Happy 35th Anniversary to Prince’s fifth studio album 1999, originally released October 27, 1982.
It’s often forgotten that 1999 was the album that successfully transitioned Prince from an underground creative force to a household name. Keyboardist Dr. Fink told Rolling Stone in 1982, “I think he was trying to become as mainstream as possible, without violating his own philosophy and without having to compromise any of his ideas.” Nobody else was topping the charts with material so blazingly original and risqué. After 1999, there was no mistaking it: Prince was pop’s most versatile and least predictable superstar.
By 1982, artists such as The Human League, Gary Numan, Missing Persons, and Blondie were at the forefront of the “synth-driven new wave” sound, a diverse but irresistible blend of soul, rock, and disco. Prince was determined to meld this new explosion of electronic music with his intuitive knack for rhythm and melody, so he began amassing 100+ songs for his fifth solo album, mere months after the release of the critically-acclaimed Controversy (1981).
Additionally, he insisted that his new album must be a double-LP. Not only was this rare in the 1980s but, more importantly, Warner Brothers Records wasn’t entirely sure their rising star could pull it off. Fortunately, the gamble paid off. Prince and his newly-formed band, the Revolution, delivered an album that garnered widespread appeal without sacrificing an ounce of creativity.
On the doom-forecasting “1999,” he dropped out two of the voices on each line so that each singer became a lead vocalist—Lisa on the first line, Dez on the second, and Prince on the third—resembling Stevie Wonder’s 1972 classic “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” While the audacious funk/pop fusion is now considered a classic in Prince’s catalog, it stumbled to #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 when released as the all-important first single. However, “Little Red Corvette” was too powerful an engine to be denied, and after its Top 10 joyride, Warner Bros. smartly re-released “1999,” soaring to #12 and dropping another atom bomb on mainstream audiences.
A mesmerizing fusion of sly sexual innuendos, fast cars, and new wave-powered rock, “Little Red Corvette” accelerated Prince to stardom. Ironically, keyboardist Lisa Coleman remembers that Prince’s inspiration came when “I bought this vintage pink Mercury at a car auction…He slept in it one time and came up with ‘Little Red Corvette.’” The alluring track had an intoxicating effect on many listeners that its lust-driven ferocity lingered, even after Prince turned off the engine.
The sweat-drenched funk of “D.M.S.R.” coupled with the springy rhythms and rockabilly harmonies of “Delirious” still have the power to light up a dance floor before those massive waves of synths boom out of the speakers. “Automatic,” a single that strangely was passed over in the U.S., laid most of the groundwork for several Purple Rain cuts, from the love vs. lust narrative adorned in Computer Age imagery (see “Computer Blue”) to a hypersexual temptress dominating Prince via S&M bondage (see “Darling Nikki”). The fifth and final single, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” is a positively filthy quest to lure a young lady into helping Prince “forget the girl that just walked out my door” followed by a menacing come-on (“I sincerely wanna f*** the taste out of your mouth”). The kinetic Linn-Drum pattern coupled with ozone-piercing synths are funky enough to knock George Clinton’s Mothership out of orbit.
As impressive as the radio singles are, it’s the surrounding material on 1999 that reminds everyone just how freakishly talented Prince was. Over a punchy backbeat and chilling witch-house synths, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” paints a nightmarish portrait of frustration and confusion when his affection for a girl isn’t reciprocated. “Must be something in the water they drink / It’s been the same with every girl I’ve had / Must be something in the water they drink / Why else would a woman wanna treat a man so bad?” Prince wonders in bewilderment, apparently not coming to grips with the reality that the problem may be him.
The energy, urgency, and passion transmitted through the beautiful ballad “Free” could have been considered a dry run for one of his crowning achievements in “Purple Rain,” from the gospel-fueled ad-libs and impassioned guitar fills to his all-female backup trio consisting of Lisa Coleman, Jill Jones, and Wendy Melvoin (her first appearance on an official Prince record).
Sonically, “Lady Cab Driver” finds the high-heeled mastermind whipping up a batch of street funk of the Rick James variety—a stark contrast to the anthemic rock of the previous track. However, as playful as its sound may be, it’s a disturbing sequel to the sexual fantasies of “Automatic.” “This is for why I wasn’t born like my brother, handsome and tall,” Prince growls in a burst of outrage. “This is for politicians who are bored and believe in war / This, yeah, that’s for me, that’s who that one’s for.” For a man known for his elusive and mysterious nature, his angst and frustration come bubbling through in waves.
“All the Critics Love U in New York,” with its percolating electro-funk groove and blistering guitar pyrotechnics, is jam-packed with classic one-liners: “Body don’t wanna quit, gotta get another hit…,” “Look out all you hippies, you ain’t as sharp as me…,” and “Take a bath, hippies,” to name a few. Prince lives up to his “His Royal Badness” moniker by pushing sensuality a few steps further on album closer “International Lover,” a one-way flight to “Satisfaction” aboard the Seduction 747 that’s “fully equipped with anything your body desires” and encourages the listener to “extinguish all clothing materials.” Surely a command many were all-too-eager to follow.
As the album’s 35th anniversary milestone is upon us, it’s fascinating how 1999 manages to balance darker themes of anxiety, seduction, and deception across a fusion of organic and electronic sounds amplified to the highest wattage. This is Prince raw and unrefined, crackling with sexual electricity while achieving blockbuster success so immediate and impactful that his mass appeal could no longer be denied. Purple Rain may always be considered Prince’s crowning achievement, but don’t allow 1999 to be forgotten in its towering shadow. It’s his strangest and darkest masterpiece that showcased many of the components he’d master throughout his peerless run in the 1980s.