Much has already been written about Prince the composer, Prince the performer and band leader, Prince the musical pioneer. His skills at crafting a pop song and making it just weird enough to jump out amid lesser specimens was unparalleled.
Criminally less celebrated are his lyrics. Where aged, respected songwriters like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello are praised for their language, few Prince appreciations have focused on his skills as a wordsmith. But Prince was as eloquent with the pen as those bards. Could it be that by wrapping his talent beneath spangled pantsuits and a high-heeled facade rather than in blue jeans or well-tailored suits, Prince has been given short shrift as a lyricist?
Prince’s primo opening lines, for example, are some of the best scene-setters in pop: “I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last,” from “Little Red Corvette,” contains a novel’s worth of information about a relationship, a rendezvous and its futility.
“Dig, if you will, a picture of you and I engaged in a kiss,” he offers to open “When Doves Cry,” a line that introduces longing and titillation in the form of a sensual snapshot.
“I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray,” he sang to open “1999.” The conversational intimacy of his initial line makes you feel like he’s introducing the song to you from across a heart-shaped bed.
The backhanded compliment that begins “Kiss,” “You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on,” is a glimpse at Prince at his wittiest. “When you were mine I gave you all of my money” is a funny kickoff to one of Prince’s greatest works.
Conversely, “Nobody got in anybody’s way — so I guess you could say it was a good day,” as he offers in “Baltimore,” delivers a protest that name-checks Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
Prince was equally adept at spinning musical yarns through character and narrative. “Raspberry Beret” is set at a “five-and-dime” and details a sexual quickie via a motorcycle ride beneath overcast skies to “old man Johnson’s farm.” In the beefy third verse, when the lovers are in a barn doing the deed, Prince delivers unparalleled poeticism:
The rain sounds so cool when it hits the barn roof
And the horses wonder who you are
Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees
You feel like a movie star
The great “Darling Nikki” is Prince’s raunchy version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” But where John Lennon recalled that “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me,” Prince gives his lover a name: “I met a girl named Nikki. I guess you could say she was a sex fiend.”
When Prince explored his own identity in “Controversy,” he offered it through the refracted lens of the media. He characterized himself while coyly eluding any hint of a response: “I just can’t believe all the things people say / Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay? Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?”
The title track to “Sign O’ the Times,” his 1987 double-LP masterwork, presents a keen, heartbreaking glimpse at the death of the 1980s amid the AIDS crisis and gang violence:
In France a skinny man
Died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle
And soon she did the same
At home there are 17-year-old boys
And their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called the Disciples
High on crack, totin’ a machine gun
“Starfish and Coffee,” also from “Sign O’ the Times,” is a semi-autobiographical love letter to one Cynthia Rose, who “wore the prettiest dress with different color socks.” It takes place in a school cafeteria just before classes start.
It was 7:45 we were all in line
To greet the teacher Miss Cathleen
First was Kevin, then came Lucy, third in line was me
All of us were ordinary compared to Cynthia Rose
She always stood at the back of the line
A smile beneath her nose
Her favorite number was 20 and every single day
If you asked her what she had for breakfast
This is what she’d say
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine
And a side order of ham.
“A side order of ham”?? Only Prince.
“Every Friday night I call your butt up on the phone / A deeper voice answers and says you’re not at home,” he sings with bitter sass on “Irresistible Bitch.”
“Manic Monday,” considered a Prince toss-away when it hit for the Bangles, opens with a brilliantly odd first verse.
Six o’clock already, I was just in the middle of a dream
I was kissing Valentino by a crystal blue Italian stream
But I can’t be late ‘cause then I guess I just won’t get paid
These are the days when you wish your bed was already made
The mystical “Seven” is one of the artist’s toughest to crack. A song that may or may not be about the world’s seven major religions, its opening verse will have Prince scholars debating for decades to come.
All seven and we’ll watch them fall
They stand in the way of love
And we will smoke them all
With an intellect and a savoir-faire
No one in the whole universe
Will ever compare.
His recent song “Whitecaps” recalls a strange moment: “I saw a black butterfly lose its wings today / Cinched by the candle underneath the archway.”
Tragedy writ tiny, the lines are nestled within a song unheard by all but the diehard fans. If there’s any solace to be had from Prince’s death, it’s that all those perfectly rendered ideas remain.
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