The Purple Print: how Prince left his mark on popular music

Mario M.
13 Min Read

A month after Prince’s untimely death, we have decided to honor his lasting legacy not by discussing his extensive catalog, but by shedding light to the influence his music has had on Pop and R&B music for three decades.

Have you ever heard a song and went “hmm that sounds a little bit like Prince!”? If you have, it’s probably because the song in question did and because Prince had his own, distinctive sound.

When he first burst into the music scene in the late 70s, Prince was a teenager but he had already cultivated his incredible talent and put it to work. Despite not finding success with his debut album, For You, it was in 1979 that he broke through. The breezy “I Wanna Be Your Lover” from his self-titled sophomore, became his first hit and put him on the map. The song presented some innovative characteristics that made it fresh in the landscape of R&B, which was dominated at the time by the remnants of Disco and funk. The song had the rhythm of a funky track, but did not feature the classic horn section that embellished the productions of that era. This was a only a sign of what Prince would further develop on his third album, Dirty Mind.

Released in 1980, the album featured a mix of funk, rock, synthpop and new wave. Guitar solos, keyboards and synthesizers replaced the horns of traditional funk; the tempos became faster and the bass less prominent, while drums were more processed than before. All of these elements gave life to the so called “Minneapolis Sound” that Prince ushered into the scene and made influential.

In the early 80s Prince recruited musicians to put together the group The Time, which featured Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and the girl trio Vanity 6, fronted by Vanity. These two groups were intended to be an outlet for his creativity, which led him to compose numerous songs he wouldn’t use for his own projects. The Time never saw big mainstream success, while Vanity 6 released a self-titled album in 1982 spawning the top 10 R&B hit “Nasty Girl” written and produced by Prince himself, a song which has been covered or sampled by a number of artists, including Jazmine Sullivan, who referenced it and the group on “Don’t Make Me Wait” from her 2010 album Love Me Back.  Their success was however short-lived and Vanity decided to pursue a solo career leading to the group being renamed Apollonia 6, after the new lead singer Apollonia. The disbandment of The Time instead led to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis partnering and becoming one of the most prominent production teams of the 1980s and 1990s.

Harris and Lewis’ work drew a lot from their previous association with Prince. Their extensive use of synthesizers is evident on the top 10 R&B and Dance hit “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” they produced for Cherrelle, but the biggest example of the influence Prince had on popular music in the 80s is the duo’s work on Janet Jackson’s breakthrough album Control. It’s very easy to hear elements of the Minneapolis sound on songs like “What Have You Done For Me Lately” or “Nasty.” Another former member of The Time, Monte Moir, worked on the album writing and producing the #1 R&B hit “The Pleasure Principle,” with clear Prince influences.

By 1986 Prince had achieved enormous success of his own with the release of classic albums such as 1999, the Purple Rain soundtrack, Around the World in a Day and Parade. His music had reached audiences on an international scale and attracted the attention of critics and artists alike.

In 1984 Chaka Khan covered “I Feel For You” for her omonymous album. The song was an album track from Prince’s second album and even if it was re-produced (Stevie Wonder provided the added harmonica sections), it still retained elements of the original and was arranged according to the Minneapolis trends. The cover was one of the biggest hits of Chaka’s career and the two of them would collaborate in the late 90s.

Phil Collins has admitted to being influenced by Prince’s “1999” for the creation of his 1985 hit “Sussudio.” When critics noted similarities between the tracks, the English songwriter revealed that he had been listening to that particular Prince song frequently at the time when he wrote his song by playing around on a drum machine.

Prince was such a prolific songwriter that he often worked on songs for other artists as well. He wrote, produced and provided background vocals on “Yo Mister” for Patti LaBelle’s 1989 album Be Yourself. The song was released as a single and was one of Ms. Patti’s most successful singles in the 80s. That same year he appeared on Madonna’s album Like a Prayer, playing guitar on the title track (for which he remained uncredited) and co-writing and co-producing their duet “Love Song.”

In 1990 the Irish recording artist Sinéad O’Connor covered Prince’s 1985 song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The track had been intended for Prince’s side project with The Family. Sinéad co-produced her version of the song with Nellee Hooper and released it as the second single from her album I Do Not What I Haven’t Got. Her version became a worldwide hit and has been named one of the best tracks of the 90s, even thanks to its music video. Prince has since recorded his own version of the song after performing it live in concert and the track was recently used to pay hommage to him on the 13th day after his passing, in reference to the song’s opening lines “it’s been 7 hours and 13 days, since you took your love away.

In the 90s R&B girl group TLC covered the 1987 hit “If I Was Your Girlfriend” for their second album CrazySexyCool. Their version was produced by Puff Daddy and Chucky Thompson. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” has proved to be one of Prince’s most enduring hits, being sampled by rappers such as 2Pac (he used a live version of it on “Thugs Get Lonely Too”), Mobb Deep and Jay-Z, who sampled musical and lyrical elements of it on his first collaboration with Beyoncé, “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” in 2002.

Purple Rain, however, remains the classic Prince era to which many artists have turned for inspiration. Alicia Keys’ “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” draws its main melody from the piano line that can be heard at the very end of the title track and also lifts the strings sections and chord progressions. Even though there is not a credited sample for the song, it is a pretty obvious reference. Alicia has expressed her admiration for Prince by covering “How Come You Don’t Call Me” on her debut album Songs in a Minor; furthermore his influence can be heard on “This Bed” from her 2009 album The Element of Freedom, on which the drums and synths recall the processing Prince used in his productions and her soft vocal performance sounds like a nod to his falsetto delivery. Chrisette Michele’s “Goodbye Game” also seems to reference the same piano line from “Purple Rain,” though again there is no direct sampling. Multiple elements of the power ballad are also audible on Trey Songz’s “Yo Side of the Bed.” The R&B singer also paid tribute to Prince at the 2010 BET Awards by ending his performance with “Purple Rain.”

The poignant “The Beautiful Ones” has been notoriously covered by Mariah Carey on her Butterfly album (turning it into a duet with Dru Hill) and by Beyoncé, who has incorporated it into her concerts including her televised headlining set at Glastonbury in 2011. Beyoncé performed “Purple Rain” alongside the Purple One himself at the 2004 Grammy ceremony and has displayed influences, both in production elements and vocal delivery, on her solo work with songs such as “Schoolin’ Life,” “1+1” and “Dance For You” from her 2011 album 4 or “No Angel” from the 2013 self-titled visual album. In 2007, Beyoncé was also Justin Timberlake’s duet partner on the single “Until the End of Time,” which features lyrical nods to Prince’s 1987 song “Adore,” but is musically comparable to “Raspberry Beret” and “The Beautiful Ones” for its drumbeat. Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds has been compared by critics to Prince’s Sign “O” the Times for its “forward-thinking pop sounds” and contains the bass and falsetto-laced “Sexy Ladies,” which is another obvious Prince-inspired track. Usher’s “Do It to Me” from the Confessions album was also clearly conceived with “The Beautiful Ones” as a template, no sample is however credited for the song.

“Darling Nikki” was interpolated on “Blow Ya Mind” from Nicki Minaj’s debut album Pink Friday, while MC Hammer sampled “When Doves Cry” for his hit single “Pray,” the first and one of the few authorisations Prince gave for sampling his work.

Traces of Prince can also be heard on Ciara’s hit single “Promise,” which relies on synths, echoed drums and distorted sounds; on Katy Perry’s “Birthday,” whose melodic breeziness is reminiscent of “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” or on Lady Gaga’s “Sexxx Dreams” which uses processed drums and synthesizers to create a Prince-esque atmosphere surrounding the sexual lyrical content.

The biggest hommage in this decade has certainly come from Miguel, the R&B singer and songwriter that has often been compared to Prince for the eclectic mix of R&B, rock, funk and electronic elements in his music. Miguel has stated that Prince is one of his idols, an influence that’s been detected also in his personal style and fashion choices. The acclaimed Janelle Monáe is also an artist emerging in the past 6 years that’s expressed admiration for Prince. She paid tribute to the Purple One in 2010 with a performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” at the BET Awards and has had the privilege of working with him on “Givin’ Em What They Love” from her second studio album The Electric Lady.

Prince’s influence on music has been so huge that it would take months to discuss in depth and dissect every song that features elements of his work. His Genius has transcended genres touching Pop, R&B, hip-hop, alternative, rock and electronica, finding a way to re-emerge with every new trend. A sign that he’s created a timeless catalog that will provide inspiration for decades and generations of artists to come. All hail the Prince!




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