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