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‘Lovesexy’: Understanding Prince’s Spiritual-Sexual Rebirth
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‘Lovesexy’: Understanding Prince’s Spiritual-Sexual Rebirth

Built around a concept of his own devising, the ‘Lovesexy’ album envisioned a state in which Prince’s sexual and spiritual desires could coexist.

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As far back as 1981’s Controversy album – whose title track placed a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer alongside the declaration, “People call me rude, I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules” – Prince had sought a way of uniting his sexual urges with his religious beliefs. As he perfected the “Minneapolis sound” on his breakthrough album, 1999, this became both more urgent and more clear: “I wanna fuck you so bad it hurts,” he pleaded on Let’s Pretend We’re Married, before asserting, “I’m in love with God, he’s the only way.” By the time he released the Lovesexy album in 1988, Prince had envisioned an entirely new state of being: the “lovesexy” of the title, in which sex could be as much a spiritual experience as it was a physical one.

Listen to ‘Lovesexy’ here.

“I did Lovesexy in seven weeks”

With Prince’s work rate at an all-time high in the late 80s, Lovesexy was recorded in under two months, from late December 1987 to February 1988, in Prince’s recently built Paisley Park complex. “I did Lovesexy in seven weeks from start to finish,” he later told Details, adding, “and most of it was recorded in the order it was on the record.” And yet it almost didn’t happen at all.

Initially intended for release that December was The Black Album: eight tracks, largely made up of raw funk with titles such as Le Grind and Superfunkycalifragisexy. Originally recorded on the fly for a birthday party thrown for drummer Sheila E, Prince quickly strung the songs together in a way that would have reasserted his funk credentials at the end of the decade he’d reigned over; recent albums Parade and Sign O’ The Times had been hailed as increasingly inventive creative highs, but some critics began to wonder if he’d left his Black audience behind. The Black Album – given a working title of “The Funk Bible” – would assure them he hadn’t.

Housed in a plain black sleeve, with no artist credit or album title – just a peach catalogue number on the spine – The Black Album was sent out for promotion, and then pulled from release at the last minute. Prince never explained his decision, though word quickly circulated that, during a one-off experiment with ecstasy, he’d been spooked by a hallucination in which he saw the word “God” floating above him in a field. Now believing The Black Album’s forthright sexuality was evil, he scrapped it and immediately set about recording a more positive-minded work that would make room for lust and The Lord.

“I don’t mean some dude in a cape and beard”

Writing in the Lovesexy Tour programme, Prince blamed The Black Album’s music on Camille – a hyper-sexed alter ego that had featured on much of Sign O’ The Times. At the urging of an evil spirit named Spooky Electric, the notes explained, Camille had “allowed the dark side of him 2 create something evil”. By way of apology, Lovesexy was a paean to “the feeling u get when u fall in love, not with a girl or boy but with the heavens above”.

“I don’t think Prince ever directly explained Lovesexy, but casual conversations with some of us revealed a lot,” Alan Leeds, Prince’s former tour manager and head of Paisley Park Records, later reflected. For his own part, Prince went so far as to say, “When I talk about God, I don’t mean some dude in a cape and beard coming down to Earth. To me, he’s in everything, if you look at it that way.”

Lovesexy was, indeed, an inclusive work. After welcoming listeners to The New Power Generation – the first time Prince used the soon-to-be-ubiquitous phrase – album opener Eye No launched into a classic Prince party jam that revelled in overthrowing Spooky Electric. Flowing straight into the slinky, bluesy funk of Alphabet St., the album drops further clues as to Prince’s epiphany, seemingly suggesting – in typically cryptic fashion – that lovesexy (“the glam of them all”) can be achieved through oral sex.

Elsewhere, the sensual ballad When 2 R In Love was held over from The Black Album, making a more natural fit towards the end of Lovesexy, while tracks such as the juddering electro-funk of Dance On and ruminative album closer Positivity turned to more earthly matters: gun crime, gang warfare and nuclear weapons; behaviour that can “fly high right by Spooky and all that he crawls for”.

“A mind trip, like a psychedelic movie”

Released on 9 May 1988 in the UK, and following a day later in the US, Lovesexy was a startling proposition, even before fans took it home. One of the more controversial Prince album covers the Lovesexy artwork was shot by French fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, and pictured Prince – replicating Botticelli’s Renaissance-era painting The Birth Of Venus – reclining in the nude on a large flower with a not-so-subtle stamen protruding beside him. Major US chain stores refused to stock it, but Prince shrugged any concerns off, later telling Rolling Stone: “All that album cover was, was a picture. If you looked at that picture and some ill came out of your mouth, that’s what you are – it’s looking right back at you in the mirror.”

Having envisioned Lovesexy as “a mind trip, like a psychedelic movie”, Prince also insisted the it be pressed as a single 45-minute track that couldn’t be skipped through. Densely produced, and more or less singlehandedly layered with every instrument Prince could play, the central message was sometimes hard to parse amid the rush of ideas. Overwhelming in its intensity, the album left Rolling Stone concluding that “the hardest questions may not lend themselves to easy answers, but make for much better music”.

“Either you went with it and had a mind-blowing experience, or you didn’t”

With album sales initially sluggish, Prince quickly filmed a blue-screened promo video for Alphabet St., hiding an altogether different message among the jumble of letters latter added to dance around him: “Don’t buy The Black Album. I’m sorry.” But while The Black Album had become the biggest-selling bootleg of all time, Lovesexy stalled at No.11 in the US – hampered in large part by those retailers who wouldn’t sell it.

In the UK, however, it became Prince’s first No.1 album, while also going Top 5 across Europe. Choosing to start his Lovesexy tour where audiences seemed more appreciative of his work, Prince took his most ambitious show yet to Europe and the UK across the summer of 1988, before returning to the US throughout the autumn. Driven to the stage in a three-quarter-sized replica of his 1967 Thunderbird, and performing amid a swing set, a miniature basketball court and brass bed, among other lavish designs set up in the round in the centre of arena venues, Prince played out a nightly battle of good versus evil. The first half of each show was made up of lascivious material such as Erotic City, Jack U Off and Dirty Mind, along with public airings for some Black Album songs, before Prince had himself symbolically killed and then raised to the rafters on a series of hydraulic platforms – transcending his past while performing Lovesexy’s Anna Stesia.

With Lovesexy songs such as Glam Slam, I Wish U Heaven and the title track making up most of the second half (space was also found for Sign O’ The Times’ The Cross and hits the likes of Kiss, Purple Rain and 1999), Prince’s live shows helped to clarify the album’s message. “God is alive!” he further wrote in the tour programme. “Let him touch u and your own Lovesexy will be born.”

Lovesexy itself may have been born out of a spiritual crisis, but it ultimately found Prince working harder than ever to resolve two seemingly incompatible sides of his personality. For those that couldn’t follow, he had a simple retort: “Either you went with it and had a mind-blowing experience, or you didn’t.”

‘Lovesexy’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Eye No

Opening with a short recital by Ingrid Chavez – credited as “The Spirit Child” in the album’s liner notes – and featuring Prince’s first mention on record of The New Power Generation, Eye No chronicles the religious epiphany that caused Prince to shelve The Black Album in favour of the more spiritually nourishing Lovesexy project (“I know there was confusion, lightning all around me/That’s when I called his name/Don’t you know, he found me”). Upbeat and infectious, with horn fanfares, a bouncy synth part and a Larry Graham-styled bassline, the song extends late-80s’ “Just Say No” anti-drugs sloganeering to a rejection of all negative forces, encouraging listeners to stand against gun violence, alcohol abuse and even the notion of fear itself. As revealed on the 2018 super-deluxe reissue of Sign O’ The Times, the song was developed from an earlier cut called The Ball; but while Prince had recorded everything on The Ball himself, for Eye No he invited his entire band to share in the joyous new music he’d begun to create, and which he could now record unimpeded in his very own Paisley Park studio complex. “More than anywhere he’s ever lived, it represented so much to him,” Prince’s former studio engineer, Susan Rogers, said of Paisley Park, while speaking with this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “His life took place within those walls once it was built.”

Alphabet St.

Much like the Parade-era hit Kiss, Alphabet St. was initially demoed as an acoustic blues number before Prince fleshed it out with an array of sonic tricks he could now conjure in Paisley Park. Car sound effects and multi-tracked vocals weave their way through chicken-scratch guitar and a percussive groove, while Prince sings a tale of seduction in which religious enlightenment is seemingly found through oral sex. Ever since his 1999 album, many of the best Prince songs had sought to reconcile his carnal instincts with his religious needs. While this often played out as a push and pull between songs, with Alphabet St. Prince found a harmonious spot where the two could coexist. What could have been an agonising journey of self-examination is kept deceptively light, Prince inviting backing dancer Cat Glover to rap some of the most insightful lyrics on the album, so far as it came to explaining his “lovesexy” concept.

Glam Slam

Long before building Paisley Park, Prince had sung of a utopia of the same name – more a state of mind than a place – on the Around The World In A Day album. Just a few years on from releasing Lovesexy, during the Diamonds And Pearls era, he would launch his own Glam Slam club in Minneapolis; a home away from home (offshoot venues would follow, in Yokohama, Los Angeles and Miami), Glam Slam would offer for live performing what Paisley Park did for studio recording: a place of his own, in which he could play music whenever and however he chose. Like Paisley Park before it, Glam Slam the song speaks of achieving transcendence: over ethereal synths, chiming guitars and a bombastic beat, Prince harmonises with himself with theatrical flair – inverting “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” misogyny with a “Glam slam, thank you, ma’am” chorus hook – as he sings of a relationship that has gone beyond the physical. “This thing we’ve got, it’s alive,” he marvels. “Must be a dream, it’s so magical.”

Anna Stesia

The importance of Anna Stesia to Prince during the Lovesexy era could not have been clearer: closing Side One of the album’s original vinyl pressing, the song also brought the curtain down on the first act of his elaborate Lovesexy-era stage show, as Prince, singing while a hydraulic platform raised him up towards the rafters, drew a line between his past promiscuity (“Black night seemed like the only way/So I danced/Music late, nothing great”) and his newfound commitment to walking a more spiritual path. Framing the lyrics as a discussion – based on real-life conversations he had with “Spirit Child” Ingrid Chavez – Prince turns away from the anesthetising effects of quick-fix conquests in order to reach his own higher self and find salvation. Built around a repetitive piano melody, the mechanics of the song are relatively fuss-free, helping to maintain the clarity of Prince’s words; layered vocals and added instrumentation increase the intensity, leading to a payoff in the outro’s repeated gospel refrain, “Love is God, God is love/Girls and boys, love God above.”

Dance On

Recorded during the same session in which Prince captured an early pass at Lovesexy’s title track (under the name Luv Sexy), Dance On was taught to his backing group on the spot. “They practiced it for literally about 30 seconds, maybe a minute on each part at the most,” studio engineer Joe Blaney told Prince archivist Duane Tudahl, citing what became an exhausting round-the-clock stint as his as his favourite moment during the Lovesexy sessions. With the basic tracks in place, Prince spent the remainder of the day adding overdubs, resulting in an organised collision of complex percussion, juddering synth bass, and keyboard and guitar interjections; a bleary-eyed Blaney completed the final mix at 9am the following day. Revisiting some of the lyrical concerns of 1999, Dance On sees Prince offering music as an antidote to global conflict.

Lovesexy

Flitting between thoughts so outrageous he bleeps even himself, and exalting the rapturous condition that gives Lovesexy its name, on the album’s title track Prince gets no closer to detailing what “lovesexy” is, though the dense arrangement and manic energy of the song readily complements its fevered lyrics. “This feeling’s so good in every single way/I want it morning, noon and night of every day,” Prince sings, with all the commitment of a fresh convert, seemingly positioning “lovesexy” as an alternative to the drug-induced highs he warned against pursuing in Eye No. Synth parts, horn lines and sampled vocals swirl around each other, and Prince revisits the poem that Ingrid Chavez recited at the start of the record. “When love calls,” he asserts, setting lust aside in favour of nurturing deeper relationships, “you got to go.”

When 2 R In Love

On an album that wrestles with the challenge of articulating intensely felt experiences, When 2 R In Love accepts that words are insufficient when it comes to a true meeting of minds and bodies. Something of a precursor to Eye Wanna Melt With U, from 1992’s “Love Symbol” album, this gentle ballad looks beyond the synchronicities felt between soul mates (“Their stomachs pound/Every time the other comes near”) towards an all-consuming symbiotic existence (“Let’s drown each other in each other’s emotions”). Offering the only moment of light on The Black Album, When 2 R In Love survived that record’s cull, deservedly finding its place on one of the best Prince albums.

I Wish U Heaven

Where Prince had proclaimed the benefits of “lovesexy” with a passion that bordered on forceful, the brief I Wish U Heaven, issued as the album’s third and final single, took a moment to express gratitude. Whether looking back at a former lover or seeking to pay his fortunes forward (“I wish U love/I wish you heaven”), Prince sets his offering to a lullaby-like melody capable of soothing troubled souls.

Positivity

At over seven minutes long, Positivity leaves Lovesexy’s listeners in no doubt as to the mindset Prince hopes they can embrace. Dismissing his band after recording the basic tracks for Eye No, he reached for his long-serving Linn LM-1 drum machine and built Positivity from the bottom up himself. Drawing out threads from Eye No’s lyrics (“Say yes!”), Prince turned from examining his own world view to asking listeners to take stock of theirs, setting a run of social ills against a couple of simple questions: “Have you had your plus sign today?/Do we mark you present, or do we mark you late?” The true extent of Prince’s commitment to philanthropy would only become public following his death, but with this song he made his stance clear, stressing that change starts with the self. “Hold on to your soul,” keyboardist and backing singer Boni Boyer demands. “We got a long way to go.”

Buy Prince vinyl and more at the Dig! store.

Original article: 9 May 2021

Updated: 10 May 2023

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