Bet you didn’t see this one coming! Well, with A Scene In Retrospect, you always have to expect the unexpected. Enough self-congratulation, though – this is about the music, and we’re bringing you another true milestone release today: Purple Rain by the one and only Prince.
Honestly, I’m a bit at a loss of words tho precede this article. After all, this is an album whose reputation rings through the music industry with almost unmatched clarity even 36 years after it was originally released. Prince continues to have an enormous impact on new generations of up-and-coming musicians with every new decade it seems, so it’s hard to overstate his place in the pantheon of pop music. ‘Iconic’ doesn’t even begin to cover Purple Rain‘s legend status. So without further ado, I’m going to yield the stage to my colleagues David and Faisal, who will share their views on the album with you below.
I find it fascinating how works of art that are largely agreed to be timeless broadly fall under two subcategories: those whose qualities are so transcendent that they’re indeterminate, and those who elevate the very best attributes of their era so that they’re too loved to be forgotten. Prince is an artist whose work has often been described as such. I believe his album Purple Rain belongs to the latter category.
For the longest time, Prince’s music was synonymous with road trip music for me. It seemed that the distinctive hooks of “1999” or “Let’s Go Crazy” always graced the airwaves – initially on 80s nostalgia radio that catered to my parents’ generation, before gradually transitioning to classic rock and oldies radio. I would say that I’ve watched Prince become a rock legend during my lifetime, but the truth is he was a legend pretty much from the moment his music first blew up. There wasn’t much of a transition.
Beyond the road trip associations, my only awareness of Prince growing up was a track called “Black Sweat” released in 2006, which failed to leave much of an impression on my metalhead teen self, who was in the throes of a regrettable heavy music elitism phase. I paid little attention to the track or the artist, and casually dismissed it all as pop trite. It was only many years later – a year before Prince’s tragic and untimely passing – that I heard the song “Alphabet Street” being played in a restaurant and quickly Shazamed the hell out of it. I needed to know who was behind this badass song. To my surprise, it was by radio staple Prince, who I then decided to finally give a fair chance. In that moment I remembered my uncle John, who’d often described Prince as a guitar virtuoso. My teen self, whose ears tuned out anything that didn’t feature downtuned guitars and distortion, wouldn’t hear anything of it. To that younger version of me, Prince was simply an 80s pop star. It turns out that my uncle and I were both right, and no point in Prince’s career demonstrates this timeless duality better than on his classic album Purple Rain.
From the opening notes of the upbeat 80s snap of radio staple “Let’s Go Crazy”, you get a good picture of what’s in store. From the track’s distinctive vocal hook of ‘oh no/let’s go’ to its epic solo and synth duel towards its end, a more fitting and explosive demonstration of Purple Rain’s unique 80s power couldn’t have been picked. It’s the perfect album sampler, and Prince’s screaming of the words ‘take me away’ that seamlessly segues into the following track “Take Me With You” is done with a flair that only Prince could credibly pull off.
It’s well-documented that the album is the accompaniment to the film of the same name, and the interwoven lyrical and stylistic choices lend the experience a certain ‘concept album’ quality. The title Purple Rain was revealed by Prince to mean: ‘When there’s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple…purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain…’ This feels fitting beyond the literal and thematic meaning, as the color purple is the brilliant result of two tempermantally opposite shades coming together as one, in much the same way that the album Purple Rain is the result of two different musical worlds blending together. It’s also the first Prince album to be billed as a collaborative record (Prince and The Revolution), and the exceptional results of this collaboration are explosively apparent on the underrated cut “Computer Blue”.
Frankly, I’ve never heard anything like it, and probably never will again. “Computer Blue” is perhaps the record’s greatest accomplishment; as a piece of a connected whole, as a representation of what that whole is, as the quintessential 80s track, as a catchy pop song, and as a proto-industrial experimental arthouse jam track. If you only hear one song off of Purple Rain, let it be “Computer Blue”.
Elsewhere, there are other songs that shine as examples of Prince doing what only he could do. Even though this album made him a pop star, he did it his way. Just take a look at Purple Rain’s ballads: “The Beautiful Ones”, for instance, almost becomes self-aware by its end, with Prince dishing out some gnarled growling vocals just in time to prevent the song from being played completely straight. Prince didn’t give a shit about your sappy radio ballad template, and I suppose that’s one of Purple Rain’s defining charms. It was a pop record that succeeded on its own terms during a hugely commercialized era of pop music. Prince dominated both worlds, had it both ways, and allowed his artistic integrity to ring through the decades.
I’m not sure if Purple Rain is Prince’s best album; I’ll leave that to the super fans to decide. But in my view, its reputation as the shining example of 80s pop excellence is well-deserved. Unequivocally a product of its time, while simultaneously casting its purple shadow over its contemporaries, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Purple Rain no longer dominates the radio waves as a timeless classic.
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life’
Many other people more qualified and eloquent than me have spoken on Prince’s legacy and artistry before, especially those with actual personal ties to him. I greatly encourage you to look up those pieces after this one. Instead, I’ll be getting into what he meant to me personally. This is gonna be a lot more stream-of-consciousness than I usually handle things, because I have a lot of Prince thoughts and they’re mostly unorganized. Still, he’s someone that’s affected my life for the better, so I hope you at least enjoy that aspect of the next few paragraphs.
I’ve actually spent a lot of time in the last few months listening to a lot of Prince, and Purple Rain is very much the most listened to with 1999 trailing closely behind. I am by no means the biggest Prince fan – I haven’t even heard all of his music because there’s a lot – but the stuff I like and am familiar with is a comfort I return to often, especially when I need an escape.
My exposure to Prince came about half my life ago. I was romantically involved with someone I shouldn’t have been, and she was a huge Prince fan, so much so that I came to associate the multi-instrumentalist and singer with her for a very long time. I listened, but didn’t take to much of it as I was in my angsty, metal-only mood from which I didn’t escape until I was in my early 20s, long after this woman wasn’t in my life anymore.
Around the time music streaming was really starting to pick up, I found my way back to Prince, which brought back some memories but also allowed me to make some of my own. One unavoidable factor of Prince is how he presented himself. Sure, he fell deep, deep into the frilled androgyny of the late 70s and 80s, but it felt like another level of human expression, alluring even those that had (or at least claimed to have) no attraction to men.
Prince, raised in the era of free love and sexual awakening, was probably the greatest byproduct of those times we could ask for. He was a man who dripped sexuality. The love and sex that he exuded and sang about didn’t feel cheap or tawdry (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it felt earned; freely given and passionate, to be enjoyed like an aphrodisiac. Though many more straightforward love songs exist in his catalog, “When Doves Cry” is one that will always and forever be one of the best. It’s turbulent, fantastical, exciting, and reflective. It feels real, laced with issues that shatter the illusion of a perfect relationship, showing the clashing of two people that may be enraptured with each other one minute and arguing the next.
‘Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry’
Maybe it says more about me than I care to admit that this exemplifies more of a realistic depiction of relationships (it also is telling of the relationship I had with the woman who introduced me to His Purpleness). The fact of the matter is the admittance, the pain of Prince singing ‘how can you just leave me standing alone in a world so cold?’ doesn’t show as much of an entitlement as it does a vulnerability. His parents divorced when he was young, much like mine did – maybe that has something to do with it. Either way, it’s something I could have stood to take more to heart at a younger age. I could have stood to learn a lot from Prince when I was younger, but I was resistant. I didn’t listen.
Maybe if I saw – and actually watched – how Prince lived, how he presented himself, I would have gotten a better grip on expression, masculinity, and sexuality early on. I could’ve taken the good, acknowledged the bad (there’s some stories and allegations that don’t exactly paint him in the best light), and become a better person earlier.
If I’m making this too much about me, then I apologize – when it comes to Prince, it’s personal. To get back on track and to the topic at hand, Purple Rain is one of my favorite albums ever. He’s a viciously underrated guitarist, flourishing just as vibrantly and flamboyantly as his personality did. The sonics and mixes of the songs, something he was very protective and controlling over, are very meticulous. There’s a cutting sorrow in songs like the title track or “When Doves Cry”, one that punctures far beyond the usual heartbroken fare. The playfulness of songs like “Computer Blue” or the afterlife-bound celebration of “Let’s Go Crazy” work hand-in-hand over the countless retellings of his grand, opulent, entertaining parties. Because that’s what he was: an entertainer, and one of the best ones to do it. A combination of his artistry and what he’s grown to mean to me, especially since he passed in 2016, is what has made this the only A Scene In Retrospect piece I can remember actively crying during writing. Weird to miss someone you never met, huh?
Prince was one of the most enigmatic musicians – likely people period – to walk the earth. There’s so many stories of his deliberately mystifying personality chronicled by others like the legendary basketball story told by the late Charlie Murphy about how he got washed on the court by the entirety of The Revolution for Chappelle’s Show, or other events of extravagant happenstance traded back and forth by people like Talib Kweli and Anthony Anderson. He was almost arcane in how he worked, capable of staring storms in the face and conjuring up one of his own on stage. There will never be another like him. I’m so thankful that he shined as brightly and bravely as he did, paving the way for some of my favorite artists like Janelle Monae and Yves Tumor, musicians that may not exist without Prince’s trailblazing ways. Much like the Love Symbol he created and came to be associated with (literally as his performance name at one point in his career, in one of the trolliest, pettiest moves against his domineering record label of the time), he’s an icon.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Purple Rain? Are you a fan of Prince, and if so, what’s your favorite album of his? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!