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Controversy: How Prince Created “A Prophecy” For The 80s
In Depth

Controversy: How Prince Created “A Prophecy” For The 80s

A challenging mix of sex, politics and religion, Prince’s ‘Controversy’ album contained the seeds of much that would follow in the 80s.


As the 80s sought to establish its identity, the man who would come to define the decade was still in the process of fine-tuning his own persona. Prince had gone some way towards that with the stripped-back punk-funk sound and sexually forthright songs on his 1980 album, Dirty Mind, proving he was as artistically uncompromising as he was musically ambitious. With that record’s follow-up, the following year’s Controversy, he added more colour to his palette while further honing a worldview that would soon mark him out as the most astonishing artist on the planet.

Listen to ‘Controversy’ here.

“It was like Prince concentrate”

Part of that fine-tuning included absorbing even more from his increasingly wide range of musical influences. Prince had closed out the Dirty Mind era in the middle of 1981 with a trio of shows in the UK and Europe, where he encountered everything from Gary Numan’s glacial post-David Bowie synth excursions to Kraftwerk’s future-shaping electronica and the first flourishing of New Romanticism. Back in his new home studio in Chanhassen, on the outskirts of Minneapolis, he recorded Controversy’s eight songs in a little over a week in August 1981, finishing them up in his home away from home, Sunset Sound Recorders, in Los Angeles. “It became more potent,” keyboardist Lisa Coleman told this author of the intensity with which Prince worked. Recalling that time for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, she added, “It was like Prince concentrate.”

And yet Prince had such an unstoppable flow of ideas, he could no longer contain them in just one album. While bringing his own new record into being, he also formed a side band, The Time, out of local Minneapolis musicians – among them future hitmakers keyboardist Jimmy “Jam” Harris and bassist Terry Lewis – who he charged with learning the songs on a whole other album he’d recorded for them to front, but on which only frontman Morris Day would appear, singing vocals that followed the guide tracks Prince had laid down for him. Soon to set out on tour as Prince’s support act, The Time served as an outlet for his more party-minded funk music while the Controversy material found Prince taking even greater musical and thematic leaps than before.

“To me it was more like an art piece”

As with Dirty Mind, the album cover led the way, offering a full-colour (and more fully clothed) update to its predecessor, as Prince stood in front of a collage of headlines from the fictional Controversy Daily – “Love Thy Neighbor”, “President Signs Gun Control At” – that hinted at the more moralistic stance his music was beginning to take. With Controversy’s title track, Prince taunted the kind of reports he himself had started generating in the press, opening with mock outrage: “I just can’t believe all the things people say/Am I Black or white? Am I straight or gay?”

As much of a manifesto as Dirty Mind’s title track, Controversy’s eponymous opener offered a whole new call to arms: “People call me rude, I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no Black and white, I wish there were no rules.” With a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer thrown into the middle, the song marked a major step in Prince’s attempts to unify his social, sexual and spiritual sides, while also leaving room for listeners to mishear the its title as “I want your pussy”. “A lot of the band was religious in different ways,” Lisa Coleman explained to this author. “It had different meanings to all of us to say The Lord’s Prayer in the middle of the song. To me it was more like an art piece.”

As well as adding extra complexity to his lyrics, Controversy’s title track also offered clear indication of the ways in which Prince’s music was evolving. Riding an effortlessly funky chicken-scratch guitar riff, the song was also driven by synthy squelches and a naggingly catchy mechanical lead line which, taken together, pointed the way towards the “Minneapolis sound” that Prince would perfect on his next album, 1999. Supercharging these elements resulted in what became Controversy’s second single, Sexuality. Given a limited release in Australia, Japan and West Germany, it was delivered with a frenetic vocal which restated Controversy’s lyrical themes for anyone who may have missed them: “The Second Coming, anything goes/Sexuality is all you’ll ever need/Sexuality, let your body be free.”

“More than my songs have to do with sex, they have to do with one human’s love for another”

Paving the way for many of today’s pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians, Prince’s presentation of freedom of sexual choice as a humanitarian ideal also laid the groundwork for Controversy’s more straightforwardly political songs, Ronnie, Talk To Russia and Annie Christian – products of the late-Cold War-era global climate whose concerns over gun crime and disproportionate mortality rates among the Black population continue to chime with the times.

Controversy also had moments in which Prince dropped the state-of-the-nation addresses entirely, with the plain-speaking Jack U Off closing the album on an electro rockabilly pastiche and Private Joy smuggling more than excitement over an “orgasmatron” lover into the record’s grooves: almost unassuming in its replication of handclaps, the song’s use of the Linn-M1 drum machine would open up a world of possibilities for Prince when he made the burgeoning new instrument a central feature of his 1999 album – and therefore a cornerstone of much of the 80s pop music that followed.

“Prince’s black-white synthesis is a prophecy”

Released on 14 October 1981 in the US, and following a month later, on 13 November, in the UK, Controversy remains a transitional record that catches Prince at a crucial stage of his development. Over three decades on from its release, in his posthumously published memoir, The Beautiful Ones, he would reflect on how the album’s exquisite ballad, Do Me, Baby, “took the R&B ballad form” of the 70s and “updated it for the eighties”, resulting in one of the best Prince songs in the process. But in both its lyrical content and its sonic shifts on from anything Prince had created before, Controversy also contained the seeds of much else that would characterise the decade. “Prince’s black-white synthesis isn’t just a picture of what could be,” The New York Times declared, “it’s a prophecy.”

Reviewing the album in the wake of its release, many magazines noted that trying to find common ground between its ostensibly incompatible subjects was a difficult task, with Sweet Potato suggesting that separating the sexual material from the political material would have been easier “if the penis weren’t a political tool in Prince’s worldview”. Yet Rolling Stone also heard in it a “refreshingly relevant” message, and understood that Prince “proclaims unfettered sexuality as the fundamental condition of a new, more loving society”.

For once, Prince was willing to help critics along. “More than my songs have to do with sex, they have to do with one human’s love for another, which goes deeper than anything political that anybody could possibly write about,” he explained to the UK’s Melody Maker. He was, he said, singing about, “The need for love, the need for sexuality, basic freedom, equality…”

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