Prince’s purple reign as one of the music world’s most influential, iconic, erratic and enigmatic figures has come to an end with the singer’s surprise death at the age of 57. And while sales of the songs and albums that put him on the map in the 1980s are predictably going through the digital roof on iTunes and elsewhere, Plugged In felt his passing provided an opportunity to look at Prince Rogers Nelson’s last official musical testament, HITnRUN: Phase One and Phase Two, a two-disc set released in September and December 2015, respectively.
These final releases (while he was alive) find Minnesota’s most famous musical son delving deeply into almost every genre under the sun, including rock, rap, funk, R&B, EDM, dubstep and punk rock. But even though The Purple One’s Jehovah’s Witness affiliation prompted a partial retreat from sexually explicit material in the early 2000s, in the end that’s what Prince died embracing.
“Baltimore” explores racial conflict in that city. Prince says he’s prayed for victims of police brutality (“Does anybody hear us pray/For Michael Brown or Freddy Gray?”) Unlike some artists dealing with this issue, though, Prince’s concern isn’t expressed in unbridled rage, but rather in a desire for peace and harmony between the races. He sings, “Peace is more than the absence of war/ … We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’/ … Enough is enough, it’s time for love.” A repeated line links the important concepts of justice and peace: “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace.” In similarly territory, “Black Muse” explores the subject of African-American slavery and suggests that black families staying together is key for helping them escape the cycle of poverty today (“Black Muse, we’ve been so abused/Our mothers were good looking and our fathers were too/But if they don’t stay together/We can’t walk no better in these shoes”). Prince later says the people “that created rhythm and blues/Rock and roll and jazz” are people who are “built to last.” Upbeat and optimistic, “Big City” sees the urban landscape as a place of hope and possibility where dreams can come true. It also implies that getting right spiritually is more important than getting rich (“Everybody’s getting money instead of getting saved”).
A playful, exuberant spirit shows up on many tracks, such as “X’s Face,” where Prince sings triumphantly, “You and I in chariots, on our way/To a purple celebration for what we’ve learned” and promises to heal the hurting: “For every broken heart, there’s another we’ll mend.” “1000 X’s & O’s” promises a woman comfort and safety in a relationship. “Rocknroll Loveaffair” talks about the cost of seeking fame (“She left her past and those lily white fences/And headed out to Hollywood in search of her soul/But she had to pay the toll”).
Sexual innuendo turns up on track after track after track, and it’s the primary content concern on the two Phases of HITnRUN. Sometimes it’s more suggestive than explicit. On “Shut This Down,” for instance, we hear this naughty brag: “All sweaty and hot/I’m gonna get you where you never get got.” “Like a Mack” talks about buying lingerie for a lady and leers at women dancing sensually together (“Whole block crushing and the girls are hot/Dancin’ with each other ’cause the boys are not”). “FALLINLOVE2NIGHT” (where Prince is joined by actress and singer Zooey Deschanel) looks forward to a night of physical connection (“Wanna wake up to your, your pretty face/ … Don’t you wanna do it till the morning light?”). “June” fondly recalls a former lover’s body. Double entendres referencing sexual anatomy turn up on “Rocknroll Loveaffair.” Still more bedroom intentions fill “Groovy Potential.” “Screwdriver” not surprisingly contains the repeated line, “I’m your driver, and you’re my screw.”
Prince also ventures into racier territory. The erotic “HardRockLover” promises, “Gonna make her moan,” before lyrically mingling sex, a woman’s ecstatic screaming … and sundae ingredients. And the “romance” going on here includes references to S&M-style bondage. “2 Y. 2 D.” talks of a talented, beautiful young woman who is nonetheless “old enough to do ya'” (with the end of the song implying that she’s underage after all). The funky, James Brown-esque “Stare” includes the plea, “Curvy ma, tell me what you wanna do,” before a whole section of heavy breathing. “Xtraloveable” sings the praises of a woman who knows “a dozen little sexy tricks” that “a dozen cities in the U.S. won’t, won’t even allow.” Later on, Prince fantasizes about taking a shower and then a bath with the woman, telling her, “I would like a chance to see you dancing naked.” “When She Comes” slowly moves from double entendres to an explicit description of oral sex and orgasm. Likewise, “Revelation” crudely blends spiritual and sexual jargon in describing a woman’s orgasm. “This Could B Us” rightly understands that there’s more to intimacy than just sex, but it still defines a spiritual connection with someone in sexual terms.
“Ain’t About 2 Stop” includes this line from guest Rita Ora: “From the bottom up, we getting’ rough and kickin’ a–” (with the vulgarity getting partially bleeped). “X’s Face” exclaims, “Oh lord!” “D–n” shows up on one track, as well as a bleeped use of “b–ch.” A handful of tracks make passing reference to drinking alcohol at dance clubs.
I would love to be able to write that Prince ultimately found something more meaningful than the sexual subjects that have occupied so much of his musical work. And at times, there are hints that he, too, wanted to transcend the flesh as the primary muse for his music, such as when tells a lover, “Sex with me ain’t enough/That’s why we gotta do it metaphysically.”
Prince is right in that realization: Sex alone—especially outside the context of God’s design for its fruitful, unifying expression in marriage—isn’t enough to create a life of meaning, beauty and purpose. Alas, most of the time on these two HITnRUN Phases he can’t quite hold on to that momentary flicker of insight.
Much more often, the pursuit of all things fleshly seemed to be Prince’s beginning point … and his ending point.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.