Prince – Controversy (1981)

“Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?”

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By 1981, Prince had somewhat successfully changed up his style enough to warrant critical notice and praise. Dirty Mind did not sell as many copies as the more commercially viable Prince. Still, the attention received from notable music writers and publications provided him with validation that his updated sound and lyrical content resonated with others. The Dirty Mind Tour was a success, and the demographic and racial background of his concertgoers was all over the map, which was likely what he was hoping for. At this point, Prince was most likely listening to the prevailing sounds and trends of the era, such as New Wave and Punk, while creating something uniquely himself with these influences as part of the music’s DNA. The sounds on For You and Prince were heavy on R&B, Soul, Funk, Pop, and Disco with the occasional Rock flashes (“I’m Yours,” “Bambi”), but Dirty Mind was an assortment of different musical bases. That album still managed to sound cohesive thanks to the common thread of lyrical content (sex! liberation! sex!) and, of course, the man who created and delivered those messages. So where would Prince go with his next musical effort, Controversy? It turns out that the same path he had forged with Dirty Mind would be his primary path forward with his fourth LP.

Released in the fall of 1981, a short year after Dirty Mind, Controversy in many respects feels like a direct continuation of that album if you’re primarily focused on the overarching themes (sex! liberation! sex!). The title track, lead single, and the first song on the album, “Controversy,” might be the song that Prince would write the day after spending a particularly debauched evening out in Uptown. “Controversy” asks but doesn’t directly address several questions that Prince himself would perpetuate throughout his early career. Black or white? Straight or gay? Secular or God-less? Including the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of the song could answer that last question, but then again, it may have been included as a red-herring. Prince’s sexuality? All the songs about women he had recorded up until this point would seem to infer a heterosexual man at the helm, but then again, did you see the music videos for “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Dirty Mind”? Flamboyant only begins to describe Prince’s look at that time. The question of Prince’s ethnicity would remain for years afterward, aided by the fact that The Kid has a black father and white mother in the pseudo-autobiographical Purple Rain film. He made no concerted attempt to refute any of these speculations. All these questions, assumptions, and meddling into Prince’s background only confirmed his conclusion that controversy feeds human curiosity.

“Reproduction of a new breed, leaders, stand up, organize”

The music of “Controversy” is also reminiscent of the song “Dirty Mind” with its thumping drum beat and hypnotic synths. At the same time, the second track, “Sexuality” amps up the Prince-ness even more thanks to his trademark screams, squeals, and discussion of sex as a code for freedom. “Do Me, Baby,” the slow jam that closes side one, is the orgasmic conclusion to what would be a relatively sex-less side one compared to what transpired throughout Dirty Mind. “Do Me, Baby” is a well written yet standard ballad on the surface, but the second half of the song turns into soft-core audio porn where Prince grinds, moans, groans, and shivers (“I’m so cold”) after his baby indeed does him like he’s never been done before.

Controversy’s side two is where things get a little weird. It starts with the bouncy “Private Joy,” a song so catchy and fun that even a Jackson recorded a cover of it. Sure, it was LaToya, but that’s not the point. “Private Joy” allows Prince to show off his vocal range in the chorus, include a self-referential name check (“if anybody asks you, you belong to Prince”), and offer up an earworm of a synth line.

“Ronnie, Talk to Russia” immediately follows, and it’s likely your WTF moment the first time you listen to the album. It has a punky synth that stabs and repeats before Prince calls out then-President Ronald Reagan and blames him for the cold war festering between the United States and Russia. The song is short and ends with an explosion sound effect before moving on to the dance-music-sex-romance-themed “Let’s Work.”

If radio gave a damn about Prince’s music at this time, “Let’s Work” could have been a hit. As it stands, it is notable for having a 12″ extended remix released with an original B-side, the fan-favorite “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About).”

“Annie Christian,” the penultimate track, is the most significant departure on the album with its jarringly underproduced, skeletal sound and call and response lyrics about Atlanta child murders, gun violence, & Abscam. The chorus is one of the most head-scratchingly obtuse lyrics in the Prince canon. “Annie Christian, Annie Christ. Until you’re crucified, I’ll live my life in taxicabs.” The exact meaning behind that line is up for debate, but I always took it to mean that Prince was too paranoid about living anywhere else but on the move.

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The final track on the album, “Jack U Off,” is another early Prince song in the vein of “Head,” where Prince shocks listeners by explicitly stating the sexual nature of the lyrics right in the title of the song. Unlike “Head,” where Prince is the recipient of the titular act throughout much of the song until he flips the script at the end and gives his virgin bride head, the term “jack-off” is mainly used to describe the manual satisfaction he provides his woman. That is, of course, until the end of the song when in true Prince fashion, he suggests that she “you can jack me off” instead. One good turn deserves another, right? The use of the phrase “jack off” continues to perpetuate the questions of Prince’s sexuality since that terminology is traditionally relegated to manual male stimulation. Nevertheless, “Jack U Off” is one of the best songs on the album as long as you’re not listening to it with your parents (or kids) in the same room.

Prince traded a bit of the sexual content found on Dirty Mind for politics on Controversy, but overall, this still feels like an extension of that same sound and vision introduced the year prior. Prince continued to fine-tune that vision, but Controversy feels just slightly less even. Most will point to the side two oddities, “Ronnie” and “Annie,” as the reason for this. Even if that’s the case, side two is bookended with two of the best pop/funk jams in “Private Joy” and “Jack U Off.” Side one is a three-song beast, but side two remains terribly underrated. Overall, Controversy remains one of Prince’s best of the 80s and beyond. It pairs well with Cold War fears and sexual liberation. The album’s moderate commercial success and the well-attended 1981-1982 album supporting tour would keep the momentum going for his big breakthrough with 1999.

“People call me rude, I wish we all were nude. I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.”

Memory Bank Withdrawal

My original vinyl copy of the album, missing the shower poster, which I now have thanks to the re-issue. I also have the 12″ release of “Let’s Work” that features the extended dance remix and “Gotta Stop” on the B-side. Also pictured are my US 7″ singles for “Controversy,” “Do Me, Baby,” and “Let’s Work.”

Like many of Prince’s pre-1999 works, I didn’t hear Controversy until the 90s after the release of The Hits collection reignited my interest in his back catalog. Once I finally heard the entire album, I was a little underwhelmed but I have warmed up to it tremendously in the 20+ years since.

5 reasons why Controversy is a must own.

  1. Prince getting weird and political on “Annie” and “Ronnie”
  2. The orgasmic second half of “Do Me, Baby”
  3. “Sexuality’s” trojan horse lyrics
  4. “Private Joy,” “Let’s Work,” and “Jack U Off’s” fun, playful vibe
  5. “Controversy” is still the jam and still fucking amazing.
Photo credited to Virginia Turbett

My order of preference for Controversy tracks from most favorite to least favorite with personal ratings next to them.

  1. Controversy 5/5
  2. Sexuality 5/5
  3. Private Joy 5/5
  4. Let’s Work 4.5/5
  5. Do Me, Baby 4.5/5
  6. Jack U Off 4.5/5
  7. Annie Christian 4/5
  8. Ronnie, Talk To Russia 3.5/5

Overall Score: 4.5/5

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Press Rewind – Prince Lyrics Podcast: Controversy

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