Friday, November 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your favorite tracks on Chaos and Disorder? 

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Friday, November 20, 2020

"The Exodus Has Begun" - Black Magnolias Literary Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, November 13, 2020

"Tick, Tick, Bang" - Song of the Month

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

"Like this chain around my hip, I want a 24-karat relationship." Me too, Prince. Me too. Hearing that line reminds me of when my sister and I re-watched Graffiti Bridge in 2004. We laughed and reminisced about the movie, which was a major part of our childhood. I remember my sister emphasizing this particular line when we were watching the "Tick, Tick, Bang" performance--one of the best in the film. I think I started loving this song after discovering she loved it; I guess I still want to be like my big sis. We were cracking up watching Prince do his best choreography as members of The Time--his rivals--looked bored. For years I assumed that, because my sister loved this movie, she was a Prince fan; earlier this year, she admitted she respected him but wasn't into a lot of his music. Anyhow, we'll always have "Tick, Tick, Bang." I chuckle thinking about how much I gravitate toward the filthiest song on an album that is largely spiritual and an important part of Prince's religious journey. It's another song he wrote at the beginning of his career (1981) and then brilliantly updated; he transformed it from a punk tune to a '90s, hip-hop-inspired ditty. I love the guitar, and I think the way he arranges the sound effects and vocals is supremely creative. Thanks to PrinceVault, I learned Prince sampled drums from Jimi Hendrix's "Little Miss Lover," which reminds me that I really need to write (or commission) a Hendrix-related post on my blog. I'm also disappointed I didn't know this when I did my samples quiz last year. 

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Friday, November 6, 2020

"Walkin' in Glory" - Some Thoughts on "Sign O' the Times" + Spirituality

I suppose this is my official return to the blog after missing a few weeks due to, well, have you been paying attention to 2020? In addition to coping with the pandemic, presidential election (at the time of publication, we still didn't know who won) and being Black following the death of George Floyd, I have been hard at work on some lengthy journalism assignments. 

I investigated the increase in gun violence this summer and returned to my hometown to talk to about the election. Later this month, I'll publish a nine-part series on systemic racism.

As a heads up -- I'll be taking another break in December to have surgery and recover. But I think I'm going to schedule some "throwback" posts while I'm gone. 

With all that said, I hope everyone is still enjoying the Sign O' the Times Super Deluxe. I figured I'd share some thoughts on spirituality before I move on to other things. 

When I think about this album and this time period, Prince's father, John L. Nelson, comes to mind. In fact, I wish he were a greater part of the narrative. It will take some people speaking up and then actually being given a platform to share their stories about Nelson, who influenced both Prince's jazz sound and his religious leanings.

When I hear Prince's famous words in 1986, "We're on the brink of something ... strict and wild and pretty," thoughts of his father's discipline, combined with his mother's spontaneity, come to mind. Prince discusses this dichotomy briefly in his memoir. Specifically, Prince talks about the ways in which his father's religious principles contributed to his life of order and self-sufficiency--qualities Prince admired.

"This man read the Bible daily. And if he needed something, no matter what it was, he would make it himself. ... Religion is about self-development. That's all it is." - Prince, The Beautiful Ones

It's no surprise that, as Prince and his father were enjoying a period of camaraderie, Prince's music was becoming more blatantly religious. Sign O' the Times' "The Cross" was his most direct expression of Christian faith on one of his own studio albums at that point. I think because he still didn't say the name Jesus (that would come just a year later on Lovesexy), it's more digestible for fans who aren't Christians. Plus, it's a great rocker! 

When I was an undergraduate student at Northern Kentucky University, I took a biography class and wrote about Prince's spirituality, naturally. I ended up presenting my work via a display in the library, where I set up a listening station. I included "The Cross" on the playlist, and I'll never forget a woman crying after hearing the song for the first time.  

Printout from presentation (2008)

Prince expresses his spiritual growth through his songs about relationships on Sign O' the Times; he promotes the joy of monogamous, love-based unions, and explores some of his shortcomings and contradictions. I broke this down last month with my #PrinceTwitterThread about the song "Forever in My Life." 

During the Sign O' the Times era, journalists acknowledged Prince's religion, but had no desire to investigate it as it was presented on the album. And they continued to minimize its complexity. The album also failed to reach the level of success of Prince's earlier projects. We often here that Prince didn't care about commercial achievement, but it simply isn't true. It wasn't lost on him that his sales were decreasing as his music was becoming more spiritual, and we can see his struggle to reconcile that with the Black Album saga that would play out later that year. 

“He’s developed an urge to make big social and mystical statements, which usually come out confused; Prince is no deep thinker.”  - Jon Pareles, New York Times, 1987

The Vault tracks on the Sign O' the Times Super Deluxe release only solidify where Prince's faith was at the time. It is a pleasure to hear Prince do straight-ahead gospel on the previously unreleased track "Walkin' in Glory," which was recorded on a Sunday. I'm also glad people like his engineer at the time, Susan Rogers, are speaking more about his pattern of "repenting" by recording holy songs at the same time as his risqué tunes. Prince had a complex relationship with the sacred and profane, and was continuously refining what he believed about the intersection of the two. It is not surprising to me that he used the music from "Glory" for "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton" on the explicit Black Album--or that a party song like "The Ball" could be transformed into a religious song like "Eye No." 

"Sex is the door-opener. Once you open the door …” - Prince, 1997

If Prince had released "Walkin' in Glory" or the song "Crystal Ball" at this time, it would have been the first time people heard the name Jesus on an official project. That's why hearing him say, "Save me, Jesus" on "Anna Stesia" in 1988 is so impactful. It's interesting to think about how and why he made the decision to finally declare his faith in that manner; I'm sure his spiritual awakening prior to the Lovesexy album played a large role. 

The whole concept of "signs of the times" can be found in the Bible, as Jesus explains the markers of his return. (And we know Prince was obsessed with the concept of the "Second Coming.") Prince may have even been inspired by the Seventh-day Adventist publication Signs of the Times, which he may have read in his childhood church. And his father wasn't the only religious person in his circle; I interviewed a few people--including Jehovah's Witnesses--who were sharing their beliefs with Prince during this time. Let's pray I get to share those, and my book, soon.  

"For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places." - Matthew 24:7

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