After the critical success of his Dirty Mind LP in 1980 and the subsequent notoriety of last year’s Controversy, Prince, at the tender age of twenty-two, has become the inspiration for a growing renegade school of Sex & Funk & Rock & Roll that includes his fellow Minneapolis hipsters Andre Cymone, the Time and Vanity 6. Yet regardless of the jive that he hath wrought, Prince himself does more than merely get down and talk dirty. Beneath all his kinky propositions resides a tantalizing utopian philosophy of humanism through hedonism that suggests once you’ve broken all the rules, you’ll find some real values. All you’ve got to do is act naturally.
Prince’s quasi-religious faith in this vision of social freedom through sensual anarchy makes even his most preposterous utterances sound earnest. On the title track of 1999, which opens this two-LP set of artfully arranged synthesizer pop, Prince ponders no less than the future of the entire planet, shaking his booty disapprovingly at the threat of nuclear annihilation. Although that one exuberant dance-along raises more big questions than Prince can answer on the other three and a half sides combined, the entire enterprise is charged with his unflagging will to survive — and a feisty determination to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, given the daily news, we may die.
Before “1999” whooshes into life, Prince assumes an electronically altered, basso-profundo voice and impersonates the imagined authoritative tone of God himself, creator of libidos as well as souls, prefacing the song’s Judgment Day scenario with this reassurance: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.” This intro serves Prince well, since 1999 lacks the tight focus of Dirty Mind, his best and most concise LP, which had the feel of emotionally volatile autobiography disguised as vividly descriptive sexual fantasy. Yet the new album doesn’t fall prey to the conceptual confusion that plagued the second side of Controversy, during which Prince raced from politics to passion, funk groove to rock blitz, as if there weren’t room enough for all his inspiration. This time there is, and then some.
Prince develops eleven songs, basically a single album’s worth of material, over the four sides of 1999, with each side comprising two or three extended tracks. Both discs are distinguished by palpably individual moods — the first contains the funkiest, most playful cuts, while the second is made up of slower, more introspective pieces. Two tracks, “D.M.S.R.” and “All the Critics Love U in New York,” qualify as unadulterated filler, and gone are any attempts at the classic three-minute pop song — Dirty Mind‘s “When You Were Mine” was the last word on that, I guess. On 1999, size counts.
Having graduated in record time from postdisco garage rock to high-tech studio wizardry, Prince works like a colorblind technician who’s studied both Devo and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, keeping the songs constantly kinetic with an inventive series of shocks and surprises. As “1999” proceeds, for example, he geometrically increases the overdubs until there’s a roomful of Princes partying almost out of bounds, then deftly brings it down to rhythm guitar and percussion while a childlike chorus asks, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” until — boom! — the groove disappears at its hottest.
Prince’s funniest and slyest effects are reserved for “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” a string of offhandedly vulgar suggestions transformed with the most basic tools into a quintessential Princeian comic-erotic epic. He first employs minimal but propulsive synth riffs to conjure the atmosphere of a computer-age arcade, pickup bar or, maybe, a space-station lounge. Then he chooses his most angelic falsetto to lure a prospective partner (“My girl’s gone and she don’t care at all/And if she did…”), suddenly switching to his gruffest lower register to complete the couplet: “…So what? C’mon, baby, let’s ball!” Between his ever nastier entreaties, a breezy non sequitur of a chorus (“Ooh we sha sha coo coo yeah/All the hippies sing together”) rushes by like a snatch of transmission from another galaxy, until most everything drops out except a pulsing synthetic bass and Prince himself, desperately aroused, liberally sprinkling his come-ons with the f word. But before his pleas fade into lonely space, he pulls out one last gimmick, a phalanx of cloned voices testifying that he is indeed the Prince of Uptown U.S.A. in a rap wildly mixing the sacred and profane: “Haven’t you heard about me? It’s true/I change the rules and do what I want to do/I’m in love with God, he’s the only way/’Cause you and I know we gotta die someday/You might think I’m crazy, and you’re probably right/But I’m gonna have fun every motherfucking night….”
1999 reaches its climax, however, with Prince’s shortest and sweetest offering, “Free,” which concludes the moody, dub-style third side without any electronic pyrotechnics whatsoever. Prince steps from behind the clanking machinery like a sentimental Wizard of Oz to remind us that “if you take your life for granted, your beating heart will go.” More important, he restates his utopian vision in the most inspirational terms, as if all the battles had been won and he could finally be a lover, not a fighter. “Free” reeks of skewed patriotism, describing the state of the union as much as a state of mind, its march-of-history grandiosity recalling Patti Smith’s “Broken Flag.” Like Smith, Prince is not afraid to be misunderstood — or wrong.
But I think Prince can separate a vision of life from a version of it, as the disturbing postscript “Lady Cab Driver” illustrates. A sequel to Controversy‘s “Annie Christian,” in which Prince tried to duck fate by living “my life in taxicabs,” “Lady Cab Driver” finds him bidding his cabbie to roll up the windows and take him away because “trouble winds are blowin’ hard and/I don’t know if I can last.” But midway through the song, the pain of both personal and public injustice wells up inside him, bursting out in an angry litany of verbal thrusts — “This is for the cab you have to drive for no money at all/This is for why I wasn’t born like my brother, handsome and tall/This is for politicians who are bored and believe in war” — suggesting an ugly backseat orgy of sex or violence. Prince, the lover, not the fighter, then retreats to the demilitarized zone of the bedroom, where he can safely bid us goodbye under the guise of “International Lover.”
A natural goodbye for Prince, but hardly as powerful as the final moments of Dirty Mind, when, during the antidraft “Partyup,” he challenged, “All lies, no truth/Is it fair to kill the youth?” before defiantly commanding, “Party up!” Just as Prince must face the contradiction of creating music that gracefully dissolves racial and stylistic boundaries yet fits comfortably into no one’s playlist, he must also decide whether he can “dance my life away” when everybody has a bomb. All you need is love?