Dirty Mind is a pop record of Rabelaisian achievement: entirely, ditheringly obsessed with the body, yet full of sentiments that please and provoke the mind. It may also be the most generous album about sex ever made by a man.
Like the good lovemaking he celebrates, Prince is both subtle and forceful. His voice is a high, tinkling soprano that curls into delicate squeals when he’s excited and dips into a scratchy murmur when he’s figuring out his next move. As if to offset the ingratiating hesitancy of his vocals and phrasing, Prince comes on like a cocky boy wonder. Just barely twenty, he’s written, produced and played all the instruments on each of his three LPs.
Prince’s first two collections (For You, Prince) established him as a doe-eyed romantic: i.e., his carnal desires were kept in check. Though the chorus of his first hit single was “Your love is soft and wet,” the raunchiest interpretation permitted by its slightly damp melody was that perhaps the object of Prince’s love had been caught in a sudden rainstorm. And while the song that made him a star, 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” snuck the line “I wanna be the only one you come for” onto AM radio, the singer delivered it with coy innocence, as if feigning ignorance of what the words meant but confident they’d please his lover.
Nothing, therefore, could have prepared us for the liberating lewdness of Dirty Mind. Here, Prince lets it all hang out: the cover photograph depicts our hero, smartly attired in a trench coat and black bikini briefs, staring soberly into the camera. The major tunes are paeans to bisexuality, incest and cunnilingual technique, each tucked between such sprightly dance raveups as “Partyup” and the smash single “Uptown.” Throughout, Prince’s melodies peel back layers of disco rhythm to insert slender, smooth funk grooves and wiggly, hard-rock guitar riffing. In his favorite musical trick, the artist contrasts a pumping, low-toned drum sound with a light, abrupt guitar or keyboard riff pitched as high as his voice (which is often double-tracked to emphasize its airiness). Though Prince is playing everything himself, the result isn’t bloodless studio virtuosity. His music attains the warmth and inspiration of a group collaboration because it sounds as if he’s constantly competing against himself: Prince the drummer tries to drown out Prince the balladeer, and so forth.
Dirty Mind jolts with the unsettling tension that arises from rubbing complex erotic wordplay against clean, simple melodies. Across this electric surface glides Prince’s graceful quaver, tossing off lyrics with an exhilarating breathlessness. He takes the sweet romanticism of Smokey Robinson and combines it with the powerful vulgate poetry of Richard Pryor. The result is cool music dealing with hot emotions.
At its best, Dirty Mind is positively filthy. Sex, with its lasting urges and temporary satisfactions, holds a fascination that drives the singer to extremes of ribald fantasy. “When I met you, baby/You were on your way to be wed” is how he begins “Head,” a jittery rocker about the pleasures of oral sex. In Prince’s wet dream, no woman is forced to do anything she doesn’t want to do: her lust always matches our cocksman’s. As the guitar groove of “Head” winds tighter and tighter, Prince brings off the young bride in a quick interlude en route to join her fiancé at the alter. She is more than eager to return the favor. By the time Prince yelps, “You wouldn’t have stopped/But I came on your wedding gown,” the entire album has climaxed in more ways than one. This is lewdness cleansed by art, with joy its socially redeeming feature. Dirty Mind may be dirty, but it certainly isn’t pornographic.
Somehow Prince manages to be both blunt and ambiguous — and occasionally just dreamily confusing. “When You Were Mine” (in which the line “I used to let you wear all my clothes” is offered as proof of our man’s devotion) blithely condones infidelity of the most brazen sort — “I never cared …/When he was there/Sleepin’ in between the two of us” — as long as the artist can be sure that the woman continues to love only him. Yet in “Sister,” Prince notes that his female sibling is responsible for his bisexuality, a word whose syllables he draws out with lascivious relish. Little more than a brisk pop-funk riff, “Sister” forces the pace, making it build, until the singer finally blurts out a jabbering confession: “Incest is everything it’s said to be.” What can you do with a guy like this?
Love him, obviously. If Prince indulges his appetites with a bold and lusty vigor, his pleasure is always dependent upon his partner’s satisfaction. In a reversal of the usual pop-song aesthetic, the artist’s crisp, artfully constructed compositions are a metaphor for the care and consideration that inform the lovemaking detailed in his lyrics.
Less obviously, Prince deserves our admiration. Though Dirty Mind is an undeniably apposite title, the LP might just as accurately have been called Prince Confronts the Moral Majority: except for “Uptown,” “Partyup” and the loping “Gotta Broken Heart Again,” none of Dirty Mind could make it onto the most liberal radio-station playlists these days. In a time when Brooke Shields’ blue-jeaned backside provokes howls of shock and calls for censorship from mature adults, Prince’s sly wit — intentionally coarse — amounts to nothing less than an early, prescient call to arms against the elitist puritanism of the Reagan era. Let Prince have the last word: “White, black, Puerto Rican/Everybody’s just a-freakin’.”