Prince is an anomaly. That’s probably the most accurate description of the man, but I still don’t know where to place him. Prince is his own character. Prince is a man who lives for the camera, the limelight, and the fame. Prince is the embodiment of a celebrity persona. There’s where my knowledge ends. Prince largely bypassed my generation, so I never felt I got the proper exposure to what he offered. After a few listens through Purple Rain, an album I didn’t know was incredibly critically acclaimed before I began, I can say that I now have a decent picture of “The Artist.”
I’m actually quite glad that I didn’t recognize the cultural significance of this album going into it. I knew I needed to listen to Prince, so I decided to stick to the basics and listen to what was revealed to be his most popular album. I didn’t realize that the album was a soundtrack to the film of the same name. Had I known that, quite honestly, I would have felt compelled to listen to something else (soundtracks tend not to stand on their own musical merits in my experiences), but considering the album has gone 13 times platinum (that’s over 13 million copies sold), I stuck with it.
Purple Rain is 80’s. I feel like ending this write-up after that sentence. It features all of your preconceived notions of the 80’s: hair, glam, the advent of digital technology, but most importantly, the flashy, glamorous stylistic explosion that worked to create the sound of the 80’s. Purple Rain is the most 80’s sounding album I’ve ever heard. I’m entirely on the fence about that. By today’s standards, the album just sounds dated. Static drum machines, cheesy synths, unnecessary reverb everywhere, and a lot of treble. It’s quite a bright album. I can’t totally fault it though. It’d be impossible to have the foresight to realize how this album would be received by later generations. It’s definitely not timeless, but it’s the most accurate snapshot of being caught up in every cliché the 80’s had to offer.
The most impressive aspect to Purple Rain is Prince’s versatility. I mentioned that I had a limited knowledge of Prince going into this review, but I was aware that he’s been recognized for being an incredibly talented musician. That cannot be overstated. Vocally, this is almost one of the best performances I’ve ever heard. Prince’s range and control is otherworldly. Each song has a performance tailored specifically for it, with just the right amount of embellishment and cadence. I just can’t overlook the painful screeching (that’s harsh, but accurate) found on a handful of tracks, such as The Beautiful Ones. Screaming in rock music should imply power and intensity (see: Steven Tyler, Robert Plant), but Prince’s attempts come off as painful. Otherwise, the guitar playing is phenomenal, and when it’s featured, it’s poignant and worth taking note of. The rest of the album is rather standard 80’s affair all around: sharp synths, loud trashy drum machines, and reverb (did I say that already?)
I think Purple Rain falls short musically. I didn’t realize it was so highly acclaimed until after I’d given the album it’s third listen. I’m glad that didn’t taint my opinion. I could not get into this album. Every song was punctuated by some aspect that made me think, “Why are they doing that?” Whether it’s the lack of bass in the single When Doves Cry (which is a complete mistake), or the aforementioned screeching, or the entirely unnecessary Computer Blue. Computer Blue must tie into the movie, because the song does not stand on its own, or in context, so I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s not without it’s catchy moments, but those are found on songs that don’t drastically deviate from a common structure, such as Baby, I’m A Star.
Prince personifies the Rock God Sex Symbol with Purple Rain. Give him credit for thoroughly accomplishing what he was going for. Purple Rain could put a modern rap album to shame with its pandering and innuendo. Not that it’s cleverly disguised at times:
“If you don’t like the world you’re living in
Take a look around you
At least you got friends
You see I called my old lady
For a friendly word
She picked up the phone
Dropped it on the floor
(Sex, sex) is all I heard
Are we gonna let the elevator
Bring us down
Oh, no. Let’s Go!”
I do feel as if I’ve been a tad unfair with this review, but I’m steadfast in my tastes. It’s not that Purple Rain is necessarily a bad album. It’s just incredibly dated in everything from a production to a composition standpoint. I had to go and ask my dad what Prince’s deal was in the 80’s. As I expected, he was a “freak,” but presented in a more positive light, I’d guessed right in my presumption of a flamboyant egotist who lived for the spotlight. But there’s definitely a charm to Prince. He’s a character in and of himself, and it can be endearing. Putting everything into context, I get the album. It’s for those who grew up to see pop culture created by characters such as Bowie and the movie Grease evolve into the boisterous over-the-top radicalism that dominated 80’s pop. Purple Rain is the best way to relive that era of music. Whether you’d want to or not is a matter of personal preference.