Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Prince [extended]

  • For You [Warner Bros., 1978] B-
  • Prince [Warner Bros., 1979] B+
  • Dirty Mind [Warner Bros., 1980] A
  • Controversy [Warner Bros., 1981] A-
  • 1999 [Warner Bros., 1982] A-
  • Purple Rain [Paisley Park, 1984] A-
  • Around the World in a Day [Warner Bros., 1985] B-
  • Parade [Paisley Park, 1986] A-
  • Sign o' the Times [Paisley Park, 1987] A+
  • The Black Album [(unlabeled), 1988] A-
  • Lovesexy [Paisley Park, 1988] B+
  • Graffiti Bridge [Paisley Park, 1990] B+
  • Diamonds and Pearls [Paisley Park, 1991] **
  • [File Under Prince] [Paisley Park, 1992] A-
  • The Hits/The B-Sides [Paisley Park/Warner Bros., 1993] B+
  • Come [Warner Bros., 1994] ***
  • The Gold Experience [Warner Bros./NPG, 1995] A
  • Chaos and Disorder [Warner Bros., 1996] A-
  • Emancipation [NPG, 1996] A-
  • Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic [Arista, 1999] **
  • Musicology [Columbia, 2004]
  • 3121 [Universal, 2006] A-
  • Planet Earth [NPG/Columbia, 2007] ***

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

For You [Warner Bros., 1978]
Like most in-studio one-man bands, the nineteen-year-old kid who pieced this disco-rock-pop-funk concoction together has a weakness for the programmatic--lots of chops, not much challenge. But I like "Baby," about making one, and "Soft and Wet," ditto only he doesn't know it yet. And his falsetto beats Stevie Wonder's, not to mention Emitt Rhodes's. B-

Prince [Warner Bros., 1979]
This boy is going to be a big star, and he deserves it--he's got a great line. "I want to come inside you" is good enough, but (in a different song) the simple "I'm physically attracted to you" sets news standards of "naive," winning candor. The vulnerable teen-macho falsetto idea is pretty good too. But he does leave something to be desired in the depth-of-feeling department--you know, soul. B+

Dirty Mind [Warner Bros., 1980]
After going gold in 1979 as an utterly uncrossedover falsetto love man, he takes care of the songwriting, transmutes the persona, revs up the guitar, muscles into the vocals, leans down hard on a rock-steady, funk-tinged four-four, and conceptualizes--about sex, mostly. Thus he becomes the first commercially viable artist in a decade to claim the visionary high ground of Lennon and Dylan and Hendrix (and Jim Morrison), whose rebel turf has been ceded to such marginal heroes-by-fiat as Patti Smith and John Rotten-Lydon. Brashly lubricious where the typical love man plays the lead in "He's So Shy," he specializes here in full-fledged fuckbook fantasies--the kid sleeps with his sister and digs it, sleeps with his girlfriend's boyfriend and doesn't, stops a wedding by gamahuching the bride on her way to church. Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home. A

Controversy [Warner Bros., 1981]
Maybe Dirty Mind wasn't a tour de force after all; maybe it was dumb luck. The socially conscious songs are catchy enough, but they spring from the mind of a rather confused young fellow, and while his politics get better when he sticks to his favorite subject, which is s-e-x, nothing here is as far-out and on-the-money as "Head" or "Sister" or the magnificent "When You Were Mine." In fact, for a while I thought the best new song was "Jack U Off," an utter throwaway. But that was before the confused young fellow climbed onto the sofa with me and my sweetie during "Do Me, Baby." A-

1999 [Warner Bros., 1982]
Like every black pop auteur, Prince commands his own personal groove, and by stretching his flat funk forcebeat onto two discs worth of deeply useful dance tracks he makes his most convincing political statement to date--about race, the one subject where his instincts always serve him reliably. I mean, you don't hang on his every word in re sex or the end of the world, now do you? A-

Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain [Paisley Park, 1984]
Like the cocky high speed of the brazenly redundant "Baby I'm a Star," the demurely complaisant "Thank you" that answers "You're sheer perfection" signals an artist in full formal flower, and he's got something to say. Maybe even a structure: the frantic self-indulgence of "Let's Go Crazy" gives way to a bitter on-again-off-again affair that climaxes in the loving resignation of the title song--from in-this-life-you're-on-your-own to in-this-life-heaven-is-other-people (and-you're-still-on-your-own). But insofar as his messages are the same old outrageous ones, they've lost steam: "1999" is a more irresistible dance lesson for the edge of the apocalypse than "Let's Go Crazy," "Head" and "Jack U Off" more salacious than the groundout "Darling Nikki." He may have gained maturity, but like many grown-ups before him, he gets a little blocked making rebel-rock out of it. A-

Prince and the Revolution: Around the World in a Day [Warner Bros., 1985]
It's pretty strange, given that he looked like a visionary not long ago. But this arrested adolescent obviously don't know nuthin about nuthin--except maybe his own life, which for all practical purposes ended in his adolescence, since even for a pop star he does his damnedest to keep the world out. So while his sexual fantasies are outrageous only in their callous predictability and his ballads compelling only as shows of technique, they sure beat his reflexive antinomianism and dim politics. Which suggests why the solid if decidedly unpsychedelic musical pleasures our young craftsman makes available here don't wash. Only the crass "Raspberry Beret" and maybe the crooning "Condition of the Heart" are worth your time. B-

Prince and the Revolution: Parade [Paisley Park, 1986]
Musically, this anything but retro fusion of Fresh's foundation and Sgt. Pepper's filigrees is nothing short of amazing. Only the tin-eared will overlook the unkiltered wit of its pop-baroque inventions, only the lead-assed deny its lean, quirky grooves, both of which are so arresting that at first you don't take in the equally spectacular assurance with which the singer skips from mood to mood and register to register. I just wish the thing weren't such a damn kaleidoscope: far from unifying its multifarious parts, its soundtrack function destroys what little chance the lyrics have of bringing it together. Christopher is Prince, I guess, but nothing here tempts me to make sure. I'd much rather find out whether the former Rogers Nelson really takes all this trouble just so he can die and/or make love underneath whatever kind of moon, or if he has something less banal in mind. A-

Sign o' the Times [Paisley Park, 1987]
No formal breakthrough, and despite the title/lead/debut single, no social relevance move either, which given the message of "The Cross" (guess, just guess) suits me fine. Merely the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish. With helpmate turns from Camille, Susannah, Sheila E., Sheena Easton, he's back to his one-man-band tricks, so collective creation fans should be grateful that at least the second-hottest groove here, after the galvanic "U Got the Look," is Revolution live. Elsewhere Prince-the-rhythm section works on his r&b so Prince-the-harmony-group can show off vocal chops that make Stevie Wonder sound like a struggling ventriloquist. Yet the voices put over real emotions--studio solitude hasn't reactivated his solipsism. The objects of his desire are also objects of interest, affection, and respect. Some of them he may not even fuck. A+

The Black Album [(unlabeled), 1988]
Uncle Jam's sonic wallop and communal craziness are the project's obvious starting point, though Prince will never be as funny. Even better, they're also its finish line. Except for "When 2 R in Love," easily the lamest thing on two otherwise distinct records, the bassy murk never lets up, and at its weirdest--an unpleasant impersonation of a dumbfuck B-boy that's no lost masterpiece and far more arresting than anything on the official product--it's as dark as "Cosmic Slop." With retail sources drying up (I have a fourth-generation dub from a relatively inside source myself), those who pine for heavy funk should nag their local dealers. This is capitalism, so supply'll meet demand, right? A-

Lovesexy [Paisley Park, 1988]
He's a talented little guy, and this has plenty of pizzazz. But I'll take The Black Album's fat-bottomed whomp over its attention-grabbing beats and halfway decent tunes any day, and despite appearances it sure ain't where he explains why sexiness is next to godliness--lyrically it's sloppy if not pseudo if not stupid. This is doubly bothersome because added religious content is what it's supposed to have over its not terribly shocking alternative. Leading one to the obvious conclusion that the real reason the little guy made the switch was that he was scared to reveal how, shall we say, unpop he could be. B+

Graffiti Bridge [Paisley Park, 1990]
On his third studio double in a decade, he's definitely cheating. Half the music isn't really his, and the other half is overly subtle if not rehashed or just weak: title track, generational anthem, and lead single all reprise familiar themes, and the ballads fall short of the exquisite vocalese that can make his slow ones sing. But some of the subtle stuff--"Tick, Tick Bang"'s PE-style electrobeats, say--is pretty out, most of the received stuff is pretty surefire, and from unknowns to old pros, his cameos earn their billings. Also, there's half a great Time album here--did he steal it or just conceive it? B+

Prince and the New Power Generation: Diamonds and Pearls [Paisley Park, 1991]
doesn't know his own new power ("Willing and Able," "Jughead," "Cream") **

Prince and the New Power Generation: [File Under Prince] [Paisley Park, 1992]
Designed to prove his utter inexhaustibility in the wake of Diamonds and Pearls, by some stroke of commerce his best-selling album since Purple Rain, this absurdly designated "rock soap opera" (is he serious? is he ever? is he ever not?) proves mainly that he's got the funk. I confess I'm too square to regale the guests at my all-ages dance party with "Sexy M.F.," a title extended to six syllables in its recorded version. But "My Name Is Prince" clears up a question posed by the title, a rune available on floppy disc to any publication willing to take his guff. And "Blue Light," a ballad that's got the reggae, is a sexy motherfucker. A-

The Hits/The B-Sides [Paisley Park/Warner Bros., 1993]
Take as a given that this is an overpriced exploitation or indulgence, depending on your point of view--that is, whether you're Prince or not. The two discs of A sides are indeed choice, but most come from albums that yield more choice (not to say choicer) stuff, and their recontextualization isn't as jaw-dropping as an admirer of our greatest popular musician might hope. Whether the duplications merit the tariff you can decide for yourself. So would the B sides justify purchase on their own were the little man so generous as to make them available as such (or were the world to end, whichever comes first)? And the answer is: maybe. The porny stuff--especially "Irresistible Bitch," "Scarlet Pussy," the wicked "Feel U Up," and the absolutely classic "Erotic City"--is must-hear for any sex fan. The funky stuff is fonky. The dog bit is like bow-wow. And the ballads are of every description, including godawful. B+

Come [Warner Bros., 1994]
porn now an annoyance, funk still a surprise ("Loose!" "Pheromone") ***

The Gold Experience [Warner Bros./NPG, 1995]
After two or three plays, convinced that "P Control" and "Endorphinmachine" slam harder than any hip hop I've heard in years, I shrugged and recalled that, after all, I already knew he was the most gifted recording artist of the era. But this album documents more than professional genius rampant--all of them do that. This album is a renewal. It's as sex-obsessed as ever, only with more juice--"Shhh" and "319" especially pack the kind of porno jolt sexy music rarely gets near and hard music never does. And you'd best believe "Shhh" and 319" are hard--not for years has the auteur (as opposed to some hired gat) sounded so black, and not for years has the guitarist sounded so rock. As for the ballads, they suffer only by their failure to dominate. One of them has already stormed the radio--and another, good for him, takes too many risks to follow. A

Chaos and Disorder [Warner Bros., 1996]
Always a slippery devil, he's damn near vaporized commercially over the past few years, as has his promotional budget, basically because he's reached that certain age--way too familiar for ye olde shock of the new, way too boyish for intimations of immortality. So it's understandable that what's sworn to be "the last original material recorded by [File Under Prince] 4 warner brothers records" has been ignored all around. But anybody expecting a kissoff or a throwaway radically underestimates his irrepressible musicality. Apropos of nothing, here's a guitar album for your earhole, enhanced by a fresh if not shocking array of voices and trick sounds and cluttered now and then by horns. Theme song: "I Rock, Therefore I Am." And right, WEA, it wouldn't have been a hit even with some muscle behind it. A-

Emancipation [NPG, 1996]
Writing the book for the young turks of a reborn, historically hip r&b--three disks and hours of liberation, hubris, divine superfluity, and proof that he can come all night even if by six in the morning it takes too long and he never actually gets hard. Yet although there's not a bad track in the 36, I bet he himself would have trouble remembering them all, and hear nothing that tops the Delfonics and Stylistics covers, which latter wasn't the debut single for nothing and flopped anyway. Great grooves abound, however. As does great singing. Harmonies too. Did I mention that the horns are surprisingly cool? And hey, the little guy has a sense of humor. A-

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic [Arista, 1999]
Put it this way--two decades after "What'd I Say," Ray Charles's shtick was a lot tireder ("Hot Wit U," "Undisputed"). **

Musicology [Columbia, 2004]
See: The Small Paybacks.

3121 [Universal, 2006]
It could be argued that music this masterful waives all claim to the sound of surprise--until you pay attention. Sure "Love" and "Satisfied" and "Fury" constitute a standard sequence, keyb funk to torch r&b to u-got-the-rock--but only by genius standards. Sure he overdubs all the time, but he risks letting the Other play bass and drums on the over-under-sideways-down title tune--and then immediately prefabs the cockeyed "Lolita" by himself. The dubiosities he induces NPG fans to collect prove only that geniuses know who their friends are. I'm back to suspecting that, at 47, the Abstemious One can keep laying top-shelf stuff on the public for as long as he's in the mood. Even if he gets on your nerves, treat him nice. A-

Planet Earth [NPG/Columbia, 2007]
Viva Las Vegas and later for Viagra--but not never ("Guitar," "The One U Wanna C"). ***

See Also