The Paisley One Post-1999
by Jack Hallenbeck
In 2006, without warning, a strange entity appeared on my television screen. Shaking his head "no," cracking an erotic half-smile, his makeup-lined eyes peered down towards me. I only intercepted this gaze; the presumed target audience would include the gorgeous, anatomically perfect woman that orbits the center of the video. Certainly, I couldn't work up a "black sweat."
For 11-year-old me, Prince was a name that had already begun to occupy space in the ether, but I didn't really know what he looked like. I didn't even know what he sounded like. 3121's "Black Sweat" may have not been the best–or rather, most accessible–introduction. Filmed in black-and-white, this Prince is an odd-looking character. His hair is short, straight, and parted down the middle. His moustache is thin but meticulously trimmed. A three-piece suit stretches across his small frame. After the camera moves out, the wide flares at the bottom of his pants becomes visible. It's an appearance that seems both timeless and dated. It doesn't belong in this millennium, but I'm not so sure it sits comfortably in any past decade either.
The music wasn't any easier to swallow. I was deep into my pre-adolescent Killers and Red Hot Chili Peppers phase, so nothing could have prepared me for "Black Sweat"'s minimalist R&B architecture. At any given second, it combines up to four instruments: drums, two different synthesizers, and vocals. It is sparse, deconstructed, and unlike anything I had ever heard at the time–there isn't even a bass line. The drum kit, for one, is nearly terrifying. Each hit lands with bomb-like intensity as it passes through a degrading membrane of distortion. The beat is spacious in a mechanical way, almost reminiscent of early Timbaland productions with Missy Elliott like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)." Absent any steady percussive element subdividing the time, the listener is left to lean on the pounding kick and snare/clap hybrid–each introduced by the pickup of a closing hi-hat. Boom-ticka-slap, boom-tchhhick slap. Off to the side (rather than on top), a synth lead enters and exits. It is a resonant alien wail–similar to Dr. Dre's Bernie Worrell-inspired "G" whistle on "Nuthin' But a G Thang," but wetter and more piercing. The second synth emits a sequence of square pulses. The notes are somewhat low, stationed underneath Prince's voice, but any subsonic character is scooped out, forcing the function to be percussive and melodic rather than supportive. The part is brief, coming and going within span of a single musical phrase.
The majority of the song is sung in Prince's falsetto sex whimper. It's high, but it isn't honky the way it gets when most men push themselves into that range. It's thin, feminine, clean. This is the same tone that R&B songsters the like Justin Timberlake, Usher, and D'Angelo have employed to enter the realm of the sex symbol. Prince's imitators lack a certain rasp. Listen closely and you'll notice a breath that Prince himself forces through at the end of each phrase, giving it a Velcro-brush-against-velour-bed sheets quality. Prince isn't just tender, he's sticky. He's sweaty.
Frankly, I didn't have a chance at understanding what took place on the television before me. I gawked. "I guess I know Prince now." I didn't get it. I didn't think I was supposed to get it. He wasn't a white, ex-sock-on-his-cock rockstar in his mid-to-late forties, so I let it pass.
Three months later, Timbaland and Nelly Furtado released "Promiscuous," which would ultimately take third place in Billboard's Hot 100 Songs of 2006. The drums are bombastic and mechanical. Nothing subdivides the time. During the verses, the drums stand alongside only vocals and a synthesizer. For a while, there isn't even a bass line. Prince predicted the future. Then the chorus begins, signaling an influx of new instruments—including, lo and behold, a big, fat synthesizer bass. Trading blows with an icon must have been too difficult.
Towards the end of my first semester of college, I was ready to try Prince again. Equipped with headphones and Spotify (it's worth mentioning that only about a quarter of his discography was available on the application when I first wrote this and all of it has moved to Tidal as I finalize), I sprawled across the hallway of my dorm, intent on aligning my brain with that mystic, purple wavelength. "Today would be the day that I get Prince." I was older; it was time.
Again, it didn't really work. My first run through the hits included "When Doves Cry," "1999," "Little Red Corvette," and "I Wanna Be Your Lover" (the last of which I found the most accessible). Again and again, I looped these songs. Eventually, I didn't mind them. They seemed pretty interesting. I could groove to them. I could also really appreciate them from a technical standpoint. "When Doves Cry" begins with a Van Halenesque face-melter. The verse melody of "1999" is brilliance made simple by its flawless rhythmic fit into structure of the track. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" revolves around an incredibly funky riff that seamlessly integrates chords by distributing harmonic components to multiple instruments (a guitar, a synthesizer, and a bass all play different notes within the desired chord--the parts then come together to equal a whole). It was certainly all very impressive. I closed my laptop and scurried back into my room. I still didn't love Prince, but I could start to appreciate him. Objectively, the music was good, if only because it displayed such a great measure of talent, but for whatever reason, it wasn't clicking. Maybe the timing wasn't right; maybe I was born a couple decades too late. In I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, Touré stresses the importance of timing, suggesting that "Prince fit so snugly into the culture of Generation X"–those born between 1965 and 1982. He represented the anxieties and tastes of those people and those people alone. He was a shepherd for the lost latchkey kids and victims of family-shattering divorce which was to be a new, sweeping phenomenon for Generation X. He was their hero–not mine. Maybe I had missed my chance to be a Paisleyhead.
A few weeks later, however, an email popped up in my inbox, inviting me to an NYU screening of Prince's Purple Rain. It was around the 30-year-anniversary mark, and a panel of experts would be fielding questions afterwards. I attended. The room went dark. Ladies and gentleman, the revolution:Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called life. Electric word life. It means forever, and that's a mighty long time. But I'm here to tell you there's something else: the Afterworld.Holy shit. "Purple Rain" in a sharp, sleek, metallic font glows in front of the Revolution. The LinnDrum kicks in, the sound engineer pushes up the fader, and the movie kicks into a furious blur, song after song after riveting performance after riveting performance. I was witnessing the greatest Prince concert there ever was. As quickly as it began, the end credits finished rolling, the lights flicked back on, and I found myself soaked in the waters of Lake Minnetonka (unlike Apollonia, I dove into the right body of water). In 111 minutes, I had been baptised, cleansed, and converted–a devout follower of the Purple One.
The film gave me something that Spotify's greatest hits could not–context. Purple Rain came out January 1st, 1984. Sixteen Candles opened that same day, marking the beginning of a string of youth-culture coming-of-age flicks by John Hughes. Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off would be released one and two years later, respectively. The underlying narratives in Hughes's works and Purple Rain are absolutely comparable: Matthew Broderick finds himself incredibly apathetic towards his teachers, parents, and future (in a light-hearted fashion); the detained cast of Breakfast Club all feel distance between their place within their social caste and their place within their families; Molly Ringwald attempts to carve out her own self-relevancy after her family forgets her birthday; and Prince (The Kid) struggles to reckon with his professional, romantic, and familial identity. They all explore issues of belonging, and it's no coincidence. In an effort to shed light on an overarching attitude, Touré hypothesizes, "the smaller size of gen X defines us, sometimes make us feel like a squeezed out middle child, overshadowed by the boomers and their romantically turbulent 1960s, and the tech-savvy millennials in a world forever changed by the internet." Gen X, the Kid–this middle child–had to reckon with a notion that there simply wasn't any room.
But this concern with belonging wasn't just instilled in the narrative in Purple Rain; it also bled into the music. The album Purple Rain feels deliberate in its incorporation of common musical devices from first half of the 1980s. Perhaps the most obvious link is the production of the drums. Rather than perform with a live drummer, Prince utilizes the drum machine–a breakout technology that became paramount for the success of many synth-pop artists. From Madonna's Like a Virgin to Phil Collins's Face Value, the digitized robot beats became the backbone for a massive wave of new music. The trends and tropes also bled into the treatment of these drum machines. Gated reverberation and sample delay became ubiquitous. The former is a process that grants a percussive hit a massive, washy sound with an unnaturally short cutoff. The most extreme examples of this technique can often be found the many one-hit wonders of the era (it's especially easy to spot in A Flock of Seagulls "I Ran" and a-ha's "Take on Me"). The latter is an echo that is so short it's barely noticeable, only audible in its ability to make a signal wider and more phasey (this is the driving sound that gives Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight," an almost cosmic sense of space and depth while utilizing very few instruments).
During the creation of Purple Rain, Prince was leaning heavily on a single synthesizer, the Oberheim OBX. Jake Brown's Prince in the Studio recounts, "He had a drum set and every keyboard of the day–the Oberheim and the Omni, which was a very integral keyboard used on 1999. He didn't use [the Omni] much on Purple Rain, but was [instead] using the Oberheim quite a bit." He goes on to cite David Leonard, an engineer at Sunset Sound: "I triggered synths off of hi-hats and stuff like that. I remember gating and stuff and triggering stuff, it was cool." Prince was undoubtedly immersed in these new modes of music, but he wasn't bending to their whim like the synthpop magnates around him. He was manipulating them, forcing them into his own frame. Hearing a whole album start to finish–in conjunction with experiencing the setting around the music–finally had me hooked.
Fighting boredom during the summer is always a gargantuan challenge. A job helps, subsidizing the weariness of suburbia with pocket cash, but it's no cure. I find that new hobbies or interests are the most effective remedy. The season following my first year of college was set to be the driest of them all. All my friends were scattered around the globe, and frankly, things just weren't the same anymore. High-schoolers turned into college students, and that feels about as different as it looks. Nostalgia runs sour.
The record player hidden in the living room cabinet saved me, giving me the opportunity to become somewhat of a collector. I would make weekly runs to Raleigh's three mom-and-pop record stores to dig for gold. My knowledge of music isn't encyclopedic. That is to say, when looking for records, I wasn't searching for an underground/one-of-a-kind/tasty/primo DJ edit on a 10-inch that all those twentysomethings in Williamsburg are fighting tooth and nail to discover. I simply wanted to listen to my favorite records on a new format; I wanted an upgrade in audio fidelity; I wanted a new experience.
Peeling apart vinyl in the new arrivals section (the staff members haven't even gotten a chance to file these gems into their catalogue–this is where everyone finds the good shit), I stumbled upon 1979's Prince. On the cover, Prince is shirtless and hairy. His ‘do is super long and blown out, and the expression underneath reads something like, "I'm super fragile, super androgynous, and I know you're going to want me." I had to remember to not judge this guy by the cover. I saw "I Wanna Be Your Lover" on the track list, and I left that store with Prince underneath my arm– the first Prince record I bought.
The first playthrough was tremendous. Prince is somehow an amalgam of C'est Chic's guitar-driven grooves, the Bee Gees' Children of the World's ballad-esque sheen, Blue Oyster Cult's Spectres's ripping guitar rock, and Off The Wall's dance-pop perfection. It's the synthesis of an entire decade, and it is one fucking man from Minneapolis. Questlove describes Prince records as having a Shakespearean narrative arc, going from rising action, comic relief, climax, and denouement. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" kicks us off, followed by "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" and "Sexy Dancer"–three tracks that all push the pace and energy along healthily. "Bambi" and "Still Waiting," the first an over-masculine guitar showcase and the second a girl-group/lounge-esque synth ditty, serves as the comic relief. "It's Gonna Be Lonely" is the climax and denouement all at once. The chorus is anthemic, adding more layers of Prince each time it swings around, strutting with extreme confidence that he/she who wronged him is absolutely going to be lonely. But he's also speaking to us. It's time to bid Prince goodbye. The album is over, and we are going to be lonely without him. He knows it.
This plot line wasn't something that took half a discography to develop; this was Prince by his second album. By 1979, he knew who he would be musically. He knew he would be half funk and half rock; he knew he would end each album with a roaring exit; and he knew that he would be a rock star. This is how it all began–before he soaked up the sounds of the 1980s–before gates and drum machines and racks and racks of new-age keyboards ever entered the question. This is the core that would forever root Prince in individuality, no matter what aesthetic or generation he chose to pull forward on his back. It all started with that blend of funk-rock and pop-sensibility, of sexuality and conflict, of musicianship and superstardom. Prince may lack an emotional depth from the songwriting perspective, but that would come later when he penned, "Yeah they say two thousand zero zero party over/ Oops out of time/ So tonight I'm going to party like it's 1999." He gave himself a few years before deciding to transform into the spirit of the zeitgeist.
The 2014 double release of Art Official Age and Plectrumelectrum would mark the first time I had the opportunity to anticipate a Prince record. It would also prove the first time that I would be disappointed by Prince. If I caught a bad track in the previous works, I could hit the next button and write it off as a fluke. I wanted to be in denial: Prince could never write a bad song. Unfortunately, two albums are too much to ignore. Prince chose to pull his being into two separate chunks, fitting funk onto Art Official Age and cramming rock into Plectrumelectrum. To me, it seemed as though Prince usually manipulated the fluff surrounding his core, the Minneapolis sound. This time, he split the core, creating two works that felt both over-indulgent in their own aesthetics and shallow in their compositional depth. If there had been some worthwhile message, the works may have been salvageable, but that would be asking for too much.
Art Age Official and Plectrumelectrum are desperate and failed attempts to connect to a contemporary environment. In "CLOUDS," one of the funkier, more well-produced songs off of Art Age Official, Prince preaches, "In this brand new age/We do everything quick, fast, in a hurry." In "FIXURLIFEUP," Prince points out problems ranging from misogyny to crime to individuality. It's as though he is guessing what global concerns he must spearhead to become socially relevant, but I don't hold him entirely accountable. In Possessed, the Rise and Fall of Prince, Alex Hahn suggests that Prince lives in a small world that is constantly shrinking as he rejects the record labels that connected him to the trends of the industry. It would be difficult to understand the times when there are few links to the outside. I like to think Prince tried to do his research. A U-T San Diego article reports that YouTube is where he found 3rdEyeGirl, the backing band behind the two new albums. Prince joined Facebook and Twitter in November of 2013, only to delete both accounts a year later. But assimilating to the internet didn't prove that Prince suddenly understood the new immersion in social media, and moreover, he shouldn't need to understand it. He shouldn't need to connect to make good music. The next great album will come when he stops trying to push some envelope that, at this point, is visible only to him. Track names in all caps and a robotlike female narrator only serve to make things weird in a pointless way. Maybe he should retreat back into the modes and methods that launched his superstardom. The Dev Hynes-produced Blood Orange and Sky Ferreira have both appropriated facets of Prince's 80s work (gated reverb, sample delay, drum machines), and these imitators have found considerable success in the last few years. Anyways it wasn't the Prince albums that came out in my lifetime that got me hooked. Ultimately, I don't want him to predict his future or point out the details that make the 21st century appear so impersonal in comparison to previous eons. I want him–the man who climbed the mountain–to give me guidance. I want to know how Prince is getting through this thing called life.
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