Prince’s 1981 album Controversy was a furiously funky album that featured some of the artist’s most complex songwriting to date (the bouncy pop of “Private Joy,” the epic ode-to-fucking “Do Me, Baby”). But it was also the first Prince album that felt like he was simply spinning his wheels, or, more appropriately, jacking himself off. The unfettered demo-quality brand of naked funk that had won him accolades and top-10 finishes in The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop polls seemed, for the first time, to be at a dead end. With his very next album, though, Prince confirmed that he was in it for the long haul. 1999 is a massive, sexy, rump-shaking, and sometimes even disturbing masterpiece. And even if it might not be his very best album (other contenders include Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, and Sign O’ the Times), no one can deny the quantum leap in sophistication and scope it represents. Thankfully, Prince’s well-worn dick was still a key player.
As the legend now goes, Prince was so prolific a songwriter by 1982 that he had enough material for a career-first double album, but that’s only half the story. Actually, Prince was sitting on enough still-unreleased songs—like “Turn It Up,” “Extra Lovable,” and “Purple Music”—to piece together three or four more solid LPs (but you didn’t hear that from us). He was also providing the creative spark for multiple spin-off acts like The Time (with Prince’s own personal mini-me Morris Day) and the fetished-up girl group Vanity 6 (who scored a big hit the same year with the silky “Nasty Girl”). Even the B-sides for 1999’s singles have gone on to become unassailable classics (“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and “Irresistible Bitch”). As 1999 ably demonstrates, Prince is virtually peerless in creating musical textures of unparalleled sexiness. His synthesizer riffs, usually consisting of closely clustered chords that give off a sense of suffocating closeness (listen no further than the intro of “Little Red Corvette”), have a pleasant sensual friction. Tipper Gore reportedly leaped from her couch to save her children’s ears from the raunchy lyrics of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” but the droning, double-time grind of the bassline of the song is, if anything, even more suggestive.
It’s been said that sex and death guide nearly every aspect of human thought. So if Prince had already proven that he sings about sex like B.B. King sang about the blues, then “1999” is, in retrospect, the first indication that Prince’s preoccupation with death was equally voracious, and he was pushing the question of mortality straight into an apocalyptic realm. Prince’s willful confusion between how the two topics should be written about makes for some uniquely unnerving moments. The notion in “1999” of turning the Rapture into an excuse to boogie down (check out the exquisitely climactic final few minutes, when Prince’s familiar sequenced drum patterns go haywire, sounding like a rolling torrent of artillery fire) is like the proverbial itch one can’t scratch. But even more unforgettable is the atonal chorus of female orgasms (sounding like the last few survivors of an orgy massacre) in “Automatic” or Prince angrily rattling off an endless litany of life’s disappointments with each hump to a wailing “Lady Cab Driver.”
Nearly every song on the album feels like a new direction for Prince. “Free” seems, upon first listen, to be a straightforward celebration of American freedoms, but following the petulance of Dirty Mind’s “Partyup” (“You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war, ’cause we’re not gonna fight no more!”), one must assume that Prince truly learned the power of subversion in the interim. Even as one gets the sense that Prince (of all people) has to understand how important freedom of speech is to those who want to write songs about, say, fucking their sisters, the tremulously saccharine tone of the song stands in stark contrast to the balls-out assertiveness of the rest of the album. It’s this ambivalence that demands closer inspection, and what marks the difference between a rocker simply out to piss off prudes (see Prince’s “Bambi”) and an artist capable of irony. For a change, Prince had written a song whose meaning was not clearly discernible upon one listen. “Free” paved the way for the deliciously inscrutable likes of “America,” “Anna Stesia,” and, perhaps his very best single, “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”
Prince was always capable of turning a phrase from the word go, but nothing could’ve prepared the pop world for “I guess I should’ve known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last” (“Little Red Corvette”). Or “Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours, to help me forget the girl who just walked out my door” (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married”). In one album, Prince managed to turn his own particular brand of horn-dog begging into poetic story-songs every bit as eloquent as those of his hero Joni Mitchell. Even though in the straight-up party-funk bomb “D.M.S.R.” Prince shouts “I don’t want to be a poet cuz I don’t want to blow it,” the evidence strewn all throughout 1999 suggests that Prince can blow it out in his sleep (the title track: “I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray”). Multi-platinum success, universal critical and commercial adulation, a newfound thematic direction…with 1999, the bar for ’80s funk had been raised. And it still remains Prince’s most engorged musical erection.