27: Mountains

Parade 1986
Ten weeks after topping the charts with the most sparsely-arranged single of his career, Prince released one of his densest. Mountains, with it’s cavernous handclaps and reverb-heavy snares, couldn’t be further away from Kiss’s spartan funk. Its wall of sound hits with the force of a series of avalanches cascading into the valleys, sweeping away sleeping villages and waking dormant forces beyond anybody’s control.

Prince didn’t come up with Mountains. Mountains had to come to him. Wendy and Lisa were alone in the studio working on the Parade album, when they decided to play around with a piano piece that Lisa had written when she was 13. They experimented with putting parts of the percussion through a delay pedal, resulting in an instrumental demo which, Wendy recalls, floored Prince when he heard it. Within a couple of weeks he had the full extended line-up of the Revolution recording his version, now complete with lyrics extolling the all-conquering power of love.

Like on The Ladder and in Under the Cherry Moon, Prince opens with a fairytale ‘once upon a time’ and then tells us the story is set in “a land called Fantasy” – a line taken from an Earth Wind and Fire song that shares the same theme of love surmounting all obstacles. However, this make-believe setting is soon intruded by the horrors of the real world. In the music video, the line “Africa divided” in shown to reference Apartheid, and while we see gun-toting Klan members during “hijack in the air”, that line was surely influenced by the main news story at the time he wrote it: the deadly terrorist hijacking of an EgyptAir flight. 

In Annie Christian, Prince’s answer to the despair caused by the world’s evils was to live in transit. To build relationships and attachments in this dangerous world was to open yourself up to trauma and loss. Better to live unattached than to put down roots – or to flip the common saying: it’s better to have not loved, than to have loved and lost. By the time of Mountains, Prince ascribes that way of thinking to the devil and in the chorus preaches the opposite view. He now believes there’s nothing greater than love and with it despair can be overcome like physical barriers such as mountains or the sea. The metaphor was hardly original. It had only been three years since Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes sung about mountains being obstacles that their love lifted them over in their chart-topping duet Up Where We Belong. That ballad won an Academy award for Best Original Song, as did Fame which in my opinion was the lyrical inspiration for Baby I’m a Star. For his second movie, was Prince again using tried and tested lyrical themes on his closing song to win an Oscar? I think so. However in a few months, world events would twice again inspire him to further develop this subject, resulting in two of his most profound and original songs: Crystal Ball and Sign o’ the Times.

Mountains’ message of conquering adversity is better illustrated on the extended version. Three minutes in, there’s a polyrhythm created by an errant snare pattern. On the album, this conflict peters out with an early fade, but on the 12” single (and the film’s credits) we’re allowed to stick around to hear the tension get resolved, which triggers an explosion and a further five minutes of sweeping panoramic horn-filled funk. We’re now gliding on love’s wings, soaring over unscalable peaks and terrible depths, and nothing can break nor stop us.

Unfortunately, the same was not true for the Revolution. For Prince, they would soon become an obstacle he’d face, not with love, but with fear. “What if everybody around me split?” he asked Rolling Stone in 1990. “Then I’d be left with only me, and I’d have to fend for me. That’s why I have to protect me.” Out of all the reasons why Prince chose to disband the Revolution, the speculation that it was fear of abandonment chimes the truest, especially given how he reacted to Morris, Jesse and St Paul leaving his stable. His band had long been with him on this crazy ride to stardom but he obviously shared Christoper Tracy’s view that “it’s no fun to depend on other people for rides”. Forgetting the message of Mountains, he reverted back to the character in Annie Christian, running away from attachment and dependence. In doing so, he regained a feeling of control and released the most critically acclaimed album of his career, but at what cost? He would never again regain this kind of mountain-moving momentum.

28: Head

Dirty Mind (1980)
In the chronology of Prince albums, Dirty Mind marks a seismic change, like a ring of a tree after a cataclysmic summer. Lewdness was gauchely toyed with on Prince, but then came the Rick James Fire it Up tour where, as the supporting act, Prince honed the art of shock to steal attention away from the headliner. This gave him a whole new arsenal to deploy for his third album and the big gun was his concert jawdropper Head

This sleaze funk anthem takes an ounce of inspiration from real life – Prince’s ex-girlfriend Darlene was engaged when he first met her – but its lyrics soon descend into a rude boy fantasy from Prince’s dirty mind. This ensured that, despite being the album’s strongest cut, Head couldn’t be released as a commercial single anywhere other than in The Philippines. Frankie Goes to Hollywood may have topped the charts a few years later with their ode to oral sex, but Relax had a thin veneer of plausible innocence to initially slip past the gatekeepers. Head was sculpted to shock from the off. Reinterpretation wasn’t an option, although that didn’t stop an uncomfortable-looking Dez Dickerson pointing to his head when singing the chorus after becoming a born-again Christian during the Dirty Mind tour.

Dez’s new-found faith may have sat awkwardly with Head’s blunt lyrics but in Prince lore, it was keyboardist and coerced shock prop, Gayle Chapman, who is said to have quit the band after she couldn’t square the song’s explicitness – as well as her on-stage objectification – with her Christian beliefs. Nowadays, Gayle refutes this story, saying she left for her own musical growth, but either way, her departure led to the arrival of Lisa Coleman and the future-Revolution member being given this track as an initiation rite. Prince believed if Lisa could sing Head’s lyrics she could handle anything and her cooly understated take on the soon-to-be-wed virgin role scored her a place in his touring band and a co-lead vocal credit on the album.

This acknowledgement, along with Fink’s credit on both the title track and on Head for his lip-biter synth solo, was the reason why, for the first time in Prince’s career, the phrase ‘performed by Prince’ contained an asterisk. Head opened the door for two keyboardists to transcend their concert roles and become more involved in the studio. It may or may not have lost him a keyboard player, but it gained him two new collaborators and paved the way for the birth of the Revolution.

Lisa would even write her own Head-adjacent song for the Time the following year, with The Stick appearing on their debut album. She not only passed her initiation, but would help set a new test for the next term’s intake.

29: Baby I’m a Star

Purple Rain (1984)
In 1981, Fame, sung by Irene Cara, won an Oscar for Best Film Theme Song. Maybe Prince’s eyes were on the same prize, because later that year he took hefty inspiration from its lyrics, particularly its opening lines, to create Baby I’m a Star, and then began to step up his own ambitions to star in and soundtrack a motion picture. He was moderately famous but in the words of his new demo, he didn’t want to stop until he reached the top. This movie, he believed, would be the rocket to take him to that highest strata of stardom.

The following year, after a concert film called The Second Coming was planned, filmed and abandoned, Prince wrote 11 pages of a rough plot outline for a feature film that would eventually – via a relay of two screen writers – become Purple Rain. On the last page he jotted down possible songs for inclusion and topping the list was his Fame-inspired demo. Next on the list was I Would Die 4 U. Every other song from Purple Rain hadn’t yet been written, but here was the film’s party crescendo duo baked in from conception.

In this early synopsis, he details his lead character’s motivation: “Prince wants to make it. Bad. He wants fame and fortune and everything that goes with it”. On Baby I’m a Star his character aims to achieve this by walking the walk. Repeating I Wanna Be Your Lover’s opening line, he tells us he “ain’t got no money” but he self-identifies as a star and acts like the world just hasn’t cottoned on yet. Fake it til you make it.

Prince talks about this power of self-identity in his autobiography. He believed his youthful complexion was because he simply didn’t think himself as wrinkly and he connects this mindset to a technique called visualisation, where you write down what you want to happen in order to make it come true. As a boy, he would write vision lists of all the girls he liked so they would start noticing him. We can only take his word for the success of this approach, but if he wrote Baby I’m a Star to manifest stardom, no one could argue with the results.

In the film, the song arrives as a victory parade. Mission accomplished. Yes, the overdubbed backing vocals channel Sly and the Family Stone and tell us “we are all a star” but that’s just the movie tying up a thematic arc. A bit of housekeeping so we don’t think it’s only the Kid’s boat being lifted on the rising tide. He hasn’t forgot the lesson of collaboration but the main headline is his dream has come true. He is now a star, not just in his head but in the eyes of everyone in the venue, and the wider world will follow after the freeze frame. The Kid, and in the climactic moment his guitar, can’t control their excitement as he struts triumphantly, cavorting under the Broadway lights of newly-won fame. The bookending reversed messages about ignoring criticism (“fuck them! what do they know, all their taste is in their mouth”) now incongruous with this revelling in adoration.

In real life, Baby I’m a Star served the same purpose on the accompanying tour. This is Prince’s moment and he may be basking in it, stretching the track out to ever longer proportions, but he’s giving the crowd everything he’s got in return. Herculean choreography, a well-oiled Revolution put through the wringer, celebrities and entourage joining the jam on stage. He lied about stopping when he reached the top. He doubled down on his craft. By the end of the tour, fame’s hangover will have truly set in but right now, he’s on top of the world and milking every last drop before the party ends.

And Prince did win that Academy award. Purple Rain was voted Best Original Song Score, giving him the only Oscar of his career. In his acceptance speech he said “I could have never imagined this in my wildest dreams.” On the contrary, I believe that after he wrote Baby I’m a Star he imagined that moment every single day until reality caught up with his vision.

30: She’s Always in my Hair

Raspberry Beret single (1985)
Please raise a glass to the under-appreciated and unheralded Jill Jones. Is there a better metaphor of her time with Prince than the image of her being hid behind the stage curtain while performing backing vocals for Vanity 6? She was a better singer than anybody he thrust into the limelight during the 80s, but he wanted her kept under wraps, scared that fame would take her away from him. It’s why he held off on releasing her solo lp for several years and why she’s the only one whose credit is cryptically initialised on the 1999 album despite being all over that record (including singing co-lead on the title track). Her story arc was cut out of Purple Rain and the same happened with Graffiti Bridge six years later with the added insult of her having to mime to Elisa Fiorillo on Love Machine (despite the song initially having her vocals). Nothing had changed by 2017, with Purple Rain Deluxe ignoring her completely – her song Wednesday, cut from early drafts of the film and album, notable by its absence on the bonus disc of vault material.

Because of this drawn veil over her input, Jill gets overlooked by the wider world in favour of more visible band members like Wendy and Lisa. Yet she was there at the start of the Revolution and her involvement outlasted them. Only Dr Fink and Jerome was part of his stable for longer. On the satellite act albums released between her uncredited appearances on Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times, Jill features on almost all of them. She was everywhere. The Lady Cab Driver; the beautiful friend in Hello. The sparring partner on the extended version of Kiss. The Automatic dominatrix. She was always there. And what does she get for this loyalty? A song with a title suggesting her constant presence is irritating.

Prince wrote She’s Always in my Hair for Jill as an apology after a spat they had. It didn’t go down well. It wasn’t the title that wound her up, but the teasing “maybe I’ll marry her, maybe I won’t” line. On the whole, its lyrics are infinitely more affectionate than other songs he wrote that also portrayed her as his obsessive cheerleader – such as the suicidal Wednesday, or the starstruck Baby You’re a Trip. She may have identified with her character in those, after all Baby You’re a Trip was plagiarised from extracts from her diary. But singing a funhouse mirror exaggeration of yourself is different than being gifted a song by your first love that details their indifference. That had to hurt. And I’m not sure gaining the enviable accolade of being the muse for one of his greatest B-sides helped mitigate that pain.

After Jill, the next biggest inspiration for She’s Always in my Hair was a track he wrote earlier that year. Prince recreates the chugging effect he used on Apollonia 6’s Sex Shooter (created by putting a Linn drum snare through a flanger pedal) and he borrows the first four notes of its main riff to follow every “she’s always there” line. She’s Always in my Hair may wear the finger cymbals uniform of the Around the World era and have a Paisley badge slapped on its sleeve, but it was recorded deep into the Purple Rain sessions, pre-dating When Doves Cry and Take Me With U, and its stark driving rock sits better against a purple background than it does among its more opulent and rainbow-hued brethren.

It could have ended up even starker with an early yet-to-be-titled draft of its lyrics opening with the proto-Sign o’ the Times line: “a boy got killed at Disneyland today, some say he was trying to be Superman….” Sounds like it started life aimed in the wrong direction but luckily JJ was there, telling him how much she cared.

As an apology, She’s Always in my Hair sucked. But as a song it sits in the top tier of pop rock masterpieces and would be more widely viewed as such if he hadn’t kept it hidden, like its muse, behind the curtain of its more showy A-side.

31: Raspberry Beret

Around the World in a Day (1985)
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Purple Rain, Kiss and Raspberry Beret – possibly the only three songs your average non-fan could name – all outside the top 30. What kind of ranking is this? If this was a content-farm listicle or Sunday paper puff-piece, all three would be top five with any one of them topping it. But I’m not pandering to the expectations of passing tourists or part-time Prince fans. This is for you. The real fam. Those who top 30 doesn’t resemble the Hits on shuffle. Raspberry Beret doesn’t fit my wonky soul as much as its lesser known B-side but that doesn’t mean I fail to occasionally crumble at its majesty. There’s a reason why the song has travelled beyond the purple orbit and into the daytime playlists of commercial radio and high street stores. It’s catchy enough for mass appeal, but with enough left field charm to still intrigue after decades of hearing it mauled by malls. The song started life in 1982, being first recorded while Prince was putting together the 1999 and Vanity 6 albums. The lyrics were different at this early stage – closer to Darling Nikki, with the woman vanishing after their night of passion, leaving Prince with just a note and her raspberry-coloured headwear. Two years later, the song was rerecorded and became the version we all know, with new lyrics full of imagery from the Purple Rain movie – especially one of its deleted scenes where Prince and Apollonia make love in a barn during a thunder storm. Now the singer is described as losing his virginity (“they say the first time ain’t the greatest”) and it takes place on Old Man Johnson’s farm – a name often highlighted for its innuendo, but actually intended as a dig in the ribs of Time departee, Jesse Johnson. This updated version also features a harpsichord melody written by Lisa and a string section that she was asked to arrange, overdubbed a few days later. Its video, the first he directed himself, was initially two separate videos (one filmed, one animated) mashed together and if his hair looks a little strange (Prince thought it made him look like Lou Ferrino) it could be because it’s believed to be a wig, after a disastrous attempt to bleach his hair went wrong. Interestingly, in this video The Revolution are all dressed up as the characters that represent them on the album cover, with Prince donning the cloud suit and cloud guitar of the blonde guy sat in the centre. He told Rolling Stone in 1985 he wasn’t on the cover because “people were tired of looking at me” but if the hair story is true then surely that blonde guy was always meant to be Prince. The video starts with the intro to the extended mix, but don’t stop there. Listen to the full 12” version if you’re going through the motions in your long love affair with Raspberry Beret and wish to rekindle the magic. Supermarkets and malls may take away our radio edits, but they’ll never take away our extended jams with Prince rocking the harmonica.

32: Sign o’ the Times

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Humans beings aren’t designed to cope with today’s barrage of breaking news. If we keep pace with every single plot twist of hyper-capitalism’s march, does that make us informed citizens engaging on a macro level with the fast-changing world, or are we doom-scrolling dupes destroying our mental health by giving advertisers clicks for another microdose of that sweet dopamine? Sometimes it feels like we’re being forced to read every word of the Earth’s end credits which are scrolling past our eyes too fast to fully take in. A song like Sign O’ the Times or Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire couldn’t be written nowadays. The news is far too relentless to be be pinned down. The turnover too quick. And after having it beamed into our eyeballs, our hearts and our lungs every hour of the day, we want our pop music to be escapist. Before 24-hour news came of age with the OJ Simpson murder case, glimpses of a burning world were doled out in managable bite-size chunks. One such chunk reached Prince when he was in a particularly anxious state and it gave birth to the song that titled the album, tour and movie of his creative peak. Under Sign O’ the Times in the Hits liner notes, Alan Leeds writes “I’d love to know the date so I could look up the newspapers to see what inspired it”. Thanks to Susannah Melvoin we now know it was 13 July 1986. She recently revealed that Prince was in Los Angeles that month, experiencing their worst earthquake in seven years which, in her words, “scared the shit out of him”. On the day of the aftershock, with his belief in a stable world once again literally shaken, he was handed that day’s LA Times with a front page headline about Reagan’s Star Wars program. Read that paper yourself online and trace the seeds of the song’s lyrics through articles on the surge in teen drug use, the AIDS epidemic (including one about a recent conference in France, and another that likens HIV to someone running around with a machine gun), bomb blasts, and a report on how women and children were the fastest growing poverty group in the country. Not all the Signs came from that Times. There’s no rockets exploding but it was only a few months after the Challenger space shuttle disaster. And Prince would have heard about The Disciples in Minneapolis where a murder trial of a leader from that gang was underway. There’s also no mention of Hurricane Annie. Could the destruction of a church be by the hand of his antichrist Annie Christian? It’s a line possibly inspired by an article that day on white supremacist violence being committed in the name of Christianity. Or could Prince be referencing the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the US coast, sometimes referred to as Hurricane Annie, which left a path of destruction in Florida in 1935. Interestingly, back when he recorded this, the only other category 5 to have hit the mainland was called Hurricane Camille. Coincidence? Could he have even got the name from a Rudy Ray Moore record. Or maybe all of the above. Sign O’ the Times wasn’t the first song he recorded after digesting that day’s current events. The healing redemption of The Cross came first. Only by cleansing his soul could he then turn his direct gaze towards the abyss. And after encapsulating the darkness, giving it form, and proposing love, marriage and the gift of God (the Hebrew meaning behind the name Nate) as the antidote, could he then move forward and play in the sunshine.

33: Purple Rain

Purple Rain (1984)
I needed a run up for this one. A couple of days basking in the various performances: the First Avenue debut; Rave Un2 the Year 2000; the Super Bowl half-time show. The song looms so large over Prince’s legacy that attempting to wrap my head around it is like trying to picture the vastness of space. Human minds aren’t equipped for the task. I’m as overwhelmed as Stevie Nicks when she received the instrumental from Prince to add lyrics. In her words: “I can’t do it… It’s too much for me.” Yet, I’ll try. It’s strange to think Purple Rain – the Revolution’s signature anthem – could have been a country duet with the singer from Fleetwood Mac. Praise be that its destiny, like in the movie, was to become a band collaboration instead. The writing process didn’t quite go like it did on screen, with Wendy giving Prince a tape titled Slow Groove, but she was instrumental in shaping the sound. Late in reheasal one night, Prince suggested working on something new. He introduced the band to the basic idea of Purple Rain and, as Fink recalls, told them to “play what you feel”. Wendy, a new addition to the line-up and eager to impress, toyed with Prince’s chord progression and turned it into the anthemic opening section that speaks in goosebumps. The rest of the band also worked their voodoo and later that summer they performed it live for the first time which, with a little trimming and polish, is the recording found on the album. The one the rest of the world hears when they think of Prince. His lighters-in-the-air epitaph. You can divide Prince’s career into before and after the Purple Rain moment. In the movie, this occurs when he performs the climactic title song. The Prince that coughs nervously before launching into it, is different to the Prince that ends it. Never again will he face a sea of blank-eyed faces. Megastardom has arrived. I believe that’s close to what happened in real life too. Once people heard Purple Rain, either as the album closer or the cinematic denouement, their relationship to Prince changed, which changed him too. Its crescendo, along with the iconic intro to Let’s Go Crazy are the defining moments of both the album and movie. Better songs are found therein but none are as irreplaceable. When Doves Cry was the big lead single, but who’s to say one of the B-sides (17 Days, She’s Always in my Hair, Erotic City) wouldn’t have had the same success. The Beautiful Ones is a personal favourite but if the inferior Electric Intercourse had remained instead, the album would still have hit multi-platinum. Swap one of the other songs for any of the hidden classics from that period – The Glamorous Life, Wonderful Ass, We Can Fuck, G-Spot – and the album would still have catapulted him into the stratosphere. But take away the album’s intro where he describes the afterlife, or the closing crescendo where he guides us there, and it’s no longer Purple Rain. There are spiritual references throughout the album, but those two definitive moments – the spinechilling bookends – wrap it up in an embrace that must come from a profound and deeply personal place. It’s no accident they are the two songs he left blank when writing his own (unpublished) liner notes for the Hits compilation – reducing them to a pithy one liner must have seemed trite. Prince is on record saying he had a spiritual experience during the Purple Rain period. One he hasn’t talked candidly about, but it feels like he’s communicating a revelation to us here. That is the true message of Purple Rain. Too much has been written about how Prince created it in a bid for maximum crossover success – a Stairway to Heaven for the white rock audience that had started to pay attention after Little Red Corvette. It pays tribute to rock’s power ballads, sure – he was worried it sounded too similar to one of Journey’s hits and sought their approval before release – but focusing on its whiteness is to lose sight of its blackness. Purple Rain is heavily influenced by gospel music. The electric grand piano and wordless hosannas provide the song with a spiritual intensity, drawing from Afro-American gospel roots, like Stairway to Heaven drew from Celtic folk. He’s back at the start of the album but now he’s no longer addressing the congregation. He’s addressing the one he loves. An ex-lover? His father (to whom the song gets dedicated in the film)? Is he even singing as a messiah? The lyrics are open to interpretation but on the record sleeve, an extra printed verse to Darling Nikki casts some light on the title. It reads “Sometimes the world’s a storm. One day soon the storm will pass and all will be bright and peaceful. Fearlessly bathe in the purple rain”. In 1999 he linked a purple sky with Judgement Day. The purple rain is God’s cleansing fire during the apocalypse, before the “bright and peaceful” dawn arrives. Prince opens up the heavens and recreates the moment of ascent for us poor souls trapped in our decaying meat bodies. It was only fitting that it was the last song he performed live in concert, before ascending himself a week later. The preceding song at that show was his mournful elegy Sometimes it Snows in April. He could have left us in sorrow, but instead chose to leave us laughing in the purple rain.

34: Let’s Pretend We’re Married

1999 (1982)
You’ve probably heard how parental advisory stickers on albums were introduced after Tipper Gore caught her daughter listening to Darling Nikki, but their invention can be traced back to another Prince song and a different 11-year-old girl. In October 1983, while listening to the 1999 album with their daughter, two Cincinnati parents were so shocked by Let’s Pretend We’re Married’s lewdness that it caused them to launch a campaign against “porn rock”. This crusade was taken up by the national Parent-Teachers Association who later teamed up with Tipper’s PMRC to pressure the record industry into issuing the stickered warnings. As origin stories go, Let’s Pretend We’re Married is a much more worthy catalyst for a movement of parental pearl-clutching than the comparatively tame Darling Nikki. Both songs contain risqué opening couplets but it’s not until the f-bombs start dropping in the spoken section of Let’s Pretend We’re Married’s climax when you really hear Prince acting out the “pure sex” persona that he once told his band would be his identity. It contains what may be the most sexually explicit line he ever included on an album and if it still shocks today, imagine the effect it had on early-80s conservative America. In a way though, the track reflects the Christian values of its time. Only a culture with strict views about sex before marriage could birth a song that views marital sex as a guilt-free carnal carnival. Nowadays, we’ve been primed by comedians to associate marriage with drudgery and the idea that lovers would pretend to be husband and wife in order to “go all night” sounds more absurd than the reverse scenario – a married couple spicing up their lovelife by roleplaying a one-night-stand. Even back then it was more usual to have songs like Babooshka and Escape (The Piña Colada Song) with lyrics about marriages chasing the thrill of the forbidden. Prince flipping this message into forbidden sex chasing the thrill of marriage is more subversive to us today than any four-letter outburst. Only Prince could make the concept of marriage sound perverted. It’s the polar opposite of John Cooper Clarke’s view that getting married is like having your sexual relationship ratified by the police. Establishment approval has never been as desirable as forbidden fruit, which incidentally is also the reason why the parental advisory warnings that Let’s Pretend We’re Married and Darling Nikki outraged into existence inevitably failed. As Ice T rapped on Freedom of Speech, “the sticker on the record is what makes ‘em sell gold”. If that couple in Cincinnati really wanted to stop kids from listening to the album they should have instead focused on the song’s closing lines and fought for a sticker that read “parental approval, religious content”.

35: I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
On the 34th anniversary of the album recording of I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, the estate released a remastering of the original demo to promote its placement on the forthcoming Sign o’ the Times box set. A surprising element of this previously unheard recording is how the singer’s refusal to “take the place of your man” only lasts until the final chorus when he relents, adding “…but I’ll try, yeah, I’ll sure as hell try”. Probably a bigger surprise though is how this fully-fledged song from 1979 didn’t crop up on his second or third album. It could have slotted seamlessly into Dirty Mind but maybe Prince always had bigger plans and had to wait until his technical chops matched his vision. In 1986 he ditched the song’s new wave garb for a technicolour coat of country, rock, blues and 60s pop, woven with intricate strands of electric and acoustic guitar, and brocaded with handclaps. Everything is held together by the hi-hat that doesn’t let up, even throughout the extended blues coda which helps keep the listener tantrically charged and biting their bottom lip for a third of the song, on the edge of an explosion that finally comes at the six-minute mark when the main refrain returns with a bullet and a scream. Given the lyrics’ original ending, could this be the point in the story where he gives in to the woman’s advances? In later acoustic renditions, such as on the Musicology and Piano and a Microphone tours, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man remains a firm refusal of a rebound romance. But now I hear the quiet section on the album version as the singer steeling his nerve and shoring up his reserves of will power before his defences finally crumble in a scream of pent-up passion. I’m just glad that he changed the opening line from the intial draft. Keen eyes may have spotted in the handwritten lyrics (released by the estate on the same day as the demo) Prince originally opened with the line “She was only fifteen…” before crossing it out and replacing it with “It was only last June”. The music video with Cat, taken from the Sign o’ the Times movie, could have had a very different vibe indeed.

36: Lady Cab Driver

1999 (1982)
Do you know that Watchmen comic panel which became a meme? The one of Dr Manhattan on Mars saying he’s tired of Earth, people and being caught in the tangle of their lives. That’s Prince in his taxicab solitude. He’s doing exactly what he said he would do in Annie Christian, and using taxis as a transitory, liminal space to retreat into and shelter from the world’s evils. It’s his coping mechanism for fleeing trouble-winds. But he’s not alone in this escape pod and it soon becomes the setting for one of his fantasy conquests, like The Ballad of Dorothy Parker or Darling Nikki, where redemption is delivered via a sexual encounter with a stranger. I say it’s the setting but presumably when we start hearing the bed-springs we’ve left the cab and are at the nameless driver’s “mansion” after she accepted his fare in tears. Or could this sexual fantasy be playing out in the passenger’s mind while he’s still in the back seat, drifting off to the bass-led funk of the cab’s engine? When this section starts three minutes in, Prince’s vocals, previously drained of any emotion other than ennui, suddenly flare up with Yeats’ lust and rage. Jill Jones’ pleasured moans accompany the sound of Prince thrusting out his anger on subjects including jealousy of his half-brother Duane, politicians, discrimination, greed, Yosemite Sam (?!) and, to pick up his theme from Sexuality, Disneyland tourists. Once he hits his stride, he mellows and starts dedicating each thrust to the creator of man, heavenly bodies, and those Disneyland tourists again. He eventually remembers his manners and addresses the woman he’s having sex with – a dedication which, in a lightning-quick scaling of Diotima’s ladder gets expanded out to women in general, and then to platonic love. Prince’s final tribute is to the wind, as he now recognises the cold trouble-winds of the first verse and chorus as the motivating force propelling him onward. Like Dr Manhattan, a sexual partner has helped him reach an epiphany in his solitude. He realises life isn’t something he should be trying to escape from. “This galaxy’s better than not having a place to go” he concludes and we’re returned to the gentle pace of the opening section, now with seagulls and seven chimes of a clock. Could this be the new dawn? Welcome bursts of guitar follow which unfortunately do not spiral out of control and drown out the rest of the track like it does in its initial template: the posthumously released Rearrange. That wouldn’t have fit the narrative of an existensial crisis averted but given the choice of listening to turmoil or inner peace, I would pick turmoil every time. Plus, it beats trying to work out what the sound of a mouth gargle and a trumpeting elephant represent.

37: The Cross

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Prince’s art rock masterpiece The Cross starts simply: a gentle two-chord strumalong, an occasional sitar-sounding flourish and Prince’s voice naked (except for some reverb) just as God intended. A drum joins in at the end of the second verse, a militant beat on the one and three to sound the procession of a soul heading towards its saviour. And at the song’s halfway point they meet. At Prince’s signal he unleashes heaven. A guitar drone explodes into life, the drums rock out and three of the four verses are repeated again with blazing intensity. With no chorus to provide any release, the tension increases until the final two lines where his vocals no longer stand alone before God and now swell with the sound of a thousand souls in transcendental rapture. It’s the redemption promised in The Ladder and delivered in Purple Rain, only this time without the shroud of poetry. It’s not his first song with a straighforward and unapologetic Christian message. However, tracks like God and 4 the Tears in Your Eyes were kept away from his albums. Prince recited the Lords prayer in Controversy and told us Jesus is coming in Let’s Go Crazy and (albeit backwards) in Darling Nikki but those felt like messages slipped through the back door. I Would Die 4 U came close but hid behind a messiah complex and was muddied by being the words of his father both off-screen and on. The message of The Cross is inescapable – don’t die without knowing Christ – and its symbolism is plucked straight from the Gospels. The title uses the most instantly recognisable Christian symbol and the line “there’ll be bread for all of us” nods to Jesus’s second miracle, a reference within the grasp of most primary schoolers. A little more esoterically, “ghettos to the left of us and flowers to the right” uses a traditional biblical metaphor of dividing people into sinners on the left and the blessed on the right, as described by Matthew (25:33). This has been depicted in art since medieval times, with crucifiction scenes usually placing to Jesus’s right the penitent thief whom he saves (Luke 23:43), while the unrepentent thief is placed to his left. The problem of this by-the-book symbolism is that The Cross was less flexible to roll with changes in Prince’s faith. At an awards show in 1998 he introduced a renamed version called The Christ, while lecturing us about the Jehovahs Witness belief that a single stake of wood was used in the crucifiction instead of the mistranslated cross. As he would later find when he renamed Sexuality, fans didn’t appreciate this messing with the classics. It was easier when he used his own symbolism as that didn’t need updating to reflect the dogma du jour. Larry Graham was not going to pull Prince to one side and tell him his views on the de-elevator were off-doctrine. Personally, I don’t care if it’s The Cross or The Christ, as for me the power of the song doesn’t lie in its lyrics or message. The true power is hearing the mindblowing sonic effect of Prince finally accepting into his life the Velvet Underground.

38: When You Were Mine

Dirty Mind (1980)
Where did Prince write When You Were Mine? Sources vary, although all agree he wrote it in a hotel room during the Rick James tour. Prince’s draft of the The Hits’ liner notes place the hotel in North Carolina, yet the published notes say it was written in Florida while the rest of the band were at Disney World. Fink concurs with this story but in an 1997 interview Prince said he wrote it in Birmingham, Alabama after listening to John Lennon. It could have been worked on across all three states, or memories of hotel rooms have blurred into one. What’s more important is its psychological location. As Prince wrote in his liner notes: “this was not a happy period.” He was stuck on a stressful tour that he was only doing for exposure, bumping egos with the headliner and (early on) dealing with some antagonistic audiences. Therefore the Florida story is the most illustrative. His band unwound from tour pressures by taking in a theme park, while Prince retreated into his music and created his own magical kingdom. When You Were Mine is pop perfection. A new wave nirvana. Shelter from the grey, tedious messy world by climbing inside a bubblegum palace where being cheated on has never sounded so good. Because the Dirty Mind album reinvented Prince as a sexual taboo breaker, critics often peg When You Were Mine as a song about a menage a trois. But I think that’s relying too much on one surely-metaphorical line. There wasn’t somebody literally sleeping between them. The singer was simply aware he was being two-timed and didn’t make a fuss about it, but now that his girlfriend has left him for the other man he loves her even more and begins following them around. It’s more a song about stalking than threesomes but, like Every Breath You Take, you don’t notice because it’s shiny, happy radio nectar. Unbelievably, it was never released as a commercial single but it was the b-side to Controversy and found a second life through a parade of cover versions. The first one, by the British band Bette Bright & The Illuminations, arrived the year after Dirty Mind was released. Two more appeared before Cyndi Lauper recorded what would become the best known cover. In January 1985, she released her version as a single, allowing When You Were Mine to finally roam the happy hunting ground of mainstream daytime radio. At the dawn of the 80s Prince spun gold out of tour-misery straw, but it wasn’t until the midpoint of the decade that somebody dazzled the market with its brilliance.

39: Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)

1999 (1982)
When Prince called Darling Nikki “the coldest song ever written” he had obviously forgotten about Something In The Water (Does Not Compute). This ice-plunge into loneliness and alienation can be found in the middle of Prince’s coldest album, sandwiched between Automatic’s tears and the cool healing zephyr of Free. A depth where even those space-surviving water bears fear to tread. Other than Prince’s voice, the only sounds you hear are a shivering Linn drum, minor synth chords and Prince’s logic board bleeping unsatisfactorily as it fails to compute why every girl treats him so bad. His internal computer will eventually concede that its faulty programming is to blame, but that’s for the next album’s more introspective Computer Blue. For now, contaminated drinking water is the best answer it can grasp at. The ‘original’ version of Something in the Water (posthumously released on 1999 Deluxe) provides an interesting insight into how the song progressed. This first take was a fuller composition with bass and piano and though still powerful, isn’t quite as chilling as the one he re-recorded, where he strips the instruments out and leaves in their place a howling void and a piercing scream that emits from the iron core of his being like a death ray of despair. Few screams in his catalogue match it. And after he delivers it, where can you go from there? Like in Do Me, Baby he’s left depleted. You hear a spat curse and then a mic knock (on what sounds like the phrase ‘second coming’) as Prince stumbles towards the exit, mumbling semi-incoherently. It will take a couple of tracks before he regains the energy to try and flee this desolation with the help of a lady cab driver.

40: Strange Relationship

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
When the author Vladimir Nabakov was asked about his novels’ beastly characters, he replied that they were outside his inner-life like the monsters on a cathedral facade, placed there merely to show the demons that have been booted out. Prince uses Camille in a similar way. His gender-fluid alter-ego is not just a pitchshifted voice, it is a vehicle for Prince to exorcise his dark thoughts, or at least launder them into art he can share with the world without the cognitive dissonance of endorsing the message with his birth name. Strange Relationship is one those song dredged up from the darker recesses of his pysche that has its lead vocals attributed to Camille, but it was written years before that character was born. First recorded in 1983, the song’s lyrics portray a relationship that’s more sadistic and unhealthy than strange. Jill Jones has said Prince wrote it about Vanity after he became jealous of her seeing other people – feelings he also channelled into the deceptively viscous Wonderful Ass (although Wendy believes Susannah was the muse for that one). To me, Strange Relationship sounds like the darker cousin to When You Were Mine, where this time the green-eyed monster isn’t fanning the flames of love but instead causing them to emit a toxic smoke that’s captivating to watch dance. The ghost of a sitar synth haunts the background – traces of the time it was in Wendy and Lisa’s care before their involvement was whitewashed out post-Revolution – while a monotonous beat gets a kick out of doing you cold. The effect is beautiful yet sinister, like a young Imelda Marcos. Unlike Wonderful Ass, this song refused to be banished to the vault. It made it onto three abandoned albums (Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball) and the same amount of released ones (Sign o’ the Times, One Night Alone… Live!, Piano and a Microphone 1983). It also appeared on a couple of concert home videos and performed live regularly up to and including his final tour. Out of all the intricate gargoyles adorning Prince’s palace, Strange Relationship is the one whose troubled gaze you couldn’t escape.

41: Sometimes it Snows in April

Parade (1986)
The utter ridiculousness of creating this ranked list comes into sharper focus when I have to consider songs like this. How can you compare this reservoir of loss, this reminder of grief, next to the sheer funk lunacy of Sexy MF or iconic spectacle of Purple Rain? It’s like ranking emotions. All are part of the full kaleidoscopic experience of life and should be embraced, not compared with each other and found wanting. But it’s too late to question the premise now. Sometimes it Snows in April was much loved before Prince left this realm but has become imbued with a new metaphysical aura since. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy writes about the date of Tess’s death being “a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there.” Tess is frustrated at not knowing what she considers to be the most important date in her life. When you find out that Prince recorded his mournful requiem on 21 April 1985, the pre-anniversary of his own passing, you wonder if he, at least on some level, knew his? The song was written years before – at one point it was on the tracklisting for his debut album – but something compelled him to go into the studio on that particular calendar date and put it to tape. Prosaic answers seem inadequate. It was his first week back in the studio after wrapping up a five-month tour, plus he had already alluded to the song earlier that month by using the phrase “sometimes it snows in April” in a released statement saying he was quitting live performing. If, as has been suggested, Christopher Tracy is a coded name for Christ, Prince may have pulled the title out of storage around this time because of a controversy surrounding the final show of his tour, the one said to be his last for “an indefinite period of time” (although in actuality only two months). Local religious groups were outraged that this concert had been moved to Easter Sunday and the resulting news coverage may have reawakened Prince’s own Easter elegy and caused it to became one of the first songs worked on when back in the studio later that month. It’s just a coincidence that the dates match. But the song seems too powerful for mere coincidences. We weave myths to make sense of the irrational but unfortunately Sometimes it Snows in April will always be a reminder of the inexplicable: a Princeless world.

42: I Wanna Be Your Lover

Prince (1979)
Prince’s debut ran over budget and over time, so with his second album he was eager to show Warner Bros he wasn’t a boy trying to do a man’s job. No messing around with experimental intricate acapella workouts to kick things off this time around. A single drum hit to get your attention and then it’s straight to the best hook he had in his bag. Boom. A glorious disco strut to the face. Lead single. Point made. I Wanna Be Your Lover is primed for the airwaves – sleek pop but with a cheeky wink behind the radio controller’s back via that suggestive pause in the chorus. Here on the album, as soon as he clocks up a radio-edit’s worth of vocals, Prince drops the mic and allows the song to bloom into a funk-disco instrumental for the track’s remaining majority – like the previous album’s Just As Long We’re Together but without the hunched shoulders. That clenched era’s gone. There’s now space in his grooves to climb inside. To roam free and lose baggage in. Without vocals, he gives us an unencumbered view of this majestic expanse so that he’s certain the new Prince – more confident, less over-thinking – isn’t lost on us and then he hits us with the second single immediately after, mindful of his mission to make a quick impression. That in turn is followed by another single on the third track. He’s determined to win us over. We’re being courted and it’s all too easy to believe him when he tells us he wants to be our lover, brother, mother and sister too. Yet, according to Prince’s original liner notes for The Hits compilation, the actual target of those proto-If I Was Your Girlfriend lyrics is the jazz musician Patrice Rushen, who had helped him with the synth programming on his first album. He had a crush on her at the time and reveals that not only is the song about her, but it was also originally recorded as a demo for her. He either changed his mind or she turned it down, but a couple of years later she sent him Forget Me Nots with her sole crossover hit bearing more than a passing resemblence to his intended gift. Luckily, for whatever reason he kept I Wanna Be Your Lover for himself and it became his foothold to the next strata of fame. It was his first proper hit. His first music video. His first TV performance. The world was beginning to wake up to Prince and superstar-dom would soon come… running.

43: Sexy MF

O(+> (1992)
At the start of the 90s, Prince’s new favourite hang out – his Glam Slam club – exposed him to a lot of hip hop, which  started to have an effect on the music he was making. He told Spike Lee in 1997 that AMG’s Bitch Betta Have My Money was the biggest club song during this period and he heard it so much he got “swayed by the current”. The month it was released, Prince went into the studio and recorded Sexy MF, a swaggering party track pumped full of testosterone, but with a message that “this ain’t about sex, it’s all about love” – a rap more ballsy than AMG’s tired pimp porn. Any rapper can cosplay a pimp but it takes real bravado to split from the herd and spit bars about not being ready for a sexual relationship. Sexy MF was written while Prince was courting but not yet sleeping with Mayte, who was then 17 years old. He was speaking to her via his music, and as the opening lines of The Morning Papers tell us and her: “he realized that she was new 2 love, naive in every way… that’s why he had 2 wait”. With its explicit chorus and off-brief Harlem Nights-quoting verse by Tony M, the sexual abstinance theme may not be immediately obvious, but Prince’s verses make clear that until they’re ready “to take that walk” he’s drawing the line at a “hug and a kiss”. Sexy MF’s video however walks back the sentiment. Prince writhing in a hotel room threesome, while singing to a fourth girl he’s led up to his room seems to bury the personal message under MTV clickbait (or whatever the offline equivilent word is) – although in this case he actually refrained from giving the video to the music channel, instead selling it direct to fans. I guess with the song having already imparted its message to his future wife, and away from the confines of the concept album where it sits with Love 2 the 9s as an audition for the Egyptian Princess Arabia before their relationship progresses to the next stage, Sexy MF is free from having to adhere to internal logic. Give the paying fans what they want: sex scenes, a topless Prince and comic thrusts of a gold gun microphone between his legs. And who’s paying attention to the verses anyway when the music is this funky? According to keyboardist Tommy Barbarella “it was recorded in about 20 minutes” and he hated his organ solo but Prince wouldn’t let him fix him it. The last album, Diamonds and Pearls, suffered from over-production so here on the first band-recording for the follow-up, Prince made sure he captured the spontaneity, resulting in the most James Brown thing he’s recorded since he reworked the Godfather’s Gravity for 1987’s It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night. While the hip hop world was scouring the founding father of funk’s back catalogue for loops, Prince had a band that could pump them out, royalty free.

44: Pink Cashmere

The Hits 1 (1993)

Anna Fantastic isn’t the only person claiming to be the inspiration for Pink Cashmere, but she is the muse for whom it will always be associated. She first heard it in 1988 on her 18th birthday, playing in the background of Prince’s house when he gave her a personalised coat of pink cashmere and black mink, along with a cassette of a different song he had written for her called Anna Waiting. She recalls she never recieved a copy of Pink Cashmere, recorded six months previously, and a little over a year later she left his orbit, not hearing the song again until it appeared on her radio out of the blue in 1993 – a single to promote his forthcoming Hits compilation. This greatest hits package included Pink Cashmere as one of four ‘new’ songs, all four beginning with the same letter. Unintended coincidence? Or a flex to show how much unreleased music he has in the vault that he only need open the P drawer? Whether there were other girls and other coats (Carmen Elektra claims to have one) is a matter for the gossip hounds but there is one important person to whom we know Prince gave the song after Anna left Minneapolis – the composer Clare Fischer, who annointed it with orchestral strings, gracing it with a class that the actual coat could never attain. His involvement starts subtly – dipping in and out of crystal blue rock-pools of acoustic guitar and drum machine. A playful ballet. As the track builds, the choreography intesifies and towards the end the orchestra find a new dance partner in the arrival of Prince’s axe. When the electric guitar and strings begin diving in and out of each other, they become the warp and weft of a loom weaving the greatest ballad this side of Adore. A tapestry to make Athena herself jealous. Maybe it’s out of goddess spite that Pink Cashmere was never given a proper home. It was considered for both the abandoned Rave Unto the Joy Fantasic album and Grafitti Bridge, but instead had to live in the shop window of The Hits and the Spike Lee playlist of Girl 6. Even the single bombed, with the newly-nameless Prince refusing to get behind his old material. For further ignominy, a reggae remix was made – a true abomination of a track, which I refuse to believe he’s behind but if so it was surely an act of sabotage. Luckily this monstrosity was never released commercially. Maybe Pink Cashmere’s greatest insult was to see a pastiche, Beck’s (admittedly great) Debra, become more well known and loved, despite not even being released as a single. Because I never play the compilations, Pink Cashmere sits in storage, rarely touched, but on days like today when I remember, I pull it out and marvel at the handiwork. Here I go again, falling in love all over. I wonder if Anna does the same to the coat. Although, having seen the photos, probably not. I’m sure it’s a treasured memento and all, but let’s just say the garment doesn’t share the song’s timeless appeal.

45: Irresistible Bitch

Let’s Pretend We’re Married single (1983) / The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
Did Prince believe he invented rap with Irresistable Bitch? One of his recording engineers quoted him as saying so, but even if he never made this unfeasible claim about something written two years after Rapper’s Delight, he did namecheck the song in an interview to puff up his hip hop credentials. You can see his point. Irresistible Bitch shares territory with hip hop, not due to any bandwagon jumping, but as the result of a convergence of styles he was experimenting with at the time. The beat’s emphasis on bass and drums was a product of the Cloreen Bacon Skin improvisation that also birthed The Time track Tricky, and the half-spoken lyrics continued a style he used on All the Critics Love U in New York and Lady Cab Driver. He forged his own path there and the song later became part of rap history when it became his first to be sampled on a hip hop record. Admittedly, his next two singles were appropriated first – When Doves Cry and Erotic City inspired 1984’s When Doves Cry Rapp and Erotic Rapp, but to my knowledge the first actual sample (ie. not an interpolation) was Irresistible Bitch’s bell-like synth hit, that cropped up on electro records in 1985, before Rick Rubin used it later that year on LL Cool J’s Dangerous. Hip hop had started to embrace Prince and he returned the love with a genuine rap track: Holly Rock. It’s just a shame Irresistible Bitch’s contribution to the rap canon wasn’t more than a one second sample. Despite its misogynistic and agressive-sounding title, its lyrics are suprisingly submissive. Let’s Pretend We’re Married on the A-side is much more akin to the domineering, hyper-sexualised tide that hip hop would begin to be carried away by. Who knows what strange and beautiful terrain hip hop would be in today if Irresistible Bitch had indeed invented rap.

46: When Eye Lay My Hands On U

Internet download (2001) / The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
In the midst of Prince’s conversion to his new faith, he wrote When Eye Lay My Hands On U, a song that viciously rejects the idea of an eternal afterlife by describing sex as “the only forever we’ll both obtain, the only joy in this forsaken game”. This blasphemy (which he belatedly attempts to cover up with a “god forbid” disclaimer the second time around) is a cathartic counter-attack of raw sexual energy, the bark of a wild dog refusing to be leashed, and is why Prince warns us in the opening line that his message is “not meant for transmission”. Welcome to his long dark night of the soul where a challenger for the title of one true God steps forth as the primordial Eros – not the nuetered Eros of later poetry, the mischievous son of Aphrodite whom the Roman’s renamed Cupid, but the awesome elemental power that the Greek poet Hesiod described as the most beautiful of all the deathless gods. This divine loosener of limbs enters the arena and teases X-rated lyrics out of Prince, causing him to spin a tale of foreplay that culminates in an homage to the Santana song Europa. This results in what may be the most sensual guitar-playing he has ever committed to tape, but behind the sensuality lies a violent clash of swords. Prince once said he doesn’t feel sexy when he plays guitar, he feels angry. Here we hear him furiously shredding his sexual frustration with every sinew of his body, resisting being ordained by Eros’s intoxicating power, and in the process creating a tender tabernacle for his new Lord to step into. By the end, a defeated Eros crawls back into his demoted role as chubby cherub of the Renaissance and an ashamed Prince buries this profane lapse of lust in a place that only NPG Music Club members could access – first as a download, and then three years later on a compilation which, to date, still hasn’t seen a physical release. In 2009, with the battle for his soul comfortably behind him, Prince relaxed his view that the song’s message “should only be accessed in the privacy of your mind” and began performing it live, most memorably as the opener to his Montreaux appearances, where he skips over the blasphemous line in the first show, but in his second appearance summons the courage to scream it to the sky. The crowd melts when his seduction reaches its apex, the point where his fingers reach the cap stone and the Santana solo is unleashed to mark the explosion of ecstasy, but to those listening carefully they may hear, behind its bars, the beautiful torturous screams of a banished god.

47: Movie Star

Unreleased (1986) / Crystal Ball (1998)
The Crystal Ball liner notes mention that Movie Star was created for The Time. Of course it was. It’s the most Morris Day thing Prince has ever written, including everything on the first three Time albums. There’s just one problem: he recorded it two years after The Time broke up, and at a point when him and Morris weren’t exactly on speaking terms. With that relationship on ice, Prince had lost the main outlet for a very particular part of his psyche. But like a breastfeeding mother, he still needed to express to prevent a leak. He had just shot a movie where he had tapped into that part of him by playing a gigolo with Morris’s ex valet as sidekick, but conversely that only made the urge to purge worse, as being the lead in your own feature film is hardly a tonic for narcissism – so, as soon as he got his new home studio up and running, he recorded Movie Star, a goofy portayal of the vain side of his personality to readdress the balance and prevent him from taking himself too seriously. Therefore, his message in Crystal Ball is misdirection. Movie Star wasn’t created for The Time, but for his ego-projection that he had previously cast onto the band’s frontsman. No one was around to play this character from his psyche so he takes on the role himself – a role you can tell is intended to be a version of Prince because he namechecks his own head of security, Gilbert – someone no other star would be getting “free reign” from. He just wants you to think it was written for Morris because he wants daylight between the song’s comic persona and his Prince brand. But distancing himself from it didn’t stop Movie Star being a hit with fans. The Crystal Ball liner notes tell us the track is D’Angelo’s favourite bootleg. It’s Questlove’s too, who only placed it behind Baby I’m a Star in a top ten list of Prince songs he gave Rolling Stone magazine. Not a bad legacy for a song that, if we’re continuing the breastfeeding metaphor, was recorded as a pump and dump. It was never performed live and although it was briefly considered for the Dream Factory project, it was shelved for 12 years having already served its purpose as comic relief to prick the ego. Luckily, in a bid to stick one to the bootleggers, the song finally saw a release on Crystal Ball in 1998 with a new Jam of the Year intro. This may have awakened something dormant within him, because a year later he laced up the character’s size-six Stacy Adams once more and stepped out as Prettyman.

48: Hot Thing

Sign o’ the Times (1987)

Prince pursues his Hot Thing over forbidden waters, in a cold drum-machine patrol boat that leaves capsized ships in its wake. His vessel is stripped back and hydrodynamically honed for the hunt. Laser sights locked on. Cruise control engaged. It’s all too easy. Then a stowaway is discovered on board – Eric Leeds with a rogue saxophone that begins to jam the precision technology and threatens to lose the chase. The devil’s horn, wild and organic, turns the sea’s white caps into galloping horses. Fifty Nereids glide under the surface. Spume and spray soak the deck. Luckily Prince knows how to harness this untethered, unpredictable spirit and tames it with freestyle incantations of his own (a scat taught to him by the Coco Boys). By the end of the track the saxophone is at heel and responding to attack commands. It’ll be utilised again on their next voyage – the extended mix – but this time the underlying tension and conflict will be replaced by Sugar Walls sea shanties.

49: Way Back Home / Affirmation I, II & III

Art Official Age (2014)
I humbly offer you my reading of the Art Official Age album. In its opening track, Mr Nelson’s class are told in Danish that they “have to do something that will change [their] life forever: open this cage.” He wants them to find the knowledge that will free them from the imprisoning illusion of the phenomenal world. The keys to unlock Maya. Morpheus’s red pill. Bill Hick’s rollercoaster. This threatens the power structures invested in the illusion and we hear the teacher being waterboarded, interrogated and finally losing consciousness as track 1 ends HAL 9000 style. Cut to 45 years in the future and Mr Nelson is woken up in a “brand new age” by an agent who says she’s there to help him but the way her voice glitches on that phrase makes you wonder. A breakdown follows as he acclimatises to this “place that doesn’t require time”. He learns about the new standard of funk and re-experiences old feelings of desire, love and heartbreak which he sloughs off like a snake shedding its skin. Solve et coagula. He’s now ready to receive the affirmation that “there are no such words as me or mine”. This leads to the epiphany of Way Back Home and the realisation all he ever really wanted was to return to the all embracing oneness of the universe. Away from ego and concept of self. He tried doing this in the past with apocalyptic funk’n’roll partying and sex, but this obliteration of self was only momentary. A brief respite from the alienation he was feeling. He now sees that time isn’t linear and understands he is “everything and anything [he] can think of”. The agent, now speaking telepathically, leaves him with the words “there really is only one destination and that is you, all of it is you”. The border separating himself and the cosmos dissolves. He has found his Way Back Home and the song reappears to see us out. And if you have the album on loop, the next words you’ll hear are Mr Nelson welcoming you home and telling you “you’ve come a long way”. Time is circular. Rinse. Repeat.

50: Kiss

Parade (1986)
How do you write about Kiss? Kiss is Kiss. It eludes deconstruction. It evades pinning down. Instead you usually hear of the track’s gestation – the oft-told journey to Mazerati and back. An interesting back story but one that fails to capture the song’s sparse oddness. The Hits liner notes attest to its out-of-placeness, describing the track as both weird and strange, and how Prince thought it never quite worked on the Parade album. It was a late addition to the tracklist and the only one he chose not to send to Clare Fischer for orchestration. He wasn’t happy with how it sounded live either, constantly switching up the arrangement but never able to satisfyingly replace or recreate the gated acoustic guitar (the one from his original demo) that makes up the bulk of the track. Yet, like the sculptors Rodin and Brancusi before him, Prince’s totem to the humble kiss is considered some of his best-known and well-loved work. Its ubiquity, as I wrote about Alphabet St, prevents you from noticing its kook anymore. You no longer hear its disparate elements: the three-chord blues; the minimal dead beat; the James Brown turnarounds plucked straight out of papa’s new bag. It all fits together as a glorious whole and can’t be altered without the magic falling apart. If you want to hear how it could have sounded, head to the extended mix where the second half is a far cry from the usual Marie Kondo approach. Bass, synths, tomtoms and horns all get thrown in – discarded experiments that have been tucked away in the 12″ like the tangle of electrical cables and sticky tape stashed in your dad’s odds-and-ends drawer. If this is how he puts to use your extra time then I’d request it back. It ends in discord as Jill and Prince roleplay a couple arguing over the tv channel. A distraction to make you forget the vandalised rainbow you just experienced. There’s a reason why KISS is a common acronym to keep it simple, stupid. At the other end of the scale lies the acoustic demo, a minute-long cloud of an idea. Divine breath lacking the mortal clay that Mazarati’s producer David Z would provide. In between these poles, stands the Kiss that became a leitmotif, appearing on almost every Prince tour since its arrival and repeatedly referenced up until the sample kissing us farewell on his final album’s Stare. Now Kiss’s role is to echo down the ages, greeting and beckoning in newcomers at the gates of Prince’s vast domain.

51: Lovesexy

Lovesexy (1988)
During my first week learning to snowboard, I went to a festival on top of a mountain. Afterwards, I had the option of either taking the ski-lift down or doing my first black run. I was young, foolish and bullet-proof and never even contemplated taking the safe, sensible option. As soon as my snowboard pointed down the slope I realised my error. Everyone was leaving at the same time and it was so crowded I didn’t have the experience to stop or slow down without taking out the person to the left or right of me. As I hurtled through the melee of people, my conscious mind was so focused on avoiding a collision that it no longer concerned itself with remembering basic technique or unhelpful feelings like worry or panic. It was laser-focused on whatever fate threw my way at increasing speeds. I felt an exhilaration I’ve never felt since. This is what Lovesexy is to me: a gleeful surrender to the present moment. I’ve always found the highlights of Prince’s best songs are the points where he sounds like he’s lost control. The emotional breakdown in The Beautiful Ones; the unravelling desperation at the end of If I Was Your Girlfriend; the blurting out and immediate retraction of smashing up his ride in Adore. However, with Lovesexy it’s less a loss of restraint – an artist letting his emotions run away with him for his art, before carefully corralling them back under control – and more like a complete submission to an ego-obliterating higher power. What part of his life is he revealing to us here? It’s a poorly-kept secret that a bad experience with an ecstasy tablet caused him to pull the Black Album. It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to hear him glorify the drug in Superfunkycalifragisexy under the euphemism ‘squirrelmeat’ and he presumably didn’t want that on his conscience. Instead he released his ‘gospel album’ that told you to say no to any drug other than God. The ecstasy incident is most noticeably alluded to on Anna Stesia, where it’s retold as a battle for his soul between the devil (Spooky Electric) and God, culminating in the epiphany that ‘God is Love’ saving him from the numbness of his vices. He appears to reaffirm this divine message in the liner notes where he introduces the title track by defining Lovesexy as “the feeling you get when you fall in love… not with a boy or or a girl but with the heavens above”. However this could be an attempt to recalibrate the balance after the song itself careers wildly into uncontrollable lust, getting increasingly more sexually explicit after Cat’s vari-speed vocals morph into Prince’s Camille voice: a switcheroo that gives me goosebumps every time. The track deliberately blurs the lines between sex and divine love. Both involve a submission of self. A surrender of ego. And it’s in this overlap that Prince paints his concept of Lovesexy. But he’s painting with colours made newly available to him via narcotic means. Lovesexy is the ride before the crash. The acceleration from which there’s no gentle return to Earth. It’s not the everlasting high with no side-effects that Alphabet St paints it as. But the comedown is for later. On the mountain, as I zipped in and out of people, I thought I’d finally ‘got’ snowboarding. I hadn’t. I wasn’t in control. The only way I was stopping was by crashing, which luckily happened without taking anybody else out. It hurt. But I don’t remember the pain. I only remember the blissful surrender to forces beyond my control that preceded it. And if I had the talent of Prince I would have created a track like Lovesexy to memorialise it. Right now the feeling makes him want to dance and want to cry. All in life becomes easier, no question is unresolved. There may be trouble ahead but while’s there’s music, and moonlight, and love, and race cars burning rubber in your pants, let’s face the music and dance.