It’s a long way to the end if I want to jack you off. Year four of my approximately thirty year crusade to revisit and document each Prince album annually. I’ve so far found that His first two albums, unfortunately, really don’t stand up to modern scrutiny, but his third album ‘Dirty Mind‘ was as demonstrative a mark of His genius and as revelatory an LP in 2020 as it was in 1980. That album reached #7 on the year end chart and, fair warnings, we’re going to see a fair few of his following albums do the same, as that masterpiece officially kicked off one of the greatest run of albums any artist has done, ever.
While ‘Dirty Mind’ is much lauded over and intensely debated to this day, and His fifth album frequently joins it on lists of greatest albums ever (as does His sixth. And His seventh. And His eighth. And His ninth. And occasionally His tenth. Probably not His eleventh though), His follow up and fourth album ‘Controversy’ doesn’t get anywhere near the same attention. It seems to be looked upon as merely a transitional point between Prince really nailing down the style and the look on ‘Dirty Mind’ and then later finding the right mix of invariables to make him the biggest star in the world.
And… you can kinda understand that perspective. ‘Controversy’ isn’t even close to being as revolutionary and as era-defining as ‘Dirty Mind’ – akin to criticising Einstein after his follow up theory to E=MC2 didn’t revolutionise theoretical physics – and it is basically a reworking of the ideas and themes of ‘Dirty Mind’ into a slightly more commercially viable package. It was released five days after the infamous booed off Stones support performance that I mentioned in my ‘Dirty Mind’ review (Prince still managed to perform Jack U Off during the aborted five song set), and recorded in Prince’s home studio and two studios in Los Angeles. It’s often considered the least essential and (eek!) most disposable of His first ten albums. The sound is astonishingly polished, and it’s perhaps the greatest production job on any of His albums so far, but it perhaps lacks the true freedom of expression of those budget home studio ‘Dirty Mind’ recordings. It’s essentially a solo album, and although Jack U Off was the first time a song performed by a band was included on any of His albums, it did not emerge out of a jam session. Instead, as keyboardist Dr Fink explained, each musician was presented with the song already conceived and Prince taught each member how to perform it live. Also, it’s hard to get past the idea that the intentions of the record are somewhat mercenary, that ‘Controversy’ was designed to capitalise on the increased interest brought by ‘Dirty Mind’ and craft an album that would appeal to a larger audience.
And while the sex remained (do I have to mention Jack You Off again? Or Sexuality, if you want it made a little more clear) for the first time Prince married his sexual explicitly with an equally explicit Christian faith. Album opener, title track and highlight (sorry, that should read career highlight) Controversy finds space to recite the lord’s prayer, and that pesky God is eerily present on the album like no other previous. Live shows on the ‘Controversy’ tour would begin with a never officially released film called ‘The Second Coming’. But in it Prince wasn’t claiming he was the second coming, he was more concerned with invoking the Book of Revelation to warn of an impending apocalypse. When he woke up that morning could have sworn it was Judgment Day? Maybe keep that feeling in your back pocket, it might do you good. A weird amount of ‘Controversy’s songs would also still be included in His sets even when He was at his most slavishly religious, the title track remaining a live favourite along with Sexuality, although the defiant proclamation of the importance of sex in the latter obviously concerning Him to such an extent He would later sing that spirituality is all you’ll ever need. Generally though, the mixing of the profane with the religiously profound might make people turn off to ‘Controversy’ in the wake of the furiously less shamed ‘Dirty Mind’.
But… this weird combination of licentiousness and religious devotion… isn’t that just Prince…?
And this just furthers my belief that ‘Controversy’ – despite its wrongful reputation and shameful accusations of disposability – Is actually the first Prince album as we would later understand Him to be. As astonishing, as revolutionary and as artistically/stylistically shocking as the ‘Dirty Mind’ era was, it didn’t really stick as a artistic and stylistic theme for Prince. Sure, the dirty mind itself would stay, but such sexually explicit lyrics would play a smaller part in Prince’s concerns – His first attempts to make socially conscious statements are here – and would be equalled out by devoted cries for God’s forgiveness throughout His career. The look here, toned down ever so slightly from the iconic trenchcoat and speedos of the ‘Dirty Mind’ era, is pretty much the same look He’d adorn for His most successful periods. This is also the first Prince era where He would make such connections to the colour purple, so that’s something. You could also argue – and I’m actually about to argue it. Right here – that the whole toning down of the often abrasive and low fidelity growls of the ‘Dirty Mind’ album were what made Prince what He was later in the 80s.
And the songs on this album, sweet Mary God, the songs!! The tile track could arguably be the most Prince song of all, His first real attempt as self-mythologizing. It’s virtuosic, it’s will get you dancing, it’s fucking weird as fuck, it’s sexual, it’s religious, it opens with the lines ‘I just can’t believe all the things people say/Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?’, it’s motherfucking Prince. And it remains one of His greatest ever songs, a seven minutes and sixteen seconds anthem. The reason Prince felt the need to hang onto rallying cry Sexuality well into His ultra religious awakening is that the song absolutely slaps. Further to how Prince’s lyrics were far more outwardly focused on this album, the call-to-arms to appreciate carnality are not just for pleasure’s sake but He wants to create a whole damn new society (‘U don’t need no money/U don’t need no clothes…/Revolution of a new breed/Leaders, stand up, organise!’), while also handing out tips on parenting (‘Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read/Or else all they’ll know how to do is cuss, fight and breed’) and beliefs that might get him cancelled from US schools after veering far too close to Critical Race Theory (‘No child is bad from the beginning, they only imitate their atmosphere/If they’re in the company of tourists, alcohol and U.S. history). Do Me Baby is another first instance of something that we would later consider a Prince standard – the sensual an unashamedly vulnerable and sexually explicit slow jam. Arguably His best ever, which would possibly make it the best by anyone ever. Private Joy is… alright, a little creepy, with Prince rhapsodising about a woman He is so infatuated with/threatened by that He wants to stash her away in private so that nobody else can experience her. Lyrical concerns of confining women in different ways actually turn up in some of Prince’s strongest works, but it can often be a little disturbing. Still, the song is good enough to actually bridge the first link between Prince and the Jacksons, with Latoya covering it incredibly faithfully on her 1984 album ‘Heart Don’t Lie‘ (changing the hilarious term ‘Orgasmatron’ to less sensical but purer ‘Cosmotron’). In another first, the song sees Prince utilising the Linn LM1 drum machine that would later become the bedrock of His sound. Ronnie Talk to Russia is an absolutely bonkers step into contemporary politics, less than two minutes of Prince informing and warning Reagan (sworn in just nine months before the album released) that ‘You go to the zoo, but you can’t feed guerrillas/Can’t feed guerrillas/Left-wing guerrillas/You can go to the zoo, but don’t feed guerrillas/Who want to blow up the world’. Prince’s politics are always up for debate, and He seemed to have been as stubbornly independent politically as He was musically, but the track is as gloriously bonkers as anything in His catalogue. Let’s Work is probably the closest to ‘Dirty Mind’ in its incessant and transcendent repetitive ode to the sort of work Prince has in mind. His work is physical, spiritual and sexual, taking place on the stage, on the dancefloor, in the bed. Annie Christian is the strangest, most avant-garde, and boldest leap forward yet. It contains even more confusing allusions to exactly what politics Prince was pushing (‘She tried to kill Reagan, everybody say gun control/Gun control’ ). Then Jack U Off is… well it’s brilliant, and kind of brilliant in the exact same way you’d expect it to be
So… phew, sorry, I need a minute to compose myself after that onslaught… ‘Controversy’ is far better than just a cynical commercialised rebranding of ‘Dirty Mind’. It’s actually Prince seamlessly blurring the lines between commercial star and critical artist, blending rock, funk, soul and pop in a way that would soon become his trademark. It’s Prince becoming Prince, and while it may not be as revolutionary as ‘Dirty Mind’, it’s actually (tin hat on) a far better record, and deserves far more respect among his purple patch canon.
Next year, fuck, ‘1999’. Trust me, I’m already thinking of convoluted ways that it can’t be named the year’s best album…
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