The Lyrics of Prince Rogers Nelson:
A Literary Look at a
Creative, Musical Poet, Philosopher, and Storyteller
I. Preface/Introduction 6
II. Minneapolis as the Microcosm of America 37
III. Theory: A Method to the Madness? 75
IV. Father’s Son 161
V. The First Two Albums: Laying a Foundation 169
VI. The Beginning of Controversy with
the Breaking of New Grounds 179
VII. The Minneapolis Genius and His Message 213
VIII. His Purple Reign 228
IX. Our Trip Around the World in a Day 243
X. The Hopeless Romantic 261
XI. Genius at Work: Poet of the Times 268
XII. The Turmoil and Rebirth 277
XIII. The Commercial Storyteller: The Pop
XIV. It’s all about...Love! 318
XV. One Gem of a Talent 333
XVI. The Symbol Album 339
XVII. The Gold Experience 352
XVIII. The Personas 372
XIX. Sex 397
XX. Emancipation 457
XXI. The Dawn of the Rainbow Children 558
XXII. Poets’ Praises for Prince 603
XXIII. Conclusion 622
XXIV. Bibliography 633
XXV. Quoted or Referenced Index 664
Literature, as a form of art, a tool of history, and a medium to convey information, has a more powerful impact when combined with the medium of music. Both literature and music are direct representations of what is occurring inside the human soul, its emotions and thoughts. Also, both have the ability to reproduce and convey the human trinity of mind, body, and soul in its primary, primitive, and original form with minimal loss in translation. This effective communication of the human condition is what creates the aesthetic pleasure and is the value of literature and music.
“It seems possible to me that some kind of graph could be set up using samplings of Negro
music proper to whatever moment of the Negro’s social history was selected, and that in
each grouping of songs a certain frequency of reference could pretty well determine his
social, economic, and psychological states at that particular period. From the neo-African
slave chants through the primitive and classical blues to the scat-singing of the beboppers:
all would show definite insistences of reference that would isolate each group from the
others as a social entity” (Jones/Baraka 65).
Over the past eighty years, the combined medium of literature and music as popular music has reflected, affected, impacted, changed, molded, and shaped the very essence of social, political, economic, and religious beliefs, sentiments and values, not to mention the interpersonal relationships, romantic and platonic, of mankind. One of the most influential and vivid examples of these musical poets, satirists, philosophers, and storytellers is Prince Rogers Nelson. Over the past thirty years, Prince Rogers Nelson has single-handedly affected the deviation or, in many cases, total change of the ideas and beliefs of sexuality, racism, and religion of a mass populous, not to mention his lifelong dedication to freedom, independence, creativity, and music, helping to define a place and system of lifestyle for a new generation of citizens based on individuality, cultural relevancy, and tolerance.
This book tracks and attempts to analyze the meanings and transitions of Prince’s lyrical work, taking into consideration that to explore thoroughly the lyrics of Prince, one must realize that his lyrics are but a particle of the interwoven package that is Prince. The meanings of Prince’s songs, his artistic theory, and his theology of life do not begin and end with his lyrics. Though the lyrics are the clearest points of reference for how Prince sees the world, there are many other aspects of his character that we must take into consideration to gain a full understanding of his lyrics. By studying Prince’s lyrics, I hope to accomplish five ultimate goals.
One, we must understand that popular art is a gauge or a barometer for society. When we study popular artists, we are innately studying the periods of the artists, which give us a better understanding of our history and of humanity. Though we may not like the images or the messages of popular art, it does tell us something about the times in which it is created. Two, I want to prove that Prince is a master lyricists whose work, if studied by following generations, can inspire greatness. Three, by applying a serious study to Prince as a poet I hope to bridge the gap between fine art and folk art or serious art and leisure art to provide another vehicle where African American artists who are on the fringes of respectability will be given serious attention. Unlike the Beatles or Bob Dylan, rarely are African American songwriters studied for their intellectual value. When we deny, ignore, or marginalize African American intellect, we deny, ignore, and marginalize African American humanity. Four, if art is ever going to move humanity to its highest point, we must begin to tell the truth that most academic or fine art was first folk or popular art. This act of separating fine or academic art from the masses is merely proof that artistic theory is more of a tool for cultural warfare than a tool that provides understanding. Instead of bridging gaps, artistic theory is often used to create gaps, to divide the haves from the have nots. And five, studying the lyrics of Prince is a way to gauge the full realm of black diversity, which allows us to gauge the full realm of black humanity. African Americans cannot continue to allow our fear of white supremacy to suppress our diversity for when we suppress our diversity, we suppress our humanity. The class and generation wars in the African American community are always centered on art. As long as these divisions exist, African Americans will never be able to move forward. With all of that said, one must also know that my assertions are not intended as the gospel on how to listen to or interpret the lyrics of Prince. To use Baraka’s words, “Writing the book confirmed ideas that had been rolling around in my head for years and that now...there was a thrill to see my own ideas roll out, not always as ‘precisely stated,’ [but my ideas]...were forceful enough to convince me that I did know something about this music” (Jones/Baraka vii). If anything my work is to be viewed as a conversation that presents common and varying views to the Prince literate or as an introductory guide to those new to the idea of Prince as a popular musician making a conscious effort to produce thought-provoking songs for discussion and enlightenment. I invite you to journey with me as I explore a rainbow of creativity as long as forever and as colorful as our deepest emotions.
The First Two Albums: Laying a Foundation
Prince’s first album, For You (1978), is a pamphlet of romantic poetry. He establishes his rhyme scheme with simple couplets that echo urban sensibilities and sensitivity with commercial sexuality. With only a couple of socially conscience statements, For You is a combination of Smokey Robinson love poetry cut with the sharp edges of a post-disco, let it all hang out expressive style with subtle traces of Stevie Wonder coordination. Prince, at this early stage of his career, was more than content to establish himself as a musician first, but his literary talents manage to provide his listeners an indication of what was yet to come. Conservative as compared to his later albums, we get glimpses of his daringness and social awareness in the songs “Soft and Wet” and “Baby.” In “Soft and Wet,” co-written with Chris Moon, Prince shows that how you say something is as important as what you say. “Hey lover, I got sugar cane that I wanna lose in you…” Of course he is talking about having sex in a very aggressive manner, but it does not resonate as dogmatic. The desire to get radio play forces all artists to “tone down” their sexual statements, but Prince is toning down his sexuality with lyrical technique. Today, sexually explicit lyrics are bleeped (censored), not toned down. This bleeping says something about the times as well as about the lack of time or consideration given to lyrical craft. Prince manages to openly and carelessly speak of the enjoyment of sex between partners, escaping the bars of embarrassment without losing respect and sensitivity. Prince is establishing his notion that women are not merely objects to be used for personal gratification, but are experiences to be enjoyed, engaged, and even endured along the way to a higher completion of self.
With his strategic use of language, Prince is establishing his ability to be explicit and not dogmatic, concise and honest but not degrading. His use of words that conjure vivid and erotic images is what explodes “Soft and Wet” into the listener’s mind. Words like “sugar cane” and “lion’s mane” are explicit but soft, natural imagery, effectively capturing the listener’s imagination without being overbearing. It is sexually playful, which is feminine as opposed to the typical, masculine assertion or dominance. He then balances this aggression on one song with an ode to responsibility on another song. In “Baby,” Prince tells of an unwed expectant father, fully accepting his responsibilities. “Should we go on living together, or should we get married right away?...I barely have enough money for 2…I don’t want to regret what I’ve done to you.” By making an open reference to safe sex, something not too common in popular music in 1978, he is showing his ability to handle complex situations and emotions and still be creative. “I never would’ve thought that this would happen to a very careful man like me.” A song like “Baby” directly refutes the notions that Prince is blindly leading a mass of young people to their moral and physical detriment, which he asserts is not his desire.
“I wouldn’t tell anybody not to take precautions… You can look at it two ways. Either
other aspects of the wrong way people are using their environment is making people sick,
or these diseases are just what they call them-the Wrath of God. All I say is that you
shouldn’t repress your sexual feelings just because some official told you to. In many
places in the world today you’re not supposed to fuck just like you’re not supposed to
think. Part of thinking for yourself is avoiding people who are going to give you diseases-
mental or physical” (Cooper 59).
By the end of “Baby,” the female listener knows that Prince is willing to meet their every need, physical and emotional. Not only do they get the great sex of “Soft and Wet,” but they also get the loving and responsible man who will be there to endure any situation. “And we’ll grow stronger everyday…pretty baby, we’re gonna work it out…I hope our baby has eyes just like yours.” This balance or...(Chapter continues.)
The Beginning of Controversy
with the Breaking of New Ground
Dirty Mind (1980) is Prince’s third album and is viewed as the Prince essential by many popular music critics. The title track, “Dirty Mind,” presents the understanding of sexual thoughts (and other rebellious thoughts) as being normal. In its promo for the album, Warner Bros asserts that “behind the frequently shocking lyrics is a deep belief that by removing the taboos and allowing youth to express its sexuality in all of its forms, we will achieve a more wholesome society” (Hoskyns 18). More liberating is the fact that Prince does not attempt to direct the listener in a way of dealing with these emotions, but simply provide particular events and scenarios for his listeners to ponder. He explains his process in a 1983 issue of Musician.
“If I were to write a letter to a friend, and tell them about an experience, I wouldn’t say
how it made me feel; I would say exactly what I did, so that they could experience it, too,
rather than the intellectual point of view. If you give them a situation, maybe that you’ve
encountered, or whatever, give them the basis of it, let them take it to the next stage, they
make the picture in their own mind. I know I’m happiest making records like this, making
records that tell the truth and don’t beat around the bush” (Graustark 63).
Prince only felt the obligation or need to express himself in a way that gave his listeners a means of looking at situations differently. What is most interesting is the manner in which he combines the theories of realism and fantasy; with some songs he presents the horror of a perverted and oppressed life and on other songs he presents the possibility of where we can go. And often he does this in the same song. His ability to paint clear and authentic pictures of the worst and best of humanity allows him to navigate the contradictions of life seamlessly.
“With Dirty Mind Prince began to move into that domain of dreams and contradictions
which is the real stuff of American stardom, a place emblematic of the agonies and ecstasies
of its time. It was an album that challenged the prevailing market categorizations, and so
urged listeners to place it in a category on its own.” (Hill 82).
And, of course, this new direction does not sit well with many in the African American community. After Prince, Prince was a star in the black community. He was the heir apparent to Stevie Wonder. This new direction was seen by some African Americans as another example of a self-hating black person not happy with the love and respect of the black community who needed to be validated by the white power structure. “For the black media, Prince is yet another in a long line of brilliant young turks getting ready to break his back against institutionalized white indifference…[becoming just another] statement on how the black man must exaggerate and contort his image (as allegory for much of the gratuitous absurdity of being ‘black’ in America) just to be heard” (Cooper 58). For the people, both black and white, who charged that Dirty Mind was just a contrived record to gain crossover appeal, Prince answers:
“[My black audience or anyone listening to my first two records knew] it was coming. ‘I’m
Yours’ off the first album was a straight up rock jam…And the second album had ‘Bambi,’
which was also written in such a way as not to give the impression that I was a dilettante.
So many black bands in the early Seventies diddled with the rock guitar just to prove they
could. They had no real conviction, but none of my rock jams are contrived that way”
(Cooper 58). (Chapter continues.)
At length, I discussed Prince’s ability to blur gender and class roles to take on various personas, points-of-view, or even streams of consciousness in order to deliver a multitude of messages. I am convinced that this speaks directly to Prince being an African American constantly at war with a society wishing to control his identity. Every inch and second of perception is an ongoing battle between Prince, music critics and listeners, and the industry all attempting to define his identity. This also speaks to a prolific artist who deeply understands the relationship and problem of identity and success in America. As Terence Trent D’Arby related about his conversation with “symbol man” in a fall, 1995, appearance on VH1’s 4 on the Floor, unlike an artist who had their first album become a major success, Prince took refuge in that by having to construct a career over several years, he was able to play with and reinvent who he was as often as he wanted. Questions of identity and mass marketability only begin to cloud Prince’s career after the mega success of Purple Rain. Before Purple Rain, Prince is able to freely move in and out of various musical styles and genres at his own will. This elusive image and progressive evolution through an amalgamation of identities is not something that took place by happenstance. Prince is able to liquefy his identity by creating multiple personas and surrounding himself with a cultural rainbow of artists. The best examples of Prince creating other personas to liquefy his own image are Jamie Starr, The Time, and his use of female artists.
Of the three personas, Jamie Starr represents the most stable, definable, and identifiable persona that Prince assumes (the role of producer). Because of his vast musical talents, Prince is able to evolve into a musical machine, a one man recording company with ideas and subject matter that touch every human experience and cross every contrived category. Initially, it is Jamie Starr in whom the role of producer and manager manifests itself. Through Jamie Starr, Prince is able to address all of the ideas in his head. Being a producer of other acts serves as a vehicle to experiment and create a diversity of sounds and concepts without the fear of over-saturating the market or being limited by public perception/prejudice. Also, this is a way for Prince to manipulate the public’s need to identify with a specific icon of their cultural origin. Through Jamie Starr, Prince has hit records on both black and white charts and avoids labels which would restrict his movement. To achieve this, Prince uses real people through which to funnel his visions. The actual name “Jamie Starr” appears and reappears throughout his career but is more prevalent early with The Time and Vanity Six. In most recent times, the name of the producer is Paisley Park. In the lapses of Jamie Starr as producer, many other pseudonyms arise, generally as songwriters, such as Christopher Tracy, Joey Coco, Alexander Nevermind, Spooky Electric, and Camille. But they all serve the same goal, to allow Prince to express his eclectic styles and messages without being handicapped by his own image. Thus, Prince’s ability to blend race, class, and gender roles is achieved by being able to manipulate his speaker’s voice, tone, and perception.
Moving from the first person passive, sensitive male voice of his early records, which portray Prince as the victim or the seduced as in “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?,” Prince progressed to a more active, assertive voice in “Head” and “International Lover,” the rebel in “Controversy,” “Sexuality,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “New Power Generation,” the philosopher in “Sign ‘’ the Times,” “Pop Life,” and “Mountains,” and the storyteller with moral advice in “Paisley Park,” “Condition of the Heart,” and “The Sacrifice of Victor.” Prince’s various personas and voices have allowed him to breathe life into a spectrum of ideas and emotions, forcing his listener to entertain varying perspectives on life. In the beginning, Prince is certainly thinking about as well as playing with his identity...(Chapter continues.)
“More than my songs have to do with sex, they have to do with one human’s love for
another which goes deeper than anything political that anybody could possibly write about.
The need for love, the need for sexuality, basic freedom, equality...I’m afraid these things
don’t come out” (Sutherland 13, reprinted in Fudger 28).
Of all the books and articles that I have read concerning Prince, Dave Hill’s Prince: A Pop Life achieves best the goal of analyzing and communicating information while remaining objective. Yet even he falls short of analyzing fully or accepting a genuine belief toward the message(s) of Prince’s work and his reconciliation to himself, his music, society, and his spirituality. Hill, as others, becomes entrapped into the story of Prince and sex for sex’s sake or sex for the sake of becoming a rock god, which has more to do with capitalistic connotations than artistic or spiritual connotations. For Prince, sex is not just for physical gratification. Sex is primarily used as a tool to achieve some other, higher state of satisfaction and self-completion, if only for a moment. Thus, Prince’s discourse about sex is related to his desire to say something about life. “I think my problem is that my attitude’s so sexual that it overshadows anything else that I might want to say. I’m not mature enough as a writer to bring it all out yet” (Sutherland 13, reprinted in Fudger 7). Despite his youth, Prince realized early that sexuality is a driving force behind the behavior of mankind and is the particular element that links man to the universality of humanity. An image, such as “God is coming like a dog in heat; he’s looking for soldiers with strong feet,” shows Prince’s ability to amalgamate all of our separate worlds into one continuum. This image is sexually explicit and righteously indignant. It contains the three prerequisites for a Prince image: shock, picturesque, and precision. The image is shocking because it breaks the Eurocentric mold of separating the concerns of the body from the concerns of the soul by applying sensual/sexual attributes to God as well as comparing him to something lower than man, a dog. It is picturesque because it takes the urgency of a dog in heat and vividly parallels it with the urgency of God’s mission to save mankind. It is precise because the image is not vague. A dog in heat is the symbol of urgency and determination. As a dog in heat stops for nothing until it fulfills its mission, so will God stop for nothing until He fulfills his mission. Again, Prince’s goal is to say something about humanity’s sexual nature and show how this sexual nature parallels our metaphysical nature. Thus, God can have an orgasm, which gives deeper meaning to our orgasms. His messages are electrifying and penetrating because he starts with what we know and builds from there. Prince is troping the sexual metaphor by equating the sex drive to the essence of life. Spring is the ultimate metaphor for God, for reincarnation, for life. A dog in heat, though dogmatic, gives God’s return to Earth an urgency that the image of bees pollinating flowers does not have. Like Wordsworth’s notion, Prince is painting the tree in such a manner that it becomes unfamiliar to us so that we can recognize it in its infinite beauty once it has been re-presented to us.
From For You through 1999, sex, sexuality, and sexual liberation are the primary tools to achieve the fulfillment of life. For Prince, sex is the key ingredient to season or embellish the meals he serves. It is in the way he writes and sings words such as “cum” as in, “cum over here,” the way he dresses and dances, and the androgynous image he constructs to deliver certain feelings of femininity or vulnerability. But underneath and between the sexual imagery is a poet with much to say about life. Sex is the Trojan Horse through which Prince has gained access to the public through the canal of radio and television, penetrating the holes of our eyes and our ears, impregnating our brains and our hearts. Most importantly, what has kept so many of us returning to him is his willingness to explore our...(Chapter continues.)
The Dawn of the Rainbow Children
Since 1998 Prince has made public statements which confirm that he is a Jehovah’s Witness.
“Yes, my current single, ‘The One.’ That went from a love song to a song about respect
for the Creator -- God. The lyrics’ meaning changed for me after reading the New World
translation of the Bible [the Jehovah’s Witness translation]. It has to be the New World
translation because that’s the original one; later translations have been tampered with in
order to protect the guilty” (Simonart 1998)
My discussions with him confirm that bassist and funk pioneer Larry Graham played a significant role in his conversion as most people who have followed Prince’s career know. My brief time spent with Prince came as a result of an article that I wrote, “Prince and Michael Jackson: Two Sides of a Different Coin,” in which I assert that Prince’s situation with Warner Bros was a different matter than Jackson’s situation with Sony. The article was passed along to Prince, he liked it, and flew me to Paisley Park. He had also read the first and second editions of this book, and liked my approach and some of my insights. I was flown there partly because Prince was interviewing potential co-authors for a book project. Needless to say, I did not get the job. But, the few months spent in correspondence allowed us to construct a very rough draft of an introductory chapter. Because I signed a confidentiality contract and partly because I hope that some of what we crafted finds its way into his book, I will not be discussing in detail what we discussed. But, I will say that I met a man who is truly committed to his religious beliefs, especially the manner in which he uses his art to inspire and teach others. In fact, the theme of his book will center on the notion that an artist’s relationship with God must be the roadmap that guides and governs his productivity. I say all of that to say that meeting Prince was an affirmation that from the beginning of his career he has been an artist grappling with how his work contributes to society, and that is what my work in this book attempts to reveal.
From 1999 to 2007, Prince has been unwavering in his desire to produce art that reflects his personal relationship with God and that also makes commentary on how humanity should parallel its behavior to the will of God. Yet, Prince’s commitment to his relationship with God does not lead him to chase a “pie-in-the-sky” theology, which has no impact on man’s physical life. In fact, as Prince has evolved spiritually, he has also evolved socially and politically. His theology is parallel to that of the Civil Rights Movement in that man’s relationship with God should guide his relationship with his fellow man, which also means that God wants man to struggle for political liberation as well as spiritual liberation as evident in “Dear Mr. Man” when he asserts, “Matthew 5:5 say: The meek shall inherit the earth. We wanna b down that way, but U been trippin since the day of Ur birth.” The fact that he quotes scripture in the middle of a political treaty shows that Prince is on a journey seeking something more than just the election of officials. For Prince, political activism must be subserviant if not secondary to spiritual activism. And if we are talking man’s hierarchy of need, since Lovesexy Prince has asserted that seeking first the Kingdom of Heaven is the answer to man’s troubles. This chapter will focus on the notion that since his becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince is mostly concerned with using his work as a way to teach and manifest the love of God, especially in regards to social change.
In 2000, Prince released a cover of the Staple Singers’ “When Will We Be Paid” as a B-side to an independent single on his own NPG Records. For some this might not be an appropriate song to discuss in this chapter, but it identifies the heart of Prince’s theology. For Prince, a religion that does not seek to liberate man from his political and economic oppression is useless. To echo...(Chapter continues)