Consider Prince in the early 1990s, not yet Formerly Known As, coming off two soundtrack albums, 1989’s Batman and 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, neither of which registered as substantial expansions of the artist’s very individualist persona. The latter shared a set list with everyone from funk godfather George Clinton to soul icon Mavis Staples, while the former pit his Purpleness against one of the very few pop-culture symbols more ubiquitous than his own. Prince’s previous studio album, 1988’s Lovesexy, had been well received by critics, but less so by the general public.
Now consider the years between Lovesexy and Prince’s proper follow-up, 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls. Or, more specifically, consider what took place during that time: a realization of the most seismic change in American music since the explosion of rock n’ roll in the 1950s. Less than two months after Lovesexy would come Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by no stretch the first rap album, but very likely the first great one (Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, from the year prior, has really the only alternative claim there). Soon after, N.W.A. would release Straight Outta Compton, and by the end of 1988, the precedent for the rap-album classic was set.
Finally, Prince could no longer ignore or disparage the genre he once referred to as “tone deaf”; rap had legitimized itself as an art. But it may have been the music’s commercial appeal that interested him most at this point anyway. That would at least explain why Diamonds and Pearls doesn’t sound like the Bomb Squad, or the Daisy Age, or any major artistic movement happening in rap at the time. Instead, the hip-hop influences the album drew on reached back to mid-1980s success stories like those of Run DMC and LL Cool J.
Although this is the first album Prince cut with a credited group, the New Power Generation, since disbanding the Revolution half a decade earlier, it often doesn’t sound like a full band effort: Songs like “Daddy Pop” and “Get Off” are built around rigid drum machines, while the evangelical benediction “Thunder” is a pocket symphony of synthetic instrumentation and samples. There are, of course, scorching guitar solos, and no one should undersell Michael Bland’s crisp jazz drumming on “Strollin’,” but throughout, Prince uses beats that sound a few years behind the times, which led many to conclude that he wasn’t setting the pace in pop anymore. And while that may have been true, those beats frequently provide the perfect, muscular base for some of Prince’s best songs since 1987’s Sign ’o’ the Times.
The singles—“Get Off,” “Cream,” the pirouetting title track, and the deadpan social commentary “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”—are no exceptions on an album typified by assertive songs with ingratiating hooks and showy production choices, especially through the entirety of its thrilling first half. Better than almost all of the singles, in fact, is the album cut “Willing and Able,” for which Prince flips paraphrases from Fats Domino’s chaste 1959 rock standard “I’m Ready” and comes up with a hand percussion-accented, James Brown-worthy sex proposition. And in case the cross-genre, cross-generational ambitions weren’t already felt, NPG rapper Tony M stops by to drop a few bars, making for one of the most amiable R&B-rap fusions of the early ’90s.
The second half of Diamonds and Pearls doesn’t always juggle its various past-meets-present genre hybrids as skillfully, but at least it has the good sense to announce that inconsistency, in the form of the sentry-esque centerpiece “Walk Don’t Walk”—a track about always following your own muse that’s eventually almost overtaken by the sounds of honking traffic. That song perfectly sets up the widely recognized misfire “Jughead,” which begins, head-scratchingly, as a hymnal, before quickly morphing into a lengthy showcase for Tony M, who fares much better in small doses. Even here, JB’s guitars and NPG vocalist/songwriter Rosie Gaines, channeling Neneh Cherry-like energy levels, keep things moving, and even provide a rowdy pre-show for what might be the album’s high masterpiece.
Sounding not much like anything else here, “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” is a melancholy meditation on poverty and the greed of America’s privileged. At the height of Bush Sr.’s Iraq conflict, and a decade before Bush Jr.’s, the last verse of the song warns of wars for oil, and the irony of fighting and dying for something that’s slowly killing us anyway with its pollution. It’s one of Prince’s deftest accomplishments as a lyricist, and it’s paired with an uncharacteristically light instrumental—a kind of precursor to a minimalist gem like 1996’s “Dinner with Dolores.”
Overall, Diamonds and Pearls, like virtually every album of mid-’80s/early-’90s rap that inspired it, is longer than it needs to be (it’s hard to imagine that anyone could justify the inclusion of both “Jughead” and “Push”). But it’s also one of the last Prince albums to spawn multiple hit singles, while still packing tracks that could have added to that number had they been given the chance (“Daddy Pop” at least would’ve likely fared better on the charts than “Insatiable” did). It’s not quite Prince’s best album of the ’90s (that title goes to the even longer, crazier, more diverse Love Symbol, released a year later), but it was an important sign that Prince was willing to embrace contemporary—or close to contemporary—sounds to stay visible, and that he could still write songs worth the attention that got him.