By The Numbers: Purple Rain by Prince

I did this a few months ago and it seemed like an appropriate time to take back a look at Prince’s 1984 classic, Purple Rain.  My rankings of the individual songs on this album make it one of the few albums where every song has either a four or five star rating.  Not surprising given the album’s status as Prince’s masterpiece, but it does makes it harder to rank the songs.  Basically, we’re dealing with two tiers and you could ask ten Prince fans to do this and you’d probably get ten different combinations, though I have a feeling the top 3 would be the three I chose in some order.

In re-listening to the entire album a bunch of times in the past week, I was struck by the variety of musical styles that the album offers (sometimes within one song), which may explain some of its appeal.  There’s something here for fans of a bunch of different genres, even though it’s often labeled a “pop” album.  He certainly took some chances with this record and the fact that there are no mis-steps or even “average” tunes makes this album even more impressive.  The other thing I noticed was that the sequencing and transitions between songs is marvelous. I certainly think this is an album to be heard in one sitting and I certainly wouldn’t reorder it to match my rankings below.

9. Track 7, I Would Die for U (four stars).  The “worst” song on the album is also its shortest by over a minute. This song is held together by a drum machine beat that holds together the arrangement. Piano, synths, handclaps and snare hits emerge during the chorus, but surrender to the drum machine during Prince’s first two verses. The chorus make it seem like this is Prince singing to a girlfriend/lover and professing that he would die for her. But the rest of the lyrics make it more likely this is God (or Prince on behalf of a higher being) singing to the collective us. “I’m something you’ll never understand”, “if you’re evil I’ll forgive you” and “I’m your messiah” are all not too subtle hints.  Also a little touch that seems odd but works. In the chorus, instead of going right from “darling if you want me to” to “I would die for you” as I’d expect most artists would, he throws in an extra “you” in front of the kicker line that emphasizes that he’s ready to die for YOU. Overall, a very good synth-pop song.

8. Track 2, Take Me With U (four stars).   Was Prince foreseeing Twitter and texting with his insistence on shortening “you” to “U” in his song titles?  Probably.  This tune starts with a slightly ominous synth and tom tom barrage that could have been score music for a dramatic scene in a Miami Vice episode. But instead of a shootout, we get a love scene. A jangly tambourine introduces a song that is a piece of 60s psychedelic guitar rock ala early Beatles. String flourishes and an upbeat, sunny guitar line buoy lyrics about love and wanting to be with be with your lover no matter where they are going.  If he wasn’t such a talent at songwriting,  I could imagine Paul McCartney having given these lyrics to Prince and telling him “I know you can do something better with this than that hack MJ”.  I also love his cadence in the delivery of the chorus, it’s so damn uplifting. Nice touch at end too when he bookends the track with that same ominous intro music and then fades it out on the cheery hook one last time.

7. Track 4, Computer Blue (four stars).  Wendy and Lisa from the Revolution start with a short spoken intro that suggests something kinky is about to happen. Don’t think I’d characterize this song as kinky, but it’s the weirdest song on the album. There’s some screechy sound effects and a little synth line that sounds like it would fit right in on a Todd Terje album. It’s mostly an instrumental track that apparently was part of a larger suite that got pared down for the final album. It still retains that spirit with a middle section that is quite different than the first and last third.  There’s one verse of lyrics, with Prince bemoaning his lack of finding a lover and then cymbals start getting bashed and there’s some guitar wailing that comes to a screeching halt with a snare drum punctuation.  Then a synth brings us down into another groove that’s a little less manic.  Like the last song, he brings back in the heavy drums and guitar for one last reprise, and adds in some Prince yelps worthy of an 80s hair metal leader singer.

6. Track 8, Baby I’m A Star (four stars).  This was the B-side to Take Me With You.  Obviously I like this song better.  This is the closest approximation to some of his earlier hits (say 1999) and the most obvious funk/R&B track on the record and has the feel of a Sly and the Family Stone track.  It’s high tempo throughout, building and building to a horn (which may actually be done with a synth) and synth breakdown and Prince yelping “baby”.  Musically, this sounds like what Mark Ronson was trying to recreate with Uptown Funk.  Lyrically, it’s a pretty straightforward piece about becoming a star, the chorus probably pretty accurately summing up Prince’s prescience  about what was coming with this album, “You might not know it now, baby, but I are, I’m a star/I don’t wanna stop til’ I reach the top.”

5. Track 3, The Beautiful Ones (four stars).  A good example of the genre-blending I mentioned at the top.  This one starts out as the slow jam of the record, with a plinky piano line and velvety synth and some sultry singing from Prince.  Here Prince is playing the one pining for an unrequited love, “don’t my kisses please you right/you were hard to find/the beautiful ones, they hurt you every time”.  Two verses later, he tells her he’s in love with her and asks “if we got married/wouldn’t that be cool?” though the last line he breaks from his falsetto and delivers it in a deadpan, but desperate questioning tone.  Then, the synths start twisting and swirling, giving off an eerie, definitely non-romantic vibe.  Prince is now screaming “do you want him, do you want me, cause I want you” and now there’s a guitar line that’s crept in and the drums are picking up and Prince is now acting as front man for a rock band.  I have to think Axl Rose was taking notes when he heard this.  And then the song dies out into nothingness, as unrequited love is wont to do.

4. Track 5, Darling Nikki (five stars).  This song rises just above the songs already mentioned, but I don’t think is generally mentioned in the same breadth as the three songs left.  Here, Prince’s desires do not go unrequited.  The song matter-of-factly starts with an introduction to Nikki, “I guess you could say she was a sex fiend” and Prince finds her in a hotel lobby “masturbating with a magazine”.  Next thing you know, Prince is back at her castle and after signing some paperwork “Nikki started to grind”.  The music is sing-songy guitar and mellow drums while he sings, and then erupts with crashing cymbal and guitar riffs between verses.  Soft-loud-soft (Pixies anyone?).  Then the double bass drums kick in, a hard synth rises to the front of the mix and a nasty little guitar solo.  The most overtly metal moment on the album.  Then, a weird little outro with some backwards looped vocals that resemble chanting monks and rain sound effects, perhaps denoting the religious experience of being with Nikki?

3. Track 6, When Doves Cry (five stars).  Here’s where we get into the really tough choices. How could this only be the third best song on an album?  Following up the oozing sexiness of Darling Nikki, he goes right in on a guitar solo and settles into a groove made entirely with synth and drums.  To match the subject matter of the lyrics, the entire vibe of the song has a pall over it even as it tries to make you dance.  For such a popular song, the lyrics are some serious stuff.  Prince laments about repeating the mistakes of his parents with his current mate, too bold and never satisfied, and is left standing alone in the cold world.  The lyrics also conjure some great imagery.  The chorus is obviously one, but the verse “dream if you can a courtyard/an ocean of violets in bloom/animals strike curious poses/ they feel the heat/the heat between me and you” is vivid and tangible. The prolonged outro has Prince lamenting through his guitar and assorted wails and grunts, part Jimi Hendrix, part James Brown.

2. Track 9, Purple Rain (five stars).  This is an epic ballad.  You know the lyrics, you’ve sung the chorus out loud in the shower, with your friends, or at a karaoke bar.  You know the guitar solo.  There’s a deliberate slowness to everything about the song, his vocals have an echo, the guitar and drums don’t ever really gain tempo.  After several other songs have shown, you expect Purple Rain to erupt into something different, whether it’s style or speed.  He stays the course here on both accounts.  Snare hits, cymbal crashes, the guitar riffs, and the vocals feel like they are fighting the reins that Prince is putting on the song, and since they can’t go faster, they all just get more intense.

1. Track 1, Let’s Go Crazy (five stars).  The iconic opening song that dramatically sets the stage for the rest of the album.  Beginning with that organ and Prince preaching to his listeners.  It’s basically an album opening skit, a bold move in that skits, as countless hip hop albums have shown, are almost always annoying and break up the flow of an album.  Here, it fits thematically and musically the transition from that organ line to that drum beat and the song proper is sublime.  When I hear this song, I feel it’s the refinement of Prince’s quest for the ultimate party song (see 1999), though it seems Prince’s ultimate time to party appears to be at the end of the world.  The funkiness of 1999 is replaced with a hard-charging rocker that still gets you dancing with a chorus getting to the crux of having a good time “let’s go crazy, let’s go nuts.”  If you happened onto the song as the guitar solo hits, you might think you’re listening to Eddie Van Halen going to town on a VH tune.  I definitely remember rocking out in my room as a ten year old kid whenever I heard this song on the radio.  Thirty-some years later and it still makes me feel like that ten year old, which I think is what Prince would have wanted.

There you have it.  My take on Prince’s classic.  Given Prince’s vigilant  protection of his copyright rights, this video probably won’t be up for long, but here’s a video apparently from the Purple Rain tour of Let’s Go Crazy.  If it’s gone by the time this post is up, do yourself a favor and listen to the whole album.

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