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rrramble retrospective: Purple Rain - Prince

Travel back 40 years to the time of Walkmans and leg warmers. It is 1984 and Purple Rain has been released, a rock musical film starring Prince. The accompanying album, also titled Purple Rain, decimated the music charts and transformed Prince into an icon.


Although Purple Rain was Prince's sixth studio release, it was his first album to reach number one on the Billboard 200. And boy did it stay in that number one spot for a loonngg time. Decades later, can we still understand why this album took pop culture by storm, or is it no more than a light drizzle from the past?


Prince, wearing a purple suit, ride a motorcyle. The background is orange and green, with pink cartoon raindrops.

Monica

Prince. Prince of air-guitar solos to ‘Purple Rain’. Prince of your aunties dancing to ‘Kiss’ at the family wedding. Prince of the sexy 80’s pop that may have confused and excited you when you were young (just me?). His music has permeated and contributed to the cultural landscapes of pop music, fashion and 20th century artistry. He defies musical genre, constructs of gender and his discography spans decades. This is all true when examining Prince as an artist, however Prince the person always seems to remain unreachable and a mystery to me. Despite what he has woven into our shared cultural fabric, the word I find most fitting for Prince could still be “enigma”.  


By 1984, Prince had made five albums worth of genre-bending music, noted for the explicit sexual lyrics and intricate musical arrangements that would define a lot of his work. Similar to artists such as David Bowie, it seems that Prince was thriving off of keeping listeners on their toes and dodging categorisation, like a cat avoiding the garden hose. “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” Prince sings in 1981’s single Controversy. It’s a thrill to hear these lyrical themes and bold characteristics continued in his sixth album Purple Rain, which was his most commercial venture to date. Made as a soundtrack to an accompanying movie, the album went to number one and made Prince a household name and face in the 80’s. The album houses hits such as ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘Purple Rain’ and is, possibly, the most 80’s sounding album I’ve ever heard. It’s bright, it’s spangly, it’s experimental and sentimental at the same time: it's artful pop music that still sounds fresh. As a queer listener in 2024, 40 years later, it is incredible and affirming to hear him sing lyrics such as “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand” (‘I Would Die 4 U’). 


In terms of innovation, creativity and pushing the boundaries of pop music, Purple Rain definitely carved out its space in pop history. Ever an agent of controversy in his lyrics, the track ‘Darling Nikki’ contributed to the implementation of Parental Advisory warning stickers on albums (!). Listening again, the freshness and unexpectedness of the music on Purple Rain still strikes me. When I was little, ‘When Doves Cry’ and the tense atmosphere it creates even used to scare me. Prince carving the weirder path in his music makes me think of contemporary artists such as Lady Gaga, and how grateful I am for artists who actively defy expectations in pop music with each album. If I could hold a banner for my passion on this subject it would read: KEEP POP MUSIC WEIRD. 


I suppose that Prince was deliberately elusive in his career and liked to provoke more questions than he ever answered. When he appeared in New Girl alongside Zooey Deschanel, one of the reasons it’s funny is because of how bizarre it is to see Prince in a “normal” and situational context (a UK equivalent would be like seeing David Bowie 

appear in Gavin & Stacey?). Remembering his career, and remembering Purple Rain, is to tip our hats to an aloof genius. 


My first memory of Prince is seeing Concert for George on television aged 10, when songwriting, guitar-wielding legends all gathered to pay tribute to the late George Harrison. During a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, all of a sudden a delicate creature in a top hat and scarf appears from the crowd of aging celeb rockers to give a FACE MELTING guitar solo - the kind that Jack Black talks about in School of Rock. It’s mind-blowing. It’s sexy. Who is this?  


“That’s Prince”, says my dad.  


“Woah”.  



An image of Prince. He is wearing a golden jacket and is looking into the camera with his hands clasped in front of him

Sabrina

Before this review, I knew of Prince and his legendary status, but his lack of overlap with the style (and time period) of my comfort songs meant I was never particularly inclined to give his music my undivided attention. Enter the March rrramble review callout, and the rest is history.


rrramble rrretrospectives are some of my favourite reviews to do because they always push me to try something new, especially things that seem commonplace for people growing up in the West (I grew up in Hong Kong). With lyrics to hand and the opening track ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ queued up, I was finally going to see what all the fuss was about!


‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was a bop, unexpectedly conjuring up a 90’s rom-com shopping montage in my head, specifically with a Clueless vibe. Even more surprisingly, this is actually a very Christian song. This religious theme came up again more obviously on a later track, ‘I Would Die 4 U’, which had a particularly nice bridge (a tragically dying breed these days!). Given the Christian opener, there was interestingly a very saucy song later on called ‘Darling Nikki’. From the title, I had been unconsciously expecting a tribute to a loved one, à la ‘marjorie’ by modern icon Taylor Swift, but ‘Darling Nikki’ swiftly slapped that idea out of me. With Prince, I should expect the unexpected.


The 90’s rom-com montage returned with angsty third track, ‘The Beautiful Ones’, swapping to a sad scene this time. I was chilling in my melodramatic feels, which took an abrupt and heart-pounding turn when Prince started screaming! I understand that this is an emotional song, but all I can say is that if I was the subject of this song, I would be RUNNING. I'd give it a top score for eliciting a reaction from the listener, though.


The intro music of ‘Computer Blue’ also sparked strong visuals for me. While the title sounds like an Essie nail polish colour, the drumbeats and scratchy wails had me feeling lost in a blue forest, with hidden people sending secret (and somewhat threatening) birdcalls to each other. Oddly, this linked pretty well to Prince asking, “Where is my love life?” in his first line.


I was by far the most excited to listen to the album’s closer ‘Purple Rain’, as Prince and ‘Purple Rain’ seem to go hand-in-hand. As this album precedes the age of TikTok-ready, 2-minute-and-change songs, I had to wait over half an hour to finally get to ‘Purple Rain’ (plus ads, Spotify Premium who?) and it paid off. This is a wonderful song. The outro is soul-stirring, and…  was that Prince singing falsetto? Beautiful! I can imagine this song playing over the end credits of a movie – though I haven’t seen the movie Purple Rain, so perhaps it does. It would also make an epic concert outro; I can already hear the masses cheering far before the end.


‘Purple Rain’ is a long song at 8 minutes and 40 seconds, but I didn’t get bored at all. This reflects how I feel about the album as a whole. While I’m not sure I’d listen to any of these songs again, aside from ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘I Would Die 4 U’, this first listening experience was certainly always entertaining. At times my intrigue was purely because of the novelty of Prince’s sound, at other times, it was due to the arresting combination of vivid lyricism and evocative instrumentals.


One question remains – how did Prince scream like that throughout this album and still possess a throat?



Prince performing. He is dressed all in white and plays the guitar whilst rain falls around him. The whole image is tinted purple.


Edited by Harriet

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