Leave it to Prince to flip the music world upside down, piss off his label bosses and confuse the hell out of an entire generation of music fans. And then have us all thank him for it.
In 1993, after more than 15 years spent redrawing the lines of modern funk, rock and R&B, Prince did the unthinkable: He changed his name to a symbol, a glyph that merged the ancient symbols for man (Mars) and woman (Venus), creating a new fluid gender. It pitted these symbols atop the sign of a cross, the ancient symbol for religion, in a messy hybrid — just like humanity. Prince had clearly been kicking around the idea for a while: Look at the Dada-esque cover of his 1982 release, 1999, where the “P” features the emblems for peace (?), femininity (?) and masculinity (?), and the three icons combine at the bottom of the “9,” as if the product of Prince’s sexual explosion. But it’s here that his toying with the very bedrock of what defines us as human comes to life.
Ironically enough, though, the 1992 album that launched Prince’s new, unpronounceable name — which turns 25 today (Oct. 13) kicks off with a reminder of his legal one. At this point, Prince was still calling himself Prince: “My name is Prince and I am funky/ My name is Prince, the one and only.” Damn straight. “I didn’t come to funk around,” he howls over guitar, scratched vinyl and (yes) rapping, “Til I get your daughter I won’t leave this town.” That’s the Prince we know and love.
But what’s in a name? Less than a year after its release, he went all-in. He adopted the symbol as his official name, in order to defy his label, Warner Brothers, which refused to release his deep catalog at a steady pace. Voilà: Meet The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
The ’92 LP was conceptualized as a “fantasy rock soap opera,” starring Cheers actress Kirstie Alley as a journalist interviewing Prince in several segues, at one point asking about his widely reported affair with a young princess of Cairo. It was an ambitious, collaborative new project for an artist now also helping to launch the careers of his protégé Tara Leigh Patrick, a.k.a. the Purple One-rechristened Carmen Electra, and his backup dancer Mayte Garcia, who would play the aforementioned Egyptian princess (and who would soon become his wife). The concept doesn’t hold up, but the album still succeeds at fusing the sounds of the era with Prince’s Hendrix-flared rock roots — and marking one of the most rebellious career moves in modern music.
Prince had debuted a new band, the New Power Generation, aka NPG, on 1991’s Diamonds & Pearls. But here they nail a new synthesis of rock, funk, soul, big-band jazz, pop, and even new jack swing and hip-hop. It’s urban and lively: “Sexy MF” sounds like Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” (really), complete with rapping from Toni M., and “Love 2 the 9s” is like a proto-D’Angelo track, sexy-smooth with horns. “The Max” hard-charges with hip-hop bombast, including LL Cool J-like backing barks and vinyl scratching. Tony M. brings back the Mama-Said-Knock-You-Out vibes on “The Flow,” a jumble of dance beats and brass.
The band veers into reggae-lite with “Blue Light” and shoots for the stars with the soulful rock ballad “The Morning Papers.” “Arrogance” explores man’s egotism, and has a funk-rock bass riff that’d have Phish’s Mike Gordon frothing at the mouth. The New Power Generation go full Queen on “3 Chains O’ Gold,” an arena-rock behemoth with screaming guitars and high-flying strings. “Damn U” is a sparkling love song with gobs of strings and keys (so much so it’s borderline mockery). Closer “The Sacrifice of Victor” is pure George Clinton/James Brown fanboying (with Tony M. bringing that signature backing rap vocals). Altogether, the album’s sound will have you wondering if André 3000 or OutKast would even exist without theis album — not to mention The Roots or Frank Ocean.
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Then there’s “7.” It’s timeless Prince, fitting neatly alongside “When Doves Cry,” “Diamonds & Pearls” and “Purple Rain,” and became the LP’s best-performing single, reaching No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. “No one in the whole universe will ever compare/ I am yours now and you are mine,” he sings over electronic drum beats, sitar and acoustic guitar. “And together we’ll love through / All space and time…” In the music video, Garcia belly dances as the album’s Egyptian princess, as Prince symbolically dispatches former versions of himself to the afterlife — the ever-evolving artist.
Love, music, life, business; it’s all messy. Even the symbol, which would be Prince’s nom de plume for three years, is asymmetrical, imperfect. Just like this album: 18 tracks and nearly 75 minutes of Prince exploring himself, his girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife, their relationship, the grand idea of sex and gender identity and so much more, all while reinterpreting his favorite genres and the en-vogue sounds of the Golden Age of Hip-Hop. It’s a big undertaking. There’s a lot going on. It’s an odyssey.
Prince is a great name and stage name. But for the Minnesota native born Prince Rogers Nelson, perhaps was always more fitting.