He Wished U Heaven: Prince’s Lovesexy at 35
The strangest seven-week religious conversion, and the music it inspired
Prince was perfect. This was the consensus by 1988; his talent felt limitless.
He’d course along the body of any instrument like he’d been there many times, and knew just the moves to draw out the depths of its pleasures. He bought into his own mystical mythology with Stevie’s wide-eyed wonder, but sold it with Bowie’s grace, Diana’s finesse, Al Green’s marriage of the spiritual and sensual, and P-Funk’s irony-peppered hedonism. He flirted with queerness and androgyny, leaping across the gender barrier at a moment’s notice, while somehow never impeding the heterosexuality that led to countless conquests in (probably) all of Paisley Park’s myriad rooms. He also fuzzed up the black-white divide till it came on like fata morgana, doing as much as Michael Jackson to unite the American pop audience (and with more vision and assurance too). His music sounded like nothing else, crystalline sonic paradises corralled by a cavalcade of crisp Linn-drum beats. It was strange and provocative, sexy and arresting, and it was all him. Oh, and he was great live. If he hadn’t made such bad movies, we’d’ve suspected something truly supernatural.
And on top of all that – be still Nancy Reagan’s cold, cold heart – he didn’t even do drugs.
Even Dylan needed a few molehills of coke to pull off his famous mid-60s LP trilogy, and Bowie doesn’t even remember making Station to Station, which is his best album. But Prince wasn’t about any of that – he was on a whole new thing from the beginning, fated by design to scale untold heights with no aid but his faith in himself. He made some huge mistakes – every one of his records has some bullshit on it, and he really wasn’t an actor, and he managed to be the only pop star to come off like an asshole through his involvement in “We Are the World” (he declined to participate). But he really did seem otherworldly at best – “Little Red Corvette”, “When Doves Cry”, “When U Were Mine”, “Purple Rain”, “Raspberry Beret”, “Kiss”, and just about every track on his latest album, #9, a two-LP set called Sign ‘☮’ the Times. He had more side projects than you could keep up with, diverse yet all bearing his familiar imprint, and he also wrote brilliant songs for other artists, most of them women: the Bangles, Sheena Easton, Stevie Nicks, Vanity 6. He was so complete, so modern, it was as if he was the ’80s, except insofar as the decade sucked. That he pulled all this off without succumbing to stimulants is… unique.
But here’s the thing. A lot of people were doing ecstasy in the late eighties.
December 1st, 1987 – Blue Tuesday, per the artist – Prince attended a listening party for The Black Album, his follow-up to Sign ‘☮’ the Times, at the club Rupert’s in Minneapolis. Something sparked his curiosity about MDMA that night, too – maybe he was just (rightfully) feeling himself, and wanted a cherry on top of the world with him. Procuring it from his resident rapper Cat Glover, he proceeded to trip, and if there’s one thing that doesn’t become Prince it’s loss of control. Holding him together that night was a beautiful stranger: Ingrid Chavez, a poet Prince took for an angel. He invited her back to Paisley Park, where they played pool, ate pancakes, and delved into the deepest questions. No one knows what conversational (or otherwise) alchemy lead to the epiphany, but by dawn, Prince was convinced all but one song on his 10th LP needed to B replaced, convinced that the content as it stood was “evil”.
Some parts of The Black Album had been made in spasms of victory-drunk bitchiness, taking ungracious aim at the rappers Prince didn’t understand and the critics who didn’t understand him. But the music was thrillingly on point, in part because it was conceived as a pivot to a Blacker set of styles, an answer to the charge he’d been favoring his fairer half to much. It’s hardly that threatening, much less ‘evil’ – it’s just harder, wilier and riskier than a lot of his previous work. Indeed, much of it ranks among his best. You just don’t want to be tripping when side two comes on, especially during “Bob George”, an aggressive but riveting rant through the title himbo’s clenched teeth. The album inevitably flirts with a darker, earthier energy, and you wonder what self-hatred might’ve been kicked into effect by a paranoid gust of drug-buzz. But if there’s one thing Prince could do, it’s cut a replacement album in seven weeks.
Chavez became a key muse to Prince for years. It’s unclear how much Lovesexy derives from her for its sometimes murky philosophy, which is your typical high individual’s vision that the world is divided into good and evil energy. In Prince’s case, bad stuff was called “Spooky Electric”, an impish, dangerous force which encouraged hatred and rapacity. Good stuff was “Lovesexy” itself, the vaguest of vague concepts, something along the lines of all intersections between love of God and sex. Yes, no contrarian puritanism in this church: “We’re going down, down, down, if that’s the only way/to make this cruel, cruel world hear what we’ve got to say”. Parish and priest cum throughout the mass. But patient, kind love is its point.
[It’s] the feeling u get when u fall in love
Not with a girl or boy but with the heavens above
Prince had pontificated plenty and proselytized in spots; he’d even feebly proclaimed “I’m sorry! I’ll be good this time, I promise! Love is more important than sex!” at the end of Around the World in a Day, only to mercilessly condemn himself to Hell. Like Little Richard before him, he was a libertine with the cross on his mind. It’s welcome how Lovesexy doesn’t go for judgmental moralizing; it’s a sundazed day out, with a young man intoxicated by a certainty he’s seen the light. Prince’s power-of-positive-thinking angle here is fairly close to what’s nice about both Christianity and well-tended mental health. Trouble is, it pulls a little too hard in the other direction from The Black Album – its sincerity is the kind so strident you wonder how sincere it is at all, a smile so wide it’s a little corny. Like practice for his Jehovah’s Witness phase, the lyrics areselling you something you’re not sure you understand, much less need. Throughout the album, you find yourself flitting between being dazzled and being a little embarrassed.
Musically, though, it’s a bouquet of wild ideas in full bloom. Digital recording technology may define the sound of eighties pop music, but it was barely past infancy, and so much of what was popular inevitably sounds a little thin and metallic. Prince’s singles were usually perfect, but the extended musical passages throughout his albums haven’t always aged well. But by 1988, the sound he’d mastered was emerging into hi-fi, his settings growing more and more sumptuous. Psychedelia was a natural inclination for him, and he’d best achieved it on the dense, dreamy thickets of 1986’s Parade. Though Lovesexy’s surfaces are similarly prismatic and rainbow-colored, their bottom comes on strong and lascivious – the Blackening The Black Album was designed to effect still resonated in his bones. The funk that grounds Lovesexy is more bountiful – and easier, and more beautiful – than anything he’d explored on anything he’d released.
Prince intended the album to be “a mind trip, like a psychedelic movie. Either you go with it and have a mind-blowing experience, or you don’t”. Famously, the original CD issue had the whole 45-minute LP as a single track, idiosyncratically forbidding you from interrupting its sequence or flow. It certainly opens in a way that flatters an encroaching high, ambient synths beckoning you into what feels like the bank of a waterfall in a yoga teacher’s guided meditation spiel. “Rain is wet, and sugar is sweet,” coyly coos Chavez, credited as the album’s “spirit child”, in what will become a recurring lyrical refrain. “Clap your hands, stomp your feet. Everybody, everybody knows… when love calls… you got to go.” What “Eye No” knows is that “there is a Heaven and a Hell”, and it proposes sexy good times as a solution to the strain of the dichotomy – who could argue? The track swings and stomps, a loose and reverent spiritual party of the highest order. Little flurries of horn arrangement brilliantly christen corners in the polyrhythms.
VIDEO: Prince “Alphabet St.”
It sallies right into “Alphabet St.,” a disappointing hit. In fact, reaching a peak just outside the top 10, Lovesexy was seen as a blockbuster name’s first near-bomb, though who could say what dent putting himself nude on the cover made in his broad and loyal coalition. It’s a sleek block-party stomp, stumbling only after the three-minute mark. That’s the notorious point at which he and his overdubbed crowd demand the only moderately talented Cat Glover rap – was he not big enough to rope in Roxanne Shante? Or was her absence because of his insistence on the sui generis? In any case, it’s one of Prince’s funkiest, most underrated hits, with its startling lyrical climax: “exCUUuuuuuse me – I don’t mean to B rude – but I guess tonight I’m just not – I’m just not in the mood – so if U DON’T mind – I would like to – – – watch.” He may’ve scrubbed his deviance clean for this album, but there were traces left behind.
Then comes “Glam Slam”, a song so fetching you overlook the fact that it’s a little clumsy, too earnest on its face. The music is heaven on earth, but the lyrics find Prince coming off more like a cult leader, or mind-mushed parishioner, than the love God he’d already proven he was in any position. That said, the love-drunk verses are wonderful – “this thing we’ve got is alive…” – and only heyday him could’ve gotten away with the “heavy feather/flick a nipple/baby scram/water ripple/I don’t understand/it means ‘I love you’” bit, somehow saving it by singing “cum a butterfly straight on
your skin” right after. As an added bonus, he giggles like a girlchild after one of the later choruses.
VIDEO: Prince “Glam Slam”
After noodling on the church synthesizer for a while he slips into the album’s central moral dilemma, “Anna Stesia”, the most scrutiny sex-for-sex’s-sake had ever gotten from him. “Have you ever been so lonely that you felt like you were the only one in the world?” he grouses; “have you ever wanted to play with someone so much you’d take any one boy or girl?” His message is that even sex – heretofore present in his work as a kind of high principle or path to nirvana – can become excess. “Liberate my mind,” he begs his anonymous lover – “tell me what U think of me; praise me, craze me”. However swept up in pseudo-religious delirium, he’s effectively interrogating the kind of pathological dependency that can sprout unchecked from sex’s seed. The ominous slow march of the music drives it home.
And then, all of a sudden, you’re caught in a new current, a liberating rush of percussion. (“There’s a bass guitar in this,” murmurs Chavez diffidently, continuing to crop up throughout the album for no evident reason other than the fact that she’s there, being spiritual). Sheila E is one of the few members of his new band who makes multiple appearances on Lovesexy – all of them show up to play “Eye No” and then mostly leave the artiste and his spirit child alone in his studio. But no one could program what she could play, and if the song is a little forced-positive, she grounds it, without ever staying still. Pick out the lyrics and you’ll just scratch your head – what are “M&M killers playing Mickey Mouse games?” – but the groove nails their point anyway. The song is a reminder of to other things: 1) nuclear anxiety was still a key part of life even so close to the end of the eighties, and 2) Prince could shred.
The title track is the strangest, most expansive thing on the record. It resembles “1999”, but feels no need to commit to (or even seek out) a chorus hook. It doesn’t dull the album’s energy, but I admit, I find it confused and largely disappointing, a mishmash of ideas that don’t bother to gel. The “race cars burn rubber in my pants” imagery doesn’t work, though the middle monologue in which it appears has an appealing audacity. The loose consensus over the message of this track is thus: the supreme-Good-or-whatever ‘lovesexy’ is attainable by transcendence through oral sex. Which, sounds great. Though by the time Prince “swivel[s] in [our] love seat[s]” and “write[s] [his] name on [our] walls” you wonder if he’s re-involved his penis. In any case, hearing him moan “you got me drippin all over the floor” is pretty sexy, if you imagine him as the woman he was so natural playing.
“When 2 R in Love” follows, a slightly chintzy, mostly classic ballad borrowed unchanged from The Black Album, proof that there’s a cleared pathway between that record’s darkness and this record’s lightness. Which almost leaves one wondering if the whole bad-trip hasty-recall narrative behind Lovesexy was an elaborate put on, one crafted by an artist whose entire existence was the same uninterrupted art project. Certainly Prince was more prolific than any mortal on record, and seemed to get off on making incredible music he didn’t know if he needed U to hear or not. If the story isn’t true, it’s admirably invented – but the album it’s paired with has that unusual feeling of falter. It’s the sound of a performer spouting confidence when all he’s thinking about is that rare missed step he’s fully certain you noticed, and R fixated on like he is, because it was just so rare.
Then the best song on the album sashays in the door in a gorgeous lockstep. “I Wish U Heaven” reifies the pearly gates in each of your ears, all glimmering overlays of open-armed melodies, and that’s all there is to say. You could put it on repeat and your hour would only get better. and then “Positivity” pulls a curtain on the party as coolly as the opener came on hot. “Have you had your plus sign today?” asks Prince, and the minor-key slink of the music, plus the corrosive bursts of sax and guitar entwined throughout, keeps the question from sounding as lame as it reads. This was Prince’s message to the world for a moment – and right after that moment, he’d enter a far more fraught second chapter. The first one was a decade-long reign; even when he wasn’t the bestselling pop star, U knew he was the deftly and the savviest.
The dumbly disparaged Batman soundtrack, Lovesexy’s follow-up, was great, and so was maybe two-thirds of Graffiti Bridge, another incredible soundtrack he curated to another terrible movie he directed. And after that, his albums stopped being great, give or take a few stray contenders. Mr. Positivity quickly cooked up a bitterly performative feud with his record company, full of insane tales for another time, and proceeded to spend to decades looking for the least straightforward ways to release his music, jumping at every chance to dilute its surety with eccentricity. As the synthetic waves lap back up into your headphones, and Lovesexy fades out on a bed of New Age synths, it’s tempting to envision Prince’s infallibility washing away with its tide. But it never really died – he just came at it from an encyclopedia of new angles.
Whether he thought the golden ideal was God or sex, he adhered to one principle throughout his life: he hated to be bored. Our world is all the better for the innumerable ways he found to entertain himself.
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