A beginner's guide to Prince

As Prince’s albums finally hit streaming services this Sunday (February 12), Mikey IQ Jones picks the 10 essential records from one of the all-time great discographies. If you’re part of the streaming generation who’ve never yet enjoyed full access to the Purple One’s vast catalog, this is where to start.

For an artist with such a ubiquitous influence on modern music, Prince has been curiously and frustratingly under-served in the digital age. The CD editions of his Warner Brothers catalogue have been due proper remastering for decades, still often relying on thin early digital transfers, and his catalogue hasn’t enjoyed the rediscovery it deserves among younger fans, in part due to the iron grip he wielded over licensing. He seldom granted permission for his songs to be sampled, usually because he didn’t want to be associated with music that he deemed disrespectful or lascivious, as per his later religious beliefs. As such, Prince fell out of touch with the rap world for a long period, still keeping up with trends but never choosing to chase them. Instead he carried on with his own vision, which moved away from the multilayered technological programming of his early, most canonized period into a more “organic” mutation of funk, blues, and soul.

In the last years of Prince’s career, he reengaged with elements of the sound that brought him fame. But where were those classic albums when the kids needed to hear them? Aside from iTunes, we had to head into the physical realm to find them, ordering old CDs from eBay and Discogs or digging in secondhand bins – until today. Thanks to a renegotiation with Universal Music Group (who control the majority of Prince’s “classic” formative early career), The Purple One’s most iconic and widely known music is now available to stream beyond Tidal platform.

To mark the occasion, here is a crash course in 10 of those releases, each highly influential and beloved by fans but perhaps less well known by newer listeners used to discovering music on streaming services. Even more of Prince’s catalogue is expected to become available in the coming months, but let’s start with the essentials.

If you’ve always wanted to dive in and get sweaty with one of the most subversive figures from the dawn of digital pop but didn’t know where to start, this guide is for you. Let’s go crazy!


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince
Dirty Mind
(1980, Warner Bros)

Dirty Mind was a slap in the face to listeners after the seductive and at times saccharine soul of 1978’s For You and 1979’s Prince. Dirty Mind is where the Prince best known by casual listeners first emerged, clad in a trench coat with eight songs tucked into his thong which managed to court new wave and rock-obsessed listeners as well as soul and R&B fans. It’s a heavily synthesized album, featuring heavy use of Oberheim OB synths, but when the guitars do make their presence felt they emerge via nervous jolts of barbed, minimalist anti-riffage, less indebted to heartland hard rock than the wiry post-punk of groups like Devo or Wire.

Dirty Mind‘s ragamuffin attitude is filtered through the sweaty repetition of funk vamping, bringing a hypersexuality to punk rock’s usual chaste posturing. The album’s brevity enhances its impact, its songs packed with hummable hooks and lyrics detailing the ins and outs and ups and downs of going out, getting laid, and facing the consequences the next morning. Dirty Mind firmly establishes the purple sound, often imitated yet never improved.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince
Controversy
(1981, Warner Bros)

While Dirty Mind focused on the politics of the body, its 1981 followup Controversy addresses more topical matters like nuclear war, the rat race, and what is likely Prince’s favorite topic after love and sex: the ever-powerful influence of organized religion. The album is a buzzing bundle of machine funk that broadens Prince’s lyrical scope without diluting the his wit. Of Prince’s early albums, Controversy is perhaps the one most geared toward the heads, less concerned with crafting hits as it is with establishing feels – from its recurring Reagan references, the docudrama portraits of fanatical personalities and the aggressive sexual tableaus throughout, Controversy is a dark album, inviting hefty doses of schadenfreude into the party.

Closer ‘Jack U Off’ is the first recorded appearance of Prince’s touring band — nearly everything prior had been performed, recorded, and multitracked solely by Prince in the studio, a practice he’d continue long into his career. With this song, however, his iron grip begins to loosen as he invites more outside creative influence from his bandmates. His next album would simultaneously be his most experimental and his most commercially successful, taking all of these themes and pushing them to their limits.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince
1999
(1982, Warner Bros)

A prog-funk album draped in purple new wave clothing, 1999 was the album that broke Prince among the MTV-obsessed youth market, scoring him his first American top 10 chart placing and going on to be one of 1983’s best-selling albums. That he did so with a double album of synthesized funk packed with songs that clock in at over six minutes was remarkable. 1999 marks the beginning of Prince as a cultural icon thanks to his increased visual presence in the pop market, but it still comes back to those songs – pop hooks with an experimental complexity and dense arrangements that take the multilayered funk-wave bump of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light to sexual extremes.

Anyone familiar with Prince’s oeuvre knows the iconic title track, but the rest of 1999 is decidedly more loose and experimental, making room for snarling extended guitar solos and harmonic double synth attacks, presenting the polyrhythmic bounce of his live sound in what was actually a very tightly controlled studio environment. More than anything, 1999‘s perfection comes from its incredible production — it holds water as a pop album, a funk album, but also as an electronic album, its Oberheim and Linndrum-heavy sound blowing open the concept of what a self-taught auteur was capable of creating.

This was also the first Prince album to openly acknowledge the importance of the band he’d come to dub “The Revolution” — a group of gender and color-diverse talents who helped make the album’s subsequent tour one of the highest-grossing of its year. While The Revolution was given a name here, it wasn’t until Prince’s next album when their power would lead to true cultural takeover.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince and the Revolution
Purple Rain
(1984, Warner Bros)

So much has been written about Purple Rain at this point, but it remains one of the finest examples of that rare moment when a pop star somehow creates and captures a cultural zeitgeist that still holds power decades later. When we think of Prince, it’s often the purple-jacketed, motorcycle-straddling, guitar-shredding tortured genius depicted in the movie for which this album served as the soundtrack. After flirting with the pop frontlines during his 1999 campaign, Prince got a taste of “the other side” and was ready to make a full commitment. Purple Rain takes The Purple One’s ambitions — never diluted or half-measured by any stretch — and pushes them to extremes.

Part of this can be credited to The Revolution, now clearly credited and for the first time actively involved in the songwriting. Their presence is a revelation, retaining what you could call Prince’s minimalist density while carving out dramatic pockets of space. The band are such a concentrated energy source at this point that three of Purple Rain’s songs — ‘Baby I’m A Star’, ‘I Would Die 4 U’ and the epic title track — are sourced from actual live recordings at Minneapolis’s First Avenue nightclub in 1983, augmented by minimal edits and overdubs later on.

Other songs were created through Prince’s one-man band approach, while several integrate select performances by bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman into the mix. As well-worn as these songs have become, their power hasn’t been diluted. Their arrangements were often more experimental than the average pop hit allows — ‘When Doves Cry’ (his first top 10 hit) prowls in skeletal circles, unencumbered by a bassline, while ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ brings the uplift of a gospel sermon into the neon enclaves of a rock nightclub. ‘Purple Rain’ itself is an unabashed lighters-up ballad that highlights the guitar wizardry previously hidden away on Prince’s studio recordings. The album’s purple prayers and lascivious lavender interludes still move the spirit today, though what was to come next was perhaps Prince’s most “difficult” release yet.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince and the Revolution
Around The World in a Day
(1985, Paisley Park / Warner Bros)

After Purple Rain‘s media dominance and subsequent tour, Prince followed it up with one of his most cryptic and downtempo albums. Around The World In A Day isn’t quite the technicolor pop spectacle that its cover art and smash single ‘Raspberry Beret’ make it out to be — in fact, ‘Beret’ is the album’s outlier, as much of the record is comprised of the sounds of fatigue and disorientation. Prince seeks enlightenment through a journey in search of ‘The Ladder’, which will elevate him from the worldly distractions that are weighing him down. It’s a thinly coded lamentation of the post-fame fatigue that many artists of his stature inevitably suffer and make records about, but Prince’s take is odd in that it leads to an album that somehow plays as the inverse of Purple Rain — where that album is uplifting and exhibitionistic, Around… is a journey to the interior, a fuzzy, freaky farewell from the limelight.

The album also holds importance for its literal and symbolic introduction of Paisley Park into Prince’s empire, as a song, a label, and most iconically, as the name for his creative headquarters, not quite yet in construction but on the horizon. Around… is a transitional record. Purple Rain set the epic stage, but just around the corner was a beautiful and massively underrated tribute to European glamour and vintage Hollywood that would become Prince’s most unfairly overlooked projects.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince and the Revolution
Parade
(1986, Paisley Park / Warner Bros)

Of all of Prince’s classic-era albums, 1986’s Parade may be the most misunderstood, even as it remains highly regarded from a critical perspective. A sleek homage to European fashion and classic Silver Age Hollywood glamour, Parade served as the soundtrack album to the film Under The Cherry Moon. Fans expecting Purple Rain Part Two were confused to discover what is in effect a Marx Brothers film starring (and directed by!) Prince, a goofball comedy about some street grifters making bank off of a revolving coterie of globetrotting French Riviera MILFs.

Musically, the album follows suit, stripping back the guitars almost entirely in favor of classical- and jazz-inspired piano bar motifs, flirtations with European chanson stylings, and a funk that’s more implied than instigated. Its smooth purple vapors and majestic European psychedelia more vividly conjure the atmospheres that Around The World In A Day spent its runtime attempting to find, and its songs are among Prince And The Revolution’s best. From the massive single ‘Kiss’ and the epic ‘Mountains’ to the understated slow-mo waltz ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ and slinky boogie of ‘New Position’, Parade is an underrated near-masterpiece. It also proved to be the final statement by Prince and his Revolution, as the group would dissolve following a few scrapped followup attempts. With Parade, they bow out with class and style.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince
Sign O’ The Times
(1987, Paisley Park / Warner Bros)

After attempting his ambitious triple-album projects with The Revolution that sadly never saw release after Parade, in 1987 Prince assembled the two-disc sprawl of Sign O’ The Times from three of those scrapped projects, and the resulting album stands as one of Prince’s most beloved, most stylistically diverse, and most “raw” albums from back to front. It shows a stylistic breadth unheard of on any of Prince’s previous albums, and maintains a sequential flow, consistency, and drive that he was never quite been able to recapture.

It also demonstrates a number of experimental production techniques, utilizing varispeed vocal manipulation, a more brutalist and blocky approach toward rhythm programming, and keyboards that provide texture and mood more than melody. It is a legitimate masterpiece, though one that perhaps takes a bit of work to crack into. Lyrically, we find Prince gazing out at the world from the insular, protective bunker that he’d constructed around himself at Paisley Park. Sign O’ The Times also marks the end of Prince’s peak period of chart success, and his most balanced walk along the fine line between artistic indulgence and user-friendly engagement. In other words, it’s a pop record for the deep heads.


Prince
Lovesexy
(1988, Paisley Park / Warner Bros)

“Welcome to the New Power Generation.” While Sign O’ The Times was Prince shedding the weight of his Revolution and returning to solitary recording, the period between Parade and Sign… was one of Prince’s most prolific and mythical in regards to what was recorded and not released. One of them actually did see release, albeit briefly before being recalled: The Black Album was a dark, loose, raw funk record that saw promo distribution before Prince had a change of heart and withdrew it from Warner Bros’ release schedule. The Black Album quickly became Prince’s most bootlegged set of songs, and the album that was released in its place — 1988’s Lovesexy — has always had an unfair reputation as a black sheep of the early discography.

That’s a shame, because the record is in actuality a gorgeous, more concentrated synthesis of Parade‘s Euro-classical swoon and Sign‘s shadowed tension, substituting the leather-scented sexual psychodrama for a vibrant, silken romanticism. It didn’t help matters that Prince decided to package the CD (and all subsequent digital) editions as one continuous track, meant to be listened to in a single sitting rather than giving listeners the pick-and-choose programming options that made CDs so initially appealing. Some of Prince’s most killer and complex grooves are buried within, including the percolating ‘Dance On’, ‘Eye Know’ and standout single ‘Alphabet St.’ The robust horns, ripping guitars and rich vocal harmonies proved to be the inverse of The Black Album‘s monochrome sexual violence. It also was the beginning of Prince making efforts to distance himself from the more explicit entendres of his past work, displaying his recent religious enlightenment. The Revolution was now over. Make way for New Power.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince
The B-Sides
(1993, Paisley Park / Warner Bros)

Among the many streaming offerings in the Prince catalogue are a great number of compilations featuring classics and favorites. Obviously, they’re all worth your time — Ultimate is of particular interest due to its inclusion of totally ripping (and often radically reconfigured) extended 12″ dance mixes –– but the very best is The Hits/The B-Sides. Prince’s vault was so vibrant that his outtakes are often as good as, if not better than, his actual singles. The B-Sides is a true pot of gold, featuring numerous cuts removed from albums during periods of endless resequencing, or dug up from abandoned sessions that serve as hints of tracks that would’ve been hits had history played out just a little bit differently.

For a compilation, The B-Sides is a surprisingly rock-solid album and contains some of Prince’s best and most beloved songs: ‘She’s Always In My Hair’, ’17 Days’, ‘Erotic City’. Of particular interest are a number of cuts allegedly recorded for the mythical Camille project, for which Prince recorded bumping funk jams in a sped-up voice intended to be the manifestation of a gender-ambiguous but decidedly femme alter-ego.

Even the later NPG-era tracks are solid, if a little jarring in their creaminess compared to the weird, freaky synth blurts of the collection’s majority. More than any of Prince’s other albums, The B-Sides displays the breadth of Prince’s talents for aesthetic synthesis, and arguably contains the highest banger quotient of anything he’s ever released otherwise.


A beginner's guide to Prince

Prince
Art Official Age
(2014, NPG / Warner Bros)

While the rest of this list’s material was recorded in a dizzying 10-year creative flurry between 1978 and 1988, 2014’s Art Official Age stands out from the pack, as it was Prince’s eagerly anticipated return to Warner Bros after decades of acrimony between the two parties. Prince operated as a free agent for much of the time after breaking free of Warner Bros’ control and influence in the early 1990s, and with his return to their fold, he also curiously returned to explore and update the aesthetics he began to jettison around the time of Lovesexy.

Art Official Age follows a loose concept in which Prince awakens from suspended animation, almost curiously ret-conning his post-Warners NPG years as some kind of alternate reality that didn’t actually occur. The songs update the dreamy pastel swoon of Lovesexy with winking nods to EDM, post-Timbaland/Missy beat sculptures, and the neon-lit future funk torches so brilliantly carried by disciples like Janelle Monae and Pharrell.

It’s an album on which Prince finally addresses and even attempts to assimilate into his universe many of the black urban contemporary sounds he so wilfully ignored or disregarded during his NPG years; that he manages to finally, after almost 20 years of stubborn disregard, loosen up and admit that their funk future can coexist with his own lavender visions leads to one of the most free, frisky, and straight-up fun albums Prince has made since his salad days. It was a welcome return to form that many Prince fans had long hoped for, but as always, he did so on his own terms without falling prey to the bloodsucking fangs of nostalgia.

Read next: The 10 best Prince songs you never knew existed

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