Friday, April 19, 2019
Friday, April 12, 2019
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.
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 Symposium, Dr. 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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Friday, April 5, 2019
Last weekend, I had the honor of participating in the Prince Batdance Symposium--a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Prince's Batman soundtrack--at Spelman college. I moderated a panel of scholars presenting on Prince's image and style. It's hard to believe this was the fourth Prince conference I've attended in two years. It never gets stale, though.
Here are my top four takeaways from the event.
1) Prince's powerful, ongoing impact on his employees, friends and fans
Day one of the symposium featured a live interview with Chuck Zwicky, Prince's engineer during the late 1980s. There were many gems in the conversation, including a funny story about the song "Shall We Dance," which ultimately went to Prince's bass player, Brown Mark.
I also enjoyed hearing Zwicky's opinion of Prince's song, "Xtraloveable." He remembered complimenting Prince on the early version, but was disappointed when Prince re-cut it into a "Vegas tune." Additionally, Zwicky offered interesting commentary on the way Prince recorded background vocals; he said Prince seemed to place more of an emphasis on creating "different personalities," rather than perfect harmonies.
|Symposium creator De Angela Duff with Chuck Zwicky|
I appreciated hearing Zwicky's candor regarding Paisley Park; he feels it should be a working studio rather than a museum.
But above all, I was most affected by Zwicky's recounting of a "lucid dream" he had about Prince prior to the symposium. In the last few weeks, I've heard two other people who knew Prince talk about him sending them messages through dreams.
Though people like Zwicky haven't worked for Prince for 30 years, they still seem very much connected to him. It really speaks to Prince's boundless influence across time and distance.
Additional info: See @darlingnisi's #Batdance30ATL Day 1 Twitter moment
2) The significance of centering Prince scholarship at a historically black college
My older sister attended some of the symposium on day two. As she was explaining how nice it felt to be at Spelman, I had a realization: I was completely comfortable during the entire weekend. I was not consciously aware of my blackness as I typically am in almost every other environment, because most of the scholars looked like me.
By hosting the event at a HBCU and including black scholars, it was virtually guaranteed that presenters would be comfortable and knowledgeable enough to incorporate Prince's blackness into their discussions. That is extremely significant for two reasons. One: Prince's blackness was important to him, and informed many of his artistic, charitable and political decisions. Two: Much of what has been published about Prince excludes this aspect of his humanity and art.
|Captured from a presentation by Kamilah Cummings|
|Dereca Blackmon presents "Two Become One - Prince and the Integration of Self"|
A standout moment for me was when Dereca Blackmon referenced the 1981 New York Times article, "Is Prince leading Music to a True Biracism?" I've cited this piece as evidence of the racism Prince faced entering the music industry. For example, the writer, Robert Palmer, states: "The fact that white rock fans and radio stations have tended to banish him to the black music ghetto says more about racism in contemporary pop music circles than it does about Prince's songs or his presentation."
I've noted that, while Palmer is being complimentary, he is doing so under the false impression that Prince is biracial, and implies that this identity has informed Prince's fusion of "black and white music," and thus his success. Of course that is all very problematic--and demonstrates why Prince lied about his heritage--but Blackmon took it a step further.
"This is an example of the white gaze because of the construct of black music being a ghetto ... instead of a fountain of influence for all types of music," she said.
Additional info: See @darlingnisi's #Batdance30ATL Day 2 Twitter moment; See Scott Woods' essay, "Reclaiming the Black Prince"; See Muse 2 the Pharaoh: Unpacking Race in the Legacy of Prince
One reason Prince conferences never get boring is because they always teach me something and reveal just how much more there is to study. That is because Prince, as my friend Joy Ellison put it, is "so vast."
Dr. Karen Turman's presentation on "Symbols and Silhouettes in Prince's Fashion" included so many fascinating details, from key designers and dress historians to translations of Japanese characters on his costumes. And I'm planning to read Monica Miller's writing on black dandyism!
|Captured from a presentation by Dr. Karen Turman|
Speaking of clothing, Christopher Daniel talked about two designers I'd never heard of: Louis and Vaughn. They created the 1999/Purple Rain-era ruffles look for Prince, but I'd only ever read about Marie Frances' work during that era. I can't wait to research them!
|Captured from Christopher Daniel's presentation, "The Latest Fashion: Revisiting the Relationship Between Prince's Discography and Costuming From 'For You' to 'Batman'"|
4) The joy of being around purple family
Since presenting at the Purple Reign Conference at the University of Salford in 2017, I've met and kept in touch with so many wonderful prince scholars and fans. It was great to reunite with them at the Batdance Symposium. It truly is a family, and being around them lifted my spirits after a rough week back home.
I feel that Robin Power Royal, who worked for Prince in the late '80s and early '90s, put it so eloquently:
"People that are Prince fans, once they come into contact with other Prince fans, it’s an automatic love," she said. "If you love Prince and I love Prince, then we should be able to love each other. And that’s a beautiful thing."
|Symposium creator De Angela Duff (center) with the Image & Style panel|
|The Batman Soundtrack/Nude Tour Roundtable discussion panel|
|From left: Purple Reign Conference co-organizer Dr. Kirsty Fairclough, me and Dr. Karen Turman|
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