I remembered The Gold Experience being a very good album, but after several recent listens, I’m here to tell you it’s much better than that. The first album released under Prince’s new name may be prove to be his last great album.1
Perhaps you doubt me. Isn’t this the album that begins with a song called “P. Control,” you ask? Yes it is, and yeah, it stands for what you think it would stand for. Here’s the thing, though: the music stomps, thanks to that NPG rhythm section I keep raving about, a super cool keyboard riff, and this little bass lick (or maybe it’s on the low strings of guitar?) in the chorus—starts around 1:05 if you’re curious. Prince’s vocals are also fantastic, moving between a falsetto holding high notes for the chorus, and lots of interesting rhythms during the rapped verses.2 He’s gone from mocking rap (“Dead On It”) to out-sourcing (with mixed results at best?), to finally just taking it on himself and killing it; if you’re skeptical, head straight to the verse that starts at 1:21, and listen to the way he strings one line around to the top of another. Best of all, it can be argued that the lyrics are not a sophomoric dirty joke, but instead an example of Prince “powerfully rebuking misogyny and tipping a hat to strong women everywhere.”3
What I found especially thrilling, moving through the rest of the album, was how consistently strong the writing is, across a wide range of styles. Guitar Prince fans? Grab a serving of “Endorphinmachine,” which slams and squeals with brilliant riffage, or maybe “Dolphin,” which almost sounds like some sort of Britpop single, peaking with a tight, melodic guitar lead. Maybe feeling like one of those Prince tracks that combines a musical party vibe with socially conscious lyrics? Go to “We March.” Maybe you’re in the mood for Sexy Prince to pay you a visit? Turn off the lights and listen to “Shy.” While you’re there, you also get to listen to Michael Bland kick it on the skins some more, and again think to yourself, when this man has a great drummer, everything is right in the universe. Even “Billy Jack Bitch,” which may or may not have been written as an angry rant against a reporter he didn’t like in Minneapolis, the kind of subject that could render a song nothing more than a novelty, is catchy as hell, delivering its attacks with a light-hearted touch.4
Maybe you want something from “OK I’ll Just Write a Damn Hit” Prince. In that case, we need to talk about “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” It was a global smash, after all—his first release on his own label became his first number one in the UK.5 Like many a classic single it kicks off with the chorus, in this case an admittedly saccharine but instantly catchy chorus sung by an army of Princes. For four minutes we groove at a leisurely 93 bpm, accompanied by layers of sonic ear candy, including the sound of birds and water drops and strings and oh so many keyboards. It sounds like a lost track from 70s Philly soul, and I suspect that was by design: a second verse with lots of syncopated stops to change things up, a spoken word bridge, and an outro with string and vocal runs that brings us in for a nice smooth landing. He threw in enough tricks for half a dozen singles, seemingly determined to prove to Warner Bros. he could do just fine without them. I confess to never being a huge fan, but it slots into the first half of the album quite nicely, and the arrangement is perfect. It wasn’t until I was prepping for this post that I read about the plagiarism case, involving an Italian disco tune from the 80s.6
Oh, I could keep going on, but I’m hoping you’ve just started listening by now. I will point out two more great tracks, though, two tracks that are also very different in production and style, and thus help underscore how many cylinders he was firing. (All: all of the cylinders.) “Shy” builds its rhythm track on the sound of clacking heels, tambourine, and a super funky bass line. At times, everything drops away except for vocals and some synth strings, but the song never loses momentum. If he was tapping into “Yacht Funk” on the last record, here he’s moving into “Folk Funk,” or even “Pastoral Funk”? And The Gold Experience ends with a classic Prince closer, the seven-minute “Gold.” We start with a simple keyboard riff, and slowly build until a soaring guitar brings things to a close. So, yeah, a little like the “Purple Rain” model, but that had been modeled on many a classic rock anthem before it. As he does throughout the album, Prince is tapping into familiar templates, be they 70s soul or hip-hop or anthemic rock, but confidently shaping those templates to his own style.
The Gold Experience was Prince’s seventeenth album in seventeen years. If you’re as big a fan of Lovesexy as I am, then this is the best album since then; if not, then this is the best album since Sign O’ the Times. Either way, the artist-formerly-known-as-who-will-someday-once-again-be-known-as-Prine pulled a great record out of his hat. This also marks the approximate halfway point of this Project.7 We’re about to start heading into the heart of Purple Darkness, though: there’s a few more I have memories of, but most of the next twenty years will be all new for me. I’m excited to hear what I/we find—and nervous, as well.
1 Calm down, fans of Rainbow Children and other post-2000 releases. I am aware that I have a lot of catching up to do, so there may yet be another great record I missed the first time around.
2 How am I gonna handle this symbol-for-a-name period? By just referring to him as Prince. The symbol is tricky to format, and he will eventually reclaim the name Prince.
5 Lots of stories about this one; for a pretty decent overview you can go to https://www.thisisdig.com/feature/the-most-beautiful-girl-in-the-world-prince-song-story/
6 You can read about that here: https://obergh.net/songoffire/2009/01/12/did-prince-really-plagiarize-an-italian-tune/ There’s a link to the melody in question, so you can judge for yourself.
7 I say “approximate” because I have not yet decided what to do about some of the later releases, like the one released with issues of The Daily Mirror.