PRINCE / “Don’t Play Me”

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4 Responses to “PRINCE / “Don’t Play Me””

C. Liegh McInnis Says:
October 23rd, 2006 at 12:00 am

As always, I enjoy the dialogue between Kalamu and Mtume because of the insightfulness and because it reminds me of the hours of discourse between me and my father about art and politics. I started to cut and paste my comments on “Don’t Play Me” from The Lyrics of Prince but Mtume did such an excellent job, why reinvent the wheel or flap my gums just to show what I know.

As for horns, during the Purple Rain Tour (1984), Prince began using two saxophone players, Eric Leeds and Eddie M. (Eric Leeds is the brother of Alan Leeds, former James Brown tour manager.) So, prior to 1984, Prince was not interested in horns because he felt, as most young people do, that he needed to establish himself apart from the jazz music of his father. However, since 1984 Prince has toured with a horn section, though he still, from time to time, also plays stripped down sets with his Power Trio—guitar, bass, and drums. Check the 1987 Sign “O” the Times DVD where he uses Alan Leeds and trumpeter Atlanta Bliss. By 1992 he was touring with a five piece horn section—NPG Horns.

My only issue with Mtume is that the 1980s songs are not purely about sex, as Prince, himself, asserted as early as 1981. For Prince, sex was a metaphor that he could use to explore and examine human psychosis. That is, our sexual behavior says a lot about who we are. If you check the records from Prince (1979) to Sign “O” the Times (1988) very little of the sex that is happening in those records are because of sexual attraction. In most cases, the sex is being used or misused as a way to address loneliness, to heal pain, or to gain power or control. This is seen most clearly on 1999 (1982). In “Lady Cab Driver” too many people were focusing on the lady moaning and did not listen to what he was actually saying. He provides several reasons whey he is having sex with this lady, and attraction and being horny are not included. And by Sign “O” the Times there is a more mature version titled “Dorothy Parker.” This all culminates on Lovesexy as the sexual orgasm becomes a metaphor for being touched by God. You may not like it, but the people who say that they did not see Lovesexy coming (damn is that a pun?) were not paying attention. And ultimately, from 1980-1988 Prince was one symbol of the post-integrationist Negro grappling with his pseudo freedom and how that affected his identity.

“Peter Pan”—that’s cute…I guess I’m one of the kids who bought into the rhetoric of individualism as a religion and the notion that a metaphysical journey is more important than a physical journey, which is what ultimately separates Prince’s aesthetic from Hip Hop, although issues of money, fame, and sitting in the one seat at the table that the man has reserved for the Negro flavor of the month were also issues that Prince had with Hip Hop. As for his “Peter Pan” image, Prince is a dandy in the truest sense of the word, much like anybody else whose attire is a reflection of their philosophy. There is a reason why the Black Panthers dressed the way that they did. Prince’s physical image/imagery is a direct reflection of his desire to break the chains of cultural control. Eventually, all of our physical is merely a reflection of our internal and metaphysical desires or directions, no matter how misguided or mis-educated. Maybe Prince does spend too much time with his physical image, but I agree with Carlos Santana that Prince is one of the greatest guitar players to ever walk the earth and he has to do a strip tease to get noticed. And when B. B. King goes public and says that Prince is the guitar player that he wants to work with next, then clearly his image is not overshadowing his talent for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The greatest thing about Prince, besides his talent, is his desire to push himself in different directions. A Prince record is a kaleidoscope of music, and he is an encyclopedia of music. This is why in 1987 at the age of 17 I knew that I would not be listening to much radio when the greatest criticism of Sign “O” the Times was that there is too much music on it??? Damn, I didn’t know that being eclectic was a negative thing. However, the most difficult thing about being a Prince fan (I’m not going to try to use some scholarly term to substitute for fan) is that Prince doesn’t give a damn about what his fans, the industry, critics, or naysayers want. And I am saying this purely from a fan’s standpoint. Unless you can just enjoy the ride without having to be told where you’re going, Prince is a trip that most folk can’t take. But nobody touches more subjects and musical areas as effectively as Prince. I think about revolutionary poets who don’t write love or erotic poetry. That’s just limiting to the human experience. To paraphrase Pepe Willie, the man credited for helping Prince develop as a song writer, whether it is about love, sex, God, or incest, Prince’s songs resonate on a deeper level because at the core of his work is an artist determined to analyze what makes us what we are and what we can do to become more than what we are—to realize that we are souls first and bodies second. And he was saying this as early as the Dirty Mind (1980) album.

As for whether or not Prince’s latest music holds up to his early music, that’s too subjective to address in any empirical manner. One person’s Lovesexy is another person’s Purple Rain. (I think that Lovesexy is the third greatest concept album ever, behind only Stevie Wonder’s Secret Life of Plants and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear.) And for me to argue whether or not Emancipation (1996) is the closest thing that comes to the diversity of Songs in the Key of Life or whether or not Musicology (2004) is a funky record would be like arguing about what a stop sign says. I’m looking at the stop sign. I can read.


      Mtume says:     

Mr. McGinnis is right about Prince’s songs that are "just" about sex being about a lot more than sex. I was taking a shortcut to make a point. In my opinion, Kalamu and I were having a disagreement about Prince’s image, about what Prince’s songs appear to be on the surface. There’s no way he and I could have a serious debate about what Prince’s songs "actually" mean because Kalamu doesn’t listen to Prince’s music on that level. The point I was trying to make wasn’t that Kalamu should listen on that level, it was that, if he’s not going to listen on that level, that’s fine, but he probably shouldn’t attempt to seriously critique a subject (in this case, Prince’s music) unless he has a least a working understanding of the subject. So since Kalamu seemed more focused on Prince’s public persona or image than on his music, my response was just dealing with that: how has the obvious, surface-level imagery and subject matter in Prince’s songs changed over the years. (Kalamu seemed to be arguing that it hadn’t changed.)

As for whether or not songs like "Lady Cab Driver" are "just" about sex, back when I was in my early twenties and had the both the free time and the stamina for ontological discourse, I and my roommates would set up camp in our crappy little kitchen and engage in hours and hours of debate on questions such as, "Lady Cab Driver – Whore or Heiress?" The conversations would go all night and in the end, we’d learn as much about ourselves and our beliefs as we did about the intricacies of Prince’s music, but I suppose that’s what ontological conversations are all about in the first place. And of course, most of us were drunk and/or high. Which helps.

joe gumbo Says:
October 23rd, 2006 at 10:54 am

Wow! I’ve been reading (& deeply admiring) your site from day one… and it never ocurred to me that Kalamu would not be into Prince! I’ve been gently nudged in the direction of some powerful artists by you both… so let me recommend Prince’s overlooked ‘The Rainbow Children’. NOT a jazz album as it’s always mistakenly labeled, but a beautiful soul/jazz/gospel fusion that manages to be moving even if you don’t share his JW faith.

Kiini Says:
October 23rd, 2006 at 11:47 am

“Lady Cab Driver – Whore or Heiress?”

LOL!!!!! Hilarious. That is a disturbing song for sure.

Well, I’m probably just as ignorant as Kalamu is on topic of Prince’s recent music. And that is saying a lot b/c I can sing damn near every Prince song from Lovesexy back to the beginning. I haven’t heard much since Lovesexy (yes, there was ONE song here and there) that seemed to move me, so I stopped listening.

Just to briefly weigh in, I think that the question of artistry, depth, and heart in music (and maturing artists) is an interesting one. What does it mean to come from an authentic place as an artist? What does it mean when you start sounding like a derivative of yourself? Isn’t that what happened to Stevie Wonder? His new sounds–like Prince’s–seem to be parodies of the old sound. The subject matter may have changed, but the sound, just doesn’t seem to be evolving. Whether Baba (Kalamu) is right or wrong about Prince not changing, deepening, maturing as an artist, I think his reaction is valid on an emotional/instinctual level and it is based on something very real.

I will confess that I couldn’t name even the Prince albums, much less the songs, that have defined post-Lovesexy Prince… but it seems that there is something that is stuck on repeat, or is not generating real depth, or is not discovering new expressions, or something. Baba may be wrong technically, because, yes, Prince has been experiencing growth. However, there is something that’s does not appear to be blossoming in Prince’s music. Maybe if I took the time out to listen, I might be able to put my finger on exactly what it is.

C. Liegh McInnis Says:
October 23rd, 2006 at 9:25 pm

As I’ve grown, I’ve tried not to make sweeping statements, but I think that at the core Prince’s imagery seemed to be for many coming from the black power or Africentric movements a smack in the face at all the work that had been done to liberate African people from the chains of whiteness and the low self-esteem or out right self hate that came with living under the umbrella of whiteness. My father use to say that Prince seems to be too intelligent to perm his hair and walk around in high heels. And this all seems to be connected in some way to the notion that the man who proclaimed, “How you gone get respect when you ain’t cut your process yet?” eventually went back to conking. So, I can definitely look at Prince and see where his physical imagery may rub some people the wrong way, which would keep them from exploring his art. And I’ve often wondered what my not seeing the homosexual or homoerotic in a man wearing legwarmers, high heels, and mascara said about me.

And Mtume is dead on about not engaging in extended or in-depth discourse on a subject in which one is not fully versed. My knowledge of Hip Hop as a culture and rap as an art and artifact of that culture is very surface; therefore, I always decline to be on local panels about Hip Hop because I don’t listen to enough of it to render any serious discourse. Sure, I understand that it is another example of African genius as well as a socio-political reaction to the Reagan Administration, but I can’t say anything about the nuances of it so I always decline to be on panels that discuss it. But when Mtume talks about ontological discourse being as much about self discovery, then I realize that my lack of interest in Hip Hop says something about me. I just don’t care what it says, but I should since I engage freshman and sophomore college students on a daily basis.

But Prince’s lyrical and musical subject matter have grown, and yet there are often moments (at least one song) on any recent album of twelve tracks where it is obvious that Prince is making a half-hearted attempt at addressing what’s on the radio simply because for him competition is an innate part of artistry. But the dude who wrote Lovesexy and later Musicology or even 3121 is a much more mature and searching writer than the due who wrote Dirty Mind though each record serves its purpose in his journey. But, then again my perception may be warped because my father probably should not have taken his ten year old son to see Prince open for Rick James.

In a final discursive thought, I’ve learned not to shy away from Prince’s physical persona/imagery because it is innately a part of who he is because he is an artist who has so completely given himself over to his art so that for him every part of his life is a part of his art. To paraphrase Eric Leeds, former saxophone player, Prince’s closest friends are viewed more as their instruments than as human beings. Kalamu would not be a person to Prince; he would be a drum set. So, every aspect of his life is a part of or plays service to the art. Of course it helps that he made a lot of money early so he could do this and not worry about having to get a 9-5 or go to the grocery store on a regular basis. Still, I used to wonder how or why his dress or behavior would rub people the wrong way. A cousin of mine would always say, man can’t he get off his trip of self indulgence and faggoty fantasy and just play the damn guitar?!? And this always baffled me until I was first introduced to Life Jennings. I love Jennings’ first cd, but I can’t listen to it because between every song he rambles about prison and street life, and I find myself saying, “Man, shut up and play the song.” And I know that this is an aesthetic/cultural/pseudo-class issue where I don’t care about his life or his sensibilities, I just want the jams. And yet I think that I am smart enough to know that the art comes from the culture, is a direct reflection of the culture, and not wanting Jennings to talk about his life or wanting him to separate his life from his art makes me no better than white people who want black art without the culture that creates the art. Yet, it was at that moment that I understood what so many people had been saying to me about Prince. I know that this does not directly address what Kalamu was saying, but when Kalamu raises the question of when will Prince tire of his Peter Pan fantasy he is definitely speaking to what he sees as both a waste of talent and a perversion of the black aesthetic. And I’ll end here before I get into how both Prince and Michael Jackson were the white industry’s answer and co-opting of Stevie Wonder’s success with Songs in the Key of Life.

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