Having proved that he could lead two other acts while improving on his own previous work, Prince began to trust himself more. One example of his growing confidence came with the recording of the single “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which, according to Gary Brandt, “didn’t come together until we put the [live] drums on.” Prince recorded the drums himself, playing along to what had already been taped. “[Drum machines] are kind of hard to play to,” Brandt recalled, “because they’re usually right on the meter.” Prince, however, was “very synchronized,” and had no trouble “fit[ting] himself into that track, knowing exactly what would come up.”
Prince was released on October 19, 1979. It was preceded by the single release of its opening track, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which showed much more commercial promise than anything on For You, hitting Number One on Billboard’s R&B Chart and Number 11 on the Pop chart. Like much of For You, “Lover” is a simple love song sung in what Rolling Stone called “the most thrilling R&B falsetto since Smokey Robinson.” (Hip-hop producer Timbaland would later describe it as “one of the most innovative songs ever released.… It was the record that got me interested in music.”) It was also a lot tamer than the highly charged “Soft & Wet,” and as such appealed to a much wider audience.
Taken as a whole, Prince sounds like the work of an artist who had learned from the mistakes of his previous album. Where For You meandered at times, the follow-up contains a wealth of more varied, interesting grooves. The songwriting is snappier and more hook-laden, as evidenced by “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “I Feel For You” (later a hit for Chaka Khan). There are still hints of Prince’s love for MOR rock, notably on “Bambi.” But while the music is fairly generic, the lyrics — in which Prince tries to convince a lesbian that “it’s better with a man” — point toward the sort of taboo subjects that Prince would later mine to great success. The album’s ballads, meanwhile, are tighter and more convincing, and helped by a more minimal production style, which made them much more club-friendly. Prince himself was very much aware of the difference this made. “I never saw Prince again,” Gary Brandt later said, “but I got countless calls from his managers asking me how I recorded various parts of his album.”
Prince was still very much an R&B record aimed squarely at female listeners. On the front jacket Prince is pictured topless, with messy hair and thick moustache, against a baby-blue backdrop; on the back he is naked, riding a Pegasus (no explanation necessary); his name is inscribed in purple, with a heart dotting the “i.” The album reached Number 22 on the Billboard Pop chart — a mere 141-point improvement on For You — and hit Number Three on the R&B chart. Now it was time, once again, to think about touring.
The Prince tour was certainly eventful. To begin with, two months of shows had to be cancelled after the singer caught pneumonia in early December. Then there was the small matter of an appearance on American Bandstand, for which Prince and his band were set to perform the album’s first two singles, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” Backstage they met the host, Dick Clark, one of the most respected figures on American television. Everything was going well until Prince came up with a mischievous idea: he and his bandmates should refuse to answer any of Dick Clark’s questions. The band was mortified, but the stunt worked. Prince became infamous almost overnight after answering Clark’s questions with nothing more than series of hand gestures, such as holding up four fingers when asked how many years he had been playing. (Clark later called it the hardest interview he ever conducted.)
Another issue to resolve was the group’s image. “We were all groping for images of how we wanted to look on stage,” Matt Fink recalled. “Prince pretty much left it up to each individual member of the band to figure it out, of course, with his final approval.” For Fink this meant everything from prison chic to a doctor’s gown and mask (which earned him the nickname Dr Fink). Prince, however, had an entirely different look in mind: “loud spandex and bright colors,” as Dickerson put it. “I overheard Bob [Cavallo] talking to Prince about the fact that he could not scandalize the audience by wearing that spandex and no underwear.” Prince took Cavallo’s instructions literally. “That’s all he wore: a pair of bikini briefs!”
In February Prince was invited to join Rick James’s Fire It Up tour as the supporting act in what was billed as the Battle of Funk. Prince’s young bucks did to James what Prince’s future protégés The Time would threaten to do to their master a few years later: winning over the crowd with a short, snappy set that had a lot more going for it than the headliner’s two hours of overindulgence. As Bobby Z later put it: “We were young and hungry and we started kicking his ass.” James found himself struggling to follow Prince’s energetic, flamboyant performance, with large chunks of the audience leaving during his set.
The animosity between the two was further fueled by the fact that Prince and his band tended to avoid socializing with James and his party-hard entourage. James wasn’t sure what to do with a group so far from his own sensibilities. “I felt sorry for him,” he later recalled. “Here’s this little dude wearing high heels, standing there in a trench coat. Then at the end of the set, he’d take off his trench coat and he’d be wearing little girl’s bloomers. The guys in the audience would boo him to death.”
As the Prince tour wound down in April, further trouble emerged from within Prince’s own traveling party. As a member of a religious sect called The Way, keyboardist Gayle Chapman found herself increasingly conflicted about her role in the group. “Prince was tired of the costumes that I was coming up with,” she later recalled. “He sent his girlfriend down to the hotel room that I was in, she knocked on the door…dumped this bag of multicolored underwear on my bed, and said, ‘Prince says wear this or you’re fired.’”
Chapman felt similarly uncomfortable about having to kiss her bandleader rather suggestively during the song “Head” (which subsequently appeared on Dirty Mind). “There had been some tension between her beliefs and what she was being called upon to do in our live show,” Dickerson recalled. “There was a developing role that she was given that involved the simulation of some pretty vulgar things on stage.”
Things came to a head when Chapman told Prince she planned to go on a trip with her Way group; Prince wanted her to commit to some short-notice rehearsals instead. An argument broke out that resulted in her leaving the group, leaving Prince with another round of personnel issues to deal with. All of this paled in comparison, however, to the kind of shake-up he already had in mind.