Happy 25th Anniversary to Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls, originally released October 1, 1991.
Between 1981 and 1988, it was almost impossible to fault the output of the late Prince Rogers Nelson. From the small but perfectly formed new wave funk of Dirty Mind to the euphoric proto-gospel stylings of Lovesexy, he rode a wave of critical acclaim and artistic endeavor equaled by precious few others.
But the dazzling golden sheen had begun to tarnish by the time Diamonds and Pearls emerged in October 1991. His hastily concocted Batman soundtrack failed to fully satisfy and the patchy, self-mythologizing Purple Rain follow up Graffiti Bridge hit occasional regal heights amidst a sea of mediocrity, leaving him (according to some) in dire need of a hit album.
And that is exactly what emerged from Minneapolis in the fall of 1991. An album that persuaded Warner Brothers to offer a huge recording contract to Prince (at that point, one of the biggest ever). An album that offered hit after hit after hit. But also, and perhaps most importantly, an album that marked a watershed moment in the development of the artist forever known as Prince.
Diamonds and Pearls revealed a different Prince entirely from the one who had dominated the ‘80s. Just as moments on Graffiti Bridge had mimicked new jack swing, so here Prince hesitantly embraced rap music by adding Tony Mosley to his new band, the New Power Generation. Given Prince’s prior feelings about rappers aired so snarkily on the Black Album’s “Dead On It,” it is impossible to read Tony M’s inclusion as anything other than an attempt to garner mainstream hits. That those hits actually materialized has more to do with Prince’s supreme penmanship than any tagged-on-rapper elements and, in truth, these contributions provided a sometimes unwelcome distraction from the quality on offer throughout the rest of the album.
The other major change lay in the band that Prince put together. Throughout the ‘80s, though members joined and left fairly fluidly, the lineup was unquestionably diverse of race, gender and sexuality. This first iteration of the NPG though was overwhelmingly male and heterosexual. Sure the honeyed tones of Rosie Gaines played their part, but her aside, it was straight men all the way. Michael Bland’s thunderous drumming was perfect for a production informed as much by hip-hop as anything else. Sonny Thompson’s bass playing bought the funk and Tommy Barbarella’s sanctified organ work swirled throughout the mix, with both having an effect on the unbridled sexuality that had always run through Prince’s work.
Up till this point, even his most explicit songs (give or take the Black Album) had an impudent adolescent sexuality about them. Don’t forget that this is the man who only wanted to “Feel U Up,” a man who wanted only your extra time and your “Kiss.” What Diamonds and Pearls lacked in this cheeky, knowing sexuality, it made up for with bold, carnal desires fully and explicitly expressed. “Gett Off” was the lead single and its exhortation to “23 positions in a one night stand” was a lightning conduit for rampant male sexuality, unfettered by the playful androgyny of the past.
What also became clear was the amount of effort Prince expended in selling this album. Videos galore abounded. Remixes of singles came in half dozens (we see you “Violet The Organ Grinder”) and TV appearances came at regular intervals, all with the express aim of selling the bejesus out of the product. The videos were hardly small scale set pieces either. “Gett Off” was a bacchanalian orgy of sinuous writhing, phalanxes of seductive dancers and Prince looking like the cat that got the “Cream.” The money and effort dripped from the screen. It could hardly be said his heart wasn’t in it.
All of which might lead you to believe that the album didn’t merit the attention and sales it racked up. But underneath it all ran the same winning combination of sexed-up funk, breathless balladry and sacred musings. But how does it measure up 25 years down the line?
The biggest hits on the album still resonate two and half decades later. The title track’s fairy tale fanfares, sizeable doses of pomp and the delicious interplay between Gaines’ and Prince’s voices serve up an undeniably touching ballad that delicately and deftly walks the line between sweet and saccharine. “The oft-repeated tale of “Cream”’s composition (written by Prince as he stared in the mirror) doesn’t lessen the impact of its swaggering braggadocio years later and the no-holds barred, ribald, grinding funk of “Gett Off” has zero subtlety and maximum sex. It positively radiates pheromones. Yet beyond these three massive singles lie less heralded beauties that deserve revisiting on this 25th anniversary.
Album opener “Thunder” rumbles into earshot on a wave of multilayered vocals and typically sterling guitar and sitar work. As some would have it, this was his account of the night he shelved the Black Album at the last moment—a battle for his very soul no less. And who else would start an album of undeniable raunchiness with a gospel-tinged chorus of seeing “Jesus in the morning light?”
Also worth revisiting is “Strollin,’” with its perky, George Benson-esque guitar and some characteristically impish talk of stolen afternoons and dirty magazines. Equally intriguing is “Willing and Able”’s gospel-delic organ stabs and spiraling vocals courtesy of Prince, Gaines and gospel vocal group the Steeles. “Walk Don’t Walk” is the kind of unfathomable, indescribable track that only Prince could put together—car horns, sha-na-nas and perfect vocal interplay create a quirky and utterly charming slice of mid-tempo loveliness.
“Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” deserved to be a much bigger hit than it was. As lyrically scathing as anything he’d written to that point, it included the scarily prescient line “anything’s better than a picture of a child in a cloud of gas.” Capturing the zeitgeist as Iraq was invaded for the first time, but also heartbreakingly, perpetually relevant to our times too, Prince’s restrained delivery fits perfectly.
“Insatiable” is the kind of rich, lush ballad Prince has dropped since day one, dripping in desire and barely concealed lust. Showcasing the best falsetto since Curtis Mayfield’s, it serves as a reminder of Prince’s vocal dexterity and prowess, while album closer “Live 4 Love” is a curious, bombastic plea for peace and harmony that succeeds due to its propulsive groove and some incendiary guitar work.
All of which leaves “Daddy Pop,” “Jughead” and “Push” swilling around like the dregs of a barrel. But even this trio of songs (which regularly compete among fans for title of weakest Prince track) have moments that remind you that you’re listening to a genius. Whether it’s the unexpected string lines slightly at odds with the groove on “Push” or the Wurlitzer-like organ of “Daddy Pop,” the signs are there that Prince is at work.
And “Jughead?” Well, bizarrely for a song almost universally despised, it gives the strongest indicator of the way things would go for Prince in the not too distant future, replete with an irate Tony M bemoaning the middle men of the music industry and threatening violence on their parasitic presence. After all, just 18 months later “Prince” was no more, and rather just a history lesson in the field of artistic integrity, with an unpronounceable symbol for his new moniker.
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