Friday, August 30, 2019

"The Color of the Pharaoh's Hand" - Prince's Moses References (Pt. 2)

Earlier this year, I did a blog post on Prince's references to the Biblical prophet Moses. I suspected it wasn't a comprehensive list, and some fans pointed out a couple allusions I'd missed. And as I continue to study Prince's spiritual development for my book, I gain greater clarity about his lyrics.

With that said, here are a few more references--and one correction--on a list that I would bet is still incomplete.

"Chelsea Rodgers" (2007): Amendment

Last time, I misinterpreted the following lyric from the Planet Earth album: “Moses was a pharaoh in the 18th Dynasty.” I explained that Prince could be referring to Thutmose III or Amenmesse (or Amenmose).

However, it is more likely a reference to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. According to his former wife, Mayte Garcia, Prince felt a connection to the ruler. He reportedly read the book, Akhenaten: King of Egypt, and included the pharaoh's name in a hidden message in the video for the “The One” in 1998. Prince also, arguably, referenced the pharaoh in the 2001 song, “Muse 2 the Pharaoh.”

Given that Akhenaten rejected Egyptian religious tradition and attempted to persuade the people to embrace monotheism, he has been linked with Abrahamic religions. Some scholars (including Sigmund Freud) believe he mentored Moses, who presented the Israelites with the Ten Commandments--which includes the instruction, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

Others believe Akhenaten was Moses. That is a theory Prince may have supported.

“Revelation” (2015)

Prince arguably connects Moses and Akhenaten again on this song from the HitnRun Phase Two album.

“Through English glamour, casting a spell/Though Hebrew, Greek and Roman hell,” he sings. “Higher 'til we overstand, the color of the pharoah's hand.”

“What that’s about is Moses,” Prince said in his 2015 interview with Ebony, referencing the Biblical book of Exodus, chapter four, verse six. According to the passage, God showed Moses miraculous signs. Following God's instructions, Moses put his hand in his cloak, pulled it out, and noticed it was "leprous, like snow."

“What color was it before he put it in?” Prince asked in the interview. “So now we can start talking about that stuff. We couldn’t do that until you had a [black] president. Couldn’t do that until hip-hop.”

One could interpret this statement as Prince’s commentary on the whitewashing of Biblical figures. And by calling Moses “pharaoh” in the song, he may once again be alluding to the similarities between the prophet and Akhenaten.

It’s a school of thought rooted in Afrocentricity, a movement that highlighted the contributions of ancient African civilizations, with a heavy focus on Egypt. Proponents of the movement preferred to call the country by its native name, km.t.

At its height in the ‘90s, Afrocentricity was being introduced in the school system, from kindergarten to college, to the delight and dismay of different groups, depending on their viewpoint.

A review of Prince’s statements, lyrics and affiliations over time indicates he was very much steeped in Afrocentricty (more on that in my book).

“The first time I saw a person of color in a book, the person was hung from a tree,” Prince said in a 1996 interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, emphasizing the need for a more expansive education system. “That was my introduction to African-American history in this country.”

Exodus (1995)

Though this album was attributed to the New Power Generation, Prince was heavily involved in the project — one of the first to be released independent of Warner Bros. In the Bible, the book of Exodus details the story of Moses and the Israelites' exit from Egypt. Prince is using that allusion to articulate, not only his freedom from his own limitations under contract with the record label, but his desire for the liberation of black artists, historically mistreated by the music industry.

"It really was him talking about where things were with these record companies," NPG keyboard player Morris Hayes said in an interview with the Peach and Black Podcast. "I think that was his clarion call, like, 'You've got to know how we as artists are being stifled.'"

And just as black people used spirituals, including “Go Down, Moses,” as codes for their liberation from slavery, Prince utilized religious imagery in his songs to imagine “new worlds,” or better economic and social conditions for black people, according to scholars.

Even the cover art of the Exodus album can be interpreted as Afrofuturism imagery.

“Return of the Bump Squad” (1995)

I welcome interpretations of this funk, gospel-infused jam from the Exodus album. It seems to be a hodgepodge of rock-star cockiness, anti-music industry sentiment, a sprinkle of rap shade and bits of Biblical imagery.

Sonny T. references Moses' journey to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai) and desire to pass through the land of Edom in a spoken-word section at the end of the song.

"And the people spake against God and against Moses," he said. "Wherefore have ye brought us up to Egypt to die in the wilderness?"

It seems Prince wanted to lead everyone to a land of artistic freedom, spiritual redemption and "real music."

"U best get your house in order," Sonny T. adds. "And get back in the music books."

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Friday, August 23, 2019

"Acknowledge Me" - The Time Outshines Prince in Columbus

Much like Victor Frankenstein, Prince created a monster he could not control.

In 1981, Prince formed The Time, a vehicle to get even more of his music out to the world. But the funk outfit, led by the charismatic Morris Day, became a rival for attention and success.

"To this day, they’re the only band I’ve ever been afraid of," Prince famously told Rolling Stone in 1990.

According to Dez Dickerson, Prince's guitarist at the time, the friendly competition escalated into something more, especially as The Time desired more control.

"It just turned out to be more restrictive for them than they would have liked," Dickerson wrote in his book, My Time With Prince. "Prince, I believe, felt he created the band for a specific purpose, and the members were the actors he cast in his play."

Despite that tension, The Time put on dynamic performances that, for some, proved more entertaining than Prince's shows. A prime example is Prince's 1999 tour stop in my town of Columbus, Ohio.

The Columbus Dispatch gushed about The Time's opening set, but called Prince a "letdown." The publication had an even harsher perspective of opener Vanity 6.

Here's the review of the 1982 concert, re-posted with permission from The Columbus Dispatch. (Click on the image to expand.)

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Friday, August 16, 2019

"However Much U Want" - Review of "Child of the Sun"

Chances are, if you were a woman in Prince's life, you heard three magic words: "Do you sing?"

He may have used recording as part of his courting process. He may have been inspired by your voice. He may have been inspired by your beauty. Whatever the reason, he wanted to center an album around you.

Shortly after they met, Prince asked Mayte Garcia the magical question. A trained belly dancer since the age of 3, Garcia knew her strength was in movement. But she humored Prince and recorded the song, "However Much U Want." Four years later, in 1995, it was added to Garcia's debut album, Child of the Sun.

"I loved him all the more for being so supportive," Garcia wrote in her book, The Most Beautiful, "but my calling was to dance, and as I evolved as an artist, I was getting more and more interested in directing and editing."

Garcia admitted the album was actually fun. As a listener, you can tell it was a pleasant experience for Prince, too.

The project is intriguing to me because it was an outgrowth of their shared connection to Egypt. Garcia had performed there growing up, and Prince had begun to experiment with Arabic music prior to meeting her. Together, they imagined past lives in Egypt, and their love inspired Prince to create a mythic story, which unfolded on the 1992 Love Symbol album and in the 1994 3 Chains O' Gold short film.

Visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, they learned about Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and queen Nerfertiti--"We felt connected to them in a way we couldn’t explain," Garcia said--and that the people were called "children of the sun" by some. But that was a few years after Child of the Sun was released, leading them to believe the album title was a divine foreshadowing.

While the album is not a masterpiece, some of the music is quite enjoyable. Prince doubles many of Garcia's vocals, which makes me long to hear the original demos. They both get assistance from the NPG musicians and other contributors.

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Given that Mayte is such a beautiful, charismatic dancer, I don't think it's a stretch to say she could have been molded into a solo artist like Jennifer Lopez.

By managing Robin Power and Carmen Electra in the early '90s, Prince was ahead of the trend of glamorous, sexually forward female rappers that would follow. Similarly, with Garcia, he was ahead of the "Latin pop explosion" of the late '90s. (He even considered naming Garcia's album Latino Barbie Doll.)

However, all of the women may have fared better if Prince brought in producers who could craft stronger hip-hop and pop tracks--and write better rap verses--to be competitive in the industry. That isn't to say that Prince's work isn't interesting, but it sounds too much like Prince.

Furthermore, Prince seemed to project his thoughts and values onto his proteges without giving them agency. Writer Ann Powers said it best in her review of Love Symbol for the New York Times: "The women who decorate Prince's epics also act primarily as vessels for their mentor's overflowing creativity," she wrote. "His only clear agenda ... is his devotion to an ideal that he himself embodies."

The femininity he expresses through the music is an element of his own psyche, she added.

And by listening to Child of the Sun, I can't say I have a proper window into Garcia's true personality.

Even if Prince had enlisted other producers, the album would not have made it to the U.S. market. Prince and Warner Bros. were in the midst of a public contract dispute, and the label refused to release the project. As a result, it was only available in Europe on NPG Records.

All that aside, the album is fun to listen to, and Prince even left some hidden messages next to each song in the liner notes.

Read on for my track-by-track review.

1. Children of the Sun

Hidden Text: Dance Party

I dig this track! This sets the tone for the album, which, in part, explores a '90s dance sound. I can imagine an instrumental version of this track opening a movie set in a busy city. I also love the piano part, the chant--"If your tears need company, this party ain't the one"--and Prince's "Yeah-hoo! Yeah-hoo!" backing vocals. It wouldn't be out of place on the Batman soundtrack.

2. In Your Gracious Name

Hidden Text: Prayer

This song reminds me of "Love, Thy Will Be Done," which Prince composed for singer Martika, based on a prayer she'd written. However, this track is a bit more upbeat. Instead of personifying god with the word "love," the song uses "glory." It also mentions "past lives," a sign that Prince was interested in thinking about reincarnation, while maintaining some of his traditional Christian beliefs.

3. If Eye Love U 2Night

Hidden Text: Sex

Prince really wanted to achieve a quiet storm sound. He would try again later with protege Bria Valente's 2009 album, Elixir. Compared to Garcia, Valente's voice is a bit more malleable and soulful. However, I truly believe Garcia's version of this track could have been a hit in the U.S. Prince originally penned the song in 1979 for Gayle Chapman. (Watch her recent live version here.) Next, he gave it to singer Mica Paris, who included it on her album, Contribution (I'm getting Chaka Khan vibes from her rendition). I'm not a fan of Prince's pattern of recycling music among proteges. With that said, he brilliantly reworked this song to better embody a mid-90s sound for Garcia.

4. The Rhythm of Your Heart

Hidden Text: Youth Culture

This dance track is pretty forgettable except for the part by the horn players. The verses are trivial, but the chorus is catchy and cute: "Shine like the sun/Laugh like the rain .... Try to stay happy on the darkest day." The vibe is clearly "Uncle Prince" encouraging young people, and I do like that.

5. Ain't No Place Like U

Hidden Text: Industrial Love

I'm really proud of myself for labeling this song "industrial" before I saw Prince's message in the liner notes. This is one of the best songs on the album due to his guitar playing. (See if you recognize the drum pattern.) According to, the song was also recorded by Jevetta Steele, but that version was never released.

6. House of Brick (Brick House)

Hidden Text: Mighty Mayte

I'm not even mad. Prince wisely took advantage of the "Mighty Mayte" play on words while covering this Commodores hit. I get such a kick out of hearing Prince imitate Walter Orange's vocal inflection, and I like how Kirk Johnson added Latin percussion to better suit the sound of the album.

7. Love's No Fun

Hidden Text: 2 Whom It May Concern

This is another recycled track. Elisa Fiorillo Dease has the better version. Fun fact: this one features an appearance by Mike Scott on acoustic guitar.

8. Baby Don't Care

Hidden Text: Have Dog, Will Stray

"Gloria Estefan, Mayte's in the house," Prince sings on the most Latin-sounding track on the album. I'm not feeling it. Prince's Latin interludes on some of his songs are more enjoyable. Again, this would have been an opportunity for him to bring in another producer to compete with artists like Estefan. Side note: I can't get over Troy Byer doing the speaking part in a Spanish accent.

9. However Much U Want

Hidden Text: Do It

There's backmasking at the beginning of the track, because Prince. This is really the only Arabic-style song on the album, which surprised me. Overall, it's interesting because of its self-actualization message. Prince really believed we could manifest anything in our lives.

10. Mo Betta

Hidden Text: Wetter

Because of the title, I was expecting a cool, sensual, modern (for that time) R&B track. Instead, I got saccharine pop ballad that isn't even that sexy.

11. If Eye Love U 2Night (Spanish version)

Hidden Text: Spanish Vibe

Now I'm remembering when the "Spanish version" of a hit pop song was a thing you'd see (hi, Christina Aguilera). Prince was a smart businessman. I'm kinda mad at Warner Bros. for hamstringing this project because they could have gotten an international hit out of this song.

12. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

Hidden Text: Beautiful Experience

I'm not sure why this was a thing. It is fascinating to think of how often Prince switched the perspectives of his songs for proteges. For example, a little birdie told me Bria Valente's "Another Boy" was once "Another Girl" ...

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Friday, August 9, 2019

"High-Class Model ... Over in Paris, France" - Interview with Tracy Hudson

"It was like he was looking into your soul."

Tracy Hudson with NPG rapper Tony M.
Photo courtesy of Tracy Hudson.
Prince wants to play you a tape or CD of his new music. How do you react? Smile and enthusiastically bob your head to the beat? Offer constructive criticism? Ask questions about his songwriting process?

Record label executives and journalists weren't the only ones put in this predicament. Prince was known to play material for colleagues, friends, girlfriends and others--usually in the car.

Former model Tracy Hudson took her turn nearly 30 years ago on an airplane.

"He had asked me to listen to versions of [a song] to see which one that I liked," said Hudson, who now owns her own business, Tracy Hudson Skin Care, in Los Angeles. "I remember I was super nervous."

That's about all she can recall of the moment, one of many she was able to spend with the late superstar. He booked her for music videos, including "Insatiable" and "Sexy M.F.," as well as photo shoots.

"Initially, he was contacting me through L.A. Models," she said. "Then, he asked to just call me directly to book me, which was really great. I think it was the 'Insatiable' video that we did first."

Released in 1991, the "Insatiable" video finds Prince making a sexy tape with a love interest. Hudson wasn't in the starring role--that honor went to Barbara Lee--but you can spot her among the dozen other women who joined in for the filmmaking fun.

Hudson had a bigger role in 1992's "Sexy M.F.," shot at Paisley Park Studios. At the beginning of the video, Prince lures her and two other women--Robin Power Royal and Troy Byer--away from a group of rivals. According to Hudson, cast members slept on the premises. She recalled the sight--and sound--of Prince's cane as he rapped on their doors, waking them up for a 6 a.m. call time.

"He was fully dressed," she said. "He had a suit on, and his hair was done and his heels were on and his makeup was on. He was almost like Willy Wonka. He was just super happy and ready to shoot."

Hudson said the experience was a lot of fun because of Prince's sense of humor.

"He was always cracking jokes and just kept us in stitches," she said. "He was very specific about his creative vision, but at the same time, he was a great to work with."

Hudson began her modeling career at 19, when she moved from Los Angeles to Europe. On her first day overseas, she signed with a prestigious agency. By her second day, she'd booked a campaign. She went on to work in runway shows and commercials, and appear in publications like Vogue Italia and Elle Greece.

She worked with Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks--both part of the popular supermodel era of the '80s and '90s.

"It was a great time," Hudson said. "It was great money. ... There was probably a bit more prestige associated with it. Now, you don't really know models' names and faces as much as you did then."

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Hudson has starred in a multitude of music videos for other artists; she singles out Eric Benét's "Femininity" as a favorite. The photo shoots she did for Prince were promoting his band, the New Power Generation (NPG).

"One time he had this huge dog that he had me straddle," she said. "They were always really provocative pictures."
Photo courtesy of Tracy Hudson.
Hudson will always remember Prince as warm, friendly and generous. And he was reserved and contemplative as much as he was funny.

"You kind of always stayed off-balance a little bit," she said. "Sometimes there were these really quiet moments where he'd just stare at you really deeply and intensely. ... It was like he was looking into your soul."

Highlighting stories like Hudson's are important as we unpack the full extent of Prince's legacy, including his elevation of black women--a detail that has been overlooked by many journalists, scholars and people in the fan community.

"I remember thinking it was really cool that he took notice of this little chocolate girl," Hudson said.

Follow Tracy Hudson on Instagram @tracyhudsonskincare.

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Friday, August 2, 2019

"And God Created Woman" - Prince and Roger Vadim

"What is it with the recurring homages to Roger Vadim?"

You can almost visualize Los Angeles Times writer Chris Willman pulling out tufts of his hair while writing a review of Prince's 1992 album, Love Symbol. Finding the project "silly and self-indulgent," Willman was no longer impressed with Prince's style of intermingling the sexual with the spiritual.

"Formerly a horny boy Gnostic of fascinatingly obsessive proportions, he now seems like just another confused Peter Pan with Playboy on the brain and a Bible in the hotel drawer," Willman wrote.

Well, alright.

I disagree with Willman's broad brush of criticism; I actually think Love Symbol is one of Prince's best albums of the '90s. Additionally, the project is an intriguing look at Prince's exploration beyond traditional Christian beliefs. However, journalists did not have enough time or interest to pick apart his references to reincarnation and the third eye--not to mention the complex gender expression of the symbol, which would soon become his name.

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However, I can't say I quite understand Prince's fascination with Roger Vadim, the French writer and director whose career took off in the 1950s and ended just before his death in the 2000s. On Love Symbol, Prince's song, "And God Created Woman," is the same title of Vadim's 1956 movie, which made actress and fashion icon Brigitte Bardot a star.

And during the previous year, Prince debuted a new fashion style, "GangsterGlam," which he explained as "Godfather III meets Barbarella."

The movie "Godfather III" was released in 1990--around the time Prince was making the Diamonds and Pearls and Love Symbol albums--but "Barbarella," starring Jane Fonda, was a science fiction comedy Vadim made in 1968.

Prince even christened his keyboard player with the name "Tommy Barbarella."

"He was into the movie at the time," Barbarella told MPLS St. Paul magazine. "I don't know why, [maybe] style-wise. This is a guy who on airplanes would read a lot of fashion magazines. He was always on the cutting-edge of fashion and Paris shows."

Prince and his band, the NPG, paid homage to the gangster film by wearing suits, suspenders and fedoras. The influence of "Barbarella" is more apparent, to me, in the visuals associated with his female dancers and protégés, Diamond, Pearl and Carmen Electra.

Both films are rooted in the erotic, which was a trademark of Vadim's art. Prince, whose early work was the catalyst for the "Parental Advisory" label on albums, could obviously relate. And Prince showed his affinity for France by filming his own movie, "Under the Cherry Moon," there.

Like Prince, Vadim had romances with many of his female colleagues; he married both Bardot and Fonda, and dated actress Catherine Deneuve. Unlike Prince, Vadim did not always keep his personal life private. He penned a book about his relationships called Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda.

After watching both movies for the first time this week, I can say Barbarella" is much more entertaining. I understand the impact "And God Created Woman" made when taken in historical context of female representation on film. For example, Vadim once said, "I wanted to show a normal young girl whose only difference was that she behaved in the way a boy might, without any sense of guilt on a moral or sexual level."

However, I wanted to see a more fully realized role for Bardot's "Juliette" character. Other than her love for animals--Bardot is an animal activist in real life--I didn't get any sense of Juliette's aspirations. And, as to be expected in a 1950s movie, there was an uncomfortable, racially charged scene. Toward the end of the movie, the "demon-driven temptress" rebels by dancing with darker-skinned Cuban musicians. (Side note: Bardot has a history of inciting racism in real life, but that's another blog post.)

In my opinion, "And God Created Woman" has an air too serious for a plot that thin. On the other hand, "Barbarella" is a film fully aware of its camp and ridiculousness. With a lesser actress, it would have failed, but Fonda's acting and comedic timing are terrific. I found myself cackling out loud.

Prince also seemed to be amused by the "tongue box," a device that converted a person's speech into English as they were talking, which Barbarella used in the film. In a skit on the Love Symbol album, Prince mentions he has "a special phone, a tongue box."

I would also bet money that the "little box with a mirror and a tongue inside," which Prince mentions on the song "Gett Off," is a perversion of the tongue box concept, but who knows?

As for Prince's song, "And God Created Woman," it doesn't reference the film. Instead, it's a compelling retelling--and, arguably, a subversion--of Biblical scripture.

Hopefully, other scholars will take a deeper dive into Prince, Vadim, Bardot and Fonda in the context of fashion, female beauty standards and feminism.

I'd also be happy if Prince's former loved ones talked more about what it was like to watch an old movie with him.

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