Friday, May 22, 2020

"Computer Blue" - Song of the Month

Each month I will share some brief, personal thoughts on one of my favorite Prince songs.

"Computer Blue" was the subject of the first music theory assignment I did during my senior year of high school. I can't remember what I was trying to demonstrate; perhaps it was the musical change near the middle of the song. After all, it was that section that took my breath away when I watched the movie for the first time a year earlier. I grew up knowing about legendary black guitar players, but I didn't engage with them regularly. Watching the "Computer Blue" performance changed that; the melody of the second section is simple, but it was so beautiful to me, and I had to know everything about this clearly amazing guitarist, who was so connected to every note he was playing. I was a disciplined musician at the time, preparing to go off to college to study flute performance, which I would do for two years before starting a long journey to becoming a journalist. Prince inspired me as an instrumentalist and as a writer. In college, I did more assignments on him and began the work that would eventually become my book. I spend a lot of time promoting this post-'80s work, but "Computer Blue" will always be important to me. It still takes my breath away.

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Friday, May 15, 2020

"Eye Hate U" - Flutestrumental #1

My rendition of "Eye Hate U - Quite Night Mix."

Drop flute requests in the comments!

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Friday, May 8, 2020

"Spirit's Calling" - Donna Summer + Prince (Part One)

As unique as he was, Prince's music, ideas, career and life experiences did not exist in a vacuum. Many before him navigated the same hurdles.

As an artist, Prince was able to make interesting and often profound statements about sexuality and spirituality. But, at times, he struggled with the limitations of his image as a sex symbol, especially as his spiritual beliefs shifted over time. The same challenge was faced by his predecessors Little Richard, Al Green and Marvin Gaye. I've explored their stories in my book.

Donna Summer had a similar tale. A versatile singer and complex woman, she was pigeonholed by her "Queen of Disco" moniker and "sex goddess" persona. A highly religious woman, she had a spiritual awakening in the late '70s, and became more intentional about using her talent for a righteous purpose. But she grappled with how to serve God and her fans at the same time.

I recently read her 2003 memoir, Ordinary Girl: The Journey. Here are some things she has in common with Prince, spiritual and otherwise.

Church Roots & Angels

It's not uncommon for black singers to get their start in church. Born Donna Gaines in 1948 in Boston, the future superstar made her debut at her African Methodist Episcopal church. "I could hear God's voice clearly and distinctly inside my head, saying, 'You're going to be famous,'" she wrote. "That's power, and you are never to misuse it.'"

Summer had multiple, spiritual experiences growing up. She recalled becoming aware of God's presence in nature at 5 years old. A short time later, she said she became aware of God's protection when she nearly drowned. And at 19, she was convinced she'd met an angel, when an old, white-haired man stopped her on the street and predicted that she would have an opportunity to move overseas and become famous. Then, he disappeared.

"I started to weep right there in the street--not tears of sadness or fear, but an outpouring of all my emotions that had been stirred by the angel's vision and prophetic words," she said.

Prince had his own encounter with an angel, though he didn't retain the memory. It was an experience his mother recounted to him. Apparently, after suffering from epileptic seizures during his childhood, he informed his mother that an angel told him he wouldn't be sick anymore. Sure enough, he got better.

But Prince didn't share any other reports of God or angels speaking to him during his youth. He acknowledged God as the source of his musical inspiration, but that seemed to be a realization he came to gradually as he progressed in his career and his faith.

However, religious themes permeated his music from the beginning. He'd been exposed to Christian beliefs as a child in both Seventh-day Adventist and Methodist churches. A youth leader remembers Prince participating in choir, but not often; he didn't develop his singing chops there.
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Work Ethic & Early Success

Prince honed his skills playing in bands and doing session work in Minneapolis. At 19 years old, he signed a three-album deal with Warner Bros., becoming the youngest person in the label's history to produce an album.

Summer was also 19 when she was offered her first recording contract by RCA in 1968. Prior to the opportunity, she'd spent years performing at church and in singing groups before joining a rock band, the Crow, and moving to New York City. However, instead of going forward with RCA, she auditioned for a European production of the musical Hair, and moved to Germany, where she lived and made a name for herself for the next seven years.

Summer was drawn to the 1960s counterculture both on- and offstage. "I could feel there was something more than just music in the fresh air of the sixties, and I was breathing deep, taking it all in," she said. "It was the beginning of a great liberation."

Prince was also drawn to the culture. Though his career took off in the '80s, he explored the theme of liberation through sexual freedom in his early songs like "Uptown," "Partyup" and "Sexuality." And, of course, he built his Paisley Park paradise in Minneapolis.

Superstardom & Controversy

Both future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers were catapulted to superstardom around the same age; Prince at 26 in 1984 and Summer at 27 in 1975. Prince became an icon with his Purple Rain movie and album, while Summer broke through in the U.S. with her No. 2 hit, "Love to Love You Baby."

Prince had long been viewed as a rebel with his sexually explicit lyrics, revealing costumes and gender-bending image. His 1984 song "Darling Nikki" prompted Tipper Gore to form the Parents’ Music Resource Center, which eventually developed the "Parental Advisory" labels on albums.

While Prince's risqué  image was more strategic on his part, Summer didn't necessarily set out to be a sex symbol. "Love to Love You Baby" was controversial due to her erotic moans, which were improvised. Casablanca Records--financed by Warner Bros.--requested a 17-minute version of the song.

"I'd never intended to sing the song that way," Summer wrote. "[It] happened simply because we had run out of words, and I had to do something to fill the time."

Summer was immediately bothered by the content and her portrayal in the media. "Even a Time magazine article described me as the Queen of Sex-Rock, which I found appalling," she wrote. "As far as I was concerned, singing 'Love to Love You Baby' was just an acting exercise."

After years of playing up his sexual side, Prince began to feel the tension between the sacred and profane in his music as early as the Purple Rain tour. His onstage monologues about love versus lust and his belief God seemed to hint at an internal struggle.

"I know I said I'd be good," he said to God in front of the audience, "but they dig it when I'm bad."

Summer also wondered if she was pleasing God.

"Because of my strong religious faith, I felt very guilty about allowing myself to publicly be made into a false and prurient sex goddess," she wrote. "Don't get me wrong, sex is a beautiful thing in the right context, and I'm not a prude. But flaunting myself in this manner went totally against my moral grain."

Before long, both she and Prince would take steps to reconnect with their faith.

Stay tuned for part two!

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Friday, May 1, 2020

"Daddy Pop" - Favorite Prince Quotes (1990s)

*Featuring art from the 9T99 Coloring Book

"There’s nothing a critic can tell me that I can learn from. ... If they were musicians, maybe. But I hate reading about what some guy sitting at a desk thinks about me. You know, ‘He’s back, and he’s black,’ or ‘He’s back, and he’s bad.'"

- Rolling Stone, 1990

"If I was somebody else, writers and critics would be all up in the way the chords work and the keyboard lines. They just write off my slow jams."

- Spin, 1991

"I said to him, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And he says, ‘No.’ And I say, ‘Do you believe in faith? In hope?’ By the end of it, blood was down on his knees, looking for a church to go pray.”

- The Globe and Mail, 1996

"I really don't like categories (for my music), but the only thing I could think of is inspirational. And I think music that is from the heart falls right into that category, people who really feel what it is that they're doing. And ultimately all music is or can be inspirational. And that's why it's so important to let your gift be guided by something more clear."

- Larry King Live, 1999

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Friday, April 24, 2020

"Let's Go Crazy" - Some Thoughts on the "Grammy Salute to Prince"

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               Gary Clark Jr.

I don't think I've watched a Prince tribute in real time since the 2010 BET Awards. Those were happier times, of course. Prince was in the audience. He nervously watched a pregnant Alicia Keys climb on top of the piano. He proudly caught Patti LaBelle's shoe. He told young artists they didn't have to be as wild as he once was to be successful.

Ten years later, he's gone and tributes remind me what a unique talent we've lost. His music is difficult to cover. And we've seen a lot of the same types of performances over the years. I'm really thrilled that people are still honoring him--in prime time, no less. But I know I'm not the target audience.

With that said, I don't have anything especially negative to say about "Let's Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince," which aired Tuesday on CBS. With everyone staying at home due to the pandemic, the celebration had a captive audience. And from what I saw on social media, a lot of people enjoyed the performances. I hope casual fans were inspired to listen to more of Prince's music.

I do think some artists were under-utilized. For example, I really wanted St. Vincent to be able to shred on guitar, but I think she was limited by the song, "Controversy." I think it would have been neat to see artists incorporate small sections of Prince's lesser-known rock or jazz-influenced songs (e.g. material after 1989) that would prompt some viewers to think, "Wow, what was that? Let me look that up!"

I'm glad the show incorporated snippets of Prince's life story and performances, but they just me excited about the possibility of network TV broadcasting a Prince tour like "Sign O' the Times," "Lovesexy" or "Musicology" so casual fans can witness what he could really do. In 2012, the "Bad 25" documentary on Michael Jackson's 1987 album premiered on ABC. What if something like that was created for one of Prince's albums?

Overall, I'm glad I tuned into "The Grammy Salute to Prince." A few performances--and broader ideas--stood out to me:

1) Gary Clark Jr. and the importance of black guitar players honoring Prince

I was so happy to see blues/rock artist Gary Clark Jr. participate in the tribute, and I'm glad he played "The Cross." Black guitarists are often overlooked in the rock genre, and Prince is still underrated as a guitar player. And we do not talk enough about the presence of the blues in his music. Of course Prince influenced Gary Clark Jr. and a host of other black guitarists who are an important part of the rock genre. Hopefully this performance stirred up some of those truths.

2) Usher and the thrill of true showmanship

I am an Usher fan for many reasons, one being that he is a true entertainer. He is detailed-oriented about his vocals, choreography, swagger and fashion (he nailed the outfit, and I loved the quick little turn to show off the 1999-inspired artwork on the back of his jacket). He brought that element of showmanship that we used to see from Prince, Michael Jackson and James Brown. And friends--that element is fading in popular music.

3) Misty Copeland, Mavis Staples and the reality of loss

When I saw Misty Copeland dancing the same routine to "The Beautiful Ones" that I saw her do at Madison Square Garden with Prince 10 years ago, I immediately wanted to weep for her. I can't imagine how difficult that must have been to relive such a special moment with a friend, and I was not surprised when she was overcome with emotion speaking later in the show. And as I heard the legendary Mavis Staples sing "Purple Rain," I couldn't help but think, "Wow, losing Prince was probably like losing a son in her eyes." I don't think we as fans can understand how much some of these performers are still mourning--but they get on the stage to do their part to honor Prince.

4) Foo Fighters and the need for rockers to acknowledge Prince

I mentioned this earlier, but because Prince is underrated in the rock world, it was nice to see Foo Fighters participate in the tribute. While he was alive, rockers couldn't always get away with covering his songs. (I'm glad Dave Grohl mentioned that.) But now I'd like to see other folks in that community be even more vocal about Prince's influence as a rock guitarist during the "Purple Rain" era and beyond.

P.S. Someone on Twitter said D'Angelo should do an entire album of Prince covers and that's one tribute I would love to see.

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Friday, April 17, 2020

"Same Page Different Book" - Song of the Month

Each month I will share some brief, personal thoughts on one of my favorite Prince songs.

One of the greatest things about being a Prince fan was that you never knew what to expect from him. Whether or not you dug what he was doing, he was always interesting and mysterious. If Prince never did another thing after 2002, he would still be a legend. But it's amazing that I became a serious fan that year and still had almost 15 years of watching him break records and stir up worldwide excitement. "Same Page Different Book" came out during a time when Prince was slowly unveiling his new band, 3rdEyeGirl. The song appeared out of nowhere on the 3rdEyeGirl YouTube channel in early 2013. Ironically, it was a track that predated the new band members and didn't feature them. But it was still thrilling to get a new song for a brief period; it was shortly taken down. Fans are drawn to different elements of Prince's artistry--beyond the music. Obviously, I have always been interested in what he has to say about spirituality. So, "Same Page Different Book"--which touches on monotheism, the Biblical Book of Galatians and more--drew me in immediately. It was like, "He's still speaking about subjects I care about!" (I'll have a proper analysis in my book.) Luckily, the song is funky and soulful. I always pay attention to the vocal ad-libs he does, no matter how small. I even like Shelby J.'s rap. I just remember dancing in my bedroom and wondering what he was going to do next.

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Friday, April 10, 2020

"This is a Groove" - Favorite Prince Songs (Part 3)

This is the conclusion of a three-part series. Previously, I listed my favorite song from each of Prince's studio albums during the 1980s and the 1990s. This was the hardest yet because I have extremely personal memories tied to his music during the 2000s. I finally understand why fans hate doing these lists!

1. The Rainbow Children (2001): "She Loves Me 4 Me." This entire album is extraordinary given the level of musicianship alone. There are more advanced tracks than "She Loves Me 4 Me," but I can't think of a lovelier song in his discography. The sweet lyrics and gorgeous guitar licks get me every time. Read more about my relationship with the song here.

2. One Nite Alone (2002): "Avalanche." It's always interesting when Prince decides to get very specific with his subject matter. And it's important to listen to songs like this to gain a better understanding of his perspective on race relations.

3. Xpectation (2003): "Xosphere." I need to spend more time with this album, but I think I enjoy this melody the most right now.

4. N.E.W.S. (2003): "North." This is the only Prince album I can listen to as background music while writing. There's great guitar work in here, but it's part of the piano solo (10:10) that always gets to me.

5. Musicology (2004): "If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life." I almost chose "Call My Name," one of his best ballads, but I had to go with the song that I immediately hit rewind on when I played the album for the first time. The music is extremely funky and I actually like his pick-up lines--which is not often the case.

6. The Chocolate Invasion (2004): "When Eye Lay My Hands on U." Great melody, amazing guitar solo.

7. The Slaughterhouse (2004): "Y Should Eye Do That When Eye Can Do This?" One of his most compelling raps.

8. 3121 (2006): "3121." This is my favorite album of the decade, so I almost cried picking just one track. I love the nasty groove, scene-setting and guitar solo.

9. Planet Earth (2007): "Future Baby Mama." I don't care what anyone thinks. You have to be in the mood to listen to most of this album, especially the title track, which is another one of my other favorites. But "Future Baby Mama" is easy listening and I like the vocal decisions he makes.

10. Lotusflow3r (2009): "Wall of Berlin." Prince, Sonny T. and Michael Bland create magic whenever they get in the studio. I love how they switch up the rhythm. Also, Prince's guitar is on fire.

11. MPLSound (2009): "Valentina." Surprisingly, I adore three songs on this otherwise lackluster album and had trouble selecting one. "Valentina" has a nice beat, decent rapping, an infectious chant ("Hey, Valentina!") and a fun backstory.

12. Elixir (2009): "Home." This is technically Bria Valente's album, but Prince wrote everything and bundled it with his other projects. It's an underrated album and Bria's voice works well. His vocal production for her on this song is stellar. The guitar is subtle but dope (listen closely to the the second verse).

13. 20Ten (2010): "Sticky Like Glue." This is the song to play for fans who don't enjoy his work during this period. He was a master of funk-pop until the very end.

14. Plectrumelectrum (2014): "Plectrumelectrum." This is ... not my favorite album. I think a project full of instrumentals like this would bump it up higher on my list even though this is a bit paint-by-numbers rock for me.

15. Art Official Age (2014): "Way Back Home." This might change because I need to spend more time with this album. This song feels very personal--but that can be said of the entire project.

16. HitnRun Phase One (2015): "1000 X's and O's." Though this was originally written in the '90s, he did a fantastic job with the updates. I was in Atlanta recently and they were playing it on the R&B station. It fit right in!

17. HitnRun Phase Two (2015): "Look at Me, Look at U." He went out on a high note with this entire album. "Black Muse" and "When She Comes" are gems, of course. But I have an emotional connection to this one. It took me a while--today, actually--to be able to play it without getting upset.

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