Let’s get purple
Jessica Zafra (The Philippine Star) - April 29, 2016 - 10:00am

The Essential Prince track list for beginners

You don’t need this list. All you need to get your Purple blood transfusion is some Prince albums (available in that ancient format, CDs, or on Tidal — he had his work taken down from the net some years ago) and some serious speakers or headphones (you’ll need them for the many layers in Prince’s sonic palette). Put on the music, and your ass will tell you what to do.

I don’t need to write this list. I just want to get back to the Prince discography. He put out an insane amount of music (43 albums), and I’m just at the year 1996. He would think nothing of recording a hundred songs for one album, and then pick out 10 for that release. Reputedly, 70 percent of his recordings were never released. There are said to be thousands of songs in a vault in a basement at Paisley Park. Someday I’m going to get into that vault, but that’s another story.

For perspective, I started listening to Prince in high school. So I’ve been listening to him for nearly four decades, and I still have a backlog. Apart from the sheer number of songs he produced for himself and other musicians, there’s the difficulty of listening to a Prince song just once. I tend to have the same song on repeat for half a day, I don’t want it out of my head. Choosing 10 tracks from his massive catalogue is like chugging 100-proof chocolate: You must slow down, or pass out.

Then why are we doing this? Because I can’t allow you to go through life not knowing Prince. It’s cruel and inhuman. Prince is an unmitigated genius. Prince is the most purely talented musician of our time. His work defies genre labels: He is rock, he is R&B, he is funk, soul, dance, jazz fusion. Legend has it that Eric Clapton was asked what it felt like to be the greatest guitarist on earth. Supposedly, Clapton said, “I don’t know, ask Prince.” Whether he actually said it or not, you can make the case that Prince is the greatest guitarist on earth.

You need look no further than his performance at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony (fortunately, that’s on YouTube). Watch his guitar solo at the end of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps and see his fellow musicians lose their minds. By the way, Clapton played lead guitar (uncredited) on the original Beatles recording of that song. And Prince is an even finer producer than he is a guitarist.

Why am I referring to him in the present tense? Because a gift so profligate cannot die.

Where do we start? I would go back to the beginning, when a teenager from Minneapolis had his first pop hit. His first album, “For You,” had been released the year before, and contained the soul hit Soft and Wet — clearly he was already Prince, with the randy lyrics that would offend so many in the decades to come. A note on sexual content: Yes, there’s a lot of sex in Prince’s music. Joyful, guilt-free, fantastic, and later divine, sex as a holy act.

Let’s begin with I Wanna Be Your Lover, killer dance funk to get you in the mood. It’s a showcase for his amazing voice — the high register that doesn’t waver or strain: “I get discouraged cause you treat me just like a child.” When the song ends, he goes nuts on keyboards and synthesizer. It was our first glimpse of Prince, with the frilly blouses and the heels. He didn’t only defy genre, he defied notions of gender and sexuality. It must’ve caused “macho” men physical pain to see this androgynous elf with Apollonia, Vanity, Kim Basinger, the women they wanted. (There was a persistent rumor, untrue, that Prince was part-Filipino.)

Proceed to more pop fun with Raspberry Beret and Little Red Corvette, which are both about a “fast” girl. Slow down with If I Was Your Girlfriend, which is a fitting subject for a gender queer theory paper. Prince sings it to a girl, but doesn’t propose switching roles — he’s still the boyfriend, but also the girl’s best friend. “Would you run to me if somebody hurt you, even if that somebody was me?” Then the startling screams: “Can we just hang out, go to a movie, and CRYYYYY together?”

“I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if it goes astray,” starts 1999, a happy song about the apocalypse, so catchy that I blame it for the premature celebration of the new millennium. The millennium started in 2001, but we had to celebrate it early so Prince’s song could be the soundtrack. On a personal note, my friend got free tickets to a Phil Collins concert in the ‘90s and we went so we could sing 1999 over that rip-off song, Sussudio.

This next one I keep in readiness for bad days and impending nervous breakdowns. Clear a space around you. Move the furniture, especially breakables. Let’s Go Crazy starts with Prince intoning a sermon over an organ: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Then the beat comes in, faster and faster. “So when you call up your shrink in Beverly Hills, you know the one — Dr. Everything Will Be Alright — instead of asking him how much of your time is left, ask him how much of your mind!” And craziness ensues.

A Prince song is many things at the same time, among them shrieking rock, compulsively danceable funk, and surrealist poetry. “Dig, if you will, the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss.” So starts When Doves Cry, a song with no bass line, from the album “Purple Rain,” whose absence from your playlist I would judge with extreme prejudice. “Animals strike curious poses” — what does that mean? There is no point in trying to explain the ineffable, any more than you can describe what it sounds like when doves cry.

Sign o’ the Times (from the eponymous double album) is the blues, social commentary covering AIDS, gangs, drug abuse, poverty, nuclear war, the space shuttle Challenger. Kiss, in Prince’s original version, has a delicacy, wit and minimalist flavor lost in Tom Jones’s yowling cover.

Let’s close this session with my favorite Prince song of the week, Anna Stesia, a play on “anaesthesia” and the subsequent wakening of consciousness, and next week’s favorite Saviour, which I just discovered even if I’ve had the album for 20 years. Prince will continue to surprise, delight and dare us in the years to come. This list does not do justice to the music of The Purple One, but then, nothing does.

* * *

Endnote: There was a little incident in this paper seven years ago. Music has its “27 Club”: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and others, all dead at age 27. And it has its 1958 trifecta: Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson, who were born within three months of each other (and released their most famous albums in 1984). For a month in 2009 I had the overwhelming urge to write about Michael Jackson, whom I had not listened to in a decade. I finally got around to it, and it went online one midnight. A couple of hours later, the news broke that Michael had died.

“Then why did your mutant powers fail you this time, stupid?” Because I’ve never stopped listening to Prince.

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