And then came Dirty Mind, which is what I have always thought of as the first great Prince album. I am pleased to say that this one more than holds up: 30 minutes of glorious, catchy, sloppy funk.1 Once again, the cover sets the tone. It’s another shot of Prince, but this time it’s black-and-white. Our man is there in his coat and coat and bikini briefs, striking quite the pose in front of what I confess I just learned is a box spring.2 Yeah, he was also shirtless on the cover of Prince, but in that photo he was floating in front of a generic blue background, beneath middle-school cursive writing and wearing a much more pensive look. The cover of Dirty Mind is a full-body dare to strap on a bikini and come along for a ride.

What is that ride like? Like a cruise on a on-stop party boat, aside from a brief 2-minute pause for “Gotta Broken Heart Again.”3 The music is less precise than the first two records, which occasionally suffered from being too tidy, too clean. Less precise is a compliment, remember; less precise means everything sounds much more organic. This is especially true of the drums. The fills in the pre-chorus of “Uptown,” for example, are less mechanical than anything on the the first two records, and the whole section is much more exciting as a result. On the opening of the title track the snare hits don’t seem to always be perfectly in time, which thrills me. When things sound a little more messy, but not too messy, when the timing is natural but not perfect, everything sounds more alive. It’s almost like he’s trusting himself to be less than perfect, a move that could come from being even more confident, three records in, or from understanding that for these songs, these grooves, this was exactly the right approach.

The album ends which the “Partyup,” which makes sense for this party record. The last sounds on the album are a spoken word declaration that foreshadows the slightly more topical Prince coming down the road: “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war, ’cause we don’t wanna fight no more.”

Which means the end of that album segues perfectly into the opening of his next, Controversy.4 The title track is the longest song he’d released to this point, and on top of its pulsing groove are lyrics slightly more philosophical than before. Do we need the spoken word “Lord’s Prayer” halfway through the song? Probably not, but something about mixing that serious recitation with the classic funky guitar chiming in the background really does sum up two key aspects of Prince.5 Adding a second spoken word section underscores this intermingling of spirituality and sexuality: “People call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black and white, I wish there was no rules.” It’s a great song, with a perfect ending. “Life is just a game, we’re all just the same,” sing a chorus of Princes, but what I most love is his deeper voice, which immediately adds, “Don’t you wanna play?” Yes, yes I do.

The album overall, however, is not as consistent and focused as Dirty Mind. When I listen now it sounds very much like a transitional record.6 The second track, “Sexuality,” features more of that wonderfully funky Prince guitar strumming, but is otherwise unremarkable. The first side ends strong, with a better ballad than any on the first three records. “Do Me, Baby” is almost eight minutes of panting and screaming and whispering and moaning, with occasional bass pops and nice piano work keep it moving. Side Two is more a mixed bag; while “Private Joy” and “Jack U Off” are good examples of the kind of perfect pop songs Prince mastered for decades, “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” and “Let’s Work” sound even more forced now than I remember them being. “Annie Christian” is notable for being weirder and spookier than anything he’d done before, and I like hearing his lower register voice, even if he’s more speaking than singing here, but it’s not something I would ever put on a mixtape.7 He’s experimenting, and pushing himself even more, and that’s great to hear. He just needs to write some stronger songs to really take a leap forward.

1 Using “sloppy” here as a compliment, as you’ll see.

2 You can read about some of the early photo shoots here:

3 I can even almost forgive the “Gotta” here—I always thought that form of “gotta” should only be used instead of “got to,” not “got a.”

4 This would be the third October in a row Prince released a new album, and I think that’s important to point out. In the era when many artists put out new records every two or three years, to allow for maximum marketing, he was cranking out one of these a years.

5 A photo of the poster enclosed with Dirty Mind illustrates this religion/sex combination perfectly, and has been included for your enjoyment.

6 I confess that some of my opinions are bound to be shaped by knowing the future: knowing what comes next, it might be easier for me to hear Controversy as transitional. Yet, I stand by my assessment .

7 For a more detailed discussion of “Annie,” from a bigger fan:

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