It feels appropriate to begin our discussion of a spiritual pop masterpiece with a confession: Dearly Beloved, I love Lovesexy. Any pretense of an objective look at the ways it does and does not hold up thirty-five years later is out the window.1
Released thirteen months after Sign O’ the Times, Lovesexy is the album Prince released instead of The Black Album. This decision means the two are often linked, usually in an “Either/Or” kind of showdown. There’s room enough in my universe for both, but if I were forced to choose, I belong in the land of Lovesexy.2 In fact, before embarking on The Prince Project, my love for this one almost inspired a different Project, a series blog posts spotlighting unjustly overlooked books and records. That felt like a more challenging Project, though, both because it was more open-ended and because I only had a few immediate candidates for discussion.3
Another confession: The opening moments of Lovesexy made me nervous, the first time I sat down to listen. Sure, having some spoken word intro to start things is not unheard of in Princelandia, and it works beautifully on 1999 and Purple Rain. Something about these lines, though, spoken by Ingrid Chavez, made me wonder if we were about to stumble down a New Age-y rabbit hole: “Rain is wet/And sugar is sweet/Clap your hands/and stomp your feet.”4 When Prince immediately followed I was not reassured: “The reason why my voice is so clear,” he says in his Sober Prince voice, “Is because there’s no smack in my brain.” After that, however, he unleashes his first joyous shout of “Hundalasiliah,” the band kicks in, and all is right with the world.
Do I know for sure what “Hundalasiliah” means? No, but it’s used the way a preacher might use “Hallelujah,” so that’s always been my interpretation. “Eye No,” the opening track, has been rightly described as a gospel song, and this is not the first time Prince brings us to church at the start of an album—remember those organ notes and “Dearly Beloved” sermon that kick off Purple Rain? For five minutes we are urged to choose God and Love over everything else, and to watch out for “Spooky Electric,” Prince’s stand-in for the devil on the album, and even in the Lovesexy tour booklet.5 By the time we hit the four-minute mark, with Prince and his choir urging us to first “Say No” to evil and then, 20 seconds later, to “Say Yes” to God and love, funky guitar chiming in the background, we are in full-on sanctification mode, and this atheist from New Jersey is all in. The song ends with a burst of horns and some crowd noise, including Prince mumbling, “My name is Andre Crabtree the third. I got more holes than a golf course.” The whole thing is too festive, and too playful, to be as heavy-handed as I feared it would be during those opening moments.
As “Eye No” ends, the groove for “Alphabet St.” fades in, a transition that brings us to something else the album is known for: Side A and Side B segue seamlessly from one song to the other, and the CD is just a single, forty-five minute track.6 I don’t know if the record would have sold better with nine more easily played songs or not, but it never bothered me when I listened on vinyl or iTunes. There’s not a track I wish I could skip. If forced to pick I would call “Dance On” the sickliest child, because even though the music—especially the drumming—is great, the lyrics are more than a little heavy-handed.7 Even “When 2 R In Love,” which feels wafer-thin on The Black Album, slides in nicely here, its sweetness and stacked chorus vocals calling to mind those classic Side 2 Prince ballads.
But I need to use my remaining time to focus on the side closers: “Anna Stesia” and “Positivity.” I quickly placed “Anna” on a list of Top 10 Prince Tracks the first time I heard it, and repeated listenings have only further convinced me. Over the course of this one song, from those quiet opening piano chords to another full-on gospel ending, we take a ride that brings us past all the key destinations on the Prince Express. Thematically, we get to flip the two-sided Purple Coin, with sexual desire and androgyny (“Have U ever been so lonely/That U felt like U were the only one in this world?/Have U ever wanted 2 play with someone so much U’d take anyone boy or girl?”) balanced by a lust for spiritual redemption (“Love is God, God is love/Girls and boys love God above”); musically, there are layers of vocals, soaring guitar work, horn busts, and a just slamming groove. I especially love the Sheila E. drums here—the snare whacks and simple fills keep things moving, and the whole performance exudes this beautiful force that drives the track.8
“Positivity,” which closes the second side, took longer for me to love as fully. The structure is not as complex as “Anna,” which drastically and repeatedly shifts dynamics; this time we just get a relentless drum machine groove for seven minutes. There is a lot of texture in Prince’s vocals, though; he begins in a soft, almost spoken voice, and then rises and falls in register and volume at key moments. More layers of vocals, more lyrics about choosing good over evil, but once again I don’t think it’s as nearly as heavy-handed as it could have been. It almost feels like Prince is asking what your own personal choice will be, after listening to him for the previous eight songs: “In every man’s life there will be a hang-up/A whirlwind designed to slow you down/It cuts like a knife and tries to get in you/This Spooky Electric sound/Give up if you want to and all is lost/Spooky Electric will be your boss.” That verse is sung by a stack of ethereal voices, with what sounds like a vibraphone shadowing the melody. The song, and thus the album, ends with a new layer of percussion being added as we (hopefully) dance right by Spooky and “all that he crawls for,” the music gradually giving way to a final choir of voices that urge us to “hold on” to our souls, because “we got a long way to go.”
I know that not all of you will share my love for this odd, joyous album, but I as you leave the Purple Temple I ask you to go and take on Spooky Electric with an open mind. Now that I’ve listened to The Black Album and Lovesexy in sequence, I can assure you this is the much more consistent, much more ambitious, and much more rewarding album. I now wish that he had just combined them, and released another double album after Sign o’ the Times. As different as they are, I also think they work well together—back to that double-sided coin of physical and spirit desire. Even as two separate discs, though, they form the perfect capstone to the most rewarding stretch of his career, seven very different albums in six years. The eighties are ending, though, and a much less consistent period, beginning with a battle with a bat, is about to begin.
1 A discussion of whether or not any review of a piece of art can ever be wholly objective will follow on some of your local NPR stations.
2 And yes, that was a sentence I have waited my whole life to write.
3 All You Can Eat, k.d. lang’s brilliant follow-up to Ingénue, and A Moment in the Sun, a 900-page novel by John Sayles that really does zoom by, were the only other two I knew of for sure. Also, selfishly my goal was to have find a topic that would be fun to write about and fun to read, but also have a clear and definite ending. Always having a new blog entry to write means I am writing more often, which is crucial when trying to knock out a first draft, but I didn’t want to get sucked into something I did not know how to end.
4 Speaking of rabbit holes! You can find out more about Chavez here: https://www.thecurrent.org/feature/2019/06/13/interview-ingrid-chavez-on-her-friendship-with-prince-and-working-with-him-as-paisley-par
5 No, I didn’t get to see that tour, and yes, I wish I had found a way to do so. But you can read about Spooky’s appearance in the booklet here: https://ultimateprince.com/prince-black-album-songs/
6 Go dance with the Spotify Devil now, and you can select individual tracks.
7 I’ve read that the drums are played by Prince, but have also read played by Sheila E., or perhaps some combination.
8 I was going to talk more about the drumming across the record, but sources are not in agreement about just how many tracks Sheila E. plays on. It seems to be her on “Eye No” and “Anna Stesia” for sure, and probably several other tracks as well—and I have my suspicions which, thanks to the sound she generates. She’s my favorite Prince drummer: can swing, can hold the funky groove, and, when it’s called for, really slam the snare drum, which is something I wished happened more often in his catalog. The clip this week comes from the tour, when she played in the band.