Prince and the New Power Generation - 'Diamonds and Pearls' (Between the Grooves)
"Between the Grooves" take a deep dive into Prince's Diamonds and Pearls. The album offers explorations into the mysterious/strange sexual side of Prince, his preachy/pedantic side, and also his relaxed/smooth side.
Diamonds and Pearls
Prince and the New Power Generation
Paisley Park / Warner Bros.
1 October 1991
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 some critics.
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 a 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 its 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 settings, in a mansion 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 to 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.
"Thunder" opens Diamonds and Pearls with a moment of grandeur and bombast, one playing into Prince's longtime interest in combining spirituality and sexuality. The first thing you hear is Prince's voice multi-tracked to almost resembling a chorus, a feeling echoed by the stern tone in which he sings, "Thunder / All through the night / Promise to see Jesus in the morning light / Take my hand it'll be alright / C'mon save your soul tonight."
It's pure drama, proclaiming an emergency. The call to "save your soul" because of some impending doom is present in the music, too, ominous and vaguely religious at times. Prince sings as if he's spinning a mythological tale, though if you really listen it seems to be basically a one-night-stand, with a woman in his bed who he sees as either a "sweet savior" or "the devil in disguise". But then at the moment of climax, things get stranger, as she is an "it", possibly named Love, which proclaims, "Only the children born of me will remain!" Is that Jesus demanding obedience, a woman proclaiming her hold over him (in the form of children), or something else? There's also a point where he utters, almost under his breath, "Don't do it like that / Do it like this", making us wonder who he is talking to – is he giving love-making instructions, or is that the voice of God, mocked as a tyrant? Or is that Love's sweet voice telling him how to behave?
At nearly six minutes' length, the song builds some strange guitar sounds into its mix, leaving time for Prince to play around even within a song with a determined course of its own, a sense of panic even. About halfway through, Prince's voice goes through some arpeggios again designed to resemble church, and some hand-clap and vocal-chorus moments flowing from the same. His guitar solo brings in some vaguely Middle Eastern touches -- sort of the equivalent of an obvious film-score cue for a belly dancer -- and lets him ride the song's basic sound and groove for an extra couple minutes. The final wind-up and down evokes another Hollywood trope, too: haunted-house organ music. He's traveling through old Hollywood genre tropes, all within a 911 call of a song that simultaneously is asking us if we're ready for a party, with a new band that can jam.
You'll notice I say "he" and "him" but also talk about a big sound and a chorus of voices. Besides marking a dramatic entrance, with Hollywood genre touchpoints, the song is most notable because it's the lone track on the album with the credit "all instruments and vocals by Prince". The album is his first billed to him and his new band, yet instead of introducing us to that band, he's standing alone, while emulating the sound of a band. It's in some ways the song with the biggest, most layered sound, yet it's the one without the group. This is part of the album's dichotomy, between bandleader and band, the individual and society, but it's also a small joke/trick within an album with a lot of them. An early pre-release version of the album didn't include this song but started instead with "The Flow" (a song eventually released on the next album). Opening with a grandiose statement of self/sex/philosophy, vague as it is, sets this up as a much different album, one with its own inherent sense of drama. Diamonds and Pearls is a ridiculous album, in many extremely pleasurable ways, and "Thunder" is a suitably ridiculous way to begin it.
"Thunder", the first track on Diamonds and Pearls, segues into something closer to what we might expect a bandleader and his band to come up with for an opening salvo: a jam. That is, not a great work of songwriting or a hit single for the ages, but something the band can groove on. It's a funk song, but with synth parts that give it a vaguely jazzy nightclub feeling. The lyrics drop hints that we're hearing a band on stage, rocking the house ("Let's make the whole house move"). That feeling is accentuated by the vocals -- by all of the little back-up echoes and asides (lots of "oh Daddy"s and "oh yeahs", including some spoken ones that give the feeling a crowd is present) and by the back-and-forth between Prince and Rosie Gaines.
Gaines is introduced here as the album's counterpart for Prince. Not an equal counterpart, but a gifted singer who can play as his foil or his support, depending on the need. Prince has had female singers play a similar role on individual songs in the past, but never one in the band in the same way, as present, which supports the impression that the New Power Generation is a band, not just supporting characters, whether that's true or not.
The other vocal presence introduced near the end of the song is dancer-turned-rapper Tony M, perhaps the most ridiculed figure in the overall Prince repertory (the Jar Jar Binks of Prince-world?). He's a serviceable, occasionally awkward rapper whose approach is that of Let's Get It Started-era MC Hammer, yet delivered with a gruffness that suggests he'd rather think of himself as tough and confident, more like, say, the D.O.C. He gets nowhere near pulling the later off; his role is basically the old-fashioned hypeman. That's why he doesn't take much away from the band, especially here. Yes, he reveals that where hip-hop fits into Prince's music -- as just another piece of entertainment, part of a greater show-biz trajectory of performance tricks and tools -- but in terms of keeping the focus where it should be, on Prince and his groove ("deep purple concord jams", he calls them), that helps. In other words, if Tony M was a virtuoso MC, it might be to the detriment of Prince & the New Power Generation's project.
No one should really show Prince up, in other words. When a guitar solo steals the scene -- when Gaines says "talk guitar talk", and a guitar comes in sounding strange and cool, you know it has to be Prince's guitar. He even tries sort-of rapping, and shows up Tony M, mainly because he's more fluid with it, blending the rapping into the singing into, I don't know, smooth statements of confidence, basically.
Bragging -- or, more precisely, putting Prince in the king's chair and kissing his ring -- is the point of the song, as it should be for a song whose position on the album is about hyping up the imagined crowd, getting them excited for the momentous occasion that is the debut of Prince's new group ("the funkiest band on land", Tony M calls them in the song). Prince, after all, is "Daddy Pop". The lyrics start by declaring that he's the man everyone wants to be. They want to drive his car, sit in his chair, be on his stages.
Gaines gives career advice to those who can't be as good as Prince (everyone) -- "Whenever you say that you can't, that's when you need to be tryin'", while Prince both lauds his own past and derides them for dwelling on the past when they should be "living the new" like he is. Meanwhile, breathless women moan, "you're the best", to Daddy Pop, who seems to have women following him around feeding his ego (Diamond and Pearl, perhaps?). The song is pure braggadocio, but also communal. Its focus on the band is also a focus on the band leader, the one who made this all possible, a divine figure of sorts. He hasn't just written great songs, he's written the Book of Love ("Daddy Pop is the writer / And love is the book"). Daddy Pop is the man, the one and only, and we're in his house.
3. "Diamonds and Pearls"
Prince ballads can be separated out into a variety of subtypes. Of course there are the bedtime love-making jams ("Do Me Baby"). There are more austere confessional love letters ("Forever in My Life"). There are versions of the same with more melancholy or tragic overtones ("Condition of the Heart"). There are those attempting to join intimate love songs with larger philosophical statements about society ("Free"). And there are attempts to take one of these and make it more mythic, more monumental in scope ("Purple Rain").
"Diamonds and Pearls", a #3 hit, is Diamonds and Pearls´ attempt at the last category, perhaps, though really it's a hybrid of every one of these ballad types except the first. It is, essentially, a song where a man asks a woman whether she'd be willing to marry him -- though of course this is Prince, so it's phrased a little differently. He starts, "This will be the day, that you will hear me say / That I will never run away / I am here for you, love is meant for two / Now tell me what you're gonna do."
"Diamonds and pearls" this time exemplify the most expensive thing one person can give another. He doesn't have those, he just has love; will that be enough for her? The song, though, is draped in diamonds and pearls, with the sonic translations of luxury that are part of the fabric of the album. That sort of cuts against the song's message, which happens from time to time on the album -- he might be verbally eschewing the excesses of capitalism and consumerism, yet musically he seems to be seeking a kind of excess that might recall the same, bringing to mind "the glamorous life".
Slightly over halfway through the song, there's a point where the flow of the song pauses and a horn (or horn-like synthesizer) bursts out in proclamation, as if royalty has arrived. Is Prince himself the royalty (Daddy Pop), or does this mark the entrance point of Love, the real royalty?
In the section after, Rosie Gaines turns the title into sort of a sports cheer or hip-hop brag – "D to the I to the A to the M", etc. – ends "to the pearls of love", defining love as the real item of luxury here. In the next verse (after some guitar soloing -- a reminder of the way Prince works creative guitar playing into songs that seem to not have guitar at their forefront), Prince not just puts love on a pedestal but segues into singing about a more universal sort of love – "There will come a time, when love will blow your mind / And everything you'll look for you'll find / That will be the time, that everything will shine / So bright it makes you colorblind".
That colorblind reference is another sly Prince attempt to turn his compositions into big message songs without feeling like they are. Let's not get carried away with ourselves, trick ourselves into hearing the song as a message of global tolerance. If you go back to the beginning, our narrator seems to have something else on his mind. There's a point where he says they're always fighting, they don't know which one of them is right, so they should "let love decide". Is that the same as saying, "baby instead of arguing let's settle this in bed"? It reads that way. Which means maybe this is that first type of Prince ballad, too, behind the curtains. It's an every-ballad, then, in Prince World, which also carries a distinct brand of pseudo-luxury.
"Cream", the second single off Diamonds and Pearls, might be Prince's least well-known #1 hit, with one possible exception. It was his fifth and final (thus far) #1, after "When Doves Cry", "Let's Go Crazy", "Kiss", and "Batdance". It is his only #1 single that can't be connected to a motion picture.
The low grumblings that open the song are cinematic, in a way -- they give hint to the porn-like atmosphere that is to come on "Gett Off". But then Michael Bland's drums kick in, brightly, and a melodic guitar line enters that will serve as a continual counterpart to -- a conversation partner for, really -- Prince.
The mood is smooth and relaxed, though the first words Prince sings are as if the moment is momentous: "This is it / Time for you to go to the wire". This is something other than a crisis, though -- it's more a "you can do it" confidence boost, one with (of course) heavy sexual overtones. But it's also one that plays into the cool swagger that is essential to Diamonds and Pearls.
"Cream" has a casual, locked-in groove, though a somewhat jumpy one, and also a lot of playful guitar, a reminder that Diamonds and Pearls is a great guitar album. The song showcases the band, but Prince's guitar stands out above all, sounding somewhat ghostly but also Bonnie Raitt-ish. The best guitar moment is one similar to the "talk guitar talk" moment from "Daddy Pop", where the instrument enters the lyrics as a character. This time it's "Look up in the air / It's your guitar", and then an unusual solo.
Prince sings that line, and the song overall, in a breathy smooth way that's almost a whisper, but purposely not so. He displays his status as a ringleader/guru, telling us to set ourselves, or at least our bodies, free. That's summed up by his lines "Do your dance / Why would you wait any longer / Take your chance / It'll only make you stronger".
But he's flirting, too, and that's in the words -- "You've got the horn so why don't you blow it (come on and blow it)" and then "You're filthy cute and baby you know it" -- but also the way he sings them, with a naughty wink. The last word of the song is "boogie!", but the gentleness of that instruction is what makes it stand out. Of all his calls for us to dance (or "dance"…wink, wink), it's one of the sweetest.
"Strollin'" is one of the fluffiest songs on Diamonds and Pearls, and, with "Jughead", one of the songs most likely to be denigrated or brushed aside, even by people who generally like the album. At the same time the song quietly represents the album's overall mood and style – its modernized antiquity, its relaxed swagger, its elaborate playfulness.
It's essentially a lightly (very lightly) jazz rewrite of Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin' -- another song about chilling out with your baby that musically tries to emulate the same tone, through pace and falsetto.
"Strollin'" is goofier than "Cruisin'", with more eccentric behavior described, typical of Prince. A couple is taking a day off work to enjoy life -- which means rollerskating around the lake, reading dirty magazines on the sly, eating ice cream, and giving a car to a street musician with a blue guitar.
The main words besides the title are "oh yeah". The song is a trifle, but also one offering positivity as the answer. In face of hate, let's "make a joyful sound" -- whether that sound comes from music, pleasure sounds, the giggles of a couple awkwardly trying to rollerskate, or their snickers as they read dirty magazines at the ice cream parlor.
The song's two best lines are the ones that say the most about Diamonds and Pearls and Prince's approach to music in 1991. One is "If we don't know how / We'll fake it / Oh yeah", which speaks to Prince & the New Power Generation's approach to hip-hop, to jazz, to living a life of luxury, to showbiz. Fake it 'til you make it is the attitude of the album.
The other line is the goofy "Rocking / Rolling / Oh yeah". This may be a rock 'n' roll album for Prince, but it presents a different notion of rock. He has a band behind him, yes. There is a focus on electric guitar, on ego, on sex. But the guitar is elusive and indirect and the music is soft and pretty. If it's one of Prince's rock albums, it's one that purposely plays against expectations of rock. It does the same with other genres (R&B, hip-hop, funk, jazz, etc.) while still foregrounding the ego and style that are at the center of the personas of each genre's stars. Prince is giving his own Prince-ian sense of cool to some relatively common tropes and forms.
6."Willing and Able"
The conventional wisdom on Diamonds and Pearls is that it was Prince trying to co-opt the sounds of hip-hop to compete in the "urban" marketplace. But here we are, five songs in, and there's been just one meager rap, during "Daddy Pop". The sixth song, "Willing and Able", is yet another example of Prince's stealth approach to hip-hop.
The song at first carries on the smoothness of the previous track, with Prince singing falsetto, but it's a sturdier, more confident and serious song that feels urgent. Backed by acoustic guitar in what immediately seems like a gospel song, Prince strikes a confessional tone that, at first, is at odds with the album's tone so far, which has been light and jokey. "I've been holding back this feeling for far too long", he declares – really? He doesn't exactly strike us as someone who hasn't been speaking his mind.
As the song builds, the gospel feeling grows, until almost gospel-chorus-like backing vocals start appearing. The moment a seeming chorus echoes his "Willing!" is the first moment I laugh, though, since the chorus at that point mostly sounds like Prince's own voice, which is fitting for this egofest. When he declares, "There's nothing I won't do", we again start feeling like we're hearing a pickup line, albeit one disguised as real honest confessional. "Dance and sing / Somebody watch me do my thing", Prince and Rosie Gaines both declare. Self-expression and individuality are again a theme, but so is voyeurism. Prince needs someone to watch him.
The climax all of this vocal interplay and musical buildup are leading to is, again, a meager rap. Is the rap a climax or an afterword? It's a little rap, one of Tony M's smoother appearances on the album. He starts, "Well, hello", sounding either like he just walked into the song or he knows we've been waiting for him to appear. Though we haven't… have we?
His rap echoes the idea that this is a pick-up song, though he also plays into the "that's entertainment" showbiz quality of the album. And then he's gone, leading into a quick funky organ solo that's just as interesting, or maybe even more so.
Prince has scores of songs with moments that you could take as musical versions of scenes from adult films -- "Darling Nikki", "Little Red Corvette", much of Dirty Mind. Cries of pleasure are often used as musical cues and Prince beckons us into a bedroom often. But chief among them is "Gett Off". The last song added to Diamonds and Pearls (replacing one called "Horny Pony"), it also was the first single. The scenario and sound the song presents are distinctly different than the rest of the album, though the sense of a peacock strutting remains.
Debuted in a 10-minute version at a club to celebrate Prince's 33rd birthday, the song's basement funk does suggest a party in some secretive, shadowy location. After an introductory scream from Prince, and some wailing of uncertain demeanor, we're brought inside. The words "club mix" are uttered a couple times at the beginning too, suggesting both that this is party music and that there are other versions of this song that the listener isn't hearing. That provides an extra insinuation of secrecy.
Musically the song suggests a mysterious scene, and suggests that this is where Prince feels at home. "Here we are in my paisley crib…" he starts at one point, and the entire song is like a beckoning into the center of Prince's devious Don Juan persona. The way the song starts, and how it abruptly changes the scene from the lighter, airier last song, it sounds like we're being led into a dark chamber.
But then when Prince begins, he sounds weirdly insecure, his voice lower, quieter and more wavering than usual -- even while he's being blunt and beckoning. His opening salvo -- "I'm going to put this in a way so as not to offend or unnerve / There's a rumor going all around that you ain't been getting served". Then he admits that all he wants to do is wrong, and makes his offer of "23 positions in a one-night-stand".
It gets dirtier from there, with Prince telling his intended tryst that he's heard about her fantasies, the one "about a little box with a mirror and a tongue inside", which goes in a direction so extreme that he doesn't dare speak it aloud.
Beyond half-hearted attempts to make the song a pedantic call for everyone everywhere to "get off" (a la the head-scratching "Everybody grab a body / Pump it like you want somebody"), the song's lyrical strengths are in odd specificity. It's filled with colorful versions of pick-up lines, essentially Prince finding different ways to convince a woman to enter his bed. It's a rap song, in that he's laying down a rap and hoping she bites.
There's something old-fashioned about his spiel, and also eccentric, from his promise/threat to strip her down like he's unwrapping a candy bar, against a parking meter no less, to the point where he mock-samples James Brown's "Mother Popcorn", by daydreaming "reminds me of something James used to say"… and then imitating him for a few seconds -- in the middle of explaining to his would-be-lover why he doesn't serve ribs at his house.
The song is all about atmosphere and suggestion, from Prince's come-ons over churning bass and persistent drums to Eric Leeds' flute-playing, vaguely reminiscent of the pseudo-Middle Eastern cue a cartoon or movie would use to suggest a harem. (If that flute attracts you, seek out the 12" single's "flutestrumental" version. In fact, the suggestiveness of "Gett Off" made it especially suited for remixes and alternate versions. Interested listeners could seek out the house mix, the original extended mix, etc. Or follow the title back to a b-side for Graffiti Bridge's song "New Power Generation", an introductory anthem of sorts for the band, or at least the band name.)
Prince's voice is just as strong a scene-setter in "Gett Off". It ranks among the many examples in his discography of Prince twisting and turning his voice in unexpected ways. Here he sings more downcast and shy than the material would seem to warrant, and ends up seeming more alluring and superstar-like for it. A highlight, of the song, and the album, is his sing-song "Let me show you baby I'm a talented boy" which in a way sums up the effortless way Prince in this era was riding his talent and past successes in new directions.
8."Walk Don't Walk"
"Walk Don't Walk" kicks off a more frivolous section of Diamonds and Pearls. The album already has an air of frivolity to it, yet in a meaningful way; its lightness goes hand-in-hand with its confidence, freshness, and style. "Walk Don't Walk" is sort of anti-frivolity in the sense that it's trying to impart some words of wisdom to us listeners, to encourage us to follow our own path, to not be afraid of being bold enough to talk to strangers, to enter their space and at the same time walk our own way.
At least that seems to be the message. Prince and Rosie Gaines engage in a back-and-forth exchange of instructions; most of them turn out to be directions coming from society, messages we should ignore. "They" want you to walk with everyone else, to walk without confidence, (to "walk like you could use a ride"), to shut up until spoken to, to play the fool.
Their goofy interplay, punctuated in the background by horn noises, builds towards something almost gospel-like ("almost gospel-like" being a theme for much of the album), and the moral "The sun will shine upon you one day / If you're always walkin' your way". To say that Prince has written about nonconformity in more creative or interesting ways before would be a severe understatement.
Or even in more nonconformist ways…The song is inherently repetitive, filled with at least 30 utterances of the word "walk" (or a variation) and a decent handful of "talk". We feel like we're stuck within the boundaries of a word prison of some kind. Is that on purpose, to reveal the ways pop songs themselves reinforce conformity? Hmm…not sure I can go that far.
With the song that follows it ("Jughead"), "Walk Don't Walk" is also one of the most dated-feeling songs on the album. Or maybe that's just because of the word "psyche" – as in, "don't walk wherever they tell you to (psyche)". That "psyche" combined with the "don't" actually makes the line awfully confusing, which is representative of the song as a whole. It's a bit of a maze of statements and anti-statements.
By the end of the song, though, we realize it's been relatively short and sweet, a lightly cheesy space-filler to move us along.
"Jughead" is clearly considered the clunker on Diamonds and Pearls and one of the biggest missteps in Prince's discography. The song's main vocalist, the rapper Tony M, is treated like a pariah, a mistake. Out there on the Internet there's a Prince fan who has even edited Tony M out of some of songs and posted the "improved" results. Let's step back and take a breath, as well as a bird's eye view on this.
Anthony Mosley was a backup dancer for Prince who was invited to rap on some songs. His style of rhyming is fairly basic, somewhat of a throwback for 1991. He won't ever be mistaken for a technician, he probably wouldn't have won many freestyle battles, and he will not, on "Jughead" or elsewhere, wow you with his dexterity.
On Diamonds and Pearls what Tony M. is, is another part of the entertainment package, another element to the band's showbiz approach. "Jughead" is the one track on the album where he takes center stage (sort of), which doesn't suit him or the album well. Prince isn't about to let anyone up-stage him, we should know that by now.
"This is for the hood…better keep it greasy", Tony M declares, but mostly the song is about a groove with some horns, plus the vocalists and musicians trying to keep the energy level up. There's a dance at the center of this, I suppose -- "You'll catch me dead / Before you catch me doing anything but the jughead" -- though I've never been sure what that is exactly. They're getting funky in the house, getting stupid, getting international up in the house. It's a party, it's a party song, its purpose is to maintain the impression that Prince's new band can put on one hell of a show.
It's also a group rapping effort, sort of, or at least both Rosie Gaines and Prince get to do their own little raps. To say Prince is still, even when he raps, the most interesting vocalist on the track might not be wrong. He also throws some little guitar licks in at the end of the song that pretty much steal the show.
The basic formula of the song -- a horn-laden funk band getting down while Tony M hypes up the crowd -- became the basic formula behind the New Power Generation's first album without Prince in their name: 1993's Goldnigga. Listen to that one, especially a track like "Black MF in the House", if you want to hear how much Tony M's rapping improves when his mentor isn't right beside him, and when he lets anger light a fire within him.
10."Money Don't Matter 2 Night"
It's the way Diamonds and Pearls works; a couple lightweight space-fillers sit in between two stone-cold classics: "Gett Off" and this ballad, one of Prince's message songs, so to speak. The fifth single released from the album (it hit just #23 on the charts), it's also one of the songs on Diamonds and Pearls that doesn't feature all of the New Power Generation band members. It consists of Levi Seacer, Jr on bass, Michael Bland on drums, and Prince on everything else, including backing vocals.
It's a smooth soul ballad, a would-be quiet storm hit, except Prince's mind is on the world's problems. You expect that "money don't matter tonight" will carry the undertone that what's more important than money is love (i.e. "money don't matter in the bedroom"), but he never goes there, even if the setting and his singing might help us make that connection in our own minds.
His lead vocals have a slightly removed aesthetic quality to them, which gives the effect of Prince as an omniscient narrator, singing to us through a radio or the clouds. He starts off telling a story of a gambling addict who doesn't have enough money "2 treat his lady right". A second verse does the same with investments; the world of finance is filled with greedy "snakes in every color, every nationality and size".
In the last verse, he steps back and widens his view -- the United States is the gambling addict, and what we're using to bet are our the lives of our children. The song was written and recorded during the Gulf War/Operation Desert Storm, and this verse is a reminder that sometimes Prince peers out of his purple mansion on the hill at what is going on in the world. Is oil worth children dying?, he asks. Because he's Prince, he also extrapolates it into a life lesson: "If long life is what we all live 4 / Then long life will come 2 pass".
The chorus' message that money doesn't matter might seem in competition with the life of luxury depicted on the rest of Diamonds and Pearls, until you remember that luxury is a style here, a state of mind.
With "Push", Prince eases back into the band-focused, dance-funk side of Diamonds and Pearls. "Eases" is the right word, as the song has an easygoing quality from the start, even with Prince's sometimes intense falsetto and a certain level of buried anxiety. The comfort level is also unique for a song that at the same time is trying to keep a steady groove that might drive somebody to a nearby dancefloor.
Tony M is here, Rosie Gaines is here; the gang's all here, or at least it sounds that way. In actuality, Prince plays pretty much all of the instruments. One major theme of this album seems to be "Meet my new band', yet to a decent extent that's a ruse. As always, Prince is the man, the star of the show, and that's how he wants it, even when he also wants us to think he's sharing the spotlight. At the very least, he's a perfectionist.
For a while, the song's apparent lyric focus is motivation, inspiration – "Push until you get to higher ground" (more likely "until U get 2…", but nevermind). Essentially, the message is don't listen to the haters, follow your own path. It's the rare pop song that uses the word "asunder", though I also think it uses it incorrectly, as a verb ("No man should asunder the joy that another man found"). He also instructs us to "change up like a sock" when someone tries to stop us.
Its length of nearly six minutes allows for surprises. The highlight of the song is the rap section in the last couple minutes, which basically sets up a cipher of sorts where each rapper gets a turn, a crowd nearby yelling for each ("Tony, get on the mic!"). Of course, there's only three rappers and they are Tony M, Prince, and Rosie Gaines -- not exactly a group of show-stopping MCs. At the same time, why I call that section a highlight is in part how goofy it is.
Of the three raps, the goofiest -- and for that reason, the most interesting -- is Prince's. He starts with a nervous demeanor and then turns it into a weird affectation, as if that shaky quality isn't nerves but his rapper voice. He runs through a bunch of the album's song titles in rap form (including "Horny Pony", which was deleted), and then tells us he's "snatching up kiddies like a circus clown", which is supposed to be what? A boast? It's a moment that makes me wish there were a Prince album that actually was what people claim Diamonds and Pearls to be -- a rap album -- but with Prince on the mic all the time. Who knows what brilliant stupidity that might yield?
The album's third single (of six), "Instatiable" is a classic Prince late-night, slow-jam love-making ballad -- of which his discography holds fewer straight-ahead examples than you might imagine. This is one of those, though, like "Do Me Baby", the classic example from his earliest albums. Like that song, "Insatiable" is long -- nearly seven minutes -- and immediately sets a slow pace and bedroom setting.
Prince starts right out singing sweet-nothings up and down in a way that for him resembles moaning, before starting: "Turn the lights off / Strike a candle / No one that I've ever / Knows how to handle my body / The way you truly do".
Note the chaste blank space he leaves after "ever". He does something similar, though much crasser, with the line "I'll show you my / If you show your", this time the blank spaces filled in by a one-syllable musical phrase and a two-syllable one.
Note also the fact that he describes her as being in control, not him, probably the first time on this album that he's truly revoked control, if we believe that it's what's happening here. He says, she makes him unable to stop himself, "insatiable". An interesting moment of singing is the downward spiral of his voice on the spoken-sung line, "Even if I wasn't thirsty I would drink ever drop".
This being Prince, this straight-ahead ballad isn't that straight-ahead. They're videotaping the whole thing ("Tonight we video!"), and as befitting the album, he's as interested in the image as what they're actually doing. He seems slightly more interested in the video-recording than the act itself. "Doesn't my body look good in the shadows?", he asks her at one point.
He tells her, "You are my every fantasy", but do we believe him? This scenario seems quite tame by Prince's standards. And he seems torn about whether she'll be "nasty" enough for him. At the end of the song, he's surprised to find out she was.
Though for this album he's already been accompanied at every step by twins named Diamond and Pearl, here he's cavorting with the more ordinary-named Martha. He repeats her name several times. The music nerd in me tries to imagine her as the same character in Tom Waits' song "Martha". Is this where her life has taken her in the years since Tom Frost has seen her?
13."Live 4 Love (Last Words from the Cockpit)"
"Live 4 Love" is on the one hand the apocalyptic culmination of Diamonds and Pearls' excess; all of the narcissism and pleasure-seeking has lead to this, a warplane on its way down to a fiery crash. The music offers both a sense of urgency -- what can we do to change the ending? -- and the same over-layered feeling of At the same time, the song is one last attempt by Prince to turn the capitalistic, hedonistic feeling of the album into a message for society of love above all.
It's an anti-war song, with the answer being "love", period. It joins "Money Don't Matter 2 Night" as grounding the album in the Gulf War era. This song has a narrative, a fairly generic one: a young man is kicked out of the house, joins the military, finds himself in a war, recruited to drop bombs from a plane. When he's in the air, he finds himself conflicted, with the old angel and devil combo on his shoulders, representing war and peace. Prince tries to put us in his shoes: "Boom / I take a deep breath / Is it boom -- life? / Is it boom -- death?"
Just as much the song was a chance to show off the drum and bass combo of the New Power Generation, Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson, while throwing in a rap (reputedly the earliest on record) by Tony M, who instead of wowing us with his skills represents an outside moral voice of the song while broadening the scope of the theme to include gang warfare.
As always Prince gets the last word, this time through his guitar -- the last minute and a half of the song has him playing a solo that has more feeling, diversity, and conflict within it than the rest of the song, while also dipping into Hendrix-style rollercoaster riding. (Once again, Diamonds and Pearls is by stealth a guitar classic.)
By the end of the song it manages to feel like more of a jam than it actually is, winding down the album with one more "Prince has a new band" reminder, even if (as always) it's Prince himself mainly occupying the spotlight.
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This series of articles originally ran from November 2014 to early January 2014.
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