Nearly every early feature done on the Kid as a rising prodigy in late-’70s Minneapolis implored you to recognize his genius. They declared him the “teen-age virtuoso” in headlines and described him as the “young black wizard from the Twin Cities” in opening paragraphs.
Like most praise directed at him over his decades of acclaim, it wasn’t hyperbole: Prince taught himself how to play piano, guitar, drums, and bass by the time he was 14. That unassailable will to realize his divine gifts was in effect before he left high school.
Of course, Prince’s genius soon got recognized. Studio owner and producer Chris Moon discovered Prince’s seamless versatility when the future legend was with his high school band Champagne. The two laid down some demos and gave them to ad man-turned-manager Owen Husney, who quickly wanted to know who “they” were, only to be astounded when Moon told him the act was not a “they,” but “one 17-year-old kid.” Warner Bros. would end up with the wunderkind, after offering him $180,000 for three albums and creative control. Stage set and bag secured, Prince’s debut album For You dropped on April 7, 1978 with the signature credit: “Produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince.”
At first glance, For You is an inauspicious start for an artist with so much talent. Prince spent nearly all of that $180,000 on the project, and told Musician in 1983 that he became a “physical wreck” for an album that peaked at just No. 163 on the Billboard 200 (seven months after its release), and offered only one No. 92-peaking Hot 100 hit, in the sweet and flirtatious funk number “Soft and Wet.” Four decades later, For You is still the only Prince Warner Bros. album released in earnest that hasn’t achieved RIAA certification. (Prince pulled 1987’s The Black Album shortly before its release after declaring it “evil” and barely promoted 1996’s Chaos and Disorder in the midst of his split from Warner Bros.)
This isn’t an instance where a gem gets belatedly discovered under a wellspring of more obvious classics: For You is the work of a musical virtuoso, but not an innovative mind. The rigor applied to its recording appear to confound Prince’s efforts, hemming him in rather than delivering a sense of progression. Instead of a coherent statement, we get a collection of songs that are approximations of what an afro’d up ‘70s hit should sound like. “Soft and Wet” doesn’t feel like novelty because of the obvious sexual theme; the bubbling synth that resolves the hook is too tidy, and one of Prince’s big lessons was that eroticism is anything but.
For You’s first full song, “In Love,” does contain a hint of Prince’s spontaneous bent — he reaches the back of his throat with just enough passion to convince you you’re in for a good time — but the energy peters into a low plateau after “Soft and Wet” follows it. Besides the standard yearning acoustic entries “Crazy You” and “So Blue,” For You mainly revolves around a mixture of funk and disco hallmarks. There are elements of the Minneapolis Sound (a concoction of R&B, pop-synths, and hair products) Prince would popularize through the ‘80s, but they feel exhibitionist because they don’t quite cohere.
The worst offender is instrumental outro that takes up the back half of the six-and-half-minute “Just As Long As We’re Together,” a bass-driven groove that’s just too thin for extra improvisational ingredients — the synth line that pops up in the middle of it feels like an aggressively imposed detour. The guitar soloing that became an essential part of Prince’s myth never really fits either: the performance on “My Love Is Forever” was too glam to make it into the Reagan era, and even the slight distortion on closer “I’m Yours” feels too hardcore for an album this glossy.
For You peaked at No. 21 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart dated Oct. 14, 1978, a listing featuring artists blazing trails Prince was just starting to tread: Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove (No. 2) was a funk-rock odyssey led by the genre’s greatest conceptualizer, George Clinton; disco queer icon Sylvester’s Step II (No. 8) featured the androgynous voice that liberated many on the dance floor; Queen of Disco Donna Summer was still regal on her live album, Live and More (No. 10). Each of those acts carried their own unmistakable signatures, something a 20-year-old Prince lacked, despite his outstanding musicianship. Even the falsetto that writhed and shimmied on his later essentials “Kiss” and “Adore” started out merely as a pleasant accoutrement on its debut.
Despite its tepid reputation, For You recharted, like a majority of Prince’s Warner Bros. catalog, when the world gathered in his memory following his death — even reaching a new peak of No. 138 in May 2016. Looking back, if you squint a bit, you can see shards of what would become peak Prince’s makeup. To follow the progression through For You, his self-titled 1979 follow-up, and his sin-filled first classic, 1980’s Dirty Mind, is to hear him pull together that chart-conquering sound in real time: The stadium-rock sensibility that appealed to mainstream audience becomes inextricable from the sacrosanct treatment of R&B and funk that rooted him in black culture. Dirty Mind presented these elements in a lean package, while his subsequent ‘80s highlights (1999, Purple Rain, Parade, Sign ‘O’ the Times) took them skyward.
But more importantly, For You alludes to the central dichotomy of Prince’s art: He’s singing about sensuality in an album dedicated to God. At the core of his ‘80s prime is the idea that orgasms and spiritual transcendence can be presented in the same breath; note how Purple Rain’s “Darling Nikki” starts with a masturbating woman and ends with a literal mini-sermon played in reverse. It’s a transgressive idea for many — how many Prince trademarks aren’t? — but it gave his talents focus. For You begins with an a capella gospel chorus composed of Prince’s multi-tracked voice, hinting that he’d ultimately marry those ideas instead of playing it safe. Ultimately, the skeletal For You serves as a well-heeded reference point that reminds us when we’re talking about the legacy of Prince, we speak of both stunning musicianship and a singular worldview.