What’s the opposite of a sophomore slump? A sophomore smash, possibly? Well, whatever it’s called, that’s what Sheila E.’s second album, Romance 1600, is. The follow-up to her debut, The Glamorous Life, Romance 1600, contains a more confident Sheila E. in terms of a vocalist and a co-writer. Plus, I am of the opinion that it simply has better songs. Of course, Prince was the primary songwriter for all of the tracks, except for the album’s lone instrumental, but that should be a given at this point. I guess one can infer that Prince had a stronger batch of songs to offer Sheila when it was time to record this album in late 1984/early ‘85. The album was released on August 26, 1985, a little more than a year after her debut, and would receive Gold certification status in 1986, primarily off the strength of the album’s biggest single, “A Love Bizarre.”
However, Romance 1600 is NOT just “A Love Bizarre” surrounded by a bunch of filler. As spectacular as this hit single is, there is enough joy and funk here to keep admirers of the Minneapolis Sound interested throughout the LP’s 39 minute run-time. The album’s French renaissance visual aesthetic is presented clearly in the outfits worn by Sheila and her band on the album artwork and in the music video for the lead single, “Sister Fate.” It can undoubtedly be considered an extension of the modern-day, New Romantic look. The same look that Prince and the Revolution made iconic and synonymous with “Prince in the 1980s” as they conquered the world during the Purple Rain tour. Effectively, in these initial images that represent the Romance 1600 experience, Sheila is presented to us as a female Prince clone with her shorter hairstyle and clothing. Sheila can be found (holly) rocking this look coupled with a more “urban” aesthetic as a co-star in the film Krush Groove, which was also released in 1985 and included a standout performance of “A Love Bizarre.”
Speaking of Krush Groove, another well-known song featured in the film and on the soundtrack is “Holly Rock.” Also a Prince composition featured on 2019’s Originals with his guide vocals can be considered part of Romance 1600 era, even though it wasn’t included on its track listing. It’s a blast of an early pop and hip-hop offering, proving again that Prince didn’t really hate rap or hip-hop culture in the ‘80s, despite what the lyrics to “Dead on It” might imply.
Romance 1600 contains eight tracks, three of which were commercially released as singles. The music runs the gamut from pure Minneapolis funk to pop to ballads to Latin flavored instrumentals. Sheila’s vocals are strong throughout, showing her improvement in hitting the necessary notes for the ballads, which has been a weakness of some of Prince’s proteges up to this point, Jill Jones excluded.
Sister Fate – The lead single and first track on the album starts with frenetic drumming designed to make you think you have your vinyl copy set to the wrong speed. Nope, that’s how it’s supposed to sound. Once the song falls into its proper groove, it shines as a story about rumors, innuendo, and the possibility of love left up to fate. Unfortunately, the song stalled on the charts and was never the hit it was meant to be. For me, this is an excellent lead track and should-have-been hit. 5/5
Dear Michaelangelo – Despite never being released as a single, many Prince fans already know this song as it was included on 2019’s Originals with Prince’s guide vocals intact. Eddie M’s horns add a nice touch to the propelling beat and lovelorn lyrics. The reference to the 15th-16th century Italian artist lends additional support to the Renaissance aesthetic of the album. 4.5/5
A Love Bizarre – Twelve minutes of funk, where Sheila and Prince sync their voices to create one blissful, harmonic sound with a backdrop of horns, drums, and synths that masterfully straddle the line of too much and not quite enough. The radio edit? Trash it. If you can’t set aside 12 minutes of your day to jam to the full album version, you’re living life wrong. 5/5
Toy Box – Sheila comically tries out her version of the Jamie Starr voice at the end of this slammin’ innuendo-filled side two opener (“Where’s my jewels? I can’t go to the club without my jewels!”). The sing-songy chorus and musical accompaniment remind me a little of “Oliver’s House,” from her debut, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 4/5
Yellow – After a very Minneapolis-sounding album up to this point, the musical direction takes a different turn on this track that borrows from the past’s swinging styles. Lyrically, Sheila sings abolut her favorite color, a color used to describe her car, her pants and a cute boy’s hair color. A short but interesting song that doesn’t hit the mark as other songs on the album do. 3/5
Romance 1600 – The pace picks back up for the album’s title track. The chaotic production gives me vibes of a traveling band of musicians, parading through small town Main St. All of the band members are clanging away at their instruments as Sheila, the pied piper, leads the charge. I really like this song, although I can see it may be a bit polarizing. The lyrics present a story of a mysteriously masked lover that has swept Sheila off her feet and (possibly) takes her to an Eyes Wide Shut style sex orgy. 5/5
Merci For the Speed Of a Mad Clown In Summer – The lone instrumental and only song on the album that Prince had no hand in creating or playing on. This song is all Sheila and her band. Nice track and another example of the increased input Sheila had on this album. 3/5
Bedtime Story – The album’s finale was the second, non-charting single from the album before Warner Bros. got their heads out of their asses and finally released “A Love Bizarre” as the third single. It’s a nice song, a great ballad, but I don’t understand it as a choice for a single after “Sister Fate” bombed on the charts. Nevertheless, it’s a decent album closer, and Sheila’s voice sounds great. 4/5
In my opinion, Romance 1600 is a slight step up in quality from what was an already excellent debut, so that gives you an indication of how much I enjoy this record. The first two Sheila E. albums feel like companion pieces since they were written and recorded only a year apart and with the Prince connection very evident in the songwriting and production. His fingerprints are all over this record, but so are Sheila’s, which means that Prince must have respected her as not only a musician but also as a collaborator and songwriter. I respect this album as my favorite in Sheila E.’s discography and one of the best of his ’80s protegees.