Original illustration by Jaeil Cho for Okayplayer.
Questlove's Album-By-Album Guide To Prince's Warner Bros. Catalog
Original illustration by JaeilCho for Okayplayer
This is the second year since Prince Rogers Nelson has left us, so we throwback to when we asked Questlove to put together an album-by-album guide to his Warner Bros. catalog.
Since Prince's passing, delving into Prince's vast recorded catalogue has become something of a national, if not global, pastime, as record nerds rank their favorites and offer discographical wisdom and guidance to those seeking more purple in their day, every day. Or as longtime Okayplayer member Jose3030 puts it:
"Sometimes in life, to learn something properly, we need the right person guiding us. Flash back to September 2015--- I made a post on Facebook asking my friends the following: 'If one were to listen to Prince's entire discography, which method would you use? Oldest to newest or newest to oldest albums?'
I was serious. I was expecting snark and all things that come with posting such a thing on the internet. However, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson came through and absolutely blessed my post. I was able to listen to Prince's albums, learn about who was on which songs and with Ahmir's amazing post, I was able to absolutely absorb the music and was forever changed into a Prince fan. Thanks for the guidance, Ahmir."
What follows underneath is Questlove's complete, album-by-album guide to Prince's Warner Brothers catalog, ranked and with ratings on a scale of 1-6 @s—updated, amended and expanded exclusively for this Okayplayer#PrinceDay feature. For Prince fanatics, an invaluable, personalized set of liner notes/DVD extras from Prince's most studious disciple.
For beginners, seeking a way into the winding purple labyrinth of Prince's ouevre — this is the doorway you seek. As a wise woman once said, "Closed moths don't get fed." Sometimes to receive the keys to the kingdom, all you have to do is ask the right person.
Photo Credit: Vickey Ford of Sneakshot Photography
next 2 religion & politics, sharing your opinions on Prince is some risk yo' rep ish.
in my FB network my boy Jose wanted a Prince expert to "break it down" to him.
it was like 3 something in the morning and i was bored. so i broke it down.
i gave him the Prince snob rating of Prince albums.
first of all Prince is a cult audience. meaning his audience comes to him not the other way around.
but there are different levels:
@-i saw purple rain. like the album
@@- kiss, little red corvette, controversy, delirious, when doves cry, 1999, let's go crazy, alphabet street IQs (knows the hits)
@@@- will still attend concerts might own the black album and a bootleg
@@@@- "hey ahmir i have The Work does that count"
@@@@@-psycho level of knowledge, will risk oversleeping to see him perform til 7am the next morning.
@@@@@@- level of access (music, former associates, seen the vaults) so skrong even humble bragging will seem illegal.
so before all feathers get ruffled, this was a copy/paste job from a Facebook post done some time ago when i decided to properly guide a newbie into Paisleyville.
all opinions are my own. and are subjective. many will disagree but hey... that's pop life.
i decided to stick to the Warner catalog starting with for you, ending with chaos and disorder (well actually i added the truth cause i love it so much)
@- I'LL INTRODUCE YOU TO A HEADACHE IF YOU DONT GET OUT MY FACE
@@-OH LAWD (SMH).....
Its a start. got some attention. stevie was red hot, and warners wanted their own stevie. the title cut opener is a hell of a trojan horse entry into this world. i came aboard in 84 determined to complete my "all things Prince" collection against my parent's will. For You was the one album i could play w/o red light sirens going off. didn't mind "In Love" as much. "Soft And Wet" got enough airplay to justify investing in his ideas. whenever i reminisce about lazy saturdays in the 70s at my grandmother's house the musical backdrop is always the opening 8 bars of "my love is forever"---even though this album wasn't in my childhood at the time of its release, somehow this is what i think about when i think about those days when my parents were on the road. sunny. isolated. pancakes. dust. plastic couch covers. memories. steady start.
when it came out? @@@1/2
how does it rank 38 years later? @@@1/2
He spent 500k tryna convince warner to not force verdine white of Earth, Wind & Fire to produce him and all he got was a top 20 soul hit ("soft and wet"). he had to write a number one song or that was his ass. enter "i wanna be your lover" of the "early period" this is the better album of the two. when it came out? @@@1/2 (i mean in 1979 music was making miracles everyday! so albums like this were common. now had this came out in 2015 in this condition idda slapped @@@@@ on it just for going against the grain for what is called music now. how does it rank 37 years later? @@@@ (first three cuts kilt and still kill dance floors to this day: "With You" proves that he can craft a great ballad. "Bambi" was a display of guitar mastery. "I Feel For You" turned out to be a massive pop hit. and Kanye's Big Brother with the "Gonna be Lonely" sample (or at least the first draft b4 Prince ixnayed it) ups the value in my head. this shoulda been a contender. and did bigger numbers when it first came out.
Its like you play roulette with your check and you win! so you go home right? nope. you take all you won and bet on black. or in his case you bet on rock. very telling that both Prince and MJ scoffed at the idea of settling for scraps off the table. they wanted not only the table but the house that said table was in. MJ broke records with Off The Wall but only got Soul nods at the grammys. Prince was on his third album but only had 1 number one single and he was stuck on the rick james circuit. so his answer? "eff all dat. Dirty Mind didn't do the numbers BUT it got the Pitchfork of its time (Rolling Stone) to write a jaw dropping never done before lead review (someday our prince will come: @@@@1/2)--this review alerted the village voices of world that there was a new jello sheriff in town. this is prince at his most focused: 8 songs. each with perfect melody. perfect musical execution. the idea of "the Minneapolis sound" starts here: crack snares tuned real low to a deep THUD. the horn section now lives in an oberhiem synth. his bass playing is bar none the BEST funk bass playing in the 80s. add his clever wordplay and pushing the envelope (this was the original 2 Live Crew As Nasty As They Wanna Be) no hits here. but BRILLIANT songwriting. when it came out?: @@@@1/2 (NOTHING like it.) how does it rank some 35 years later? @@@@1/2 (prince-cologists will gasp at me not giving it 5 stars, but its still not focused in the way that 99/Rain was. this album simply was putting all people on notice you have about 3 years to clear way cause after that? NOONE is gonna be the same.
Similar to his sophomore album Warners was like "you can push the envelope all you want, but at these prices, you better do numbers too!" so this is a cleaner political Dirty Mind with hits. weird tho: Dirty Mind is more meaningful, but all the songs i LOVE are on this album. he uses this record to explore his personality. who am i? what am i? am i who they say i is? title cut is another bed notch post as is "let's work". but the crown jewel here is the "too weird for a 10 year old to be hearing" 'Do Me Baby"---ill go on record and say this is his finest vocal performance committed to tape in his entire career. he was the anti-Pendergrass (COME HERE WOMAN!!!!! TURN EM OFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)---sang whole song in a high falsetto, which gives a sense of being vulnerable, but with an intense urgency not seen since....well....since? (only james brown could scream that uncontrollably and it be seen as normal....he screamed on his incest/statutory rape diatribe "Sister" but that hardly held a candle to this. when it came out: @@@@ how does it rank some 34 years later? @@@@ (the cold war/ronald reagan specific lyrics is what dates the shit out of it but not to the point that you dont see where this train is going)
Bold move on his part. releasing a double album and not yet a "worthy" multi platinum artist was a risk. but he had a vision and stuck to it: part one (5 songs) proved he could write catchy pop hits (first 4 were hits) side two was him at his most experimental. enter him mastering (like no other musician) the drum machine and wisely programing it in his guitar pedals. thus making synthetic music sound so damn human. the songwriting was at his most perfect and focused and creative. his musicianship and mixing were off the chain. you hear this now and it sounds normal, but i assure you. when they premiered the title cut on radio were heard NOTHING LIKE IT EVER. no claps were ever that LOUD. no drum and kick were ever that punchy and deep. not since "Superstition" has the idea of all keyboards as music been so amazing sounding. jaw was dropped on "Something In The Water" (can he do that?) all 9 mins of "Automatic" was (can he do that?!?!?!??!) "Lady Cab Driver"? forget it. when it came out @@@@ (critics---the ones he poked fun at on this very album---- were noticing progress, only RS knew this was about to be a fun ride and gave this album of the year nods. but it had to prove itself in order to now be seen as classic. how does it rank some 33 years later? @@@@@ (this is the standard for all Prince performances. and for the most part he delivered on the promise: he used instruments never heard before in a unique manner and suddenly became the leader and standard. kinda replacing the post disco boogie sound pioneered by Leroy Burgess, Leon Sylvers and Kashif. this will allow him to bring in the motherload.
Prince's management contract was about to be up and he said "get me a movie deal or you fired" MJ rode MTV to glory with the visual of Thriller's videos. Prince was gonna use movies to have the same effect. you'll notice a pattern for every other album: album "a") experiment and push the envelope to no end album "b") takes and trim the fat off "album a" and presents a more focused vision. prince took notes on the 1999 tour. and applied them. studied "ballad stadium rock" pop music and all stops in between. made a "clean" 9 song masterpiece. so massive is this album i always overlook it. like Thriller, PR is a way of life, not just a record. this changed our view on life. prince had exotic honeys? we wanted exotic honeys. prince dressed a certain way? we (for the most part in 84) followed suit (even the RUN DMC looking cats respected princes steeze. strange the author of "lets pretend we're married" cleaned his act up but caught the ire of tipper gore (she gave album to her daughter for bday, heard "darling nikki" and had a fit) Prince's least sexually offensive album winds up being the album that gave birth to the PMRC and stickering. when it came out:@@@@@ how does it hold up some 31 years later? @@@@@. no fat. all lean hits.
Around The World In A Day
Ok. i know reviews are subjective but i think I'm right when i say the only place to go after you sell 16 million units is....."that a way", prince's muses' wendy and lisa (see "computer blue" on PR) hipped him to the Beatles. and he presented a "see i can do that too" kinda head scratcher. as a die hard i was along for the ride but many got off of the trip with this album. when it came out: @@@1/2 (many head scratched, thought he was going hippie---hello De La) how does it hold up 30 years later? @@@@1/2 some say he turnt his back on the funk. i say he turned his front on his mind. a potpourri of sound and experiments. this caused concern but really? had he closed the album on anything BUT "Temptation" idda been with giving him a @@@@@. 82-87 was his most prolific in terms of songwriting and volume and Quality. over 300 songs made during this period. and 60 percent of em were life changing. "Condition Of The Heart" is as devastating now as it was 30 years ago. also worth fishing for are the B-sides from this era...some of my favorites "she's always in my hair," "hello" & his trippy "Girl".
I assure you that had this NOT been lumped with a stinker of a movie THIS would be seen as his masterpiece to beat (for the record, i loved that stinker of a movie). but for a 3 month period, this album was the shiznit on its own terms. if last year's #ATWIAD was a Beatles nod, then Parade is his "Sketches Of Spain" with funk as the outline. 1977's "Ask Rufus" was Chaka Khan's finest 37 mins on earth. and the star of it was Claire Fisher, a jazz orchestral conductor who literally upped Prince's IQ musically by doing the same for this album. jazzy, dark and funky. when it came out: @@@@ how does it hold up some 29 years after its release? @@@@@ Simply a brilliant collection of great music. its my opinion Jam & Lewis' revenge act "Control" (for P's playful nemesis' kid sis) held so much in yo face funk it literally rendered this lp as ordinary at the time of its release (backstory: prince fired Jam & Lewis from The Time for moonlighting and "giving the secrets away" ---which was simply untrue cause SOS Band sounded nothing like The Time. said "we won't hear from those guys again" lol.....that much needed comedy shoulda been in the movie.
Sign 'O' The Times
I dont like headliners. i dont even like headlining. i see headlining the way i see opening---a trap--- now that i know what i know (this will be the last album of his "capturing lightening in a bottle with effortless ease") i see Sign different. like....a Swan song. i dont like goodbyes. id rather *vanish* than make it a final goodbye. even the blurry album cover gives me Back To The Future polaroid spooky fading like.....goodbye.......ahmir...............you. ......will........never...........see......this....... brilliance.........again..............(legally tho--bootlegs are another lesson)--enough about me tho: Sign is brilliant because its a catalog album. he took the best material of the past 5 years of creation and perfectly placed them. he had higher ambitions tho: first draft was Crystal Ball: a 3-record set, sounding more like Parade on steroids. then he got talked down off the ledge and made a 2-record set Dream Factory---but then the Revolution broke up (his last show with them in japan had him destroying guitar on "Purple Rain" Pete Townsend style to everyones shock and NOT to everyone's shock----but everyone i asked about that night already knew.....this was over. So now an album cut buried on side 5 of Crystal is now the title cut of the 3rd (and accepted by Warner Bros.) incarnation of this project. i mean its not a "Prince" album but its a "Prince" album. Ambiguity was his middle name so he blurred lined everything: funk was in his rock, poetry was in his funk, sanging was in his jazz, nastiness was in his spirituality, god was in his sex: he wore us down for 7 years so of course it makes sense that a 5"1 "whatever he was" was our spirit animal. the only thing i miss about vinyl are the sides.
side one: perfect suite. side two: perfect suite ---and so on. in the streaming age that flow aint there. its also the timing: black radio was still independent before clear channel, so cats like tony brown at WDAS could play album cuts and your world would STOP. and the most important thing to realize with Prince is that he made these PATCHES (the sounds coming from keyboard and drums) his OWN. i have the same drum machines and stuff and its not the same when i program. Thriller and Bad are examples of what Prince's equipment sounded like without him sweetening the mix ---they served MJ well----and everyone else---but because of the painstaking scrutiny and process---small stuff Tamborines as high hats tuned high. Rim Shots as bongos tuned low. processing his synths through his guitar effects. its the small stuff that tell you "this is a Prince song" (actually prince was once quoted in saying his mixes were rush jobs and horrible....HA! funny guy) maybe because in '87 he was up to 400 songs in the can.
perhaps he was tired. in fans mind he only made 9 records. in his mind he made 39 records---so to giving up those patches was the first move in many that will bring down the empire. rating then: @@@@@ this was the "he could shit on a record and it would be perfect" phase. how does it hold up now some 28 years later? @@@@@. but a sad @@@@@.....
Is this the last great Prince album? No. is this the first great "Downfall Of Genius" album? No. i know I'm being unfair here but as an artist Prince's "whatever" moments were better than the status quo of his glory period "81-87". so in some weird algebra equation: Lovesexy was a great album comparing it to what else came out in 88 (i think the only non hip-hop album i dug in '88 was Sade's Stronger Than Pride---but again you gotta understand 1988 was THE most magical miracle of a year in post modern black music. what 67-68 was for Rock and Soul was now starting for Hip Hop and New Jack Swing. easily 13 @@@@@ worthy hip hop classics came out this year. so its like to even pull my attention away from Nation Of Millions and Follow The Leader and Straight Outta Compton.....pssssh man you better COME WIT IT.---i mean on the real i woulda took consistent. not like i needed to be sold on Prince. but if there ever was a year that the tides were gonna change? 1988 was that year. 88 shook black music at its core: to still survive the avalanche or ship wreck you better have released an impactful album that year OR ELSE.
although no "thriller" Mj's "Bad" gave him steam to roll on in 88 although the release was last day in august of 87. George Michael was Sam Smithing black music in ways none of us coulda believed (Faith was number one black album 6 weeks in a row) Teddy Riley decided the curated Ultimate Beats & Breaks series was good enough to sing over as well as rap over and how does Prince answer? shoot himself in the foot: 1) shoot album cover completely in the nude, making it hard to stock in retail (check) 2) making entire CD one track, thus forcing you to listen as album as a whole statement----this had no "What's Goin' On" flow to it so that move was annoying. his lead single was amazing tho (Alphabet St.) so hopes were high, but that video was horrible. and as the dude to be neck in neck with MJ for the title, he couldn't afford silly mistakes like that. add there wasn't a strong enough 2nd or 3rd single for radio this really just made Lovesexy....."so so".
at the time i didn't panic cause i couldn't fathom a day that Prince would squander his gifts. i just thought "oh well....maybe the next album would be incredible.----i was wrong. there are some gems on this record: "Anna Stesia" and "Dance On" ---"Eye No!" aint bad. and title cut is "aight" i like the extended version of "I Wish U Heaven"---and mostly the second half----actually the "Scarlett Pussy" bside was better than the album for which it was promoting.---alas....i guess i wasn't so ready for him to be so......"ordinary"?---by his standards of course.
(Then) @@@1/2 (now) @@@ "The Future" was a great start off but teetered off, RS said "its so sugary it should be off limits to diabetics". i held out hope. "Scandalous" was still classic bedroom ballad P.
(then) @@@@1/2 rolling stone really tried to sell us on the "best album since sign of the times" and said in the first 4 songs he covers more territory than most artist do in a career (now) @@@1/2 I'm being nice but its telling that he went DEEP in the vaults to grab highlights. weird how as a bootleg "Joy In Repetition" changed my life....but as an album cut here it's just....squandered? regardless this ordinary rating is for the fact that the highlights were high. and lowlights were----normal. i saw where this train was headed and i didn't like it one bit. next stop: "just as normal as youseville")
Diamonds And Pearls
(Then) @@@1/2, now @@@1/2 ---this album and PE's Apocalypse '91 came out the same day and for the life of me i was trying to figure out why i was so damn underwhelmed by both albums. literally the 2 acts that defined my musical growth and i felt empty about it. at least with the last two there were traces of his trademarks. here they were all gone. new patches. new sounds. sampling. it was too clean. i mean his writing showed signs of brilliance still (cream, money) but man....all i could see was him tryna get that hammer money.
Love Symbol Album
(Then) @@@1/2 now @@@1/2 this is where i realized he was stuck in a rut and was gonna stay there. flashes of brilliance and then heaps of head scratching. this is when i started making my custom mixes: example: on "3 Chains Of Gold" i faded the song out right when the best part (the slow middle) was gonna go into this "see i can do "Bohemian Rhapsody" too Mike Myers! lemme get some "Wayne's World" loot too!" mode. once i conditioned myself to accept that this was his sound, i forced myself to like "Sexy MF"---and i like it on its own terms. i liked "Damn U" and "Sweet Baby" again the songwriting was cool. its just the production was too glossy and so ordinary sounding. i liked dirty demo sounding Prince.
Then @@@@/ now @@@1/2 they dropped the ball in digitizing his awesome Bsides, but worth purchase alone for "Power Fantastic" and the alt "Hello". mad they didn't include the extended versions of the 12 inches. (brag time: I have the extended version of "Irresistible Bitch" it shoulda found a home here.
then @@@1/2 now @@@ not mad at the upcoming throwaways. which is now telling me maybe prince is at his best when he is not so calculating and is just in work mode: by no means was this a masterpiece or holding a candle to the classic era. but "Dark" was classic. "Pheromone" got a pass for BET's Madelyne Woods was using it as a theme to her tv show (you know the show where she had the goods) and i liked it as a 20 second sound bite. "Solo" made many a Prince mixtape. because it was less "NPGy" i gave it points (oh! Pharcyde's J Swift did a DOPE Dorothy Parker remix to "Letitgo")---this is where i realized party over oops.
The Black Album
Technically this got a '94 contractual release, but even when he destroyed all copies there were bootlegs in our walkman by early '88. i actually like the cassette hiss version than the "oh this is what it sounds like" version---this is Prince at his most ----abandonment? threw song songs together to press up and play at a party. when you think of it, that's kinda cool. like "imma create some songs I wanna dance to at my babe's bday party (Sheila E.). legend is the album was ready to go in a week to stores and on a RARE ecstasy trip regret (thanks Ing Obama) he felt guilty for the first time about the effects of being a rude boy.----he calls WB prez Mo Ostin and demands they destroy album entirely. Mo says "too late". Prince throws a fit. Mo complies. it was a bitter defensive album: black fans felt slighted since he became a rock star and were giving him the "are you still down?!?!?!" treatment.
he was like "bitch i made "Adore" for black radio!!!!!!!" but to no avail, the new danger in black music was hip-hop and prince didn't get it: i play my ass off, write my ass off, I'm more talented, why would you settle for less? answer: Run-DMC looked like your next door neighbors (the same way Nirvana pulled the plug on glam rock) America too wanted the relatable spotlight---not just to worship others---hence reality shows and their "you can be a star too" element. Prince's one embarrassing moment during the glory period was "Dead On It" sounding like that old man in New Jack City trine ta tell the kids this is poison you listening to.
it's a comic mess. the rest of the album was indeed great mindless just messing round funk. when it came out: @@@@@ (the folklore of it made it instant classic and people only heard snippets). when it came out in '94: @@@1/2 under the bitter circumstances i just felt like he shoulda just let the folklore continue. it was ruined. how does it hold up some 27 years later? @@@@.
The Gold Experience
Then @@@1/2, now @@@. again it was like 4 songs were cool, the rest were ---well? ordinary?. the first single offered promise ("Most Beautiful Girl" released a year early was what the doctor ordered) and then no follow up. "I Hate U" had a spark. loved "dolphin's" ending. "Billy Jack Bitch" is a song i had to digest like a Pete Rock jawn---just concentrate on the music hard enough to morph it as an instrumental in my head. "Billy" was as close to updating his old formula as he had gotten. like a DMSR for '95. it was becoming harder for me to like his uptempo stuff in '95 because it all sounded so "rappidy rap"---right now he could still knock em out the park if it was mid tempo or slow or drumless. (i liked "Shy" too)---Vibe's Alan Light kept hyping it up like "return to forum"----hmmmm i dunno.
Chaos And Disorder
Then @@@@ now @@@1/2. for some reason this album was endearing to me at its release. of his "giving 0 effs to WB" period i loved this album the most. by this point i had given up hope and just hoped for the best 3 to 4 jawns to add to my Prince mix comps. this was more rock than catch up w hip-hop or whatever the kids are into trends. i genuinely like "Dinner With Delores" & "I Will" & "Had U" on its own terms. maybe there were like 2 more i could add to the list. so now instead of "classic material" i was doing the "lesser of (blah blah) evils.
The Truth is the ONLY album in his post genius arsenal that i love like a genius period album then? @@@@ now? @@@@- this was a drum free album. so no risk of corny dated hip-hop programming and patches that made him sound like everyone else. i genuinely loved ALL the songs on the album. i wish he'd do more like this. raw and stripped down. ok I'm not ashamed: I'm going back on my feelings: @@@@1/2
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