Friday, May 24, 2019

"She's Our Inspiration" - Prince and Aunt Esther


"Hold, it Fred!"

The unmistakable voice of Aunt Esther rings out at the end of Prince and the New Power Generation's 1991 song, "Gangster Glam." In the video, a classic for the "mankini" scene alone (just watch and you'll understand), the God-fearing older woman's picture flashes across the screen in sync with the line.


For those who didn't grow up in the 1970s--a golden age for black television--or catch enough old TV reruns in later years, Aunt Esther Anderson was a character on "Sanford and Son," starring comedian Redd Foxx as widowed junk dealer Fred Sanford.

Portrayed by comedian LaWanda Page, Aunt Esther was Sanford's sanctified sister-in-law. She never missed an opportunity to reprimand the irascible Sanford, often with her trademark phrase, "Watch it, sucker!" Their classic trading of insults--usually in Sanford's Watt's, Los Angeles, home--was a highlight of the show.

In real life, Page and Foxx were great friends. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920, Page grew up in St. Louis, attending elementary school with Foxx. She spent time playing the chitlin' circuit, a series of venues accepting of black people, "where if you ain't home by 9 o'clock you can be declared legally dead," she once said. Page moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s. There, she joined comedy group Skillet, Leroy & Co. before Foxx recruited her for "Sanford and Son."

"I'd freeze up every time Redd would come into the rehearsal hall," Page said of her rocky first days on set. "They were going to let me go, but Redd said, 'No.' ... I went over to Redd's house that Sunday and we went over that script and got it together! Redd told me to let myself go and do it my way ... and when we taped on Tuesday that's just what I did. And, baby, it went over!"

Running from 1972 to 1977, "Sanford and Son" was a highly successful sitcom--though not without its criticism--breaking barriers for and influencing future black shows. It was part of noted producer Norman Lear's stable of hit shows, which were celebrated for tackling social and political issues of the day. (A testament to Lear's ongoing significance, live remakes of his shows, "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons," just aired on ABC Wednesday, May 22.)

Related Content
Interview with "Gangster Glam" director Scott McCullough
"Gangster Glam" review on Prince: Track by Track

A teenager in the '70s, Prince clearly watched "Sanford and Son" like most American families. And like many black artists, he was inspired by iconic black characters like Aunt Esther, and paid homage to her through his songs and videos. In addition to appearing in "Gangster Glam," the character shows up in 1992's "Sexy M.F." in the most fitting way: as part of an insult-trading session.

"Would you check my messages, please, and see if Prince's mama called?" NPG guitarist Levi Seacer says in the video, holding up a fan with Aunt Esther's picture printed on the front. The fan was later made available as part of a "Sexy M.F." promo kit, which included the song on a gold 12-inch record.

"She's our inspiration," Prince said of Aunt Esther in a 1991 Spin article.


"Black comedy feeds all other black art," said writer Scott Woods, whose book of essays, Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, was released last year. "If you were rocking [Redd] Foxx in the late '60s or early-mid '70s, you came across Page. ... She's easy to love as ribald comedy goes, and she was just obscure enough by the '80s that you could borrow her energy and stuff without being obvious."

That content was mined from six comedy albums, including 1972's gold-certified Watch It Sucker!, which capitalized on the success of "Sanford and Son." While Page was a devout Christian as "Aunt Esther," her stand-up was extremely raunchy. Of course, that same dichotomy was not foreign to Prince, who could write spiritual songs like "God" or "Anna Stesia" just as easily as explicit songs like "Head" or "Darling Nikki."

LaWanda Page portraying, of course, a religious woman on "The Richard Pryor Show." 

While Prince later became a Jehovah's Witness, Page was not affiliated with a particular group. Nonetheless, she was said to have "strong religious convictions," according to an interview with Ontario Daily Report.

While Redd Foxx's life ended tragically in 1991, Page lived a decade longer, and saw a resurgence in the '90s. She had guest roles on TV shows like "Martin" (Martin Lawrence and Tichina Arnold's ribbing was reminiscent of Foxx and Page) and cameos in movies like "Friday," which featured her, ironically, as a foul-mouthed Jehovah's Witness.


She also collaborated with RuPaul, guesting on the drag queen's classic 1992 song, "Supermodel (You Better Work)," and starring in the music video for "Back to My Roots" in 1993.

"I loved making it," Page said of the video in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "They treated me like I was Queen Elizabeth.”

When asked about retiring, the comedian said, "Honey, I tried, but people won’t let me.”


It's too bad she never appeared in the flesh in Prince's videos. For "Gangster Glam," Prince also attempted to get video star Leisl AuVante to say, "Hold it, Fred!" during the shoot.

"I tried over and over but I couldn’t catch the rhythm," AuVante said in an interview with writer Laura Tiebert. "He knew I was always a beat behind.”

Prince and Page shared more in common than a robust sense of humor. Like the Purple One, she was an entertainer of many talents, getting her pre-comedy start as a dancer. She added a fire-eating act, billing herself as the Bronze Goddess of Fire, though she nearly burned a club down perfecting her tricks. She later showed off her skills in a circus-themed episode of "Sanford and Son."


Like Prince, Page had a charitable spirit, caring for her ill mother and divulging plans to open a school for handicapped children to Jet magazine.

Jet magazine, Oct. 6, 1977

After decades in entertainment, Page died at 81 years old in 2002 from complications of diabetes. Her memory lives on through fans like RuPaul, who quoted a line from the comedian's Watch It Sucker! album on a recent episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race" ("You was crazy as hell when they brought you here, but you're in your right damn mind now").

"As a tribute to comic genius LaWanda Page, I pronounce
military as 'mill-lent-terry,'" RuPaul tweeted on May 24, 2016.

Billed as the "queen of comedy" during her career, Page is viewed as a pioneer for other women comedians.

"I did attend her funeral out of homage and respect," said comedian Luenell, according to writer Darryl Littleton. "[I said], 'Thank you for the work that you have done. Had it not been for you there would be no opportunity for me.'"

"It makes me happy that I’ve paved the way for a lot of young comedians,” Page once told Entertainment Weekly.


via GIPHY

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Friday, May 17, 2019

"Surely people that created rhythm and blues ..." - Howard Journal of Communications' Prince Issue

"Let's stop and take a moment to look at yourself. There is nothing minor about you. You are a blessed people. You're the most talented on Earth and you are still grateful. That is why upon winning in their game, you always thank God. Tonight, I would like to ask one favor of you. Imagine what it would be like in our own game." 

- Prince, 2000 Soul Train Awards


In December, the Howard Journal of Communications published a special Prince issue, "Centering race in the life and work of 'The Purple One.'" The icon's racial politics are examined through a collection of papers covering everything from his stance on intellectual property to his depiction of the black experience in music videos.


"It is critical that we strive to ensure that the legacy and essence of Prince not be viewed solely through a hegemonic lens, highlighting him as a man who transcended race;" editors Kimberly R. Moffitt and W. Russell Robinson write in the intro, "But instead, as a musical genius we believe embodied his blackness as a forethought, not an afterthought to his authentic self."

Moffitt and Robinson were inspired to create this issue at the 2017 Purple Reign Conference, where they presented their work, "Transgressions in Purple: The Prince Protest Mixtape, Vol. 1," at the University of Salford. During the week, they said they noticed emphasis placed on Prince's universal appeal, while his race was minimized.

I don't recall feeling that way at that particular conference (I presented on spirituality), but as I've participated in more academic events, engaged with fans online and consumed new articles on Prince, I've noticed a troubling whitewashing of his image.

That is why I was so thrilled to discover this special issue of the Howard Journal of Communications. The scholars have produced significant, thought-provoking writing on Prince and race. Honestly, I feel it should be required reading for fans interested in understanding Prince's motivations. And I would love to see versions of these pieces created for mainstream publications and websites (Essence, The Atlantic, etc.) so casual fans of Prince and/or popular music have access to this information.

Unfortunately, Prince's heyday preceded two developments: A greater amount of black writers employed at media outlets (though still not nearly enough) and the advent of the internet "think piece." Today, each time Beyonce releases new music or visuals, there is so much intelligent analysis on her symbolism and other messaging--and it always centers her blackness. We barely had that in real time for Prince's output. That's why so many of us are pushing for it now.

This journal issue impacted me emotionally and intellectually, and allowed me to examine some of the problematic, race-based messages that even I had internalized about Prince. I will need to spend more time with the issue to fully digest its contents, but here are several immediate takeaways from my first reading.

1. Prince loved and supported black women.

Kamilah Cummings' brilliant and exhaustive paper, "Sisters in the Shadows: an Examination of Prince's 'Strange Relationship' with Black Women," is the content I have been craving for a while. It has been unsettling to see the erasure of black women in Prince's legacy in both scholarship and mainstream media.

Black and white people alike have charged Prince with practicing colorism in his romantic life, and highlighted the contributions of non-black women to Prince's career. Since Prince's death, we have more information about the black women (of all hues) that he dated and the black women he supported philanthropically. We've also learned more and more about the black women working for Prince behind the scenes.

And we now have scholars like Cummings who can go back and analyze and synthesize Prince's lyrics, visuals, interviews, selection of musicians and vocalists, as well as other decisions--which we've had in front of us all along--to demonstrate just how much Prince elevated black women.

None of this is to say Prince was perfect and didn't evolve in some of his viewpoints or ways of expressing his support of black women. Cummings addresses that growth, and ultimately accomplishes her goal to present Prince's support of black women "as an indisputable example of his love of not only black women but of his own blackness and the black community."

2. Prince's spiritual messages intersect with his messages about race.

When it comes to spirituality, Prince loved to talk in code. He has confirmed "de-elevator" means the devil in "Let's Go Crazy." He's given enough context clues for fans to make an educated guess that "Spooky Electric"--referenced on the Lovesexy album--is the devil. In "Anna Stesia," he reminded us that "God is love," which would cause one to interpret his future use of the word ("Let love guide you to the Purple Rain;" "Love opened its arms;" "Live 4 Love") as a code for the deity. I could go on and on.

But this journal opened my eyes to the possibility that Prince's descriptions of spiritual paradises are promises of liberation for black people, specifically. In his paper, "Purple Visions of Blackness: Prince's Expansion of the Depictions of Black Experiences Though His Music Videos," Sedrick Smith cites videos like "Holy River" And "Betcha By Golly Wow" to demonstrate Prince's hopes for black people.

"Prince takes earthly elements (stars and rivers) and uses them as gateways into new future realms for black people," he writes. "In these future realms black people are free to be whomever they wish to be, however they wish to be."
"It'll be all over when the people are free/Free to be who and what they want to be." - Prince, "Act of God" (2010) 
As a result, I've been inspired to think about Prince's references to the "new world" and "afterworld" as more than Christian-based views of heaven. I'm reminded that some of Prince's most religious projects are also his most pro-black. The Rainbow Children, with its Jehovah's Witness doctrine mixed with messaging about the evils of slavery ("Muse 2 the Pharaoh," "Family Name"), is a prime example.

Prince's practice also brings to mind African American slaves' practice of using spirituals as texts for liberation from oppression. A day before I read this journal, I interviewed one of Prince's black employees, who interpreted songs like "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed" as being directed toward black people, even though the lyrics do not explicitly reference them. I do not take that as a coincidence.

3. Prince's name change to the Love Symbol is a commentary on the effects of chattel slavery.

This conclusion seems straightforward enough; after all, Prince did write the word "slave" on his face while challenging Warner Bros.' control over his creativity and ownership of his master recordings. But Anjali Vats' paper, "Prince of Intellectual Property: On Creatorship, Ownership, and Black Capitalism in Purple Afterworlds (Prince in/as Blackness)," delved deeper into the ways Prince signaled the damaging and lasting effects of slave owners re-naming African Americans.

The practice deprived black people of their right to keep their given, African name, and stripped them of their personhood and identity. It also provided white slave owners with "parental authority." Remade as property, black people's labor built wealth for the sole benefit of white people.

"The moniker 'Prince' became a corporate entity, a brand decoupled from the person," Vats writes. And Warner Brothers had authority and ownership over the music produced under that brand. Therefore, Prince's name change provided a freedom his ancestors were not able to experience.

Vats points out how the unspeakable and "empty" signifier is a fitting name for a brand that yields zero profit for Warner Bros. Furthermore, the writer brilliantly links the record label's inability to decipher the Love Symbol to illiteracy rates among black people in the aftermath of slavery. Unlike his ancestors, Prince was able to "best" his masters, "whose literacy did not match that of their star artist," Vats writes.

Prince could not totally prevent white control through naming. Reminded of the condescension and superiority slave masters exhibited while branding black people (literally and figuratively), I realized how hurtful media's nicknames may have been to Prince--especially when it came from another black person. With that in mind, Prince's song "Billy Jack Bitch," in response to gossip columnist C.J.'s "Symbolina" nickname, takes on a new meaning for me.

"What if I called you silly names/Just like the ones that you call me?" Prince sings. "What if I told you that you're worth/Only half of what you be?"

That last line is particularly chilling, given the history of subjugation of black people upon coming to America to be renamed, enslaved and oppressed.
"People, people what's ur name? Maybe we should start all over. Let everybody get in the game." - Prince, "Family Name" (2001)
4. Prince presented an expansion--not a transcendence--of blackness.

This entire special issue does a remarkable job of highlighting how Prince's image, behavior and business decisions reveal the expansive nature of blackness. For example, Prince's refusal to be included in Warner Bros.' R&B catalog was not an attempt to transcend race, but to demand greater respect as a black artist.

"[It] was an important act of claiming equality of creatorship and ownership, one that pushed back
against the notion that black art was and is inferior and deviant as compared to white
art," Vats writes.

Similarly, when Prince presented multiracial utopias ("Uptown," "Paisley Park"), he was advocating for equal participation in society for the black race.

As the articles lay out, Prince moved beyond stereotypes of black masculinity (dressing in traditionally feminine attire and showing vulnerability in lyrics); the black experience in many of his videos (eschewing violent, criminal depictions) and black women in lyrics (pushing back against demeaning language used by hip-hop artists). But that was to demonstrate that black people could be shown in more than one way.

By fighting for independence from his record label, referencing the exploitation of black artists before him, encouraging younger black artists to avoid record deals and emphasizing the power of black ownership across all industries, Prince was dedicated to expanding the current reality of being black in America.
"The system is broken. It's going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life. ... The next time I come to Baltimore I want to stay in a hotel owned by you." - Prince, Baltimore 'Rally 4 Peace' concert (2015)
"What he showcased throughout his career was that blackness could be infinite, equally as unbound by convention as music could be," K.T. Whiteneir writes in his paper, "Dig if you will the Picture: Prince's Subversion of Hegemonic Black Masculinity, and the Fallacy of Racial Transcendence."

He continues:

"Rather than defining it as transcendent, and unintentionally dismiss a critical aspect of the artist and his work due to a limited scope of analytic vision, we as scholars and consumers are responsible for digging deeper into the artist's intent and expanding our own critical lenses if we are to engage with the sophistication of his work."


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Friday, May 10, 2019

"This Kind of Beauty ... " - Prince's "Most Beautiful" Women

Meet the stars of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" video.

Photo by Phil Simms

In 1994, roughly two years before he married Mayte Garcia, Prince released the video for "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." However, the production didn't feature Garcia, whom Prince was dating at the time.

"I know of at least three women besides me who believe it was written specifically for them," Garcia said in her book, The Most Beautiful. "Take a look at the music video. ... You'll see a collage of girls and women of every age, race and body type. This was his love song to all of us."


The video was directed by Antoine Fuqua at Paisley Park. The Training Day filmmaker described the dreamlike environment in an interview with HuffPost.

"It was just women everywhere, hanging out and sitting around," he said. "It was like walking into a Warhol painting with rock stars hanging out."

Fuqua's favorite memory was Prince "floating" down the staircase to meet him.

"All I saw was this red, paisley-type outfit," Fuqua recalled. "It was like something out of an amazing Fellini movie."

As dreamy as Prince was, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" is all about women, and they are shown watching their fantasies come to life on a movie screen. The cast includes people who played special roles in Prince's life, and others whom he just met. Here's a brief introduction to a select few.

In the video, Nona Gaye portrays a black woman as the 43rd U.S. president.


"He was an incredible man, an unbelievable, unfathomably talented artist--we all know that--but he was also a beautiful, beautiful man," the model, singer, actress and daughter of Marvin Gaye told TV One after Prince passed away. "I miss him, and I will miss him for the rest of my life."


The video also features esteemed educator Marva Collins, who started the West Side Preparatory School in Chicago for low-income black children. In 1985, Prince donated $500,000 to help Collins start the West Side Preparatory School Teacher Training Institute.

Marva N. Collins receives a golden plate from Ernest W. Hahn for "Teacher Extraordinaire" during the 1982 
Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Awards.

"He was really excited and thrilled by the way she was teaching these little kids," Prince's protege Jill Jones said in our interview. "He sat and watched this class. ... He thought hard and long about the causes he did get involved with."

Jet magazine, Nov. 4, 1985


Syracuse actress Rita Worlock plays a comedian in the video.

"He had a vision; he knew what he wanted and he got it, but in a way where he wasn't a jerk," Worlock told Syracuse.com. "He was very into everyone's well-being. ... What saddens me is not a lot of people got to meet him like I did. He was cool, laid-back and all about the music, never about himself."


Marianne Cotrin, a Brazilian former model and competitive skydiver, portrays a bride in the video. 

"[It was] a very big loss for me--because I was a friend--and for the whole world," she said in an interview after Prince died.


Prince's longtime friend Leisl AuVante appears in the video as a woman reliving the birth of her child. 

"Spiritually, he was always fundamentally connected in a higher way, but it took him some time to find his true path," AuVante said in an interview with author Laura Tiebert. "The forces of good and evil pulled and tugged at him. The forces of the record industry can be very dirty. He had to navigate through the egos of musicians, and the drawbacks and benefits of fame."


The video also features a curvy woman viewing her fantasy of having a singing career. Prince didn't mention her name, but he became emotional talking about her in an interview with Q magazine.

"[She] wrote to him afterward saying that although she was overweight, he had made her feel beautiful," the journalist, Adrian Deevoy, relayed, "and she would lose weight with the intention of modeling one day."

When Deevoy asked Prince if physical beauty was overrated, the superstar replied, "Yes. See, you understand."

Photo by Phil Simms

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Friday, May 3, 2019

"Black Muse" - Prince Decor


This is a poster I purchased during my first trip to Paisley Park in 2018. For a long time, I thought I'd write about my visit, but it's too personal. Back in 2016, I made plans to display all of my Prince decorations, but I'm just now starting to follow through. And I've added more things since then.


This tambourine is also from Paisley Park. It cost ... a pretty penny, but it was worth it. The framed post card is a picture taken by Herb Ritts. I scored that on a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.


This is a painting of Canal Street in Manchester by S L Scott Art. I got it in the city in 2017, which was one of the best trips of my life, despite the tragedy that happened at the Manchester Arena a day before I arrived. I gave my first Prince presentation at the Purple Reign Conference at the University of Salford. I really need to get back to England.


This painting by Hemalatha Venkataraman was done on a tea bag! It's in my bathroom, which didn't do much to convince my sister that my apartment is not, in fact, a shrine to Prince.


I received this beauty by Kent Grosswiler as a gift. I will never stop singing, "Pimp rag, Tootsie Pop and a cane" randomly in my head.


Another gift, this portrait was done by Kristi Abbott. My leasing office is ... less than efficient, so I received this package several months after it was sent.

I tried to put a Love Symbol decal on my car today, but it fell apart. I snagged one of the last of the bunch from Electric Fetus, Prince's go-to record store in Minneapolis. The employees saw him all the time, and as one unenthusiastic clerk told me, his life remains unchanged. Sure, buddy.


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Friday, April 26, 2019

"Mamma-jammas and Sidewinders" - "Prince: The Last Interview" Review


Who is Prince the person? What are his values and beliefs? What are the reasons behind his artistic and business decisions? What is his conversation style?

Those are the questions I pondered as a new fan over 15 years ago, and I sought answers in the Prince books available. First, I read Purple Reign by Liz Jones during breaks at my summer retail job. Then, I progressed to Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince by Alex Hahn, Dance Music Sex Romance by Per Nilsen and many more.

Some of the books weren't comprehensive. Some drew questionable conclusions. Others could have been written better. But they provided a peek into the life of an enigmatic superstar and a springboard for my own research. Because of that, I can't discount them.

It is with that spirit that I approached and enjoyed Prince: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Released in March 2019, it is a collection of interviews Prince did with journalists over the span of his nearly 40-year career. It's also part of a series featuring the likes of James Baldwin and Julia Child.

I picture another teenager coming across this book in a library, knowing nothing about Prince save that he sang "Purple Rain" and was a little eccentric. And I think they will find a trace of him here, both in poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib's intro, which beautifully emphasizes Prince's humanity, and in the subsequent interviews.

I don't mind that there are only 10 articles from publications including Minnesota Daily, Vegetarian Times and Q magazine. It's a more digestible length for new fans than some of the newer biographies, which they will likely be inspired to seek. They can complete this book in an afternoon. By comparison, I think back to reading Matthew Carcieri's Prince: A Life in Music, which outlined the icon's life through a playlist of 50 songs. Though not a definitive work, it succeeded as a snapshot of Prince's career.

While I was limited to the interpretations of others during my new fandom, today's new fans have a compilation of Prince's own words in black and white at their fingertips. The Last Interview starts off well with Prince's first-ever interview, which was published in his high school paper, the Central High Pioneer.

Readers might argue about the rest of the book. I don't mind that Prince's classic, extensive interviews with Rolling Stone (in 1985 and 1990, both titled "Prince Talks") are not included. It's nice to mix it up. I don't even mind that the book includes nearly 10-year gaps between some interviews. Most phases of Prince's career ("Purple Rain" superstardom, name change, Warner Bros. exodus, online forays and retreats, and Jehovah's Witness conversion, etc.) are referenced in some capacity. And the goal is to keep the book concise.

My main complaint is the absence of at least one interview by a black journalist. Prince's initial success came from a black fan base, and he was invested in black culture and issues despite reports to the contrary. And as readers of this book will notice, some deep cultural context is missing from some of the interviews included.

Granted, Prince did not do a ton of interviews. He often criticized reporters, famously calling them "mamma-jammas and sidewinders," and sharing that, as non-musicians, many of them were not qualified to judge his work. And there were certainly limitations the editors of The Last Interview faced in gaining permission to reprint interviews.

With that said, there are still a lot of interviews by black journalists that could have been sourced. Former Right On! reporter Cynthia Horner spoke to Prince at the start of his career. Ebony's longtime writer and editor Lynn Norment interviewed Prince multiple times throughout his career. When he finally decided to open up to the press briefly in the mid-1980s, she was granted a thorough one-on-one. Over 10 years later in 1997, she sat down with him to talk about his new family and professional independence.

Ebony magazine, July 1986

Including a transcript of Prince's legendary BET interview with Tavis Smiley in 1998 would have provided a more robust understanding of Prince's fallout with Warner Bros. and decision to write "slave" on his face.

Speaking of Ebony, writer Miles Marshall Lewis conducted one of the final interviews with Prince for the magazine. It was published online briefly on Dec. 22, 2015 before Prince requested it be taken down. "I guess he realized that he was too frank," Lewis said in an interview on Podcast Juice's Podcast on Prince. Editors of The Last Interview may or may not have been allowed to include the piece in the book, but you can find it here for now. It is one of the most honest and compelling interviews of Prince's career.

Despite my complaint, I found some gems in the book. I have limited research parameters for my own book on Prince (for sanity reasons), so I haven't read every single thing, nor am I aware of every single piece of trivia. I never knew the celebrity Prince was referencing in his song "Animal Kingdom," or that he was in solidarity with singer George Michael, who had a similar battle with Sony. Those are a couple things I learned from this collection.

It was also great to see little nods to things revealed in the wake of Prince's passing. For example, during one old interview, Prince briefly mentions Puerto Rico in reference to his name change. I now know he had a deep discussion with ex-wife Mayte Garcia about the decision in that country. When Prince mentions guiding his musical associates by saying, "You know what would be cool," I now know that was a phrase he regularly used to influence people. Both of those details are in Garcia's book, The Most Beautiful.

It was also really refreshing to sit down with this book and revisit and interpret Prince's words away from the noise on social media. Because there are so many perceptions of Prince in the world, it's easy for people to lose sight of what his words mean to them individually, personally.

So, at the very least, I have to say thank you to the editors of Prince: The Last Interview for the reminder.


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Friday, April 12, 2019

"Try to Clock 'Em" - Love Symbol by the Numbers


Prince had a thing for numbers. Most people know he utilized them as shorthand for words (2 in place of two, 4 in place of for, etc.), but he also integrated them into his lyrics. And he returned to certain numbers time and time again. For example, "7" is not only the title of one of his 1992 singles, but the number can be found in songs like "Nothing Compares to U," "I Love U in Me" and "My Name is Prince."

His 2006 album, 3121, adds up to seven; he famously played three Minneapolis gigs on July 7, 2007; he charged fees of $7.77 and $77; and so on. (He was also born on June 7.)

As a tribute to this obsession, I thought I'd recap one of my favorite Prince albums, 1992's Love Symbol, by pointing out just a handful of special numbers in the lyrics.

"In the beginning, God made the sea," Prince raps on the opening track, "My Name is Prince." Perhaps one of the most recognizable Biblical phrases, "In the beginning" is written in Genesis 1:1. However, according to the text, God didn't make the sea until the third day, outlined specifically in Genesis 1:10. In his next line, Prince raps, "On the seventh day, he made me." The Bible states that God made man on the sixth day and took a break the next day. Prince pokes fun at the change; "He was trying to rest, y'all" when He heard a guitar, Prince says of God with a wink.

Prince frequently altered scripture in his lyrics. It's fascinating to consider the myriad reasons for this practice. Did he do it to inject humor, as in the example above? Did he do it to adhere to a rhyme scheme? Did he do it to convey a new message that didn't fit within the confines of Christianity? Did he even do it consciously? These are the things I think about as a nerd.

Love Symbol listeners can also learn what it takes to love Prince. On the song "Love 2 the 9's," Prince orders rapper Tony M. to give a woman a 37- part "questionnaire." While there are only 18 questions in the song (yes, I counted), there's some helpful information for the ladies out there. Among other things, you must be prepared to stay awake for 14 hours, and lie down on a bed of thorns to be with Prince. What a cake walk.

Love Symbol on CD

One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Blue Light," which finds the singer looking for common ground with his less adventurous lover. "I'll be 117, you'll be still sayin', 'Baby, not tonight,'" Prince sings. The song is one of his multiple forays into reggae-lite; others include "Ripopgodazippa," "The Sun, The Moon And The Stars," a remix of "Pink Cashmere" and, arguably, the keyboard solo on "When U Were Mine," especially the version from One Nite Alone... Live! I think that, because I like Prince so much, I'm more open to his experiments (I know he disliked that word, sorry) with other genres. In my opinion, he always found a way to make it interesting.

I think Love Symbol has a lot of songs that shouldn't work, but do. For example, "The Continental" is an amalgamation of hip-hop, honey-dipped falsetto vocals, rock guitar licks and a jazzy B section, which I love. I can tolerate the "rap" by Carmen Electra, although Prince's lyrics point more toward his future wife, Mayte Garcia. He references a woman flipping .75, or three quarters on her stomach, which is a belly dancing trick for which Garcia was known.


When it comes to his lyrics, Prince is as bold as he is quirky. It wasn't until recently that I realized he described himself as a "50-50 girl" in the song "Arrogance." Of course, people always speculated about myriad aspects of his identity, and were aware that his symbol was a combination of the male and female signs, but I can't think of another black male recording artist who made a similar public statement during the 1990s. I think it was quite revolutionary given the limited way we discussed identity 30 years ago.

In his 1996 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince said he created "another person" inside as a coping mechanism during his childhood. "We haven’t determined which sex the person is yet,” he said.

"Arrogance" also includes one of my favorite Prince lyrics: "Pimp rag, Tootsie Pop and a cane." It's a description of Prince's look at the time.


The album's highest-charting single is "7." Take a guess where it landed on the Hot 100 (you're right). In the liner notes, Prince includes the words "Revelation The Book," written backwards, beside the song, giving listeners a heads up that his source material is the Bible's Book of Revelation, which is rife with references to the number.

While Prince's dedication to Christianity is apparent, he also incorporates references to reincarnation, specifically with his lyric about being present "12 souls from now." And Garcia, who co-stars in the video, has a perspective that leans more toward Indian spirituality. In her book, The Most Beautiful, she writes about Prince slaying seven versions of himself.


Prince circles back to Genesis on "And God Created Woman," a re-telling of God's creation of Eve from Adam's rib. "Bone of my bones ... flesh of my flesh," Prince sings, echoing Genesis 2:23. At the Prince from Minneapolis SymposiumDr. Patricia McKee broke down the ways in which Prince alters the Biblical account in his lyrics. I'm hoping to include more from her paper, "'Lie down beneath my shadow with great delight': Prince interpreting biblical text through song," in my book.

A multi-genre project like Love Symbol would not be complete without an operatic near-finish; "3 Chains O' Gold" is the penultimate track that shares its name with a film starring Garcia as an Egyptian Princess. Again, it's a song that shouldn't work, but I enjoy it, especially given its squealing guitar solo.

The concluding track, "The Sacrifice of Victor," is one of Prince's most personal to date. Reflecting on his childhood, he reveals everything from his struggle with epilepsy to his experience with the Civil Rights Movement. For example, Prince sings, "In 1967 in a bus marked public schools/Rode me and a group of unsuspecting political tools."

As recently as last year, it was assumed Prince was incorrect about the year, because widespread school desegregation efforts did not begin in Minneapolis until the 1970s. However, according to research by historian Kristen Zschomler, Prince may have participated in a “voluntary urban transfer program” with approximately 79 other African-American students.

Though less operatic than "3 Chains O' Gold," the gospel-influenced "Victor" closes the album with an uplifting message: "I know joy lives 'round the corner," Prince sings. "Amen."


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