Friday, June 11, 2021

'What if Half the Things Ever Said Turned Out 2 Be a Lie?' - One of Prince’s Richest, Weirdest and Most Intimate Albums Gets a Limited Reissue

By Zachary Hoskins, guest writer

Ever since Warner Bros.’ expanded reissue of Purple Rain opened the floodgates of posthumous Prince releases in 2017, the focus of most fans and critics has (understandably) been on the wealth of material still languishing in the legendary Vault. But there are still plenty of gems that were released during Prince’s lifetime, now hiding in plain sight and worthy of our attention. Saturday’s special Record Store Day release of 1998’s The Truth is the perfect case in point: More than a mere collector’s curio, it marks the first standalone physical reissue of one of this prolific artist’s richest, weirdest and most intimate albums.


Like much of the Artist Then-Formerly Known as Prince’s output from the latter half of the ‘90s, The Truth was a victim of circumstances both inside and outside his control. The album was initially planned for release in 1997, as a follow-up to the previous year’s Emancipation; but when distributor EMI’s American division folded into Virgin and Capitol Records, these plans were scrapped. A single release of the title track, backed with “Don’t Play Me,” was made available in early 1997 from the Artist’s 1-800-NEW-FUNK mail-order service—an innovative release strategy that also happened to make it ineligible for chart placement. When the album finally came out almost a year later, it—along with the even more obscure jazz fusion effort Kamasutra—was sold exclusively in a bundle with the three-disc Crystal Ball compilation. According to PrinceVault, there were at some point plans for a standalone retail release in 2000; but these, too, failed to materialize.

The bitter irony of all this is that The Truth was arguably the Artist’s best—and certainly his most fascinating—album in years. Recorded toward the end of the original run of MTV Unplugged—and toward the beginning of the similarly-formatted VH1 StorytellersThe Truth seems at first glance to share with these series an equation of stripped-down acoustic arrangements with “authenticity,” musical or otherwise. But it quickly becomes evident that something a lot more interesting is afoot, as the raw Delta blues pastiche of the opening title track is gradually invaded by pre-recorded sound effects: first a ticking stopwatch, and later a series of what can only be described as UFO noises.

This undermining of the “unplugged” premise pervades The Truth in ways both subtle (like the unsettling sound of a radio tuned between stations that bubbles beneath the surface of “Don’t Play Me”) and overt (like the ostentatious and, frankly, ridiculous synthesized trumpet on “Man in a Uniform”). With its prominent synth and programmed drums, a track like “Circle of Amour” is no more “acoustic” than, say, “Forever in My Life” from 1987’s Sign “O” the Times; even the genuinely stripped-down groove of “3rd Eye” can’t resist throwing in a few synthesizer swells and layered vocal harmonies, not to mention an elastic bassline by Rhonda Smith of the NPG.

The album’s lyrics play a similar trick. Parts of The Truth are among the most personal songs in Prince’s catalog. “Don’t Play Me” is a searing rejection of the “mountaintop” of mainstream stardom, while “Comeback” is a heartfelt tribute to Amiir, the infant son he and wife Mayte Garcia lost in late 1996. Both “Dionne” and “One of Your Tears” are barbed love letters to singer Dionne Farris, with whom he’d had a dalliance earlier in the decade. Vegan anthem “Animal Kingdom,” while less traditionally autobiographical, is the Artist at his most literal, with lyrics that sound like copy from a PETA campaign set to music. Elsewhere, however, he seems to use personal details as a kind of misdirection: On “Circle of Amour,” for example, he grounds the setting at his own high school (“Tenth grade Central in September”), then uses that setting to weave a lurid fantasy worthy of a Penthouse Forum letter.

All of which is to say that The Truth is a lot more complex than its simple, declarative title suggests. It’s worth noting that the title track never gives a concrete definition of “the Truth,” instead running through a series of “Controversy”-style questions: “Questionnaire, What did U stand 4? / Questionnaire, Who did U save?” By the time the album released in 1998, the Artist was growing less comfortable with these kinds of answerless questions. In her 2017 memoir The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, Garcia recalls her husband meeting Larry Graham and praising his spiritual convictions: “‘That man’s faith is so certain,’ he said. ‘There’s no room for doubts or fears.’” In the years to come, the Artist would use the phrase “the Truth” specifically in reference to his newly adopted (and Graham’s long-held) Jehovah’s Witness faith; but at the time of the album’s recording, the concept for him was something a lot more slippery and less concrete.

In short, The Truth is an album that revels in unsettling its own binaries: acoustic and electric, “authentic” and constructed, and yes, even truth and lies. It’s an album that every Prince fan—even those who had lapsed by the late ‘90s—needs to hear. And, while a limited vinyl release on Record Store Day isn’t exactly the wide exposure it deserves, it is in keeping with its obscurantist original release strategy. Just, please don’t try and flip it on Discogs—at least until I can get my hands on a copy.

Zachary Hoskins is the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.


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Friday, April 2, 2021

'And That Says What?' - Seven Memorable Quotes from the #1Plus1Plus1is3 Symposium

 


Another Prince symposium has come and gone! This year marks the fifth anniversary of the artist's passing, and there has been a wealth of academic scholarship on his art during this time. New York University Associate Vice Provost and professor De Angela L. Duff has been a leader in this space. Her latest event, the #1Plus1Plus1is3 symposium, did not disappoint.

Last weekend, we celebrated 40 years of Controversy, 30 years of Diamonds and Pearls, and 20 years of The Rainbow Children. I always enjoy reuniting with friends, gaining knowledge and listening to the special guests, which included Cbabi Bayoc, Dr. Fink, Sam Jennings, Peggy McCreary, Scott McCullough, Nicolay and Afshin Shahidi. You can learn more on the symposium website and keep watching Duff's YouTube channel for videos of presentations, panels and keynotes. Additionally, you can search the #1plus1plus1is3 hashtag on Twitter. 

I also gave a presentation, "'1 + 1 + 1 Is 3' – Order, Discipline, Truth And Other Christian Values In Prince’s The Rainbow Children," which I will share later when the video was available.

In the past, I've done a roundup of takeaways from symposia, but I thought I'd do something a little different. 

Below are seven memorable quotes from the event.


"Prince wasn't going to wake up one day and be Johnny Mathis." - Kamilah Cummings 

Kamilah Cummings gave a remarkable presentation on Diamonds and Pearls and the myth of colorblindness in Prince's work. She argued that Prince was appealing to whiteness (to succeed in a racist music industry) during this era, and broke down several tactics he employed to meet that goal. She addressed some other strategies, like maintaining a connection to the Black audience. While Prince was never in danger of being dismissed by that audience (contrary to popular belief), he was intentional about the cultural representation in his work. 



Black people were not Prince's "props" during the '90s, "they were his setting and his home." - Melay Araya

Melay Araya's presentation on the music and videos of the Diamonds and Pearls era was a nice a complement to Cummings' work. Araya examined the presence of Black people in Prince's work during this time, highlighting the common theme of "Black people at play." I was very intrigued by her thoughts on Prince's "exploration of Black women's interiority." She bravely took on the topic of colorism in Prince's work and life, pointing out that Prince presented Black women in myriad roles--mother, friend, etc.--beyond that of the object of affection. I think there is so much more to say on this topic, and I would like to see a panel featuring Araya and Cummings in conversation. I'll just put this out there: I'm happy to moderate. 



We can think of Prince's crossover as the "pursuit of resources versus assimilation." - Harold Pride

The topic of Prince's "crossover" to the "mainstream" came up during a brilliant panel, featuring C. Liegh McInnis, Kamilah Cummings, Mark Anthony Neal and Harold Pride--with input from Monique Morris. This subject is often discussed, but with little nuance and consideration of the systemic racism within the music industry. This group did a great job with it, even employing an effective metaphor that was transformative for the audience. I'm looking forward to seeing the video. 


 


"We've had the power all along." - Laura Tiebert

I teared up multiple times during the symposium, and they were all during talks about Diamonds and Pearls. Something stirred in me when Cummings said the album was his "put some respect on my name" album. I also was touched by Tiebert's beautiful analysis of the album against the framework of The Wizard of Oz, which Prince credits in the liner notes. "Diamonds and Pearls is Prince’s declaration that while the journey down the yellow brick road to self-empowerment is filled with challenges, confidence and trust in ourselves is the key that will ultimately open the gates of Oz," Tiebert argued. I think I was reminded that Prince didn't have to do anything after the run that he had in '80s. Folks complain about his '90s work, but he was still operating on a genius level. He never stopped striving for excellence, and we never stop holding him to impossible standards. Still, he wanted to be an inspiration for all of us, and we will continue to learn from him even though he isn't physically here.





"[Prince] can't just be bae." - Dr. Joan Morgan 

During the roundtable on Controversy, Dr. Joan Morgan simply articulated the way a lot of us feel: There is so much more to Prince beneath the surface, which is why we are fans and spend so much time studying him. Though I was a teenager when I became deeply interested in his music, he did not prompt me to interrogate myself as a sexual being the way he did for other fans in the 1980s. I discovered a more conservative Prince in the 2000s, and I connected with his music on a spiritual level. However, he is so much more to me beyond spirituality and even beyond the music. I do wonder if my relationship would have been different if I grew up in the 1980s. 



I also appreciated Dr. Morgan's perspective on Prince and queerness. 




"The Hero's Journey is a continuous loop. Very broadly, you could argue that loops within Prince's journey each have a seven-year arc." 

Edgar Kruize offered a fascinating presentation, analyzing Prince's career against the framework of "The Hero's Journey," popularized by American literature professor Joseph Campbell. I'm definitely planning to return to this thought-provoking analysis. You can watch for yourself below.



"He ain't let the jazz breathe." - Randy Ferguson

This was a comment in the chat during The Rainbow Children roundtable. I appreciated this group of scholars tackling one of their least favorite albums. I think they shared some thoughtful criticisms and tried to find some redemption. One of the most interesting discussions was around Prince's approach to jazz. Why did he choose certain musicians like Najee or Renato Neto? How did that affect his sound? I'd love to hear a panel of musicians talk about this further. What was Prince doing with the Madhouse records (jazz fusion?) versus The Rainbow Children, One Nite Alone, N.E.W.S. and Xpectation? Which musical styles did he "master," and which ones were part of experiments? 





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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

'Just a No-name Reporter' - Celebrating 10 years of A Purple Day in December


This month marks 10 years since I started this blog and, really, the current version of my book on Prince. I thought it was important to spend some time reflecting on the past decade. When I made that first post on Dec. 1, 2010, I was so enthusiastic and naive. Today, I'm still invested in this project but I'm also a bit more astute and realistic. Any biographer will tell you that they develop a complicated relationship with the subject; you learn so much about human nature, and it can be difficult to digest the information. I went in with a simplistic idea of what Prince's spiritual journey could be, and (shocker) it is so much more complex than I could have ever imagined. I am still hoping readers find beauty and inspiration in that complexity--or at the very least an intriguing character study.

This blog is not only a chronicle of my journey to write a book, but a record of my personal and professional life. I started and finished graduate school while writing this blog. I interned at Billboard in New York City. I moved to Columbus, Ohio, to become a full-time reporter, which changed my life tremendously. I've built an impressive career and found my purpose in elevating Black voices in my community. However, it's also uncomfortable to look back. I've never made a habit of baring my soul here, but I can look at certain blog posts and think about relationships and friendships that didn't work out, former supporters who lost interest, and periods when I was dealing with depression. 

Of course, there were funny moments along the way. I cringe at some of the terrible clip art and outdated technology. (Honestly, if I could do it over again, I would have hosted this blog on a different platform.) I also laugh at the moment I discovered there was salacious, Prince-based fan fiction

Click to enlarge

There is also a lot of joy. I saw Prince at Madison Square Garden the same month I started the blog. Three weeks after my first post, I completed my first interview, which was with Gayle Chapman. Today, I can proudly say I've interviewed over 40 people. I'll never forget serendipitously meeting up with Prince's former publicist, Howard Bloom, for a five-hour interview in Brooklyn, or making my mom proud by interviewing someone she admired--the legendary Larry Graham. I never imagined I'd get the opportunity to present my research at an academic conference in the UK, but I did, and I made sure to document that experience--one of the happiest times of my life--on the blog. I also had the honor of appearing on an episode of the official Prince podcast. Additionally, I've met so many great people who've found me through this blog or in other Prince-related spaces. 

I never thought Prince would pass away while I was writing the book. It was difficult to navigate that publicly, but I did, and it's documented on the blog. But it's great to be able to revisit a post and reminisce about how fun it was when he was here, doing things in real time. For example, I get a kick out of seeing my reaction to his launch of the 3rdEyeGirl era in 2013. 

Posing at Madison Square Garden before the Prince show on Dec 18, 2010

I'd be lying if I said the book and this blog were easy. I've been doing this for a decade and I'm tired. I'm ready to be done. I'm almost there, but it's going to take more hard work to finish in 2021, which I need to do. I have to move on with the rest of my life. I have new goals to achieve, including things I've sacrificed to bring this project to fruition. There has been a lot of rejection, but I have some key supporters, including a new agent, so I'm in a good place. I still struggle with self-doubt. Sometimes I feel I'm not worthy of getting certain interviews or even getting my work published, but I know that's not true. I just have to be careful not to indulge that thinking for too long. 

I'm proud of myself for re-committing myself to blogging consistently these past two years, but it's time to prioritize the rest of my book. That means there may be some gaps in between posts, and I have to learn to be OK with that. I'm still excited for the potential interviews, reviews, guest posts, contests and other types of content I can publish, but I have to be more strategic.

Presenting at the "Purple Reign Conference" at the University of Salford in Manchester

I don't know what my plans are for the blog once I'm finished with my book. I do know I will probably need a break from Prince-related content for a while. I have so many other stories to tell, hopefully. But I am so grateful to have this archive. (I should probably download these posts now, huh?)

Thank you so much for going on this journey with me. Happy New Year!

- Erica 


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Saturday, December 12, 2020

"The Gold Standard" - Top Seven Posts of 2020


It's been a crazy year to say the least, but I'm glad I managed to stay consistent with my blog. Here's a list of the seven most-visited posts.

7. "Eye Hate U" - Flutestrumental #1: I performed the Prince song on flute. 

6. "With an Intellect and a Savoir-Faire" - Purple Recommendations: I created a roundup of Prince-related content from other folks in the "purple community." 

5. "Here We Are, Folks!" - Sign O' the Times Deluxe Edition Unboxing: I filmed myself opening the latest release from the prince Estate.

4.  "Kick Drum Pounds on the Two and Four" - Three Immediate Favorites from the Vault: I shared my thoughts on a few tracks from the massive Super Deluxe edition of Prince's Sign O' the Times album.

3. “Welcome 2 the Million $ Show” - Redeeming Qualities of “HitnRun: Phase One”: Prince's Friend shared his thoughts on Prince's penultimate album.

2. “A Little Bit of Pleasure for the Guilty Pain” – BDSM Lyrics in the Work of Prince: Darling Nisi contributed an essay on this subject. 

1. "Jana Jade's Army" - Interview with Jana Anderson: I spoke with one of Prince's former session singers. 


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Sunday, December 6, 2020

'A New Spiritual Revolution' - My 'Purple Paradigm' Presentation

Last month, I was invited to present my research on an episode of The Purple Paradigm, an interactive web series on Prince. 

You can watch my talk, "'You Don't Think God is Sexy?' - Prince's Shifting Perspectives on Spirituality and Sexuality," below.  


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Friday, November 27, 2020

'Same December' - Thoughts on 'Chaos and Disorder'

I've been listening to Prince's 1996 contractual obligation ... er ... album Chaos and Disorder this week. I don't think it's an essential listen, but it's certainly better than its reputation. And it's always nice to hear Rosie Gaines singing with Prince. Honestly, there are gems on all of his albums.

Chaos and Disorder is commended for its rock sound, but I think Prince has better material in that genre on other albums. My favorite rocker on here is the bluesy "Zannalee," which was originally slated for The Undertaker, a much better project that I wish had been released in Guitar World in 1993 as planned. (Psst! Prince Estate, there's still time to partner with the publication to do this, and a dope writer can interview musicians Sonny T. and Michael Bland about it again.) Additionally, you would expect a song like "I Rock, Therefore I Am" to smolder, but it's underwhelming. 

A lot of people prefer the only single, "Dinner with Delores," and it's a pleasant song. However, I never find myself playing this unless I'm purposely engaging the entire album. It's better live; Prince gave a great performance of the track and "Zannalee" on the "Today" show's "Summer Concert Series" in 1996. The audience was really diverse and I actually teared up watching some of them cry. And I always love to see Bryant Gumble and Prince interacting; you can tell they had a lot of respect for each other. (Try not to wince, though, when Katie Couric calls the superstar Prince instead of his new name.) 

My favorite song on the album is "The Same December," because of its catchy chorus, full sound and gospel outro. Also, the lyrics are very thoughtful:

"You only see what your heart will show
You only love when your soul remembers
We all come from the same December
And in the end, that's where we'll go"

Prince often talked about perception, and people's habit of projecting their own beliefs or desires on things they witness or consume. 


“If you looked at that picture [on Lovesexy] and some ill come out your mouth, then that’s what you are—it’s looking right back at you in the mirror.” - Prince, 1990


There are also spiritual concepts running through the song, including reincarnation and the theory of returning to the Source (God or absolute, eternal reality)--which were in line with what Prince was studying at the time. Similar themes are also found on Chaos and Disorder's "Into the Light," which was inspired by author Betty Eadie's book, Embraced by the Light, about her near-death experience. (Influenced by Biblical text, Prince often used "light" as a symbol for God and/or Jesus throughout his career.)

The last track on the album, "Had U," is a popular topic of discussion; it's rumored to be a thinly veiled kiss-off to Warner Bros. It's interesting to me because I can hear all of the opportunities for Prince to elaborate on the melody and elevate the song to something great, but that's not the point. He was done giving the record label his best material, and the frustration I feel at the abrupt ending is something I'm sure he anticipated. Like he says on "Dinner with Delores," "No more, that's the end." 

What are your favorite tracks on Chaos and Disorder? 


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Friday, November 20, 2020

"The Exodus Has Begun" - Black Magnolias Literary Journal

If you're a fan of this blog, you know I often stress the importance of engaging writing and research on Prince by Black writers. Last year, I wrote about the excellent, special Prince issue of the Howard Journal of Communications. I've also had the privilege of participating in professor De Angela L. Duff's symposia on Prince. (You can read my recap of one of her most recent academic events here.) 

This week, I'd like to share some brief opinions on the special Prince issue of the Black Magnolias Literary Journal, edited by C. Liegh McInnis, a professor at Jackson State University, and author of The Lyrics of Prince: A Literary Look at a Creative, Musical Poet, Philosopher, and Storyteller. In addition to being a lovely person, McInnis is a passionate, compelling speaker, who has inspired many audiences of Prince fans with his presentations. 

This issue of Black Magnolias, released last spring, features Black scholars and others who are clearly interested in centering Prince's Blackness in analyses of the artist's work, life and legacy. It's troubling that many Prince fans are hostile at the thought of talking about Prince as a Black man affected by and concerned with systemic racism, and I don't expect a lot of them to come around. But for fans who say they are interested in understanding all aspects of Prince's humanity, I would recommend reading collections like this one. There are a lot of people, including Black writers, who are putting in work.

I haven't finished reading each piece yet, and I am still unpacking what I have read, but I wanted to share some thoughts. One of McInnis' goals for studying Prince's work is to gauge "the full realm of Black diversity," and thus the "full realm of Black humanity." Prince is a perfect subject for this, and the writers worked diligently toward this end. I also appreciated that McInnis stressed the need for Black musicians to be taken seriously ("Unlike the Beatles or Bob Dylan, rarely are African Americans studied for their intellectual value," he writes). Lately I've been thinking about the ways in which my research on Prince was minimized by some when I was working on my master's thesis (thank God for the professors who did believe in what I was doing). It's good to know I am not alone in this struggle. 

I've singled out a few essays/papers that stood out to me so far.

"She's Always In My Hair: Jill Jones--The Unheralded Muse of Prince" by De Angela L. Duff

This piece provides the most comprehensive look at Jones' contributions to Prince's work that I've seen to date. It unpacks how Prince's obsession with creating mystery and being in control had a detrimental effect on Jones' career, and demonstrates her absence from Prince's narrative, even after his death. I was very intrigued by the impact of race (Jones is biracial and fair-skinned) on Jones' marketability for both Black and white audiences. As I read Duff's piece, I thought about Mariah Carey's struggles with racism as a biracial artist in the music industry; they are outlined in her new memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Though Carey achieved international superstardom, I think her story is an effective companion piece to this paper; I wonder if she and Jones had similar experiences.

"The Purple Avatar: A Brief Discussion of Prince's Guitar Greatness" by Darryl Pete

We need more scholarship breaking down Prince's guitar playing. Pete's essay is based more on his personal experience as a guitarist than strict musical analysis, but I appreciated his comparisons of Prince's music to work by everyone from Chuck Berry to Ernie Isley. I also enjoyed reading about Prince's guitar work on "Lady Cab Driver," a song I would not have immediately singled out as an example of his impressive technique. Speaking about "Let's Go Crazy," Pete writes, "That heavenly note climaxing at the end of (the song) seemed to sustain forever! The note wasn't just sustaining itself but the possibility of what Black music could be, what it had been, what had been taken/stolen from it, and what it could reclaim." I thought that was the most powerful passage, and it made me hungry for more analysis about Prince, race and rock 'n' roll. 

"How the Exodus Began: Prince and the Black Working Class Imagination" by Robert Loss

This is one of the best papers I've read on Prince, and it should be required reading for all fans and scholars. It's a long one; Loss put in an incredible amount of work in this nearly 60-page piece. Ever since Prince's memoir, The Beautiful Ones, came out, I have been thinking and writing about the order, discipline and utilitarian spirit found in Prince's work. Those attributes come not only from Prince's father and funk conventions, but a longstanding tradition in Black life. It's something that Black people know innately, but it's always important to have it articulated on paper. For example, I knew I got extremely emotional seeing Prince wearing a scarf at the Super Bowl halftime show--one of the most prominent stages in the world--but I didn't really know why until I unpacked it with a Black friend and wrote it down. Loss's essay adds even more context for Prince's signifiers of Black working-class values--like the scarf. Using academic frameworks and citing work by Black scholars (including writing by McInnis), Loss analyzes relevant themes in Prince's art, but also explores the ways in which Prince's art was used by others for social and political gains; for example, his 1995 song "We March" was played at the first Million Man March, which he also donated $50,000 to, according to Minister Louis Farrakhan. And there are numerous examples of Prince donating proceeds of ticket sales to his concerts for the advancement of Black and other marginalized people. 

"The Spiritual as the Political in the Works of Prince and the Staple Singers" by C. Liegh McInnis

If you're a fan of Prince, you should know about his musical relationship with legendary soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples, but you probably haven't broken down the comparisons between Prince's music and the work of the Staple Singers in the context of Black liberation theology. No need to worry, McInnis has done it for us in this excellent paper. Citing specific song examples, McInnis explains how both artists utilized Christian theology as a means to liberate Black people from oppression. He also stresses that Black liberation theology is rooted in African spirituality, which is rarely discussed in writings on Prince and religion. This piece made me think once again about innate understanding; as I've noted previously on this blog, some Black people can listen to songs like "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed," "Black Sweat" and even "Act of God" and feel that Prince is speaking to their liberation, but writing about this for everyone to read is necessary. With that, I'll close with a statement by McInnis:

"For the Staple Singers and Prince, the primary goal of artistry is to appeal to the hearts and minds of listeners to produce the catharsis that moves them to evolve spiritually so that their spiritual evolution manifests itself in the socio-political structure. To do anything else is to be both ungodly and unartistic." 

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