By Scott T. Sterling
Twenty five years ago this weekend (October 1), Prince released Diamonds and Pearls, his first album with his longtime backing band, the New Power Generation. The album, which spawned a number of hit singles, went double platinum and saw him incorporating hip-hop elements into his music.
“23 positions in a one-night stand.”
Any notions that Prince had lost his early ‘80s edge with the decidedly more spiritual and less carnal emphasis found on albums like Lovesexy and Graffiti Bridge were smashed with the release of the single “Gett Off” in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1991.
Rumbling over a bottom-heavy New Jack Swing beat and eerie flute melody, this was the Prince that had both thrilled and scandalized listeners with songs like “Head” and “Darling Nikki.” He hammered home that point with a legendary performance of the song on the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards [watch the semi-NSFW performance here]. Clad in his notorious a—less lace pants amidst a stage populated by writhing half-naked dancers, it was part musical performance, part stage version of Caligula. But Prince’s “Gett Off” stole the show from the first flash of his bare butt. It was not exactly a “comeback,” since he never stopped clocking Top 10 hits in the years after Purple Rain, but “Gett Off” let it be known in no uncertain terms that Prince was still remarkably relevant. And that he could still get racy. But like the best Prince albums, Diamonds and Pearls had lots of shades and styles.
In stark contrast to “Gett Off” was the following single, “Cream,” which indulged his considerable pop muscle, which we’d seen in hit singles like “Raspberry Beret” and the Prince-penned “Manic Monday.” His dexterity at taking a simple melody and infusing it with his signature studio touches and nimble musicianship was more the enough to propel the song straight to the top of the charts, where “Cream” would reside for two weeks of November 1991.
Much had changed in the music world since Prince’s massive mainstream breakthrough with Purple Rain. Rap was making a strong push to overtake rock’s position as the sound of youth rebellion, although acts like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were doing their best to turn back the tide with then-current releases, Metallica and Use Your Illusion I and II, respectively.
Nirvana’s Nevermind had hit store shelves just a week earlier, and was only a few months from turning the world of rock upside down and ushering in the grunge era. Fellow Seattle band Pearl Jam was amidst their first nationwide tour opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers in support of their recently released debut, Ten.
R&B, meanwhile, was set on cruise control, with acts like Boyz II Men and Jodeci reinvigorating the classic vocal band tradition in their own ways to much success.
But Prince was clearly looking to compete with edgier fare. With the release of Diamonds and Pearls, he reminded listeners that time spent crafting summer blockbuster soundtracks (Batman) and producing hits for emerging artists (Tevin Campbell’s “Round and Round”) hadn’t dampened his ability to produce a singular and focused album that appealed to both longtime fans and casual listeners. He didn’t just want to make a great album, he wanted hits. Lots of them.
One of the most surprising singles was “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” which hit #23 on the pop charts and #14 on the R&B charts. It sported a smooth, uplifting chorus and warm orchestral arrangement, belying the harsh realities he sang about in the politically-charged song (which was brought home by the Spike Lee-directed video).
“Insatiable,” meanwhile, was the latest in a line of classic sexually-charged Prince bedroom ballads in the tradition of songs like “Do Me, Baby” and “International Lover,” complete with the promise that “2 night we video…/No one will ever know.” It wasn’t a pop hit, but went to #3 on the R&B charts.
The grandiose pop of the title track (#3 on pop charts, #1 R&B) is Prince at his most indulgent and effective. The dense arrangement and bombastic prog-rock flourishes betray a subtle Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles influence, as played by the New Power Generation.
Like any classic album, it’s not only about the hits; many of the best songs found on Diamonds and Pearls are the lesser-known ones scattered across the record’s thirteen tracks.
Both “Strollin’” and “Willing and Able” resurrect some of the minimalist cool jazz textures found on Prince’s stellar Parade album, particularly the latter with a breezy vocal melody and lyrical guitar work.
And like most Prince albums, Diamonds and Pearls comes with those eccentric odds and ends that find the artist both fighting against and coming to terms with current trends.
While Prince had initially resisted hip-hop, he relented to the times by incorporating rap, to decidedly mixed results. Exhibit A: “Jughead,” which allows Tony Mosley (AKA “Tony M.”) to rap about a new dance craze that never even came close to being a thing: “Move your head and shoulders from side 2 side/Take your back foot, and then u let it slide/Yo, in a fade motion, lots of attitude, coast 2 coast.”
“Jughead” would also be a platform for Prince to advocate for musicians’ rights, with Tony M. firing shots at a record executive promising him fame and riches.
“Push for yours, and watch for Mr. Money minder, as we settle the score,” he raps in the song’s final stanza. It’s no coincidence that Prince’s next album would be the first under his symbol moniker as he launched into his famous battle with Warner Bros. over control of his music.
While Prince would continue to score hit records in the following years (most notably 1995’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” which would also earn him a GRAMMY nomination), Diamonds and Pearls would be the last time that he would roll out this many charting tracks on a single studio effort.
Listening to it today, the true breadth of Prince’s immense talents, from his R&B roots to genre-smashing crossover success to the freeform and often inexplicable career trajectory beyond the ‘90s that would eventually make him a legend can be heard loud and clear all over Diamonds and Pearls.