253: Race

Come (1994)
At the start of his career Prince heavily avoided the subject of race. Fighting off pigeonholes and labels, he only sang about ethnicity to celebrate a utopian rainbow crowd partying together (DMSR, Uptown) or to deliberately obfuscate his background (Controversy). In Sexuality he even sang “we don’t need no race”. But at the end of 1991 Prince wrote his first song tackling the subject head-on. This track, titled simply Race, was almost three years old when it appeared on the Come album, and had already been aired as part of his Glam Slam Ulysses project and The Beautiful Experience video, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this tightly-woven sample jam, featuring a bassline so deep and low it could be background radiation from an exploding galaxy. The tight drumloop makes the track sound claustrophobic – a defiant dance in a small space cleared of eggshells – but when the horns surge as he delivers a line about being a role-model, it’s like the opening of a butterfly’s wings for the first time. It’s the stuff award speeches are made of and crescendoes with his guitar dissolving underneath the sea in a wahwah meltdown. All of this is uncontroversial and hardly in danger of alienating anybody in the tinderbox that is race-relations in America. One verse echoes Nelson Mandela’s sentiment that “no one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin” – a quote which when tweeted by Barack Obama earlier this year became the most liked tweet in Twitter’s history – and musings that everyone bleeds the same red blood and “we all bones when we dead” aren’t going to make anybody but the most dyed-in-the-wool racist feel uncomfortable. But his self-imposed embargo had been lifted and four weeks later he recorded the unflinching Sacrifice of Victor, his most honest and intimate account of growing up black in one of America’s whitest states. The following year he wrote Color for The Steeles and the bulk of the Goldnigga album, including the riotously un-PC Black MF in the House. A new dimension was made available for his songwriting which lasted until his final album, as heard in the magnificent, totemic, Black Muse.