16. Prince, '1999'
Recording a two-record set at a time when he had yet to become a major star was a risky thing for Prince to do — but the risk paid off. Upon its release. 1999 became Prince's biggest seller; two singles, "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious," went Top Ten, while the title track reached Number Twelve. Although it contained only eleven songs, clocking in at nearly seventy minutes, 1999 gave Prince the room he needed to address some of his favorite topics: sex, romance, freedom and even rock critics, who were toyed with in "All the Critics Love U in New York."
The album was at once both Prince's most experimental and his most commercial. Three of the songs were each more than eight minutes in length, including "Lady Cab Driver," which features one of his most danceable grooves. The title track is a prime example of Prince's pop craftsmanship, utilizing multiple lead vocals. The striking lyrics — about dancing the night away in the face of Armageddon — remain the perfect metaphor for the modern age. While "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" found him working with synthesizers and drum machines, creating disturbingly ominous textures, "Little Red Corvette" was a straightforward, infectious rocker that leaped onto pop radio.
"I think he was trying to become as mainstream as possible, without violating his own philosophy, without having to compromise any of his ideas," says keyboardist Matt Fink, who was a member of Prince's band the Revolution at the time. "To some extent, he was trying to make the music sound nice, something that would be pleasing to the ear of the average person who listens to the radio, yet send a message. I mean, '1999' was pretty different for a message. Not your average bubblegum hit."
Prince recorded much of the album at Uptown, his name for the basement studio he had built in his infamous purple house, located in a suburb of Minneapolis. The basement studio was more sophisticated than the one he had used for Dirty Mind and included a twenty-four-track recorder. "The groove got settled," says drummer Bobby Z. "He knew it was back to dance. There wasn't anymore of the 'Ronnie Talk to Russia' kind of songs. There was some weird stuff, like 'Something in the Water,' but it was still very funky. I think he found his groove, and the groove never left."
Although only Prince was billed on 1999 — like the three releases that preceded it — the album portended the integration of his band into future recording projects. He shared some of the lead vocal spots with keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Dez Dickerson, and Dickerson contributed the searing solos on "Little Red Corvette." On the psychedelic purple album cover, in small, backward lettering that partially obscures the i in "Prince" are the words "and the Revolution." "He was setting the public up for something that was yet to come," says Bobby Z.
Bobby Z. remembers the months Prince spent on 1999 as a period of intense creativity, when Prince's credo was "Anything goes." "A lot of experimental sound and backwards stuff was tried," says the drummer. "'Lady Cab Driver' was very innovative with the street sounds and almost a kind of rap. 'Something in the Water' was definitely using the Linn drum machine to its fullest. Prince was experimenting to get to something like the next album [Purple Rain]; 1999 gave him the keys to a lot of doors."