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Frame of ‘Mind’

A look back at Prince’s Dirty Mind 30 years later

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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.

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