Ah, the long-awaited Symbol Period is here. Before Prince changes his name to an unpronounceable symbol, though, he releases a record with an unpronounceable symbol for its title (though “Love Symbol” was on the side of the CD jewel case):
Love Symbol came out in October of 1992, almost exactly a year after Diamonds and Pearls. For those keeping score at home, that’s fourteen studio albums in fourteens years, and it’s been a few entries since I paused and had us all note just how impressive that streak is. I can’t think of any major solo artist or band that currently averages an album a year, usually while also touring to promote each album.1
Prince had toured the rest of the world through the eighties and into the nineties, but when he launched a U.S. tour for Symbol it was the first since 1988. His Atlanta stop illustrated the change his status had suffered in those five years: in 1988 he played two sold-out shows at the Omni, which held 16,000, and in 1993 he played two sold-out shows at the Fox, which held 4,500.2 Selfishly, I was happy for that change, since I had a friend at the Fox who scored me a ticket in the third row of the balcony. And we certainly need not weep for Prince’s career—Diamonds and Pearls went double platinum, and while Symbol would ultimately be viewed as a commercial disappointment, it did hit the Top 5 in the U.S., and went platinum in two months.3
“My Name is Prince” was the opener at the Prince performance of March 11, 1993, which means it’s the first song I ever saw him play live, which means it will forever be nothing but a great memory for me.4 He came out with the same chain mail hat in the clip below, and reader, I was in heaven. So when I tell you “My Name” held up wonderfully when I listened again for the Project, you need to bear in mind its special place in my heart. The groove is driving, the melody catchy, and he trusts us to understand he’s half-joking/half-serious. I mean, “I did not come to funk around”? Or, “When it comes to funk I am a junky”? How can you listen to those lines and not think the man has a sense of humor? We also get, in the same song, one of the best encapsulations of the duality that reigns over the Prince Universe: “I know from righteous, I know from sin/I got two sides and they’re both friends.”
The rest of the album is more symbolic (ha!) of the Mixed Bag Period our man entered in the early 90s. The trying-hard-to-funk numbers have aged most poorly. “The Max” has a chorus structured similar to “Gett Off,” with lines of rap between singing of the chorus, but it feels more leaden to me, and there’s no Rosie Gaines to balance the rapping. “The Continental” works better, because of that switch in grooves around three minutes, but the first half is far from upper level Prince.5 “Arrogance” has a catchy enough lyrical hook (“A-double-a-double arrogance”), but it’s gone after ninety seconds, segueing right into “The Flow,” a rap number that is only better than “Jughead” because it’s only half as long.
There are lots of highlights here as well, though. I’d forgotten how great “Love 2 the 9’s” is, and how well it showcases the New Power Generation, which is one again his backing band on half the songs. The verses are light and super jazzy, and that sort of walk-down section (kicking in around 1:35) is tricky as hell in its timing, but flows by smoothly. Then about 2:15 the mood changes dramatically, moving into a deeper funk groove, and again the band makes it sound natural. “I Wanna Melt With U” showcases Prince in his one-man-band mode, with an addictive groove and a nice melody. “7” is an effortless-sounding Prince single, with lots of musical ear candy and a catchy chorus. Lyrically, I find some of it a little awkward (“An intellect and a savoir-faire”?), but it is another solid entry in the Dept. of Merging Love and God, and sounded triumphant live.6
The albums end with two songs that encapsulate its inconsistency.7 ’d forgotten all about “3 Chains O’ Gold,” which sounds like an outtake from a Broadway show—listen to that breakdown at 2:15, and tell me I’m wrong. I can easily see an actor strolling across the stage, singing, “This morning I wanted a cup of coffee, but I didn’t have any cream/Last night I wanted some inspiration, but I didn’t have any dreams.” The band shifts gears dramatically multiple times without ever breaking a sweat, each section of music is interesting, the structure is admirably complicated, but six minutes later the many individual pieces have never cohered into an actual song. The album’s closer, however, “The Sacrifice of Victor,” still absolutely slams. The rhythm section is hitting hard, the call-and-response chorus soars, horns weave in and out, guitar squeals, and it all makes for a joyous ending.
Ending with “Victor” creates a clever frame for an ambitious, if ultimately muddled and overly long, album. He starts with a song that reminds us, many times, that his name is Prince, and finishes by announcing that when he reaches his destination his name will be “Victor.” I always thought the real meaning of the final song was not, you know, a man named Victor, but a champion. And while he will emerge victorious after the corporate battle he is about to wage, this release marks the beginning of a period of artistic and commercial struggle.
1 Part of it is the time period, to be sure—the industry model has changed, and each record is marketed for long and longer. (Let’s see, what with single number six be?) I once worked up a (rejected, alas) proposal for a book on News of the World, for the 33 1/3 series, so I can tell you Queen knocked out 12 records in the first 13 years (though I would argue they suffered a much bigger drop-off in quality in the second half of that stretch).
2 Want to see all the dates from all his tours? PrinceVault has you taken care of. http://www.princevault.com/index.php?title=Live_performances
3 Numbers, numbers! http://www.princevault.com/index.php?title=Album:_Symbol
4 Oh, and I know you want to see the whole setlist: https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/prince/1993/fox-theater-atlanta-ga-53d85305.html
5 Live, the groove for the second half was stretched out, with eager fans brought up stage to dance. And yeah, it worked.
6 And, if he’d released it earlier, it could have perhaps boosted sales quite a bit. See: https://diffuser.fm/prince-7-song/
7 I am skipping the track labeled “Segue II,” which is technically the second-to-last track. I also skipped “Segue I.” Kirstie Alley as interviewer is as odd and ill-fitting as I remember, and the less said about it, the better.