PRINCE / “Don’t Play Me”
Digital & Electronic Music Organization, Inc. (www.d-e-m-o.com) announced its latest round of digital music sales awards and recently issued ten certification awards. There were two major first in digital music history. Gwen Stefani was honored for being the first artist in music business history to achieve digital music sales of 1,000,000 plus for a single, “Hollaback Girl.” Prince, the Minneapolis-based musical genius, was honored for achieving album sales of 1,000,000 plus for his four CD set album Crystal Ball, the very first album to achieve such a monumental sales plateau via the Internet. —December 2005 press release from the Digital & Electronic Music OrganizationBack in 1998, after Prince finally got out of his contract with Warner Bros., he released a four-CD set named Crystal Ball (3 CDs of outtakes, one ‘bonus’ CD of new material). That same year, Prince sat down for an interview with Black Entertainment Television’s Ed Gordon. During the interview, Gordon made mention of Crystal Ball and implied that its sales figures—at the time, around 100,000—must surely be a disappointment, especially when compared to the millions of copies of each release Prince had sold while at Warner Bros. Prince hastened to disagree, explaining that while he received something on the order of 10% of $10.00 or so (the wholesale price of a new CD) under his contract with Warner Bros., he pocketed between 85% and 95% of the wholesale price of Crystal Ball, depending on how he sold it. “You know how much Crystal Ball goes for?” Prince asked Gordon, who indicated that he did. (It was selling for around $50.00.) Then came a priceless moment where Gordon, having done the math in his head, realized that the little man sitting opposite him was in the process of cashing out what amounted to a winning lottery ticket, $40.00 at a time. Seven years later, Crystal Ball had sold a million copies. That’s right, $40.00 times one million. Do the math on that. Hidden in the hours’ worth of material on the Crystal Ball set, was a tune named “Don’t Play Me.” In a way, it’s Prince’s “Belle,” his farewell song to fame. But the differences between the songs point to the different circumstances under which Al Green and Prince decided to check out. Al left near the height of his popularity. He also left knowing that he was leaving a lot of money on the table. As a minister and a gospel singer, there was no way Al could make even a fraction of the millions he could make singing soul and he knew it. Prince’s situation was different. He’d peaked in popularity years earlier. Warner Bros. was no longer willing to advance him $10,000,000 per release, as they’d typically during Prince’s lucrative post-Purple Rain years. But Prince also had an ace in the hole, one that wasn’t available to Al Green—the internet. Prince knew, if he could only get full control of his name and his music, that he could make more money than he ever had before, even while his popularity remained at levels it hadn’t dipped to since back when he was a wide-eyed, afro-wearing guitar prodigy. Listen to “Don’t Play Me” and you’ll hear none of the wistfulness of “Belle.” The latter tune sounds like Al recorded it with one eye on the Lord and the other still focused on everything he was leaving behind…the money, the women, the notoriety, the fame. On “Don’t Play Me,” Prince isn’t wistful. He’s pissed off. He’s also supremely confident…as you might be if hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world were insisting on Pay Pal’ing you $49.99 for something that cost you only a few dollars to make and only a couple more to ship. “Don’t Play Me” is a series of accusations set to melody. It’s a list—all the reasons that, in Prince’s mind, his music doesn’t ‘get played’ on the radio anymore. There’s a double entendre at work too. For those not familiar with American slang, “don’t play me” means “don’t fuck with me.”
I’m over thirty and I don’t smoke weed I put my ass away I use proper English and I’m straight I’m the wrong color and I play guitarThe thing is, while each accusation has the ring of truth, each also obscures Prince’s own complicity. Meaning, in order to “put [your] ass away,” wouldn’t you have to have been showing your ass in the first place? And wasn’t Prince always the wrong-colored guitar player? And didn’t he used to intentionally play coy about both his indeterminate racial background and his ambiguous sexual orientation? And what’s with the underhanded knock on hip-hop? (“I don’t smoke weed”/“I use proper English.”) Didn’t Prince used to employ a rapper in his band and hasn’t he cut a few rap-influenced tracks himself? That said, I know where Prince is coming from. The music industry makes the bulk of its money as a result of the efforts of the young and eager ‘developing artist.’ After all is said and done, those newbies often end up clearing pennies per CD sold. The industry makes the least off of the older and wiser ‘mature artist,’ the ones with an established fan base and, more importantly, a history of being fucked by the industry. So when Prince says that he can’t get his records played on the radio because he’s old and he’s no longer willing to pimp himself, best believe it’s true. Of course, Prince doesn’t mention one of the other reasons his songs don’t get played anymore—taken as a whole, they just aren’t as compelling as they used to be. One of the reasons for this is Prince can release anything he wants as often as he likes. And in all likelihood, there’s always someone around who’s going to tell him that it sounds wonderful. Hell, there might even be someone at Paisley Park whose job is to hang around the studio saying stuff like, “Boss, you sound great today.” In other words, there’s no quality control. And maybe there shouldn’t be. What’s wrong, Prince asks, with an artist recording whatever he wants to record whether it be hit-bound or not? Buy it if you want it, he argues. If you don’t want it, don’t buy it. Simple enough. If your hardcore fan-base is a million strong and if you get to keep 90% of the profits, that business model can work for you. If, on the other hand, you’re getting pennies on the dollar, well…. Let’s just say you’re gonna be needing that next hit. If “Don’t Play Me” was just bitter, it wouldn’t be as telling a record as it is. But there’s more to the record. Hidden between the accusations and recriminations are other reasons—maybe even the real reasons—that Prince was pulling away from the music industry. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” Prince sings, “And it ain’t what you say.” And, “You couldn’t pay enough now to make me feel like a star.” The problem with fame is that it can give you everything you’ve ever wanted, but it can’t give you a damn thing you actually need. It must be a cold and lonely feeling to have every material item you’ve ever wanted and still feel like there’s something missing. It’s enough to drive you to drink. Or in Prince’s case, to God. Near the end of “Don’t Play Me,” he drops this one on us: “The only fame is the light that comes from God and the joy you get to say His name.” A couple years later, when it was announced that Prince had become a Jehovah’s Witness, I can’t say I was surprised. —Mtume ya Salaam Bonus tracks: A few of my favorite songs from the Crystal Ball box set—“Sexual Suicide,” “Last Heart” and “Calhoun Square.” * The range is because Prince would get the bigger percentage from direct-to-consumer internet sales while getting the lower percentage from sales to music chains who have to distribute and resell the CD. Crystal ball????
When he came out to do the long-expected "Purple Rain" for his encore, he added a line: "Say you can't make up your mind? I think you better close it and open up the Bible." The crowd may have to shrug it off, but Prince meant every word. "There's certain songs I don't play anymore, just like there's certain words I don't say anymore," he says. "It's not me anymore. Don't follow me way back there. There's no more envelope to push. I pushed it off the table. It's on the floor. Let's move forward now." —Prince, quoted in Newsweek www.msnbc.msn.com/ id/4660051/I got a crytal ball / but I can’t see a goddamn thing / seems like the older and wiser I get / the dimmer my eyesight be / what good is a crystal ball / if you going blind / what good does it do me to see what the future look like / if I’m leaving my sight behind? You think Prince ever had laser surgery on his eyes? Or maybe he wears contacts, a different color for each day of the week. (I hear he's up for hip replacement on account of wearing high heel boots and doing strenuous dance routines.) I’m just funning around / don’t mean no harm / but I can’t help wondering when Prince the man is going to step forward and give the Peter Pan gig a rest. I continue to wonder when 40+ year-old pop stars (Janet Jackson's new album ought to be called 40+ instead of 20 - something) are going to make music for and about grown-ass folks who got teenage children who are as old as the audiences these used-to-be-young popsters are still courting. One of the beauties of jazz that has always impressed me is that the older musicians were not only revered, in many cases they were the masters and on any given night could and did cut heads and gave out lessons to young lions who thought the grey heads might be easy pickings. I think the promotional and exploitation of youth culture is what keeps today's music from maturing. For most of us, the reality is that our youth is maybe ten to fifteen out of fifty or sixty or so years we live and not necessarily the most interesting of our years. Is it really so empty to be forty or fifty that you have nothing worth music-ing about? Al Green left the money. Prince went on to make more money. Neither one of them is satisfied. What does that tell you? But hey, what do I know? Al Green just might like constantly rationalizing why he reprises his soul singer days even as he professes that he is a minister of God? And I wonder what the folks down at the Kingdom Hall think about Prince’s recent work, for instance “Black Sweat”? I remember the first time I heard someone in the industry refer to the music as product, as in so-and-so has new product coming out next week. I was confused, I thought they had a record with some music on. After I heard the release, I realized the industry person was right: the record was product and there was precious little music on it. Mtume, those are just some random reactions to your write-up about Prince; as for the music, I was tired of hearing it before I finished listening to it the first time. —Kalamu ya Salaam Based on what? Baba, what in the world are you talking about? It's one thing to not like something ("as for the music, I was tired of hearing it"). That's cool, to each his own. But what's with all the other stuff? "Neither one of them is satisfied." Based on what? I don't think Al's intention was to never sing a pop song again. I think his intention was to step away from the spotlight. To stop being 'the ladies man.' As far as I know, he's a full-time minister and an occasional soul singer. How does that contradict anything he said on "Belle" or anywhere else? If you're hip to an interview where Al said he'd never sing soul again, let me in on it. I admittedly don't follow Al Green that closely. I love his records, but I don't know anything about how he feels about his spirituality vs. his secular career except what he actually says (or sings) on his records. As for Prince, I don't recall him saying anything about quitting the music business or not putting out pop songs anymore. As you quoted him, what he said was, there are certain subjects he doesn't sing about anymore, certain words he doesn't say, and he wants to move forward. You say, "I can’t help wondering when Prince the man is going to step forward and give the Peter Pan gig a rest." What are you basing that on? How many Prince records do you listen to? For that matter, what does "the Peter Pan gig" mean? Do you mean to imply that Prince caters to kids? Have you been to a Prince show lately? If the median age of Prince's current audience is under 35, I'd be shocked. Prince's audience, for the most part, is all grown up and frankly, his subject matter has grown up right along with his audience. I've been listening to Prince records since I was old enough to consciously listen to anything, and I can tell you that there is an obvious and distinct difference in the types of songs he would sing about relationships in 1980 ("Dirty Mind," "Head") versus what he would sing about in '87 ("Slow Love," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Adore," "Forever In My Life") versus what he would sing about in '96 ("Soul Sanctuary," "Dreamin' About You," "Let's Have A Baby," "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife") versus what he sings about lately ("The One," "She Loves Me 4 Me," "Call My Name," "What Do U Want Me 2 Do"). I'm not saying the later songs are better. I'm saying they're very, very different. You can almost tell the differences from the song titles alone. The 1980 songs are about sex, period. In "Head," Prince is even making fun of the whole concept of monogamy and marriage. By '87, his relationship songs were much more focused on monagamy and maturity, although he still wrote about sex too ("Hot Thing," "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man," etc). "Forever In My Life" even begins, "There comes a time in every man's life / When he gets tired of fooling around." Most of Prince's music of the time reflected that idea. (I said, most. Certainly not all.) By '96, many of Prince's love songs were obviously being written to a specific woman, his wife. There were barely any songs that were focused simply on sex. That trend has continued through his divorce (or is it his second divorce...I'm not sure). I don't know whether Prince is married right now or isn't, but his songs are still very obviously about one woman and are leagues away from the type of sex song he used to revel in. Again, I'm not criticizing songs like "Head" and "Do Me, Baby"—I love those records. I'm just responding to you knocking the man for a lack of growth or maturity when I'm just about positive that you don't have any idea whether or not his music has matured or hasn't. Maybe you're basing your comments on what you've seen in popular media, but as we all know, that's not a good way to gain real understanding of anything. If I'd learned about jazz that way, instead of from you, I'd be listening to Kenny G. records right now. One more thing. Not that I'm trying to defend Janet Jackson—at this point, I'm not sure that a good defense is even possible—but that album title (20 Y.O.) is a reference to her twenty years in the music business. It doesn't have anything to do with her age. —Mtume ya Salaam Tomatoes / Two-mah-toes Even if you had been brought up on Benny Goodman (the original Benny G.), I doubt you would dig Kenny G. Second, you're right, there is no defense of Janet Jackson. Third, you're right I don't listen to enough Prince to make an intelligent assessment of the whole body of his music. Fourth, I do read interviews and check out clips and videos. I heard him dabbling in the jazz realm and thinking because they play a little swinging ditty that he's doing jazz. I don't buy it. Literally, have not heard any post-"Sign of the Times" Prince music for which I was willing to pay money. I think he's still trying to produce pop hits and it's just not convincing. Yes, he's extremely talented but what is he doing with it? By the way, have you watched the Prince Las Vegas DVD on which he has a horn section featuring Maceo Parker. Weren't you the one telling me Prince doesn't like horns? So why make a DVD featuring a band with a horn section if you don't like horns? I really, really would like to hear Prince create and record music that reflects the current position of his head and heart. And if you argue he is giving us what he really wants to give us, then I think my Peter Pan opinion stands. As for Reverend Green, check out the documentary DVD "Gospel According to Al Green." I enjoyed reading your rejoinder but I remain totally skeptical (which probably says as much about me as it does about Prince et alla). —Kalamu ya Salaam
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