Throughout many artists’ careers, there are watershed albums in which the musician undertakes a stylistic shift that was both unexpected and revelatory.
And then there’s Dirty Mind.
Released in October of 1980 – 30 years ago this month – it was the third album by Prince, and his first that demanded attention. On his previous albums, Prince flirted with fluffy post-disco funk (1978’s For You) and an accessible, if insubstantial blending of soul ballads and pop-rock structures (1979’s Prince). Neither album made much of an impact; his debut was all but ignored, while the follow-up got polite notices and spawned a hit in the form of “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
A hindsight-is-20/20 listen to Prince, reveals some clues about what Prince’s future work would lean toward – the lesbians-are-cool lyrics and guitar histrionics of “Bambi,” the soaring, multi-part harmonies of “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” the relentless funk of “Sexy Dancer” – but at the time, there was absolutely no way to guess that the shirtless naif on the cover of Prince would reemerge a year later in his underwear with a clutch of songs that absolutely nobody expected from a 22-year-old kid from Minneapolis.
There he was, in a stark black-and-white photo, with bedsprings behind him and decked out in bikini underwear, a trench coat and bandana, with his relaxed hair just dripping pure skeeviness. If the front of Dirty Mind didn’t clue you in to the fact that the album wasn’t your run-of-the-mill R&B record, a quick glance at the back – a sorta-blurry shot of Prince, trench coat ajar, reclining on a bed with the track list (including “Head”) spray-painted on the wall behind him – made it perfectly clear. Visually, it bristled with an aggressive sense of dangerous sleaze and went way beyond what most confrontational art-rockers were attempting at the time. It was a dank and squalid scene, the dark side of the emerging New Wave … and this was the guy who, on the back of his last album, was shown in soft-focus riding a white Pegasus.
This contrast – the gentle lover with the soulful falsetto versus the lascivious experimentalist – was one that would play out over the next decade of Prince’s career. At this point in time, however, it was wholly unexpected. It was also a contrast that had yet to be successfully merged; while later albums would find Prince seamlessly shifting from bump-and-grind to slow-and-smooth, from airy psychedelia to crunchy rock, Dirty Mind was constructed as a polemic about-face from what had come before.
Legend has it that all 29 minutes of Dirty Mind were recorded in a single demo session and turned in to Warner Bros. in one of Prince’s first stabs at “Let’s see how I can piss off my record label.” This is only partially true: The tracks on the album are, for the most part, the first versions Prince recorded in his home studio. But Prince’s “home studio” was a pretty substantial affair that was far from the drum-machine-and-cassette-recorder of early ’80s imagination. And Prince has always recorded preliminary versions of songs that, though they may later be altered or edited, are mostly complete. Furthermore, the album was sequenced and edited in cooperation with Prince’s management and label for maximum impact – a half-dozen more songs were recorded for inclusion. So the idea that he pulled a “take it or leave it” routine with the suits at Warner Bros. is good mythology, but somewhat removed from reality.
Nonetheless, the album is stark and unabashedly sexual. “Head,” of course, is a paean to a blow job from a bride. More shockingly, “Sister” is about getting molested by an aggressive sibling … and kinda liking it. Even the songs that eschew blatant raunchiness for old-fashioned good times (“Partyup,” “Uptown”) have a kinetic sense of hormonal urgency to them.
Still, “sexual” doesn’t always equate to “sexy,” and Dirty Mind is simultaneously the most risqué and least arousing albums of Prince’s career. In just a couple of years, on 1999, he’d be belting out lines like “I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth,” but by that point, he’d mastered the blend of playfulness and bravado that would mark his music throughout the ’80s. On Dirty Mind, he’s just an angry, horny kid with some pretty fucked-up ideas about women.
That youthful fury managed to get Prince pigeonholed as “punk funk” alongside, well, pretty much the only other member of the genre, Rick James. It wasn’t a categorization he approved of, but on Dirty Mind at least, it was accurate spiritually, if not sonically. In fact, the attitude of this “punk” album was what pushed Prince to continue to innovate and experiment throughout the ’80s, yielding a half-dozen classic albums that people will still be talking about in 50 years. Of them all though, Dirty Mind is the most important.
It may not be the most sophisticated, the most entertaining or the funkiest, but it’s by far the most indicative of the man’s bravery, iconoclasm and extremely high self-regard. Which pretty much means it’s the ultimate Prince album.