This feature originally ran in April 2016, shortly after Prince’s death. It’s being reposted for what would have been his 62nd birthday.
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
It seems that someone must have made a mistake, because Prince is dead, and gods aren’t meant to die.
That’s what the artist born Prince Rogers Nelson was after all: a god of funk, a Purple Revelation. He came to us in 1958, a diminutive Minnesota miracle, and his countless hits, outlandish fashions, and immortal personality have scorched a permanent mark onto the face of pop culture. From his 1978 debut, For You, on through to his final release, 2015’s HITnRUN Phase Two, Prince occupied that rarest of spaces: an artist beholden only to himself.
On his recent stint of “A Piano and a Microphone” shows, reviews spoke of how Prince was shedding his elusive side to share autobiographical anecdotes between songs. A memoir, set to be published by Random House’s Spiegel & Grau imprint, was announced for a 2017 release only weeks ago. Together, this news leaves us to wonder what Prince was finally ready to say. Now we’ve been left to find his message within one of the most expansive and celebrated discographies ever assembled.
To call Prince a musician is to minimize his impact, but above all else, he was a crafter of songs – blistering ballads of raw sexual desire, ebullient odes to the mysteries of love, and earth-shattering sermons on the power of funk. Compressing his legacy into 10 songs is like trying to capture basketball in 10 memorable games – it’s a fool’s errand and both suffer from a lack of Prince. That the following pages don’t include seminal Prince offerings like “Raspberry Beret”, “When Doves Cry”, or “Starfish and Coffee” is simply a testament to the inimitable breadth of his catalog. Instead we’re highlighting the works that most encompass Prince, the tracks that most vibrantly capture the essence of a man who could change his name to symbol. These are the most definitively Prince songs that he left us.
In a year that’s already seen too many of music’s most beloved flames extinguished, we’ve now lost perhaps the fiercest fire of all. So light some purple candles, bust out your silk pajamas, and revel with us at the altar of the Funky One.
10. “If I Was UR Girlfriend” off Sign o’ the Times (1987)
The narrative of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” – the second single off 1987’s landmark Sign o’ the Times – is a uniquely brilliant construction.
Written from the perspective of man speaking to a woman, it wonders how much more intimate their relationship might be were he instead her platonic female friend. Built off a sparse bass and drum pattern periodically punctuated with woeful keyboard, Prince uses this complex conceit to ponder questions like, “Would you run to me if somebody hurt you, even if that somebody was me?” — a gem of juxtaposition in a treasure trove of jewels.
While not inherently an exercise in gender fluidity, Prince’s ability to thoughtfully place himself as a female friend to another woman is an act few others would dare to try, let alone successfully pull off. Suggestions like “Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room/ Just because you wanna undress?” are fully loaded couplets that might wilt in the hands of other performers.
The true beauty of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is that underneath all the layers it’s still just a simple love song, the wishes of man who wants nothing more than to be closer to his partner and perhaps partake in a few carnal pleasures while he’s at it. –Zack Ruskin
09. “Controversy” off Controversy (1981)
Aside from being in the pantheon of catchiest songs ever, “Controversy” is an excellent study in Prince’s prowess for speaking to social and political issues without jeopardizing his sound. Built around a call and response, Prince lays out precisely how inane he finds the speculation surrounding his ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth, a response to rising speculation in the media fueled by the success of his first three albums.
Riding on a smooth beat of sizzling funk and synthesizer pomp, the song truly reaches its zenith when Prince chants the The Lord’s Prayer, toeing the lines of blasphemy and empowerment before he offers his mission statement: “People call me rude/ I wish we all were nude/ I wish there was no black and white/ I wish there were no rules.” In these lines, Prince encapsulates all the things that made him such a singular talent, from his rejection of societal norms to his wish that the world was clothing-optional.
It’s a powerful conclusion to a song that cemented a landmark album of the same name, a record where Prince refuted the label of “funk musician” by proving himself to be a social conscious artist at the forefront of many issues leading the day in Ronald Reagan’s America. That the track could be so immediate and yet remain a timeless classic in 2016 is why Prince stands apart as an icon. No controversy there. –Zack Ruskin
08. “Emancipation” off Emancipation (1996)
You can feel the sweet, sexy release on this one … from a contract. We’re talking about the contract! Hmph.
But for real, there was something likely very liberating about Emancipation for Prince. It is, as the very obvious album title suggests, a break from Warner, and Prince went all out with a three-disc mega album. This was three whole hours of swervy, bluesy tracks. Granted, when you get to that length in a single album, not everything’s a winner, but Prince didn’t care. He was free to make music, produce himself how he wanted, do covers that his former label poo-pooed. “Emancipation”, the track, was him saying exactly what he’d been itching to say: whatever he damn well wanted. Finally.
“Emancipation,” as a signifier of Prince’s unflappable goals in making the music he wanted to make, is divine. Amidst the literally dozens of tracks – and there are plenty of body-moving bangers – “Emancipation” stands taller than any other track. Groovy, even a little corny, but above all, “Emancipation” sounds like Prince feeling proud of himself. The song’s like Prince shedding the weight of his work, how the system made him feel dirty, and the history of being Black and controlled in America. It was a rambunctious victory lap, as if to say: “See how much I can do when left unencumbered?” You can practically see the little smirk when he sings this falsetto funk number, giggling at Warner the whole damn track. The message is clear, the sound, the pride, so unbelievably Prince. The song stands as a trademark, a beacon of purity and freedom amid a tumultuous time.
Like the chorus goes: “Emancipation – free 2 do what I wanna/ Emancipation – see U in the purple rain.” –Blake Goble
07. “Breakfast Can Wait” off Art Official Age (2014)
Looks like we got a smart-alecky Prince right here. It would be a shame not to acknowledge Prince’s sillier side, and the saga of 2013’s “Breakfast Can Wait” just makes you love the guy’s bashful, giggly sense of humor all the more.
The track itself wants you to boogie on down at the break of dawn. The wobbly guitars, the soft singing voice of Mr. Nelson, and of course, the cheeky lyrics. Oh boy, skip the hot cakes, because Prince would like to take a bite of whichever lucky person’s in his breakfast nook. (In a playful, seemingly non-Marv Albert fashion, dig?) The track’s a blast, a latter-day sexual healer, or griller perhaps, but what’s more fun is that damn single cover.
The story of Charlie Murphy taking on the Revolution is basic cable legend. Chappelle Show’s “game: blouses” and “pancakes for your flunkies” stuff was comedy kismet. The sketch stands as a perfect articulation of Murphy’s tall tale played to perfection by Dave Chappelle. (“It was like a Zorro-type outfit. He had ruffles down the front.”) Anyway, Prince approved of the sketch, and according to the Chappelle’s Show 2004 DVD commentary, Prince simply responded to Chappelle and crew with something like, “Anybody want pancakes?”
Fast-forward to 2013. Prince went right ahead and used an image of Chappelle on the cover of “Breakfast Can Wait”. Now that’s a long game prank right there. “Breakfast Can Wait” is great, but “Breakfast Can Wait” as a stealth move by Prince is amazing. Perhaps Chappelle, in a Tonight Show interview, best summed the situation up: “That’s a Prince judo move right there … you make fun of Prince in a sketch, and he’ll just use you in his album cover.”
“What am I going to do — sue him for using a picture of me dressed up like him? … That’s checkmate right there.” –Blake Goble
06. “Take Me with U” off Purple Rain (1984)
Doesn’t matter where you go. Don’t care what you do. For a brief, flittering moment, it’s like Prince could take u literally anywhere.
It’s a strange sensation to hear an unabashedly romantic, doe-eyed Prince track, but here it is. “Take Me with U”, Prince’s rousing duet with Apollonia, was a sun-soaked delight, a song willing to extend a warm embrace to anyone that listens, and proof that Prince was immensely capable of love and joy in music. The second track and final single on Purple Rain, the pop ditty blended elements of psychedelia and ‘60s-born optimism as Prince focuses in on a powerfully simple idea: He just wants to be with u. Through his eclectic sounds, luscious swirling strings, and dynamite guitar, the song takes the easiest theme – the desire to be with one another – and turns the track into a proud moment of unbridled, smiling passion. Prince had a real sweetness to him, and it was plain as day right here. You try listening to this song and not feel a little flustered.
It’s so fitting that the track lines up with a road-trip montage in the movie of Purple Rain; it captures the preciousness, the sheer excitement of falling in love in a totally non-blah way. Forget the fact that Prince and Apollonia are riding around on a 20-degree day with spindly, bared trees. The mood’s beyond infectious thanks to “Take Me with U”. The song’s so good it makes you forget your worries and troubles for a few dizzying moments. The song’s so good it puts bubbles in your head and makes you want to fall in love right away.
This song’s so good it almost (*almost*) makes you forgive Prince for what he did to Apollonia with the whole Lake Minnetonka thing. –Blake Goble
05. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” off Prince (1979)
Hastily written under demands from Warner Bros., “I Wanna Be Your Lover” features a bass line that swaggers with bravado while Prince’s Telecaster guitar cuts through with a pristine sharpness that would come to serve as a signature of his sound. On the surface, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” isn’t far removed from the offerings of contemporary groups of the time like the Bee Gees, but where this single, Prince’s first in the UK, sets itself apart is in the frankness of its lyrics.
It doesn’t take a master linguist to see the underlying message in a line like “I wanna be the only one you come for,” but in 1979, it was quite the bold stroke. Released on the heels of Prince’s debut, For You, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is falsetto disco pop at its finest, complete with funktastic keyboards and a hearty helping of sexual innuendo.
While this track may have preceded many of Prince’s bigger hits, it set the stage as an example of his ability to tell a story within the framework of a song. Peaking at #11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was for many fans their first taste of the Purple One, an introduction to a flavor they’d be craving for decades to come. –Zack Ruskin
04. “Let’s Go Crazy” off Purple Rain (1984)
That opening organ, the declaration of unity in the presence of what’s about to be this big song, the face-melting guitars about to get pounded on by Prince… “Let’s Go Crazy” is the man’s calling-card track, no? Like, how does this song not spring into folks’ heads when Prince comes up? The opening track of Purple Rain, the first song heard in the movie Purple Rain, and often the first track on Prince’s setlists, “Let’s Go Crazy” isn’t just a warm-up, it’s a declaration and an invitation — a vivacious, surreal scream for great music. Who’s going to take you to the afterworld? Prince.
The track’s like anatomy in how to succinctly craft the perfect rock song – Prince figured out the formula himself: build, release, pulsate, and release one more time, then leave ‘em wanting more.
At the start, there’s the slow build, the sense of mystery, the enticing notion of being taken someplace with “never-ending happiness.” Uh, sold. Then, like magical gates opening, the guitar rumbles, the drums gain intensity, and like a big explosion that we can only assume is bright neon purple, “Let’s Go Crazy” does just that. The organ whips back and forth, the guitars get beat to hell while Prince does not one, but two insanely gorgeous guitar solos. All the while, synthesizers whiz and the electronic drums maintain a path. The song’s this bolt of lightning throughout. And Prince keeps asking the listener to “come.” Please. Come. And then, oh wow, the outro. An explosion of sound, crazed base thumps, and Prince’s signature waling of the guitar. Pow!
It is okay to let out a sort of pleasurable scream from all this. I’m spent just thinking about it. Actually, no, what else is on this Purple Rain now? Let’s go crazy again! –Blake Goble
03. “Little Red Corvette” off 1999 (1982)
If there’s a pick-up line better than “A body like yours oughta be in jail, ‘cause it’s on the verge of bein’ obscene,” I’ve yet to hear it.
“Little Red Corvette” is the slow finish to a fast start, a Sunday morning retrospection of a baudy Saturday night spent on the road and between the sheets. Calling on his unnamed lover to “slow down” and stop moving “much too fast,” Prince’s first top-10 hit is especially brilliant for its repurposing of the popular “car song” genre as a running metaphor for a one-night stand.
Built on the backbone of buzzing electric keyboards and a drum machine, “Little Red Corvette” is soft-core pornography expertly masquerading as a sultry mid-tempo jam. There’s a double-entendre behind every line, from Prince’s opening acknowledgement, “I guess I should’ve known by the way you parked your car sideways,” to the deeper meanings of “You gonna run your body right into the ground.”
But these are not lyrics of the wink-wink nudge-nudge variety. Released into the then brand-new post-disco landscape of 1983, “Little Red Corvette” is as much about consequences as it is about getting down and dirty. There’s worry and regret and, perhaps most important of all, admiration for his conquest mixed in with brilliant comparisons of asses and limousines. Prince’s ability to combine all these elements into something both danceable and profound is a testament to his immaculate talents as a songwriter and the reason we have perhaps the best song ever written about promiscuity. –Zack Ruskin
02. “Sign o’ the Times” off Sign o’ the Times (1987)
“Sign o’ the Times” is key Prince for its social impact and its technological minimalism. The title track was like a contemplative cry. Prince allegedly wrote his most soulful and reflective tracks on Sundays, and “Sign o’ the Times” was the result of Prince’s conscience on the Lord’s Day. Drugs, disasters, diseases — the state of things in 1987 was at the top of Nelson’s mind, and his outlet was his profession. The song became a platform to grieve for victims of AIDS, poverty, the Challenger explosion, you name it; Prince gracefully lamented for everyone and meant it.
Prince didn’t dress up his message with high-decibel picketing. He didn’t phone some catchy slogan to pitch a cause, but merely reflected on what he saw as a period of tumult in the ‘80s. “Sign o’ the Times” was an arch, minimalist approach, as if asking people to really listen to what he wanted to say. Combining soft blues guitar picks with early digital sampling synthesizer, the song echoes and lingers. (Curiously enough, Prince repeated out-of-box sounds, not feeling the need to program new things – the Fairlight synthesizer gave him just what he wanted.)
In the end, “Sign o’ the Times” was a staple for Prince’s mindfulness and a marker for his ear for whatever was happening in the world. –Blake Goble
01. “Purple Rain” off Purple Rain (1984)
Let us speak about the weather. There is wind, there is thunder, and there is lightning, and then there is “Purple Rain”.
A power ballad for the ages, “Purple Rain” is, at its core, a song of longing. Prince speaks of a friendship lost after it became something more. When he cries, “Honey, I know, I know” with such guttural intensity, it is the sound of regret incarnate. But from the ashes of his despair comes one of the most legendary guitar solos to ever bless an ear drum, followed by the heavenly coda of Prince’s coos as the power of hope prevails.
“Purple Rain” is also, of course, the title track of Prince’s 1984 film of the same name, a composition that netted him an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. It has served since as a staple of his live shows, an epic finale of religious proportions. Maya Rudolph, the Saturday Night Live alum who serves as one half of the tribute group Princess, once described “Purple Rain” as “a unifying experience,” an understatement of the truth.
While music journalists are often guilty of using spiritual terminology to describe concert experiences, it feels like only those types of words can do justice to what it meant to hear “Purple Rain” in the flesh. It was like being in church, Prince like a pastor at his pulpit. “Purple Rain” was then one of his most potent sermons, a closing cry to love another, to make amends, and soar. Amen. –Zack Ruskin