Happy 35th Anniversary to Prince’s Controversy, originally released October 14, 1981.
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This week we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the release of Prince’s Controversy, his fourth studio LP. 1981 was an amazingly creative year for Prince, and we’ll just save the story of his ill-fated tour with The Rolling Stones for another day. Because he was an incredibly prolific artist, his label, Warner Brothers, gave him the freedom to create side projects.
One of those projects was the self-titled debut album from The Time, which was released four months prior to Controversy. Only the most hardcore of fans knew at the time that the producer of the aforementioned Time LP, Jamie Starr, was really none other than Prince himself. Although uncredited in the album’s liner notes, he played all of the instruments except for vocals and synthesizers.
While his creative and commercial peaks were still a few years away, the Prince machine was running on all cylinders. Having side projects like The Time and Vanity 6 seemed to serve him well, as evidenced by the brilliant and underappreciated Controversy. Building on the style and sound he crafted on its 1980 precursor Dirty Mind, it examines themes of religion, sex, race, and even politics. Even with his popularity on the rise, Prince was still an enigma to most people. The title track opens the album and addresses this head on.
“I just can’t believe all the things people say – Controversy
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? – Controversy
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? – Controversy”
This last line was a clever reference to a lyric in John Lennon’s “God” (“I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality”). It juxtaposes the two icons with Lennon living his life as an open book and Prince relishing his existence as this sexual, spiritual, purple mystery. He also cleverly includes a chant of The Lord’s Prayer in the middle of the song. “Controversy” acts a preamble for what you are about to hear.
The following track is “Sexuality,” a funky, fast-paced number that covers a lot more territory than its title would suggest. The song decries the heavy influence of television while envisioning a world without segregation or race.
“C’mon everybody, yeah, this is your life
I’m talking about a revolution we gotta organize
We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race
New age revelation, I think we got a case”
What set Prince apart from his peers in 1981 is that he was more than willing to go there. No one at the time articulated issues like sex, religion and the state of the world we were living in like Prince did. His music was a hybrid of classic funk mixed with synth laden pop and a style of guitar playing arguably rivaled only by Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers.
“Do Me, Baby”, the third track, is a nearly eight-minute long slow jam that was the album’s third and final single released in the US. Using his signature ballad falsetto, Prince creates a scenario of lust and anticipation culminating with him practically giving a play-by-play of what’s about to go down. By the end of the song, you become aware that Prince has grown by leaps and bounds from Dirty Mind. His lyrics aren’t suggestive. Instead, they’re in your face and direct, leaving you with nothing left to say but “Damn!”
Leading off the second half of Controversy is “Private Joy,” a bouncy disco pop number in which Prince tells us about his secret lover, who could either be a person or “little Prince.”
“U’re my little lover, Orgasmatron
Only I know, only I know, baby, what turns u on
U’re my little secret neon light
Girl I wanna turn it on turn it on turn it on every night”
“Private Joy” then segues into “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” a brief plea to choose diplomacy over isolationism. While hardly an anthem in the expansive sense, the song states its case quickly and pointedly.
By far the funkiest song on the album is the sixth track “Let’s Work,” the second official single released. This track could have easily been on the Time’s debut LP and it would not have been out of place. Its origins come from a dance called “The Rock,” which was popular in Minneapolis at the time. In fact, Prince originally cut a track called “Let’s Rock,” but it was rejected by Warner Brothers, only to be eventually reworked and unveiled as “Let’s Work.”
Track 7 is the dark, almost goth-like “Annie Christian.” After 35 years of listening to this song, I cannot help but think that Prince was channeling either Bauhaus, The Cure or both. Whatever his muse was, Prince brilliantly captures the mood of 1981. He doesn’t sing the song, but instead recites it as if he were reading the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The music and lyrics combine to instill a haunting feeling of anxiety and paranoia while warning us about the downside of celebrity.
“Annie Christian was a whore always looking for some fun
Being good was such a bore, so she bought a gun
She killed John Lennon, shot him down cold
She tried to kill Reagan, everybody say gun control
The album ends on a fun note with “Jack U Off”, a song in which Prince lets us know that whenever we say the word, he is ready to lend us a hand with that. It’s reminiscent of a late ‘50s Little Richard song, only with synthesizers and no hidden innuendo, and only fitting since they come from the same musical tree.
Controversy is a perfect display of how Prince effortlessly transitioned from one genre to the next. He manages to pay homage to different styles of R&B and rock while giving it his own flavor. He’s that relative that can cook their ass off and everybody comes from near and far to eat his food. But sadly, that relative passes away without writing down the recipes.
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