In the waking moments of the 1990s, Prince was excitedly strutting toward what seemed like a revitalization of his career. The Kid had just wrapped his 12th studio album (and accompanying film), Graffiti Bridge, and he was clearly ready for a new chapter. He was so hyped about his newly formed band, the New Power Generation, and the jam sessions starting to happen between drummer Michael Bland and keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, that he'd written a two-part anthem about them — Graffiti Bridge's "New Power Generation" — before they ever played a meaningful lick. When he finally released a record with the new band, 1991's Diamonds and Pearls, it became Prince's biggest-selling since 1984’s Purple Rain. But for all the world-changing innovation any Prince album promised, Diamonds and Pearls rested comfortably between the pillars of funk, rock, and R&B. It would be another year before Prince truly harnessed the collaborative potential of the New Power Generation with the Love Symbol Album — a heady tour de force that proclaimed just how he intended to spend the new decade.
Shortly after Love Symbol dropped, Warner Bros. informed Prince of plans to slow down the pace of his career, mandating 18-month intervals between each release. Prince responded by changing his name to the symbol on the cover of the album, making appearances with the word "slave" written on his face, and declaring war on his label. In 1994, Warner Bros. effectively granted his wishes, firing off three mostly forgettable releases — The Black Album, The Gold Experience, and his au revoir, Chaos and Disorder — in three consecutive years. Yet even after he and Warner Bros. parted ways in 1996, Prince’s very public fight for ownership of his master recordings and his general distaste for the music industry defined his image for the rest of his career. Often lost in this narrative is Love Symbol itself. After 25 years on the margins of Prince's canon, the album stands today as a document of the guile and abandon that made his genius clear.
In late 1992, when the album was released, the Billboard charts were ruled by melodramatic R&B and hedonistic hip-hop — effectively burying Prince's new material in Whitney Houston high notes and chronic smoke. Prince had tried his hand at the former with the honeysuckle-sweet R&B single "Diamonds and Pearls," but Houston, Mariah Carey, and Boyz II Men simply weren't allowing him room to squeeze in on the syrupy-soul tip. So, after years of sneak-dissing hip-hop's potential staying power (most notably on the original 1987 bootleg version of The Black Album), he finally spit a few bars on Love Symbol's "Arrogance" and "The Flow" — and MC Purple ain't sound half-bad.
"Arrogance" is buoyed by a matrix of Eric B. & Rakim and N.W.A samples, which Prince uses to bend hip-hop into something like grunge. He reconciles this by dipping into the Africanism toolbox and pulling out call-and-response refrains that split the difference between the sounds. Prince’s rhymes consider questions from the large and looming ("What make a man wanna rule the world?") to the challenging and incisive (“[What] make him man enough to say he’s 50-50 girl?"). The result is a quick hip-hop interlude that pushes us to think of the humanity in hubris. "The Flow," meanwhile, leans closer to a traditional '90s rap sound, complete with NPG rapper Tony M.'s best Chuck D impression and a remarkably square verse from the Purple One where he admonishes an author who “never went to school as far as I know / And now you’re tryna write a bio?”
The problem with Prince's hip-hop dabbling is that he was a late arrival to a party he arguably helped inspire, and once he got there he didn't hit the two-step nearly hard enough. Seeking pop reconnection after the relative failure of Graffiti Bridge, he was preoccupied with pointing out the links between hip-hop, rock, soul, funk, and the rest of the black cultural canon. Love Symbol, then, is the sound of The Artist dragging hip-hop's macho ass left and dropping it face-first into his own sexually liberated funk. But hip-hop in the early '90s was a young man’s game, and his rap dispatch was too grown and out there for that particular moment.
That said, Love Symbol doesn't lack for quintessential Prince jams. The album's most successful single, "7," harkens back to the balladry and symbolism of Purple Rain, with Prince celebrating freedom from sin via “an intellect and a savoir faire.” Perhaps the album's most radio-ready track, "Love 2 the 9's," wasn't even released as a single; that cut finds Prince diving down to his lower register for a sultry, almost quiet-storm groove, while his own backing falsetto harmonies sing of a love as dynamic as his vocal range. He pulls in close for the ballad "Sweet Baby," on which he compels a friend, child, lover to move forward despite the pain of heartbreak — "How can you sleep knowing that you and a fool sing in the same key?"
In an era when innumerable artists are bending hip-hop into funk into R&B — Anderson .Paak's Malibu, Childish Gambino's Awaken My Love, and just about everything Janelle Monáe does come to mind — Love Symbol has aged quite well. Some fans, considering Prince's well-known issues around ownership of music, might feel conflicted about streaming it in 2017. I listened to the album this week on a service that Prince didn’t get down with while he was alive, but does that matter now? Time, for Prince (like Sun Ra and Hendrix before him), was nothing but a construct to be molded, broken, and liberated over numerous styles and metaphysical lifetimes. In the tireless concerts and recordings of his last years, Prince made it clear that his chief concern was connecting to his fans through his music. Who’s to say that the album’s most impactful day isn’t still ahead?