“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you there’s something else: the afterworld. A world of never-ending happiness where you can always see the sun. Day … or night.”
When an album opens like Purple Rain does, with what sounds like an effeminate preacher’s treatise on life as prison and death as release, it’s hard to know what to expect from the rest of the thing. And over the course of the subsequent nine tracks, Prince and the Revolution try their hardest to keep listeners both off balance and on their feet. A funk-pop-rock-R&B-psychedelic mashup, Purple Rain is the album that propelled Prince into the pop-music stratosphere. Ostensibly the sound track to the film of the same name — a laughably acted, semi-autobiographical look at a striving Minneapolis musician called simply the Kid — Purple Rain moves from the exciting opener “Let’s Go Crazy” to the sweet pop of “Take Me with U” to the sultry experimentation of “When Doves Cry” (the song has no bass line) to the epic closer and title ballad.
Winner of the Oscar for Best Original Song Score (a category that no longer exists), Purple Rain has another place in music history. In 1984 Tipper Gore bought the album for her young daughter Karenna. When Tipper heard the opening line to the song “Darling Nikki” (I knew a girl named Nikki/ I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/ I met her in a hotel lobby/ Masturbating with a magazine), she was appalled, even though it was actually tamer than some of Prince’s previous efforts (“Jack U Off” and “Head”). The album prompted the wife of then Senator Al Gore to form the Parents Music Resource Center, dedicated to monitoring objectionable content in pop music; one Senate hearing later (John Denver and Dee Snider testified), “Parental Advisory” stickers began to grace album covers. But as the man formerly known as a symbol understands well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity: the ruckus over “Darling Nikki” helped bring the Purple One to the attention of millions of new fans.