The first words on 1999 are intoned by a deep and heavily processed voice: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” it says, “I only want you to have some fun.” And with that, ladies and gentlemen, our Purple Boy begins the strongest stretch of his career. Starting with this double album of long dance grooves, he’ll have a streak of seven very good-to-great records. It doesn’t quite rival the stretch of five stone-cold classics in four years that Stevie Wonder pulled off, but it’s still seven damn good records in six years.1 Interestingly, after that computery voice intro, the opening track nods to Stevie. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” begins with with two singers not named Stevie Wonder trading lines, and “1999” begins with two singers not named Prince trading lines. Prince inverts it, giving the first line to the female singer and the second line to the male, and it works just as well.
This is an album I wore out many years ago, and I was curious to see if it would sound as good today as it did then. Reader, it does. In fact, I think I have a greater appreciation for it now than I did when I first listened. I went to 1999 after Purple Rain, and since this is less of a Guitar God record, and I have such strong love for Guitar God Prince, I was a little underwhelmed at first. I quickly grew to love it, of course, but also wondered if the songs weren’t all a little . . long?
And the songs are long—11 songs, 70 minutes, not much math required for average length—but when I listen now they feel shorter than their individual running times, like any good dance track should. I think that’s because this is an album so driven by rhythms. Many of the songs start with some interesting groove that he lets play for a while to set the mood: “Delirious,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “Automatic,” “Something in the Water,””Lady Cab Driver,” “All the Critics,” all begin this way. I didn’t remember the template being so consistent; the listener begins to expect it, and each time Prince makes it work.
As with all his major records, there are plenty of rabbit holes to tumble down, so after getting reacquainted with 1999 I started looking around for details on just how he created these drum tracks, and learned more about the Linn LM-1 than I ever knew before. I love the image of Prince playing the thing with his fingers, and then running it through different sound effects to see what he could create. There were sounds in his head, and he was finding more and more ways to get them out.2
Lyrically, there are plenty of cringe moments that have not aged well. “Girl, you got an ass like I’ve never seen,” he sings in “Little Red Corvette,” as the music downshifts for just a few moments, “And the ride, I say the ride is so smooth/You must be a limousine.” The words are so burned into my memory, though, so melded with the music, that I find myself squealing again along with him. And let’s remember: he was just twenty-four and still discovering just how far he could push himself, musically, and you know that he knew he was making an amazing album. The confidence and ego were undoubtedly set to stun.3 “ Corvette” fades in just as the last hit of “1999” fades out, and as it fades out the rhythm track of “Delirious” kicks in. A perfectly sequenced opening.
I remembered Side A being great, so I was more surprised at how well the rest of it still holds up. Even “Something In the Water” and “Free,” which I remember as grinding the party to a halt on Side C, are interesting to listen to now. “Compute” is probably the album’s oddest track, with its wonky computer bits and mixture of high and low Prince voices, and “Free” works well as the token slow anthem. “Lady Cab Driver” has some super cool snare work I’d forgotten about, and “International Lover” is a classic example of the 6/8 Prince power ballad.4 The only one that doesn’t hold up for me is “All the Critics Love U in New York,” which is the only track that felt longer than its running time on this listen—though I confess I do love the bass work here, and the lines “Look out all you hippies, you ain’t as sharp as me/It ain’t about the tripping, but the sexuality.”
Six records in our hero has created his second great album. Not only that, I think this second great record is much stronger than the first great one, especially after my re-listening. And, since we have seen the future “and it will be,” we know that he’s about to turn the whole world up to eleven.
1 The Wonder streak I’m referring to starts with Music of My Mind (1972) and ends with Songs in the Key of Life (1976); your mileage may, of course, vary. And I also understand that this is my memory of what the next group of Prince records are like. I’m curious to see if they all hold up as well as I hope they will.
2 There are lots of articles about Prince and his Linn Love; a good starting point is https://reverb.com/uk/news/prince-and-the-linn-lm-1
3 A fuller discussion of lyrics, and some of the problems with some of his lyrcs, should happen at some point, I realize. I will say that I tend to try and keep song narrator and song writer separate; that is, just because Prince wrote and sings the song does not mean Prince is the “I” here. See, for example, randy Newman and “Short People.”
4 There’s a huge cache of extra tracks on the reissue, and I especially love the live take of “International,” so I include it here. Prince as bandleader will become something more talked about on future records, but I always loved watching/hearing him lead other musicians.