Prince Purple Rain

Between the Grooves of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’

In 1984, funk rock legend Prince combined music and film into a major extravaganza called Purple Rain, and it went to the top of the charts for 24 weeks in a row.

Purple Rain
Prince and the Revolution
Warner Bros.
25 June 1984

7. “I Would Die 4 U”

“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.”

The stunning opening lines of “I Would Die 4 U” encapsulate as best as anything what it was that was so alluring, dangerous, mystifying, and thrilling about Prince circa 1984. Forget about the unmistakable spiritual implications of the song itself (we will get to that in a minute): this was an introduction to a figure as alien and sexually ambiguous as any pop culture iconoclast since Ziggy Stardust. Undoubtedly, for a time, it was the latter that troubled not only many a parent about Prince but perhaps also unnerved an even higher number of insecure males unsure of whether it was okay to actually like this freak, motorcycle, and harem of beautiful women or not.

It was not that Prince was obviously or even possibly gay (he had already addressed that conundrum, however evasively, years earlier in the song “Controversy”). It was that his brand of carnality always had him unshakably poised in the role of the mysterious, Dracula-like aggressor. We, which is to say all of us who bought a ticket or spun the record, were vulnerable to his hypnotic spell.

If anything, “I Would Die 4 U” proves just how impossible that spell was to resist. Gliding in on a shimmering wave of a simple but irresistible keyboard melody and itchy percussion throb, the song is simultaneously majestic and intimate, a series of comforting promises written in the sky: “You’re just a sinner, I am told / Be your fire when you are cold / Make you happy when you’re sad / Make you good when you are bad.” That the song is cloaked in the guise of a pop love song, that elemental and broadly unspecific form that has served generations of pin-up heroes from the Beatles to the Jonas Brothers up to legions of squealing fans, highlights its singular brilliance as both a formal composition and a sly subversion of the same.

Taken simply as a pop love song, it is exemplary, but listen to what it says about the relationship between a larger-than-life rock star and adoring fan: “No need to worry / No need to cry / I’m your messiah, and you’re the reason why.” Any hint of vulnerability in Prince’s words — indeed, in the title itself — is a ruse. He is our savior, seducer, and pop idol all at once.

Because few rock stars ever explored the dimensions of their faith with as much conviction as Prince, the song’s conceit of placing him in the literal role of Christ (“I’m not a human, I’m a dove / I’m your conscious / I am love / All I really need is to know that you believe”) successfully mutes any blanket accusations of sacrilege. Rather, the song is an expression of the defining tension at the heart of rock and roll, the struggle between the spiritual and the sexual. It is a duality that perhaps no other popular figure of the last thirty years, not even Madonna in all of her insistent provocation, has addressed with as much illuminating depth and fire as Prince.

“I Would Die 4 U” is the ultimate act of self-mythologizing, placed in the midst of an album that successfully crafted and launched upon the world the legend of its own enigmatic creator. Here, as in so much of Prince’s classic work, the Christian savior and the glamorous rock star are one and the same. – Jer Fairall

8. “Baby I’m a Star”

If “I Would Die 4 U” was Purple Rain‘s spiritually anguished yin, then “Baby I’m a Star” was its cocky, narcissistic yang. As the former seamlessly bleeds into the latter with a big organ swell, Prince kicked the religious allegories and latent born-again-isms to the curb in favor of just having a good time in this already fallen world. No one’s going to get in his way or tell him that he’s a nobody because, as far as he’s concerned, he’s already a star.

The truth is that no one was disputing Prince’s Purple Majesty in 1984. With Purple Rain, he had a hugely successful album and a blockbuster movie; at one point during the year, he simultaneously held the spots for #1 single, #1 album, and #1 film in the US. So when he hollered, “Baby I’m a Star”, it wasn’t a delusion of grandeur — it was the gospel truth. But when Prince first penned his overweening ode to pop stardom, his celebrity status was not quite cemented.

Originally composed and recorded in 1982 during his prolific 1999 sessions, “Baby I’m a Star” found the 24-year-old musician on the precipice of superstardom — and this song seemed to anticipate his success. Propelled by a danceable, hard-to-deny Linn drum machine pattern and punctuated by Prince’s signature keyboards-as-horns, the song’s self-assertive speed and cocksure chorus was the biggest slice of rock and roll hubris this side of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” Just check out the brazen chorus: “Oh baby, I’m a star! / Might not know it now / Baby, but I am, I’m a star! / I don’t wanna stop till I reach the top.”

His eyes on the prize, Prince was destined, if not downright overconfident, to achieve greatness. Lines like “Hey, check it all out / Baby, I know what it’s all about” and “Everybody say nothin’ come 2 easy / But when U got it, baby, nothin’ come 2 hard” only supported that swagger. By the time “Baby I’m a Star” appeared on Purple Rain, Prince had assuredly reached the top, and lyrics like “Hey, I ain’t got no money / But honey, I’m rich on personality” just seemed laughably awesome.

The version that ended up on Purple Rain and as a B-side on the “Take Me With U” single was recorded live with the Revolution at the Minneapolis club First Avenue in 1983. The performance marked the debut of guitarist Wendy Melvoin. Prince reworked the song in the studio, keeping the audience clamor and applause and adding assorted effects and overdubs — most notably the faux string enhancements and the nebulous backmasking in the beginning that rips his critics: “Like what the fuck do they know? / All their taste is in their mouth / Really, what the fuck do they know? / Come on, baby. Let’s go crazy!”

More than any other song on Purple Rain, “Baby I’m a Star” documents the unbridled energy and graceful sleaziness that was Prince live. If you listen close enough, you can hear purple chiffon and pelvic thrusts under all the come-ons. – Jeremy Ohmes

9. “Purple Rain”

“Remember when we was young, everybody used to have those arguments about who’s better, Michael Jackson or Prince? Prince won!”

With this quote, the great Chris Rock comes down firmly on the side of Prince Rogers Nelson in the battle of pop icons. But in 1983, the answer wasn’t so obvious. Michael Jackson was in the midst of Thriller-induced megastardom. Then, the summer of 1984 came along, and with it, the pop culture ubiquity of Prince. He even captured two titles Michael Jackson never could: Movie Star and Rock Star. And no other song cemented his mythical status like that of the title track to a movie, an album, and an era — “Purple Rain”.

Recorded live at First Avenue, the Minneapolis club that hosted the Revolution vs. Time throwdowns in the movie, “Purple Rain” starts off simply enough. Technically an exploration of harmony in ballad format, it’s really just a man and his guitar, sounding lonely on purpose. The song has places to go — and go, it does. From resignation to urgency over an epic eight minutes and 45 seconds — like gospel on rock ‘n’ roll steroids. Prince builds emotion with his classic vocal take and busts the song in half with a ringing guitar solo, from which “Rain” intensifies with organs, cymbals, and pleading. Finally, the song settles as the piano and strings linger like sparks trailing the fireworks.

Lyrically, the question that endures 25 years later can be summed up thusly: What the hell is he talking about? Is it an allusion to the “Purple Haze” of his idol Jimi Hendrix? A lyrical rip from America’s “Ventura Highway”? Is he just really into purple? Regardless, Prince deduced the great secret of mass acceptance by keeping the lyrics decidedly elliptical. He never explains this fantastical “purple rain” or why it’s got him so morose at the start. On one listening level, ignorance is bliss, so just sing along. But if you delve deeper, more questions arrive than answers.

In Thailand, the color purple represents mourning, and Prince is certainly lamenting the end of a relationship through the first half of the song (“It’s such a shame our friendship had 2 end”). He seems the Prince of the Purple Heart, wounded in battle. As the song structure opens skyward, the lyrics reflect the change by discussing a larger relationship, that of a “leader” that will “guide” his prospects. Purple seems to take on the connotation of ultimate royalty — the King of Kings. Does Prince have a God complex? In one sense, he could be setting himself up as the Creator of this relationship. He “only wants to see you underneath the purple rain.” Kind of a poetic way of saying, “my way or the highway”. Or perhaps he’s contemplating his relationship with his Maker. Rain falls from the heavens, after all. This reading seems a better fit for the spiritual transcendence reflected in the music.

The definitive answer never comes, though, and the song is all the better for it. In the end, that sense of mystery keeps the track universal. There’s something bigger at work within “Purple Rain”, the holiest of rock anthems. – Tim Slowikowski

Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on 31 May 2009.