To call the existence of a character like Prince in the musical environment in which he thrived a subversion of the status quo is an understatement. The infamous Disco Demolition Night, in which 1000s of disco and funk records were destroyed in the middle of a stadium of 50,000 people solidified the public’s backlash against the genre. But the same exact year, a certain young, small-statured, effeminate funk artist was hitting it big with his first hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” The climate of the pop charts was almost the antithesis to Prince, yet he still managed to break through and eventually outlive that climate and go on and become the torchbearer for funk for the rest of the decade with albums like Dirty Mind, 1999, Sign o’ the Times, and his masterpiece: Purple Rain.
Even from the first few seconds of the record, Prince finds a way to open a record in a way only he could do so. “Let’s Go Crazy” kicks off with a eulogy that is the musical equivalent of the iconic Star Wars opening text crawl. It’s the first of many unforgettable moments all over Purple Rain. On the best songs on this record, Prince finds a way to keep things fresh and dynamic. Staying on the topic of the opener, “Let’s Go Crazy” is already an amazing pop song with some wonderfully ‘80s drum machines. The Linn M-1 Drum Machine used on this track has been in Prince’s musical repertoire for a while, and its idiosyncratic tone is synonymous with his music. But it’s the not one, but two, jaw-dropping guitar solos that Prince throws into the track that elevates the track to be one of his greatest songs, period. The dynamism continues on tracks such as “Darling Nikki,” an incredibly provocative funk cut that gets instrumentally dirtier as the track goes along. This is the track that caused the formation of infamous “Parental Advisory” sticker for a reason. No moment of the 44-minute runtime is wasted.
The greatest feature of Purple Rain, aside from the usual class songwriting that’s to be expected from a classic-era Prince record, is how emotive Prince comes across. He’s always been a huge personality on and off record, but he channels it best on this record. The way he screams so passionately on the climax on “The Beautiful Ones,” a cut where Prince starts off relatively collected vocally, makes the ballad so thrilling. But even that track is trumped by the title track, which deserve the title as the greatest powerballad ever written. The overly emotional, melodramatic feel of many a rock ballad during the ‘80s is replaced by sheer emotion that can be felt even in his instrumental performance ‒ the guitar solo in the outro is a prime example of passion coming through a song even without vocals.
Over his decades-long career, Prince played with an endless amount of genres. Labeling him as just a funk artist or a pop star would be ignoring the soul, rock, jazz, electronic and psychedelic elements that his music has had within since the beginning. However, with a record like Purple Rain, the label as a pop album could be excused. Not only is this record the album in his discography that features his most pop-oriented songwriting, but the fusions of funk and rock sound so natural with the pop foundation. There may be more deep records, more sonically experimental, more eccentric records in Prince’s catalog, but Purple Rain still stands as his most focused, colorful, and culturally explosive record, and that’s saying a lot.