As the Star Tribune’s music critic since 1975, I had the rare privilege and responsibility of covering Prince during his entire professional career (1978-2016). That continues even five years after his death. Thanks to his overstuffed vault, there are previously unreleased recordings and deluxe reissues to cover and never-ending estate issues to sort out.
As fans new or old discover (or rediscover) Prince albums of long ago, they sometimes track down my old reviews. And I hear about it: “Do you want to take back that critique?” “What do you think of that album now?” “Bream, you suck.”
First of all, no opinion is right or wrong, and everyone is entitled to their own. That’s what I tell readers who gripe about my real-time reviews, Prince or otherwise.
Secondly, I hear all of the Purple One’s albums differently now. And not because I’ve listened to them again and again. My ears have changed.
Bold, experimental sounds may not sound so unusual years later. With songs about fellatio and incest, Prince’s third album, “Dirty Mind,” sounded scandalously Rabelaisian in 1980, albeit sonically seductive. A half-dozen years later, the floodgates burst open for explicitly sexual rap and R&B, and Prince sounded almost tame by comparison, or simply ahead of his time.
Over the years, my perspective has changed. I may have been too self-serious and humorless at times, especially in my early years. (I was the stuffed shirt who dismissed the 1978 movie “Animal House” as a “sexist, racist, gross, puerile comedy.”) Moreover, hearing more music enlightens you and informs your tastes.
But the biggest change: I got spoiled by the extraordinary opportunity of experiencing Prince live dozens and dozens of times over the decades. These days, it’s not the recorded versions of songs that echo in my ears, but how they were performed onstage (even if the arrangement was altered every time).
Lesser tunes were redeemed in concert, if only because they were played faster, or “hotter” as musicians say. Prince was such a remarkable musician, creative bandleader and dazzling performer that nearly every number became better live.
Take “My Name Is Prince” from his 1992 album, known as the “Love Symbol” album. In my review, I dismissed the single as derivative, “teeming with hip-hop attitude of self-importance spouted by rappers for the past 10 years. … Prince used to be hip; now he’s just another hip-hopper.”
Ouch. But I stand by that assessment. Over the years, however, “My Name Is Prince” became a perfect party jam if played at the right time in concert. I’d stuff my notebook into my back pocket and dance. As that song proclaims, Prince was indeed funky, eternally funky.
There are other selections I dissed in real-time reviews — including “Let’s Work” and “3121” — that I grew fond of in concert. Repetition may make the heart grow fonder, or it can make you want to dance.
I don’t want to rewrite my reviews — now or then, even though I heard blowback in the early days. “Bream, you keep building up this kid. You’re just a hometown cheerleader. He’ll never amount to anything.”
When I was hired, this thick-skinned writer made a commitment to be uncompromisingly honest. And if Prince’s work — or that of any other major-label act — didn’t measure up, I’d say so.
The words of Bette Midler always stuck with me: “You’ve got to know when your own [crap] stinks,” she told me in a 1979 interview about her film “The Rose.”
Or the corollary to that: “Everyone needs an editor.” (I have two or three for this story, thank you.)
Prince never had an editor. He never enlisted a producer on his recordings. His contract with Warner Bros. gave him artistic freedom. Label executives might resist his ideas or decline to release his recordings, but essentially he was his own boss.
One of rock’s grand visionaries, the Purple One established lofty standards. But sometimes he didn’t know when his own stuff stunk. It was the responsibility of critics to say so.
In the years since Prince died, some of his musicians have told me that they took my criticism to heart, that it challenged them. I appreciate that they came to view my comments as constructive. Perspective, I guess.
And I appreciate that Prince respected me enough to read everything I wrote about him, even if it compelled him to ban me from his Glam Slam club for a time (I had panned his 1990 movie “Graffiti Bridge”) and to burn a copy of my review of the “Love Symbol” album on national TV’s “Arsenio Hall Show.”
Experiencing “Sexy MF,” “Damn U,” “The Morning Papers” and, yes, “My Name Is Prince” in concert over the years enabled me to have a higher regard for that album, though hip-hop was never the most effective tool in the paisley kit. My passion for the stylistically disparate “Dirty Mind,” “Controversy” and “1999” increased over time, as well.
More importantly, my admiration for Prince’s ever-expanding musical palette and unwavering willingness to challenge himself, his musicians and his audience multiplied as the years went on. Even though radio no longer loved him, his lyrics became more mature, his music often more sophisticated, his sense of adventure undiminished. He grew, and I grew with him.
Prince was the most complete rock star ever, and I was honored to witness his long career.
Prince knew what my job was. In 2013, after a late concert in Denver, he asked me: “Did you dance or take notes during the show?”
“I did both,” I responded with real-time honesty.
I leave it to academics, podcasters and younger critics to analyze and philosophize about his views on race, religion and romance. Me? I’ll just put on a Prince concert DVD and dance.