Dispatches from Beyond the Waters of Lake Minnetonka: Prince's Purple Rain at 35

Martin Douglas

With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. Leading up to KEXP's 6 Degrees of Prince progamming event on April 18, KEXP writer Martin Douglas takes a look back at Prince's classic album Purple Rain, which turns 35 this year. 

I don’t have any outwardly nostalgic ties to Purple Rain or Prince as an artist in general. My biological mother rarely, if ever, blasted any of his certified jams out of the thrift store stereo she’d play tapes and occasionally spin vinyl from, which sounds like sacrilege in 2019 but was just the way it was back then.

While exclusively listening to his music on boomboxes playing as I wiped sweat from my brow, cutting through backyards in public housing to get to the corner store with a dollar bill a couple of dudes on the block gave me “just because.” My Carl Chavis YMCA shirt, a shade just a touch off from Carolina blue, was the closing thing I had to a dress shirt with enough ruffles to intimidate a flamingo.

Prince was always seen as very much his own thing throughout the course of my life. I remember seeing him, short and stoic, draped in purple velvet, dressed like a Victorian-era socialite and feeling, almost intrinsically, “That’s just Prince being Prince.” Yellow one-piece suit with the ass cheeks cut out? Prince being Prince. I heard every homophobic comment about him imaginable, mostly from people who know they’d get their girl stolen without any effort.

“Unconventional” was the word people with more tact would use to describe Prince. But every artist across every style of art who has created anything singular and beautiful before everybody started copying them, feet planted squarely outside the realm of the basic.

Prince is his own genre now.

That’s fitting because Prince didn’t transcend genres, he was a prodigious student of all genres to the point where his music comfortably existed anywhere in music. He didn’t transcend genres, he bent them to his indomitable will. He infused them with soul and sex appeal – lots and lots and lots of sex appeal – he wrote arrangements like a master composer, sometimes utilizing arrangements like a clockmaker.

One listen to the sometimes blistering, sometimes fleet-footed solos on the record will make anyone a believer of the gospel of Prince being one of the most thrilling guitarists who has ever lived. The language of his guitar playing accesses something inside of a person; similar to what Zadie Smith can do with words, what Kehinde Wiley can do with a paintbrush. An artist’s artist.

Purple Rain is the apotheosis of the Prince persona: sex-crazed and sensitive, wracked by the memories of his early years and craning his neck for every dime piece he sees. The multitudes that come with being human, the girl-crazy sensations and the parents screaming at each other from behind a locked door down the hallway.

“I Would Die 4 U” had always been my favorite Prince song (until I realized how hard "Kiss" bangs); again, a song so embedded in memory I would be hard-pressed to tell you where I was, what I was doing, or how old I was the first time I listened to it. There’s that irresistible main melody (both on vocals and neon synths), the skittering hi-hats made to sound like shuffling on a scratchy couch during the make-up sex from the shouting alluded to on “When Doves Cry,” the way Prince sings like the devotion he feels is rattling his bones which makes the titular declaration feel like more than a love song trope. It made me believe he would have really died for the person he was singing about.

I haven’t met many black folks born in the early 1980s who weren’t able to effortlessly quote the opening monologue of Purple Rain opener “Let’s Go Crazy,” which sometimes makes me feel as though I was an outsider in this massive cultural touchstone, which Prince’s epochal sixth album most certainly is. The song itself is immediately reminiscent of the decade from whence it came, which is different than saying it sounds dated. Obviously, it defined an era, a generation, a lifetime. Before the eggplant emoji, there were purple bananas.

As a young child, walking through what we called the projects, for reasons too real to divulge in this essay, “Darling Nikki” terrified me because I was terrified of sex in general. The very idea of seeing a woman masturbate frightened me, let alone the allusions to S&M dungeons and liability waivers. Of course, as an adult, the encounter sounds like something I’d bring my own pen for, and the music itself emits the sort of pheromones musicians have spent decades trying to unsuccessfully replicate.

The outro of the song is blaring and triumphant, much like those fleeting sexual encounters with someone you share that undeniable chemistry with, only to find a note with the phone number of a person who probably won’t pick up when you call.

It wasn’t until years later, in the bedroom of a woman who vaguely resembled Zoe Kravitz, where I heard Prince’s glassy falsetto guiding the voices of “The Beautiful Ones” and thought deeply about how he articulated things other artists tried but made sound corny or contrived or like the skeevy dude at the end of the bar who thinks he’s a master flirt but is really just creeping everyone out. Prince took his idea of what was sexy, put it on the page, on his back, and in his ears, and used his gift with music as the conduit.

It's funny, the way things exist in your orbit and become a part of you without even being aware of it.

There was a period of time where I felt as though this definitive statement from a proven musical genius was something I’d be on the outside of forever, and that’s okay. I often stress the importance of not having an opinion about everything. But genius always catches you when you’re looking the other way. The music was buried in my subconscious long before I had actively sought it out. It took a trip to the Alderwood Mall Sephora with my girlfriend to realize although I had only heard the album maybe three or four times all the way through, I’d heard most of the songs on Purple Rain hundreds of times throughout my life. Part of genius is the art of creating something memorable.

I couldn’t tell you what happened to the woman who sort of looked like Zoe Kravitz. After a few fun romps to the strains of Purple Rain, she would eventually disappear, only to return in fleeting memories. Like Nikki but without the waivers.

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