311” and “The Walk” were the bread and butter of the LP, but even the ballad “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” worked well.
Unless you weren’t born yet or were living under a rock, you’re already familiar with Prince’s Purple Rain period. From the point the sparse, haunting “When Doves Cry” bolted to an extended stay at the top of the charts, everything fell perfectly in place for Prince in 1984. The loosely autobiographical film and accompanying album were unqualified smashes, and deservedly so. For the first time, Prince shared billing with the Revolution, which now featured Wendy Melvoin on guitar in place of the departed Dez Dickerson. It was one of several personnel changes that swept through Prince’s camp during this period.
The Purple Rain album incorporated the rock element of early Prince with the songwriting acumen of 1999. Prince toned down his libidinous references and softened up the funk just enough to win over millions and skyrocket to superstardom status. Six of the disc’s nine songs were released as singles. Ironically, the three nonsingle cuts were among the best on the record. Besides the stunning “Doves,” the LP also contained the rousing rocker “Let’s Go Crazy,” the dramatic ballad “The Beautiful Ones” and the playfully lewd “Darling Nikki.”
Even the B-side of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Erotic City,” became a sizeable radio and club hit, and marked Prince’s first collaboration with percussionist Sheila Escovedo, later renamed Sheila E. Although most hailed Purple Rain as Prince’s crowning achievement, funk pundits were not quite so enamored. Tracks such as “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star” were clearly pop compromises, and nothing on the record approached the brazen funk of “Head” or “D.M.S.R.” Prince was at a crossroads; would he continue to pander to the fickle tastes of the general public, return to his renegade roots or seek to conquer new territory? The answer fortunately turned out to be the latter.
George Orwell had it all wrong. It wasn’t Big Brother who was everywhere in 1984, it was a little guy from Minneapolis. Prince not only spearheaded the multimedia assault that was Purple Rain, but also oversaw albums from Sheila E., the Time and Apollonia 6. Coming from a family of respected musicians, Sheila E. stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight on her debut The Glamourous Life. The spicy title track, featuring Sheila’s flashy timbales banging, became a huge hit, and the springy “Oliver’s House” and the taut instrumental “Shortberry Strawcake” enlivened the balance of the LP.
The Time carried on despite the absence of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who Prince had fired for working on outside projects. Of course, Jam and Lewis went on to become the most successful producing team of all time. Ironically, Ice Cream Castle became the band’s bestselling album. It wasn’t as strong as their past efforts, but with dance jams such as “Jungle Love” and “The Bird,” the LP was certainly worthy of the Time’s name. Even the title track and the rock-edged “My Drawers” had merit. However, the ballads were painfully woeful.
With Vanity departed, allegedly because she demanded too much money to star in Purple Rain, Patricia Kotero was chosen as her replacement. Renamed Apollonia, Kotero took over the upfront spot in what was now called Apollonia 6 for their self-titled album. Apollonia 6 was more straight-ahead funk than the Vanity LP, but it suffered from weak vocals and a general absence of zest that even the best production could not conceal. The disc included the marginal hit “Sex Shooter.”