Happy 25th Anniversary to Prince’s Love Symbol Album, originally released October 13, 1992.
Impatiently prolific. This might be a fair summation of Prince and his recording schedule during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. For no sooner had an album dropped, a tour launched, and Prince was already focused on the “next thing.” Invariably, this “next thing” would be a divergence—rather than a continuance—of style, with Prince often challenging the general public who would swarm around a specific release (for example, the hit machine that was Purple Rain) and then be confounded by its follow up (in this example, the more adventurously psychedelic Around the World in a Day.)
Not only did such a prolific outpouring of material put Prince at odds with his record label, a company more intent on squeezing every last ounce of commercial appeal out of an album, but it also set him apart from his contemporaries who would release an album and then tour for 2 years on the back of it, like clockwork.
No, Prince wanted his music heard almost as soon as it came to him. So this meant that within a year of dropping the landmark and commercially appealing Diamonds and Pearls (1991) album that saw him once more ascend the charts the world over, the Love Symbol album was recorded and readied for release. In fact, as was often the case, it was during the short run Diamonds and Pearls tour that he began debuting songs from the album, most notably the raucous “Sexy MF.”
Recorded just a few short months after the Diamonds and Pearls sessions wrapped, the Love Symbol album once again featured his New Power Generation band. On balance though, Love Symbol is equally a solo effort, with Prince taking on all musical duties on half the songs, whilst the NPG provide the backing for the other half.
Conceived as a concept album, with full narrative via the way of reporter Vanessa Bartholomew (played by actress Kirstie Alley) trying to remove the veil of Prince’s mystique whilst also pressing him on his “scandalous” new relationship with a 16-year-old girl (and by way of introducing Mayte), many of the original narrative elements were trimmed or dropped entirely to make space for more music. Not a bad decision, but the result is a confusing narrative that feels piecemeal and at times confusing, which distracts from the overall listening experience. But hey, you don’t buy a Prince album for segues anyway, right?
So what about the music? And how does it stand up 25 years later?
Written and recorded during a time when gangsta rap was on the rise and harder, more controversial social commentary was hitting the airwaves spearheaded by N.W.A and the Ice-T fronted Body Count, Prince decided to surround himself with his own posse of (not-so-convincing) rappers and dancers lead by Tony M, in either an attempt to reflect the changing musical landscape or appear in sync with it.
This, and the continual persistence of rave music (through techno and acid), cause a strong, cross-style musical influence on the album evident in the driving beats of “The Max” and “I Wanna Melt With U,” the hip-hop edge of “The Flow,” and the ironically titled “My Name Is Prince” (made even more so by the unpronounceable symbol that adorns the album’s artwork).
But it is when Prince decides not to chase trends that the songs come into their own and retain their shine. Tracks like the funk stew of “Sexy MF” with its punching beat and irresistible callout backed by powerful horn blasts and “The Continental” with its two-part mix of funk and soul remain just as intoxicating as they did when the album first dropped.
Still an undeniable highlight, the insatiable soul-funk of “Love 2 the 9’s” with its smooth-as-silk verses and never-ending lyrical chorus was the perfect antidote to the whole grunge structure of pensive verse and explosive chewed-out chorus. And the sweet summery vibe of the reggae influenced “Blue Light” and the pop-rock of “The Morning Papers” reinforce that no style or genre was beyond Prince’s command, whilst “Arrogance” is a hurricane of funk bursting at the seams with hyperactivity.
But the standouts on the album have to be the glorious, eastern inspired mystical magic of “7” with the multitude of layered vocals and hypnotic groove. Not to mention the cryptic lyrics—is he signing about the seven deadly sins, the seven seals of Revelations, the seven major religions or the seven major record labels. Undoubtedly Prince’s most underrated composition that boasts one of his greatest vocal performances on record, the beautifully soulful “And God Created Woman” sees Prince at the height of his songwriting and arranging power. Everything about it is perfection from the heavenly bass line to the counter-play of the backing vocals. It’s sensual and spiritual, the perfect encapsulation of Prince’s two driving themes.
Strangely enough, the weak points on the album are the ballads, normally a mainstay of Prince’s prowess. “Damn U” and “Sweet Baby” underwhelm and feel more like filler when compared to his usual fare of “Adore,” “Scandalous,” “Slow Love,” “When 2 R In Love” and the list goes on and on. These just didn’t cut it.
Usual fare is not something you can attribute to the bombastic rock-opera that is “3 Chains of Gold.” Grandiose in its arrangement, “3 Chains of Gold” sweeps from powerful rock to light and airy melodious verses to a hurried almost panicked midsection, before returning to the power of the main structure to build and build and build to a wondrous guitar solo at the climax.
Album closer “The Sacrifice of Victor” repurposes the groove from Diamonds’ “Gett Off” as a modern spiritual that harkens back to some of the more gospel inspired works from Graffiti Bridge and manages to uplift the spirit as it promises that “joy lives around the corner.”
As a collection of songs, the Love Symbol album isn’t as cohesive and focused as its predecessor, but it is more musically adventurous. And even though not every path takes us to the Princely Promised Land, they are journeys worth exploring. If all that it yields for the casual listener are timeless tracks like “Love 2 the 9’s,” “And God Created Woman,” and “7,” then it deserves to be played again and played often.