"You don't have to be cool to rule my world." The first time I heard that, I was a decidedly uncool tween, a graceless nerd with inexplicable hair, and there was nothing more magical than the sound of Prince crooning those words in his breathy, ecstatic falsetto. Prince, the god of sex, the king of rock-and-roll, was giving me permission to be myself, a message delivered against a suggestive staccato beat that made it impossible to be still. On my wedding day, "Kiss" was the only song that played twice: Prince's version and a live cover by the D.C. punk band Priests.
I listened to it again yesterday, awash in sadness and disbelief. And even then — because the magic of Prince is still alive and undeniable, his eternal gift to us — I couldn't help but dance. — Caitlin Gibson
A stomping, depth-charge bass line — midway between funk and go-go — anchors a buoyant horn hook and the singer's increasingly urgent rap chorus: "This ain't about this, that, what, where or how. This about the freaks doin' everything they wanna do now." It's a paean to the present moment, and his fans, the freaks. — Michael O'Sullivan
"The Beautiful Ones"
I played "The Beautiful Ones" on repeat yesterday after I heard the news. "Purple Rain" came out the year I was born, and my parents were huge Prince fans, which meant that I resisted his music for as long as I could. But I discovered this song in my early teens and it still commands my full attention every time I listen to it. I love the slow build of it. It starts as a ballad with impossibly cool lyrics: "If we got married, would that be cool?" At the height of the song, Prince is literally screaming, "Do you want him? Or do you want me? Cause I want you" as synthesizers surge in the background. It ends just as quietly as it started — Prince has said everything he needed to say. I don't think any song captures longing quite like it. — Bethonie Butler
"When You Were Mine"
The best artists are the ones whose work covers many moods and reflect the entire spectrum of life. To be able to accomplish that in a single song is a special feat, and "When You Were Mine" accomplishes this. It's a combination of lovelorn, kinky, sad, hopeful, funny and (like all things Prince) funky. And it's such an immaculately constructed song that everyone from Cyndi Lauper to the bassist from Yo La Tengo can cover it and make it sound great. — David Malitz
"When Doves Cry"
To hear "When Doves Cry" for the first time — what a shock. A sobbing guitar quickly silenced by a coldly electronic syncopated beat. And then that buzzing! Was there something wrong with the radio? Was it a guitar? A synthesizer? A buzz saw? A dial tone? This was even before we got to the lyrics, heady stuff for a young teenager to process. Dig if you will the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss. "Dig if you will"? How soon can I work that into conversation.
And all these words so clearly articulated, unlike anything else in pop music — you got the picture right away, and what a picture. The sweat of your body covers me. . . Animals strike curious poses. . . A song about sex, eh? But then we were suddenly on a psychiatrist's couch: Maybe I'm just too demanding. Maybe I'm just like my father, too bold. Maybe you're just like my mother. Deep, weird grownup stuff.
I'm aware that this sounds a lot like a tribute I wrote three months ago to David Bowie's "Let's Dance," and how that also jarred my teenage mind in 1983, a year before "When Doves Cry." But I'm only now appreciating how weird, edgy and avant-garde some of our great, mainstream pop stars were in the early 1980s. And how much we learned from them. — Amy Argetsinger
My favorite Prince song is "When Doves Cry," not for any particular reason, but "Purple Rain" is my father's favorite album and was his soundtrack as he was coming into manhood (and fatherhood). Whenever it was time for my father to drive me down to college, a four-hour drive, "Purple Rain" was always the music of choice and he'd always say, "Greatest album of all time." — David Betancourt
Whenever I hear this I feel like I should be vacuuming. That was my chore when I was little and on Saturday mornings, my dad would turn on the stereo and we would clean the house. I'm don't remember many of the song's lyrics (probably never knew the correct ones) but singing along and getting excited when he says "Maybe I'm just like my father…" and again "Maybe you're just like my mother…." is all you need when you're five or six years old. –Veronica Toney
A simple rhythmic figure gradually becomes more complicated as Prince layers sound effects on top of interlocking melodies until he achieves this sonic mosaic that's downright hypnotizing. It's a lusty, slow-burn that climaxes midway through the song with screams of the divine, then slowly regroups for a second, mostly wordless romp. — Tim Carman
"Nothing Compares 2 U"
These days, if you want to pull the blankets over your head and wallow with a good breakup song, good luck. Pop music today can't stop encouraging you to dust yourself off and go on, and preferably publicly skewer your ex ("You should go and love yourself," anyone?). But the dirge that Prince offered up to Sinead O'Connor to record at the brink of the 1990s was perhaps one of the best modern songs to get at the madness of falling out of love, at the feeling that your nerve endings are exposed and that you've become totally unhinged. "Nothing Compares 2 U" was O'Connor's hit, but that kind of emotional, tuned-in understanding of the human condition was pure Prince. — Lavanya Ramanathan
It was my great good fortune to have been 16 years old while the "Purple Rain" soundtrack dominated the airwaves. My generation owes Prince a particular hormonal debt. I owned the album on vinyl (to listen to in my bedroom, with giant headphones on) and a duped copy on cassette (to listen to in my car, which I did so many times that the tape eventually warped and snapped). When you listen to side 1 of "Purple Rain" all the way through and get to the end of "Darling Nikki," there's a short song with no name, this wonderfully creepy sound of rain and wind followed by a few seconds of vocals, which are played backwards: Wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh. Way-oh, way-oh! Ooooooh. Wah-wah, nyah, mwah! It's clearly Prince's voice, but what was he singing?
I grew up in the Bible Belt. The Baptist kids I knew were a paranoid bunch when it came to rock music. Their pastors were always on them about subliminal lyrics embedded backward into our favorite hits, words that presumably lead us directly into temptation. "Darling Nikki," of course, had its own problems. In lyrics that are quite clear, it's the song about a girl Prince meets "in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine." The outrage went all the way to Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Al Gore; she went to Congress and got parental warning labels put on all our favorite records. It was quite the cultural debate.
The prurience of "Darling Nikki" wore off, but the backward lyrics and sounds that followed at the end of the track stayed with me. I always listened to them, without fast-forwarding to side 2. I wanted to know what they said – the "Purple Rain" album was full of apocalyptic talk and erotic portent — but I couldn't get the belt drive on my Radio Shack turntable to cooperate. I decided maybe I was better off not knowing.
Eventually the Internet came along and told me that the lyrics, when played forward, go like this: "Hello, how are you? Fine, fine, 'cause I know the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon." Learning this was neither a surprise nor a letdown. It was Prince at his most contradictory and clever, selling sex and religion in one convenient package, making it all seem more naughty than it actually was. — Hank Stuever
I went to college in Nebraska, home of the Great Plains and plain living. I don't remember how I learned about it — probably in that narco-Commie rag, Rolling Stone — but in late 1982, I bought a copy of Prince's "1999," a double-barrel blast of barely controlled carnality. The album went against everything considered decent in Midwestern culture: It partied in the face of misery. It showed outright contempt for groupthink. It discussed sex in public.
I immediately became a proselytizer for Prince's revolution, starting with that passive-aggressive tactic known to all mindless young fans: I cranked up the stereo in my room, hoping the album's grooves would worm their way into those within the immediate strike zone. Later in the semester, at a dance party in the student union, I brought my copy of "1999" to the DJ and basically ordered him to play, "D.M.S.R.," a funky 8-minute opus that advocates for a world of "dance, music, sex, romance." I swore the DJ wouldn't regret it.
The song, I figured, couldn't miss with a college crowd in the early '80s, all of us eager to shed the uptight conventions of previous generations. "Nevermind your friends, girl it ain't no sin," Prince insisted over a deep, loin-grinding groove, "2 strip right down 2 your underwear."
Whatever transformation I expected when the DJ finally dropped the needle on "D.M.S.R."— limbs would loosen, minds would open, homages would be paid to my excellent taste in music – it never happened. Mid-way through the song, the DJ did the unthinkable: He faded out "D.M.S.R." and switched over to a second turntable, which was cued up for a return to normalcy. If the student body was ready to be turned loose, it wouldn't be with Prince. It would be with Loverboy. — Tim Carman
"Crimson and Clover"
I love the dreamy yearning of that song, and I can't listen to it without seeing ballerina Misty Copeland dancing in the music video she made for it. Prince was an early fan of Copeland, spotlighting her years before she became the first African American principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre. Most importantly, Prince respected her as an artist, and chose her to present a classy, sophisticated view of an ideal woman. He didn't tart her up; he celebrated her beauty. It was a perfect union of body and soul. — Sarah Kaufman
Cover of "The Middle"
The one time I heard Prince live, in a small venue, he did a medley of Rolling Stones songs, he covered "Play That Funky Music," and he did his own compositions — "Jungle Love," "The Bird." It was everything you'd want it to be. And then he and his band broke into a peppy, pogo beat that got us bouncing on our toes. "Oh, I love this song!" I said. "What is it again?"
Actually, I realized, it was a song that I didn't love at all. "The Middle," a catchy but banal 2001 tune by Jimmy Eat World, white guys from Arizona catching the final wave of Green Day's suburban-teenage-punk sound. But Prince turned it into something wry and sexy. How did he do it? I tried analyzing it — did he change the rhythm or the emphasis just a little? No, actually — it was just that he was Prince, he had a better voice than anyone, better groove. "Ev'rythin, ev'rythin gon' be ALL right, ALL right!" The best singers can do that – make you listen to an old song in a new way. That moment with Prince is gone – there's no recording out there of him performing "The Middle." But every time I hear Jimmy Eat World's version now, I love it. — Amy Argetsinger