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.

77: 7

O(+> (1992)
Far above the squirming ghouls, demons and 90s percussion soar 15 bars of shimmering chorus made of eagle wings, where Prince swoops and glides like a pre-hubristic Icarus. He sends down thunderclaps of finger cymbals while angels converse in snatches of sitar and acoustic guitar. Elsewhere a DJ works the Tibetan prayer wheels of steel and a thousand campfires pulse to the heartbeat of God. In 7, Prince could be dispatching the seven-headed dragon from the Book of Revelation, or he could be on a mission to assassinate the seven deadly sins like he’s Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, although judging by the drum loop, Sloth escaped unharmed. If only Michael B had received the phonecall as the sampled beat (Lowell Fulsom’s Tramp, also heard on Wu, De La and Cypress Hill) dates the track but it’s a minor quibble considering the celestial vocal happenings overhead. Let’s not look at the weeds during a solar eclipse. That chorus is one of Prince’s finest. People used to hear the voice of God in earthquakes and volcanoes. The ten commandments were delivered to Mount Sinai amid thunder and the roaring of trumpets which, according to the Hebrew tradition, were heard by all nations. In this globalist era, loudness is not needed to be instantly heard worldwide. An acapella chorus on a platinum-selling album and chart single would travel just as far. I’m not saying 7’s chorus is the voice of the Divine on a par with the Decalogue. But I’m not not saying that either. I didn’t plan for 7 to take this list’s 77 slot and be written and published on the 7th. That just happened. Draw your own conclusions.

EDIT: The day after I posted this I had server trouble which took this site off-line for 7 days. One blasphemy too far perhaps?

101: Love 2 the 9s

O(+> (1992)
Love 2 the 9s is an inverse of The Continental. It starts with light and airy Caribbean vibes but midway switches into something The Bomb Squad would be proud of. We receive a pummelling of record scratches and a siren-like bassline, somebody arrives toting a glockenspiel and Tony M “machine gun[s]” Mayte, here on her Prince debut, with a rapid-fire questionnaire which she interrupts by breaking out her Streetfighter special move, the “Booty Boom”. We don’t hear all 37 questions on this questionnaire (maybe the other half were on Love Machine) but what starts out as Tony M jotting down her name, age and interests, ends with Prince firing off challenges which range from public displays of affection to lying on a bed of thorns while he drinks your ocean dry. As we’ve already seen in Love Machine and If I Was Your Girlfriend, the longer any interview progresses on a Prince record the probability of him asking to drink you approaches 1. It’s like some kind of cunnilingus Godwin’s law.

113: The Continental

O(+> (1992)
The Continental houses a lot of Prince’s excesses during this early 90s period – busy production, record scratches, Carmen Electra – but the Minnesotan maestro fashions these worn parts into pop perfection. The track never wanted to be cool, that’s why it sports the name of a caravan or a breakfast option. Instead, it only wants to do you like you want to be done and if it has guessed correctly you’re craving a hip-pop-rock-dance powerhouse with more hooks than a cloakroom and a lurch towards reggae in the second half. Was it close? The composition is really two songs bolted together: The Continental where Prince directs a film of how he first met Mayte; and Tell Me How U Wanna B Done where he engages in phone sex with Carmen. Build and release. Shot and chaser. The latter half was remixed and appeared on Crystal Ball but it feels wrong to hear it on its own. Like skipping main and going straight to dessert. It did, however, earn the remixer the producer role on Emancipation but please don’t hold that against it.

129: My Name is Prince

0(+> (1992)
Little comes up when I dredge my memory for a childhood awareness of Prince. He was just a flamboyant figure in my periphery that didn’t occupy my thoughts. His first song I paid attention to was Batdance, followed by Gett Off. These were taped off the radio top 40 chart countdown and played to death but the artist behind them didn’t really register. The first Prince video I saw however stopped me in my tracks. It was on Top of the Pops and featured a man with gold chains obscuring his face, screaming his name was Prince. That look didn’t square with the few images I associated with the Minneapolis Prince – the Purple Rain frilly shirts or the Lovesexy cover – this was hard as nails. And frightening. Like a blinged up Predator. It must be a different guy with the same name, after all, why would the well-known Prince introduce himself so adamantly at this stage in his career. This is somebody coming for his crown. It was a statement of intent. A yelled calling card. I need to keep an eye on this upstart, he’s got my attention. He makes Michael Jackson’s Bad video look like The Sound of Music. The song would soon lose its power, due to a combination of familiarity, Bart Simpson and the realisation that yes it was that Prince. But for at least a week an awestruck 13-year-old thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen or heard.

164: 3 Chains O’ Gold

O(+> (1992)
Where to start? There’s enough material in these six epic minutes to fill a book – hell, a bookshelf! It plays like a trailer for the 3 Chains O’ Gold film in Prince’s head (instead of the eventual TV movie) and features him rhapsodising like the finest bohemian and harmonising with an army of Princes filtering up from the earth’s core. The shape-shifting NPG, in turn, ply this one song with enough key and tempo changes that exceed any normal album’s quota and was amazingly recorded in one uninterrupted sitting, rather than being stitched together in the studio afterward. Over the top? Yes, but beautifully so. Fuck your albums of identikit indie rock that never stray outside their Pixies/Pavement/Punk template of choice: this shoots for the glitterball moon and doesn’t care if it falls short. It is the penultimate song on his Love Symbol album and became, along with the segues, the most obvious carrier of the rock opera concept, drawing the critics’ ire and pulling the rest of the album into their firing line. Shot down with shrill cries of “indulgence” and “bombastic” by po-faced Vanessa Bartholemews. And yes, it realms into silliness but who likes their rock earnest? This is Queen at Wembley. Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon. The Darkness on Mars. A spandexed testimony to the sheer, balls-out ambition and virtuosity of Prince in six glorious parts – an experiment to see how many charms will fit on one chain – but first and foremost it’s big E Entertainment son!

208: Damn U

O(+> (1992)
Prince adored Damn U and wanted it on 1993’s The Hits compilation despite the single bombing in the charts. In a list he sent to manager Alan Leeds, who was writing the liner notes, Prince describes it as one of the songs he was most proud of. He’d always be biased towards the new, especially on such a backwards-looking project, but the pride isn’t misplaced. Damn U is exquisite. The singer swoons and croons as if possessed by the souls of Marvin, Curtis, Stevie and the entire Ratpack, while Clare Fischer’s strings sail you down the Euphrates to get drunk on honey wine and to make love under the gods. It doesn’t last long though. The smattering of polite applause at the end soon brings us back in the room to witness the dense mania of Arrogance arriving like a salt brick to the face.

250: The Sacrifice of Victor

O(+> (1993)
Despite having the climactic anthems of 7 and 3 Chains o’ Gold at his disposal, the mid-tempo Sacrifice of Victor was always Prince’s pick for album closer. It’s a puzzling sequencing choice, possibly influenced by the storyline that used to course through the album before key segues were removed. Or what’s more likely is the song was always destined to bookend My Name is Prince, a track referenced in the final segue by Vanessa Bartholomew before she says “tell me your real name”. Prince answers “My Name is Victor”. This was his last album before the name-change and a bewildered media started reporting that this is how you pronounce the unpronounceable symbol, causing him to respond in live shows that “my name ain’t Prince and it damn well ain’t Victor”. Indeed. So who is Victor? “What iiiiiiiiis Sacrifice?” There are whole books you could write about the lyrics in what is probably the most candid song in his repertoire. After a decade and a half of myth-building was this finally a glimpse of autobiographical truth? Did his dad beat him? Did the assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing riots help sober his clique up? Was he really epileptic ’til the age of seven? Prince did admit in a 2009 interview that he was born with epilepsy (a disorder that has also afflicted fellow songwriters Neil Young, Ian Curtis and Lil Wayne) and says his “flashy and noisy” persona was crafted to compensate for this struggle. It was a sacrifice he had to endure to make him the man he is today. He’s had trials and tribulations, heartaches and pain. Survived them all baby. And now to the victor belong the spoils.

296: The Max

O(+> (1992)
“And now,” cried The Max “let the wild rumpus start!” And the wild things pounded their dancefloor drums and scratched their hip-hop garnish and ground their Arabian axes. Tony M went full Yogi Bear, Mayte hammed up her princess role and Prince bashed the hell out of the ol’ Joanna (“are you gonna play on that piano or just bang on it?”). “Now stop” The Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper.

357: I Wanna Melt With U

0(+> (1992)
During the first few bars of this dance track you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d scrolled one artist too far on your MP3 player and are instead hearing a slowed down version of The Prodigy’s Everybody in the Place. It may not be “the ultimate rave” as he later calls it but if you were dosed up on cough syrup it could come close. When the vocals kick in though there’s no mistaking the purple maestro as he purrs his way through the verses. A lustful, feline satyr that quickly turns canine with the full moon, panting in heat as the La, La, La, He, He, Hee dogs bark in encouragement. I (or Eye if we’re being exact) Wanna Melt With U was a late inclusion on the 0(+> album, crowbarred in at the expense of several segues and a coherent storyline. I’m not normally one to bemoan the removal of phone skits (I had to edit them out of Kendrick Lamarr’s good kid m.A.A.d city in order to render it playable), however their loss does make the remaining interjections and some of the album’s lyrics baffling without the aid of the spin-off film or comic book. Not that this particular song carries much of the plot. In the 3 Chains O’ Gold film it’s only used as a gratuitous dream sequence where naked girls writhe in-between Mayte’s flashbacks of her father’s murder. This lends it a dark, warehouse bacchanalia vibe that doesn’t come across in its album setting when sandwiched between pop reggae and a syrupy ballad. To obtain the full intoxication, ingest the fluid from a glow-stick and watch the boundaries between you and the room melt while you play this track at chest-reverberating levels and party with demonic revellers of your own imagining.

368: And God Created Woman

0(+> (1992)
The 60s sci-fi flick Barbarella rivals The Matrix in being a source of inspiration for Prince and he references it directly in the final segue of this album. However, two tracks previously it’s another Roger Vadim directed film that provides the title: 1956’s Bardot-parading, Et Dieu… Crea La Femme, translated as And God Created Woman. It’s easily missed on the sprawling O(+>, buried towards the end and sandwiched between two attention-grabbing anthems. Sometimes its three minutes pass without me registering a single note. But it thrives in isolation. A luscious, brain-massaging pampering, especially on headphones where the silken, multi-tracked vocals swell within you as if sung by all the nameless ancestors entwined in your soul. Featuring dangerous levels of smooth, it’s a Sade album in concentrate. Over three times your RDA so go easy. It’s also the third Genesis-retelling song on this list so far, showing that his favourite films still can’t match the Old Testament for source material. The Bible and Barbarella would have made an apt title for any Prince memoir of this time period.

393: The Flow

0(+> (1992)
You’re not left bemoaning the shortness of Arrogance for long because immediately after you’re thrust feet-first into this gangster rap parody, again attacking gutter journalism and the intrusion of the press. The soil it grew out of was a rap Tony M would add to the end of the Batman song The Future during the Nude tour, and an early version was originally pencilled to appear on Diamonds and Pearls. This later, released version is a much trimmed affair and after a verse apiece from Prince and Tony, the horns take the weight and see it out to its early conclusion. Arrogance and The Flow are brothers in arms. Two half-tracks keeping you on your toes and injecting a shot of testosterone into the heart of the album. Febrile and attack-minded, it ostensibly wears the LA Raiders mask of gangsta rap with Tony being told to “shoot that piece of sh-” and later embracing his inner mafioso with mentions of putting fools to sleep, but at heart it’s a boast track about how funky the music and their rap flow is. Another stylistic string to the album’s weighty bow and a contribution towards its hectic, epic and schizophrenic nature.

414: Arrogance

O(+> (1992)
Brief and intense like a rap tomatillo, Arrogance is the first half of a one two punch of hip hop in the midst of Prince’s unpronounceable rock opera concept album. A safe space for any kid weened on Public Enemy, struggling to process ballads and pop rock. At school, before the available musical landscape revealed itself as a hypercube of myriad dimensions, it was pretty binary. You were rock or you were hip hop. You listened to Guns N’ Roses or Salt N’ Pepa. Def Leppard or Def Jam. My flag was planted firmly in the hip hop camp. I didn’t get to hear this album until the latter end of the decade when such petty tribal affiliations had been lost along with my milk teeth but the conditioning was still there to make Arrogance and The Flow, along with the first two, more single-worthy, tracks all stand out. Whenever I hear shade thrown at any of these (and Arrogance gets more than its fair share) I instinctively take it as a poodle-haired broadside from the Guns N’ Roses trench. Old loyalties stir within. Feuds awaken. And the fact that I’m rating this below the theatrical rock silliness of 3 Chains o’ Gold pains me on some deep atavistic level, but is as much a sign of Arrogance‘s slightness than it is of maturing tastes. The beat has an Eric B & Rakim vibe to it and if you listen close you can even hear their Bobby Byrd “you got it” sample, from the classic I Know You Got Soul. The inclusion here is distorted almost beyond recognition though and sounds more like something from The Exorcist than a sampled affirmation. A banshee screech from beyond the veil. Arrogance, true to its name, manspreads over the end of previous track, Damn U, turning the ballad’s air salty with its “this one’s for all the whores” dedication. By which he means journalists, in particular Vanessa Bartholomew who bookends the Q&A lyrics where the title of the song is the brusk answer to queries about Prince’s motivation. It makes more sense within the context of the 3 Chains film, but who cares about narrative cohesion when you’re lost in foreign waters and suddenly hear a language you know and breathe. I would grow up to prefer the slow jams but, like love, the first cuts are the deepest.