"Yeah, [the tongue box] gives me courage you know, like a veil I can hide behind. I talk at, around and through it." - Prince, Lost Segue #3
"I don't need Sasha Fierce anymore, because I've grown and now I'm able to merge the two." - Beyoncé
Like most of the world - well, Twitter - I felt that Beyoncé should have won the Grammy for Album of the Year rather than Adele. 25 had some bangers on it, don't get me wrong, but Lemonade was received as a contemporary cultural phenomenon on its release. Instead of getting into a rant about musical awards voting bodies and systems because other people have said it better elsewhere - including here and here - I am going to posit a pet hypothesis of mine to you, Dear Readers. As you may have guessed, it's not only about Lemonade, but also the concept of, well, a concept album, and how religious musical artists express their beliefs through their work, even in the highly-sexualised genre of pop - darn it, especially pop precisely because it deals with sexuality and desire. I'm going to be talking about Prince.
Another artist who passed away last year, I think that Prince fully earned the bandied-about term of genius. He was such a pioneer in his own time, living purely for his vision, someone who never seemed to be out of character once or otherwise incredibly shy and retiring. His sound has gone on to influence so many, that it can be a surprise to hear his own hooks because they already seem so familiar, like learning a new word in your mother tongue. It's always been part of the language, waiting for you to discover its meaning. Prince changed his name to this symbol, a meshing of the two separate signs for male and female, earning it various labels like 'androgyny' but it became most commonly known as the 'love symbol'. This album shares the symbol as its title. I'm going with Wikipedia - sorry, folks - on this one and referring to it as Love Symbol Album from hereon out. Prince was also, undeniably, a sex symbol but sex to him, as he seems to suggest on Love Symbol Album, was anything but a base act and instead a hugely spiritual undertaking.
Described as a "funky rock soap opera", Love Symbol Album was inspired by Prince's partner and later wife, Mayte Garcia, who takes the role of a middle-Eastern princess imploring Prince to help her avenge her father's death at the hand of seven goons. Surprise, surprise, they fall in love. There's also three gold chains involved, Kirstie Alley as a career-driven newswoman and oh yeah, Prince is actually a 320-year-old spirit called Victor who is musing on the true nature of sacrifice. Funky - check. Rock - check. Soap opera - check check check.
It is no secret that Prince was a Christian and I heartily recommend that you watch this story from Kevin Smith, a filmmaker who also calls upon his faith in his work, about his time collaborating with Prince. On Love Symbol Album, you can barely move for the religious iconography referenced - here is an excellent and my no means inexhaustible list of suggestions - but the rhythm keeps you dancing. 7 is absolutely my favourite track, energetic and upbeat without being hyperactive, a bold declaration to love-the-verb in the face of whatever stands in the way of doing so. I defy you to listen to this without your arms raising above your hands and clapping in time.
However, listening the tracks, it's hard to find a storyline or plot that runs through it. There's plenty of themes but how was this a concept album? Well, originally there were segues between tracks, following the format of an interview between Alley's news reporter, Vanessa Bartholomew, and Victor. The Alley segues were cut, so the storyline suffered, thereby destroying the full resonance of the Love Symbol Album funky rock soap opera concept. There are some surviving fragments across the Internet of the videos that were made for the singles that enhance the story but I have yet to find the full version. If anyone has any tips, please do hit me up with them, as I'm pretty invested at this point.
It is a real shame that the storyline and concept of Love Symbol Album suffered so greatly as to become not even nonsensical but invisible. What does remain, however, are the strong themes of love and religion. Though the storyline was intended to be about romantic love, it's fair to say that much of the relationship outlined in the published lyrics could similarly be that of a religious love between deity and devotee. There's plenty of mystery here, along with a dollop of confusion, but I'm not in doubt that Prince is having fun with his God rather than blaspheming when he claims that he was made on the seventh day of creation because God just couldn't get rested.
That the accompanying visuals are hard to source is also a pity because so much of Prince's possible message is lost. Going back to Beyoncé, for me, the visual album version of Lemonade brings a resonance and depth that the audio-only album lacks. Partly because Beyoncé draws heavily on the significant range of imagery from the entire history of African-American culture, both its exuberance and its grief - the sequence of the mothers holding the pictures of their sons killed by police makes me cry every single time, and rightly so - but also partly due to Warsan Shire's poetic interludes. They are steeped in allusions to saint-like demonstrations of fasting and mourning, abstaining from sex but also what sex means in a Christian marriage.
In some schools of Christianity, marriage is the metaphysical joining of two people as one in the eyes of God. I think that it is safe to assume that Beyoncé believes this when she sings, "When you hurt me/ you hurt yourself". Sex in a Christian marriage isn't solely a means to the sacred power of reproduction but a combining of two bodies. Beyoncé's visual album morphs from a paean on individual pain to an awakening that draws on the long history of the persecution of black women, as she feels the full force of her husband breaking a vow in the eyes of God and experiences the many emotions in the forgiveness process. Beyoncé has more frequently also drawn upon the Ifa and Yoruba goddess Oshun in her visuals, particularly in the press release announcing her pregnancy with twins. Unsurprisingly, as Oshun represents a myriad of concepts, not only fertility but also luxury, pleasure, sexuality, love and divination.
Not without the realms of what themes pop deals in, neither unlike Prince inhabiting the character of Victor, musing no sacrifice, as well as drawing upon sacred symbols and merging them to create something new, blurring boundaries rather than breaking them. Long before sex-positivity became an enshrined term, Prince was exuding his femininity and masculinity in his own unique way. Listening to this album I'm reminded of how I felt listening to channel orange and Frank Ocean's emotional, luscious weaving of various different influences. And all that vibrant, defiant colour. For Prince, though, I think he was less conscious of gender as a division and more about divinity and love as inherent elements in all of us. His spirituality, more than anything, enabled him to transcend categories but ultimately informed his aesthetic and approach to his work.
Crank this up. Rest In Prince, y'all.