After spending the previous couple of years either clearing out the vault or creating new tracks designed to fit the narrative of feature films (Batman, Graffiti Bridge), Prince was likely ready to MOVE ON. Not a simple, “Alright, let’s get in the studio and create a new song” type of MOVE ON. I mean the type of MOVE ON that signaled a significant change. To MOVE ON in this context meant that Prince wanted, no….needed to start fresh in a new decade, the 1990s.
The genesis of this fresh start began the year prior with the introduction of the New Power Generation for the Graffiti Bridge project. The NPG band was not fully intact during the filming of the Graffiti Bridge movie (Tommy Barbarella was nowhere to be found and even Rosie Gaines was more or less still MIA at this point), but other members such as Sonny T, Levi and Michael B were present and featured sporadically in the project. Even Tony M, who replaced TC Ellis as the featured rapper in Prince’s make-shift late 80s/early 90s band, received a B-side solo track on the “New Power Generation” 12″ single. That wasn’t enough, though. Prince wanted a new sound as well.
The late 80s pop music landscape was shifting towards a more urban, dance and hip-hop sound and the popularity of the Minneapolis Sound that Prince helped create and push forward as a primary inspiration for much of the decade was now waning. New Jack Swing, the style of club music that fused hip-hop drum breaks & sampling techniques with a modern R&B singing style, was gaining traction thanks to innovators like Teddy Riley, Babyface and L.A. Reid. Even Prince’s old collaborators from The Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, were dabbling in the sound that would dominate 1990s pop music airwaves. Prince would adopt and adapt this style of music for his new album of completely original material, Diamonds & Pearls.
Diamonds & Pearls is a bit of a divisive record for Prince. Many of Prince’s fans that were garnered throughout the 1980s, were attracted to his mixture of dance/rock/synth/pop music and were a bit put off by what was perceived as trend jumping instead of trend setting. Prince was not the first pop artist to include rappers in his songs. A mere 4 years earlier, he even denounced hip-hop as a legitimate genre on “Dead On It”. He obviously wasn’t the first to incorporate the New Jack Swing style of music either, as you can look back to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation or Guy’s self-titled debut album to see earlier examples. While he may not have been the innovator of these musical trends, Prince was able to embrace what he knew was the future of music at the time and forge his own pathways using these trends as a compass. I also believe that by utilizing these trends for his own music, it legitimized it, paving the way for more and more artists to “jump on the bandwagon” so to speak. None of it would matter if the public didn’t respond to Diamonds & Pearls, however.
No reason for concern on that front. Diamonds & Pearls would be the most pop radio friendly album Prince had made since Sign O’ the Times 4 years prior. This album would be the first Prince album since SotT to provide multiple top 10 hits on the pop charts and would also give Prince his last pop #1 (“Cream”). Additionally, it was a hit on the R&B charts as well and one song in particular, “Insatiable”, charted significantly higher on the R&B charts, indicating its appeal to the urban markets in a way that it wasn’t able to on the pop charts.
For me personally, Diamonds & Pearls has its ups and downs. Tony M gets a lot of flack for being an “average” rapper and I would concur that to be true if comparing him to some of the rap titans of the late 80s and early 90s. With that said, his appearance on many of D&P’s tracks serve the purpose of adding a hip-hop elements to Prince’s compositions, something Prince toyed with as far back as Sign O’ the Times and Lovesexy with Sheila-E and Cat Glover’s respective raps. Tony didn’t need to be Rakim or LL Cool J. He only needed to be Tony on the mic. However, I do wish that he was used a bit more sparingly as I did not feel his presence was necessary on already strong tracks such as “Willing & Able”, “Daddy Pop” and “Live 4 Love”. Tony’s presence on “Gett Off”, the sexually charged first single, was what I would consider to be his best use on the album. He was used to add swagger to an already swagger filled banger and it worked nicely. On the flipside, “Jughead”, a song that is primarily a Tony M solo track, is one of the few skippable tracks in Prince’s early discography in my opinion. I think a better song that would have met the intent of giving Tony a lead vocal slot would have been “Call the Law”, which ended up as a B-side to “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”.
Speaking of co-lead vocals, the real (non-Prince) MVP of Diamonds & Pearls would have to be Rosie Gaines. Rosie was added to the NPG after the departure of Bonnie Boyer, a vocalist and keyboardist that was part of Prince’s Lovesexy band. Prince elevated Rosie’s role to co-lead vocalist on a number of songs, most notably the title track. Rosie’s vocals dominate “Diamonds & Pearls” and even moreso on a deeper cut from the album, “Walk Don’t Walk” to the point where you almost feel like the songs should be credited as duets. Rosie’s soulful and gospel drenched vocals really give D&P a push towards excellence, not that Prince needed it. A strong female vocalist definitely adds a dimension to these songs that would have been missing without her. “D to the I to the A to the M” indeed. Thanks Rosie.
Memory Bank Withdrawal
In summary, Diamonds & Pearls was not an album that I appreciated as much when it was released in 1991 as I do today. I bought a copy shortly after it was released and I enjoyed the singles and a few of the stronger non-singles, but overall it felt a bit light yet still somewhat bloated (over 65 minutes in length). Maybe a truncated track listing might have come across as a stronger overall effort but in the early days of CD, more was better!
I was also listening to a lot of hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s, so when I heard Prince had added this element not only to a few songs, but well over half of the tracks, I was flummoxed. Raps by Tony M, Prince and even Rosie herself (“Push”), dominated the track listing which caused me to roll my eyes a bit. There was no way you could convince me that the style of rap used throughout D&P could hold a candle to Public Enemy, Gang Starr, EPMD, Ice Cube, et. al. Now that I can look back on this stylistic decision with 20/20 vision, I understand that the rapping wasn’t designed to compete with that, and as a result, I can accept it for what it is and not what it isn’t. Diamonds & Pearls will never be one of my all-time favorite Prince albums, but there are enough strong to excellent titles on here to elevate it way past the unmemorable status I had originally pegged it as.
My order of preference of Diamonds & Pearls tracks from most favorite to least favorite with personal ratings next to them.
- Thunder 5/5
- Money Don’t Matter 2 Night 5/5
- Gett Off 4.5/5
- Diamonds & Pearls 4.5/5
- Live 4 Love 4/5
- Cream 4/5
- Insatiable 4/5
- Daddy Pop 4/5
- Willing & Able 4/5
- Strollin’ 3.5/5
- Walk Don’t Walk 3/5
- Push 3/5
- Jughead 2/5
Overall Score: 4/5