Gangster Glam and Voyeurism: Prince and the New Power Generation's 'Diamonds and Pearls'
Our latest Between the Grooves series examines Prince's Diamonds and Pearls, which offers further explorations into the mysterious/strange sexual side of Prince and his preachy/pedantic side, and also his relaxed/smooth side.
Prince’s 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls, which introduced his band the New Power Generation, is by some counts his second best-selling album period, after Purple Rain. It went double-platinum. It contained his fifth, and final (to date), #1 single. Yet the album does not seem to have stood the test of time with most critics.
Earlier this year, Touré released a book about Prince, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, which has no references to the album at all, yet does talk about seemingly lesser works like Graffiti Bridge, Emancipation, and Rainbow Children. In Michaelangelo Matos’ 33 1/3 Series book on Sign O’ the Times, he refers to Diamonds and Pearls as Prince “listlessly copying himself”, equating it to the 1999 album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. In the Rolling Stone Album Guide, there are only seven albums, of 33 ranked, that are given an equal or lower star rating than Diamonds and Pearls. They slam it as “overthought and lifeless” and a “blatant aim for commercial appeal” (as if that’s an unlikely m.o. for a superstar among the best-selling artists of his time).
At the time of the album’s release, the reviews were more leavened, but still not overly positive. It was #36 in that year’s Pazz and Jop poll of critics, in between Dave Alvin and Dinosaur Jr. (Number One was Nevermind, of course), and Robert Christgau seems to have liked it somewhat. It got basically positive reviews in Rolling Stone and NME. But Entertainment Weekly’s David Browne declared “the imp keeps spinning his wheels”. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tom Moon called it “horrendously basic”.
By some it was seen as reactionary move in response to the growing dominance of hip-hop. The man who defensively spoofed rap on The Black Album had now given an MC a prominent place in his new band. Others focused on that new band, inevitably comparing it negatively to the Revolution. And many of the criticisms focused on its place in Prince’s overall career, seeing it as a desperate act from a washed-up, once-innovative star.
And it is, indeed, an album not from a cutting-edge upstart but from an established star. So it’s version of the “new” might not feel as new, might feel like revisions to past formulas. At the same time, Diamonds and Pearls does have a distinct style and approach within Prince’s catalog, and amidst the music of the day. If Prince was trying to jump on a hip-hop bandwagon, he was intentionally not going for the newest-latest style, or the purest form of the genre, but taking a pop/R&B version of it (new jack swing, essentially) and wedding it to a more old-school form of entertainment, with elements of Las Vegas, of James Brown, of Cab Calloway.
Glitter and glamor are the setting, in a mansions and jewelry, old Hollywood way, but the songs also cut against that image, cut against the materialism inherent in it even. It has more swagger than Price had had for a while--it does draw from hip-hop’s swagger, but not exclusively. It’s a strange mix of the elaborate and the down-and-dirty; elegance and grit.
The closest relative on a thematic level may be Parade, but musically it’s also the opposite of that lean minimalist funk; much bigger and shinier. It’s often more like Around the World in a Day in its bombast, but also fresh. Overall it represented a new fresh twist on old themes, a new style for a familiar artist (down to his new hairstyle, a Medusa-ish curl).
The album sort of began a new era for Prince, leading into him rebuking his name, the symbol era, etc. The whole period is worth rediscovering, as there are gems and intriguing turns throughout, but this album stands as distinct from it, and above it in some ways. It is Prince’s most collective-sounding album of the time, but he's clearly the bandleader. It also has its own style beyond that of Prince the established artist fronting a band. The liner notes call that style “GangsterGlam. Godfather III meets Barbarella.” The idea of the silliest of the Godfather movies meeting a campy sci-fi film is a bit ridiculous. But it suits an album that boasts its own sort of ridiculousness. Remember: this album had a hologram as its cover, a photo of Prince and two women, supposedly twins named Diamond and Pearl (of course). The thank-you’s in the album notes include Voyeurism, the woman who invented the kiss, and the Wizard of Oz.
In all its ridiculous glory, Diamonds and Pearls offers further explorations into the mysterious/strange sexual side of Prince and his preachy/pedantic side, and also his relaxed/smooth side. Nothing here is as frantic or anxious as some of his earlier classics. The whole album is more a luxurious stroll, with a "the world is ours" stance not unlike that held by the movie gangsters that rappers idolize. Too often quickly dismissed as just another Prince album (or less), Diamonds and Pearls offers a wealth of material to study. It will never be held up as his absolute best, but that doesn't make it boring or even inessential. It was one more chance for a habitual reinventor to reinvent himself, and he did so in an odd, beguiling way that has stood the test of time even as he has moved on with his life.