It’s not hard to grasp why Purple Rain was such an event when it was first released, 25 years ago this summer: The album was a dizzying synthesis of rock, pop and R&B, and it still sounds groundbreaking today. (Look back at MTV’s coverage of the “Purple Rain” premiere here .)
This was a defining moment for Prince and his greatest band, the Revolution (with which he shared, for the first time, both an unambiguous cover credit and, inside, some co-songwriting nods). The musicianship displayed on the record is exceptional: The arrangements are intricately structured, and the vocal work is dazzling; the electro-percussion is fat and beautifully ornamented, the guitars range from full-crush to feathery arpeggiation, and there are times when synthesized or actual orchestral beds drift off into stretches of harmonic abstraction that’s rare in music aimed at the pop charts. (Four of the album’s nine tracks were Top-40 hits; two of them — “Let’s Go Crazy” and the great “When Doves Cry” — went to Number One.)
Purple Rain is of course the soundtrack from the movie of the same name, which accompanied the record into the world. The film and the album set up a powerful synergy. The picture depicted the glitzless Midwestern capital of Minneapolis (Prince’s hometown) as a glam-pop fairyland, where the men were flamboyant fashion studs, the women lightly attired babes, everybody had talent, and the music that filled the air was, pretty much without exception, fabulous. The album called this vision up every time you played it. Which made you want to see the movie again. And then go home and keep playing the album. (And of course the songs were all over the radio, too.) Small wonder the record spent 72 weeks on the Billboard chart, and has sold more than 13-million copies to date.
But even without the movie (which won a soundtrack Oscar), Purple Rain would probably stand as a mighty achievement on its own. Prince had already proved himself an outsized talent with the three albums that preceded this one: Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (’81), and 1999 (’82). With Purple Rain, he confirmed his mastery of both rock and R&B idioms (and more, both of his parents being jazz musicians); and the Revolution, a racially and sexually integrated band, was his perfect instrument. (The group’s distinctive sound owed a lot to keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman, and to Coleman’s lifelong friend Wendy Melvoin, who’d just been brought in on guitar). And so while the album’s title track is a grand echo of Jimi Hendrix (the opening chords recall his “Little Wing”), and “I Would Die 4 U” is a flat-out terrific dance track, the record is peppered with other elements of striking originality. There’s the dreamy vocal montage at the end of “Darling Nikki,” which suddenly flips and starts running backwards, amid a gentle drizzle of falling-rain effects; and of course the epochal “When Doves Cry,” which offers a new kind of hook — a carefully rushed lyrical structure in which the beginning of each verse is butted up against the ending of the previous one. (The track famously has no bass line — apparently there was one, but Prince dumped it. Who can now imagine this one-of-a-kind song sounding any other way?)
Purple Rain stands as Prince’s commercial peak. He went on to have lots more hits (“Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” “U Got the Look,” and so forth), to top the charts again (most recently with the 2006 3121), and to collect more Grammys (this album won two). But with Purple Rain, he ruled the world of popular music. And after all these years, the album itself still rules.