Diamonds and Pearls is truly a transitional record. For one, it’s the first Prince album I remember buying on CD—Graffiti Bridge was the last one I bought new on vinyl. For another, it’s Prince working with a new backing band, and a band he actually allows to play on most of the songs. It also marked the first time in several albums he didn’t include songs that he’d already been working on, sometimes for years; all the songs were written and recorded over the course of a year and a half.1
I remember being lukewarm about the record when it came out. While I’m still not sure all of it holds up, I enjoyed it more this time around. I’m also an even bigger fan of the New Power Generation, the band he assembled to back him up. As dedicated followers of the Project remember, I love when Prince has a drummer who can really whack the kick and snare (calling Sheila E.), and Michael Bland is solid without being flashy (except when a little bit of flash is called for). There’s also a great bassist, Levi Seacer, Jr., and Rosie Gaines singing lots of backing vocals. This means that even during the weaker songs the record feels very alive—the increased use of organic drums, the powerful voice of Gaines, and the interplay between Prince and his band create a persistently festive vibe, and a harder-edged funk sound than he’s had in a while.
The title track is a good example of the band elevating the material. The song has alway sounded a little too adult contemporary for me, but the back-and-forth between Prince and Rosie Gaines raises the entire track up a few notches, and the rhythm section does a nice job of pushing and pulling the dynamics. Oh, and the fill Bland pulls out at 2:45 never fails to make me very happy.
“Diamonds” also serves as insight into Prince as bandleader, which is something that sometimes get lost when so much attention is paid to how he could play all the damn instruments, if he wanted to. According to Bland, after Prince ran through the song for them, the rhythm section tracked it in two takes, the second one adding that fill in the bridge. After initially asking Bland to leave a space, Prince told him before the second pass to “put something memorable in there, you know, something you want to hear for years and years.”2
The other thing I love, besides the band? The odder tracks, the ones that were never gonna be singles but head off in new directions for Prince. “Strollin’”is wonderfully jazzy, from its walking bass to its instrumental break.3 “Walk Don’t Walk” is another walk-centered lyric, this time using the metaphor to push for finding your own individuality, a topic he’s always strong on. This walk song is mellower, with lots of great backing vocals and, um, some syncopated car horns for the win. “Willing and Able” features Falsetto Prince and gospel choir backing vocals, laid over a four-on-the-floor kick and melodic guitar. The first four minutes works perfectly, most definitely a Prince, but with some new flavorings.
The turn “Willing” takes at the four minute mark does bring us to something that needs to discussed: the increased rapping on the record. I think Prince’s instinct to include more spoken word sections here was solid, and there are moments it works really well, but I don’t think Tony Mosley, who does most of the rapping, consistently pulls it off. The last minute or so of “Daddy Pop” winds up bringing an enjoyable funk song to a halt for me, and the less said about “Jughead,” a bad song that features Mosley (though he by no means shoulders all, or even most of, the blame), the better.
The rapping works best on “Gett Off,” a song I have always loved, even as I understand why that love may not be universal.4 Mosley and Gaines trade lines during the chorus, and the shorter raps from Mosley fit into the song much better than the longer ones do. This time the longer rap section is taken by Prince himself, around 1:45 for those listening along at home, and it’s the best rap on the album. I mean, when the music stops for his last line—“Let me show you baby, I’m a talented boy”—it serves both as a nice transition into the next section and as a welcome example of the Prince-ian sense of humor. Nothing about the song is necessarily subtle, but it’s not supposed to be. The band sounds great, the whole song feels celebratory and unabashed, and it works so well because it never takes itself too seriously. And hey, it gave us the performance with the open-air butt pants! Just check out this post’s video clip.
The best track on the album, though, is “Money Don’t Mater 2 Night.” It starts with a short and snappy drum fill and then kicks right into the slinkiest of grooves, a steady 110 bpm that sounds to me like everyone listened to the best of 70’s Philly soul before tracking. Lyrically, this one could have clanked (rich superstar reminds us all money is not the most important thing in the world), but the details and images are vivid and pointed: “Anything is better than a picture of a child in a cloud of gas/And you think you got it bad.”5 Prince’s delivery is soulful throughout, while also retaining an almost casual tone, and it’s that balance that gives the song so much power; if he’d worked too hard to sell it everything would feel leaden. It’s perfect, in construction and performance, and easily up there with his best pop songs.
“Money” is followed, alas, by “Push,” a mid-tempo dance number that never goes anywhere. I enjoy the raps Prince and Rosie serve up at the end, but the first 4:30 sounds more tired than anything else on the record. “Insatiable” is a fine 6/8 Prince ballad, and the song I wish haded ended the album; Diamonds is sixty-five minutes long, and would have benefited by some pruning (hello, “Jughead”). Instead of “Insatiable,” we end with “Live 4 Love,” which has a great musical track by the band, but another less-than-great rap by Mosley, and many repetitions of the title, which I suspect Prince thought sounded much better than it really does. The closing lead is great, but after almost seven minutes of “Insatiable,” the last couple of minutes of this one become a kind of endurance test (though the band sure does stick the landing, in those last ten seconds).
Still, for a transitional record to be this entertaining, and to have, by my count, nine good-to-great songs, is an accomplishment. It also marked the return of commercial success for our man, selling two million copies in the US and almost five million worldwide.6 That should have helped stabilize the relationship between Prince and his label, Warner Bros., but (spoiler alert!), that is not the case. The next album won’t even have his name on it.
1 Once again, the invaluable Princevault.com: https://princevault.com/index.php?title=Album:_Diamonds_And_Pearls
2 This whole interview has lots of great stuff, including stories of what it’s like to have a private lesson on musical history with Prince: https://www.thecurrent.org/feature/2017/06/07/michael-bland-shares-his-incredible-stories-of-working-with-prince-soul-asylum-westerberg-and
3 Be sure to note how well Bland can also pull of a lighter touch, when called for.
4 I still can’t believe it happen, but I bumped into Slyvia Massy, who worked with Prince for a while, at a club in Minneapolis. Must have been First Avenue? Anyway, I had her attention but for a few minutes, and she was happy to download a few Prince stories—including how she never liked “Gett Off.”
5 And man, I love the little military snare at 3:05, just as the lyrics mention war.