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