Prince's Formative Years: His 10 Best Songs Before 1981's 'Controversy'

Prince performs in New York City.
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Prince performs in New York City.

"Soft and Wet," "I Wanna Be Your Lover," "Dirty Mind" and more.

It still doesn’t feel like Prince is gone. It’s too weird; there’s too much life captured in his music. Someone like Leonard Cohen being dead is somehow easier to process -- his words and funereal tempos had conversed with mortality for a long time. The only way to truly conceive of Prince no longer being on Earth is that he finally exploded, his petite body of limitless talent and brains and energy just went up in spontaneous combustion. He sang about mortality too, most notably on "Sign 'O' the Times," which may be his most Cohen-esque song, from 1987, just before the elder Jewish poet was about to embrace synthesized rhythms himself. But he didn’t seem of it.

Even before Prince was the immortal we knew him as on MTV, in movie theaters, lingering as a chart presence behind Sinead O’Connor and the Bangles and countless others, he had conquered the studio as a teenager at the tail end of the 'n70s, perfecting his craft as early as 1980, with plenty of breadcrumbs along the way. 

Last month, we learned a documentary chronicling his rise to fame -- titled Prince: R U Listening? -- was due out in 2017. Here are 10 songs from that period, his years before 1981's Controversy, providing an introduction to his early career. 

"Soft and Wet," For You (1978)

Just as Stevie Wonder was beginning to wind down from an astonishing streak of records in the 1970s, Prince's debut album signaled that a new one-man band was about to bring funk into the future, and his astonishing early hit "Soft and Wet" was the most Stevie-like wonder of his career, a layered lasagna of squirting and slurping synths grounded by, yes, Wonder’s signature clavinet, all syncopated to zippy, unforgettable effect that was just as horny as its title suggested.

"Baby," For You (1978)

"Baby" might not be one of Prince's absolute definitive ballads, but that's only because there are too many other contenders. It was his debut’s strongest softie and it was the on-record birth of one of the most important weapons in Mr. Nelson's arsenal: his gravity-defying falsetto. This was the first time the world heard him deploy his larynx’s high-end virtuosity, so slippery and lithe that it slithered past gender constructs into an otherworldly atmosphere, veering from inaudibly soft to teakettle high as he sang for the first but hardly the last time about sex fantasies that included not just the act but the aftermath -- the love, the marriage, and a certain carriage.

"I'm Yours," For You (1978)

One thing Prince’s debut did indeed fail at was establishing an identity behind all the impressive playing, singing, and overdubbing. The songwriting was impressive for a teenager from Minneapolis, but not for a future legend. Though he’d go on to remedy that quick and become as prolific and perfectionist as his royal name suggests, only For You's savagely riffed closing track hinted that this was the opening bow of someone else entirely. An epic rock song that verged on heavy metal, "I'm Yours" was built around spiraling riffs fit for Aerosmith's Rocks or Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, referents that were in no way like the contemporaries "Baby" was sharing R&B radio space with. Hendrix would go on to define the echelon Prince would almost immediately rise to, and this oft-forgotten banger was one of the earliest shred fests that justified the comparison.

"I Wanna Be Your Lover," Prince (1979)

See how quickly we get into butt-obvious territory? Prince just wasn’t obscure or merely interesting for long; he was so great so immediately that within a year anyone who took a chance on investing in For You was getting quintuple the returns on Prince's opening track alone. The signature choppy, morse-code guitar riff scans now as a fascinating relic of the disco era, with which the Purple Majesty just barely overlapped. It really sounds like Studio 54 strings doesn't it? Those are here too, along with the synth wizardry, at which we’d come to gape. And then there’s the lyrics! Here Prince established himself as pop's most romantic horndog ("I want to be the only one you come for") and also its most gender-fluid ("I wanna be your brother/ I wanna be your mother and your sister too"), both themes he'd come to extrapolate on and apotheosize for decades to come.

“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” Prince (1979)

Prince's catalog is too vast and rich for "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad" to be unanimously considered his best opening one-two, but wow. This expert pop tune helped illustrate what a rollercoaster ride his rock-R&B-synthpop could be in under four minutes, with that breakdown, those keyboard flourishes, those tensely plinking piano staccatos and the criss cross of self-harmonized vocals echoed by self-harmonized guitars, crackling with dirt over synths as clean as fresh latex. The density of Prince's arrangements that anchored his immediately disciplined tunecraft were becoming flesh.

"I Feel for You," Prince (1979)

Chaka Khan's hit may be definitive, but as with other Prince-penned masterpieces for others, the original's pretty incredible in its own right. The sax-imitating synth zaps (and growling solo comprised of same) and rippling slap bass over a steady, hand-clapped metronomic bed darted from exuberant major key to sly minor shifts like few other artists of the time. And who else was singing such no-filter, all-eye-contact blurt-outs like, "I'm physically attracted to you" at the time? He was so dexterous, so one-of-a-kind, so fast.

"Dirty Mind," Dirty Mind (1980)

For the sake of variety (and there only being so many adjectives in the Oxford English Dictionary), we can only include so many songs from Dirty Mind, Prince's shortest, fiercest and most inarguably perfect statement at just half an hour of almost lo-fi funk rock nastier than anything he or many other guitar-strokers had done previously. But we must begin with the patiently impatient thump of the title track, which sounds like Prince wrote it humming and drumming on his thigh waiting for someone pretty to disrobe. The breadth of the man's genius was in how he could pluck at one note for minutes in minimalism worthy of Neu! or set off a toolshed of fireworks with his squealing guitar the next moment. This is one of his more sustained ideas, with the kick drum like the steady heartbeat of a sex partner who’s trying to last as long as he can. 

"Head," Dirty Mind (1980)

That sautéed riff, essentially a one-chord vamp augmented by deep-pocket bass and a spritz of keyboard. What else could funk ever be? It’s sleek and sexy, granular and soiled, fragrant and stinky. And at the four-minute mark, Prince is even able to distill it to its essence of boom-clap negative space with all but the percussion whisked away as he requests or insists on providing "Head, until you're burning up." The lucky bride in question isn't his, which makes it all the more worthy of a window-fogging romp. 

"Sister," Dirty Mind (1980)

The funkiest punk song ever made, or the punkest funk song, whichever angle you’re looking at it. Prince's delectable incest tribute rushes in between "Head" and "Partyup" with the otherworldly effect of changing channels on an all-porno TV. "Sister" is 90 seconds of brilliant reverse-intersectionality of taboos: he's underage, she's related to him, he credits her with either the awakening of his *hiccup* sexuality or his bisexuality depending on who you ask. It's an alluring fantasy, a moral horror, a pop provocation, and there isn't another artist living or dead who could've done it.

"When You Were Mine," Dirty Mind (1980)

Despite Cyndi Lauper covering it at her peak, "When You Were Mine" is the least well-known candidate in the ring for Prince's greatest song. Here's the only strike against it: It's not funky, though his rubbery home-recorded guitar makes a case for that. Lyrically, it’s his finest, easily. The part about imagining himself in bed with his ex and her new paramour, the part about not changing her sheets, the part about letting them wear his clothes. Ultimately, none of it broke his heart's contract with this person, whom he also tags as his best friend. As with "Sister," Prince took an unfathomable situation -- a heartsick love triangle before New Order or Little Big Town made something of them -- and turned it into wry, concise pop beauty, with a new-wave tempo and euphoric signature synth riff tinged with regret. Then he had sex on top of it and didn’t have the decency to change the sheets. Rather, he had the genius not to. Our only choice is to love him more now than we did when he was alive.