Jack Riedy is 4/20 posi vibes all the time.
Lovesexy wasn’t supposed to come out at all. Prince had spent the end of 1987 at work on an album apart from the pop he had made his name on. It was called The Black Album, and it was focused on funk and nascent hip-hop. It was abruptly cancelled in December. In a possibly apocryphal story from the biography Dance Music Sex Romance, Prince tried ecstasy one night at a club in December 1987 but came home distraught and spent the night lurking around Paisley Park. After coming down, The Purple One experienced a spiritual epiphany. He was so shaken that he canceled an entire album just a few days before release, believing it to be representative of negativity he needed to leave behind. This lent The Black Album’s funk a taboo that only served to over-hype its eventual release in 1994.
Lovesexy was recorded from scratch in just seven weeks, released in May 1988. The floral nude cover is a perfect match for an upbeat album with a renewed lyrical focus on spirituality and romance. The grooves on “Eye No” and “Alphabet St.” are so loose, a backing band deserves credit. “When 2 R In Love” was the only track from Black to make the cut, and it’s one of the best ballads the Artist ever wrote. The album opens with the spoken admonishment “The reason my voice is so clear is there’s no smack in my brain,” yet in light of Prince’s previous trip, Lovesexy is ironically an ecstatic record. Whatever he felt that night in Paisley Park, it pushed his music entirely off course.
The only notable recreational trip Prince took had an unhappy ending. Despite his creativity and popularity peaking in the hedonistic ‘80s, Prince was known by all to abstain from recreational drugs. In fact, he once even finished a 20-minute jam by “berating the audience for smoking marijuana.” The musician born Prince Rogers Nelson was notoriously private, but his associates going back decades, even those with a grudge, all say the man only spent his time on sex and the studio. Sleep barely entered the equation. He wasn’t entirely free from vice; Prince sometimes drank at after-parties or mentioned it in interviews. In later years, members of his Jehovah’s Witness community said he enjoyed a little red wine. In general, he didn’t devote time to experimentation.
Of course, later in life he did turn to prescription opiates to relieve physical pain. This opiate use eventually led to his tragic death by overdose two years ago. Though it is unfortunately possible to abuse opiates recreationally, there’s no indication that Prince’s addiction stemmed from anything other than a desire to ease his pain. This piece is only meant to focus on his experiences with recreational substances.
Prince’s songs aren’t completely straight edge. “Another Lonely Christmas” is a power ballad about mourning a lover who died on the 25th. Prince mumbles into the microphone that “every Christmas night for seven years now, I drink banana daiquiris ‘til I’m blind.” Mourning in a Minnesota winter with a tropical drink is such a juxtaposition it could be pure camp or flat-out Lynchian. The sorrow in Prince’s wails sounds strong enough to last seven years. Alcohol isn’t enough to uplift “Another Lonely Christmas,” but it’s a rare mention in the Artist’s catalog.
“17 Days” is a breakup banger b-side from the Purple Rain era. The singer’s lover has been gone for the titular span, and all he has for companionship is “two cigarettes and this broken heart of mine.” The cigarettes are likely a reference to Brenda Bennett, girl group member and smoker. As Duane Tudahl’s recent account of the era’s studio sessions points out, Bennett posed with a cigarette in her hand on the Apollonia 6 cover and sang lead on the song’s demo. The narrator in “17 Days” doesn’t mention actually smoking, but Prince recognizes even their possession can be the calm in a storm. Paired with a broken heart, it’s downright romantic.
Prince sometimes addressed more illicit substances in his lyrics, but he did so with uncharacteristic bluntness. “Pop Life” was the second single from Around The World In A Day, the psychedelic pop disc that followed Purple Rain and remade it as a Beatles cartoon. The slow strut of the beat peacocks through post-fame malaise. The song alternates between sympathy and scorn for the people with their “million dollar check in someone else’s box.” In the chorus, Prince concedes that “everybody needs a thrill” because “we all got a space to fill.” Yet he devotes an entire verse to sneering at a cocaine user. “Whatcha putting in your nose?” he asks. “Is that where all your money goes?” Fans have speculated that this might be directed at an estranged associate who had taken up skiing, but even without the personal context, Prince’s stance is clear.
On album opener “Sign O The Times,” the Artist talk-sings through a series of vignettes over sparse drums and blues riffs, illustrating the state of 1987. He alludes to the Challenger explosion and a “big disease with a little name.” Prince ends the second verse with a two-sentence horror story. “In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time. Now he’s doing horse, it’s June.” He doesn’t sound preachy, but he is unmistakably disturbed. Prince’s hatred of horse is obvious and if he doesn’t feel the same way about cannabis, he has at least bought into the “gateway drug” concept peddled by the showbiz president of the era.
In context of his other songs’ lyrics, “Lady Cab Driver” is confounding. The uptempo groove from the D-side of 1999 is a wet dream turned feverish. Prince’s narrator hooks up with a driver then narrates every stroke, whether it’s for Yosemite Sam, the tourists at Disneyland, or the creator of man. The slap bass is impeccable. At 6:20, a distinct bubbling sound plays over the tight live drums. It’s clearly a bong. The sound effect takes up a few seconds of the 8-minute track, an appropriate interlude for a drawn-out jam throbbing with the nervous energy of being too high to leave the house.
The casual cannabis reference is minor, quickly forgotten and replaced with purple funk. But Prince’s public persona is so distant from drugs that some fans have insisted that this burbling is instead the sound of the lover’s throat being cut. This myth has persisted through Prince fan oral tradition, or the modern equivalent, comment threads. For some, it’s apparently easier to believe that Prince anticipated Eminem with a grisly sexual violence skit than to imagine the Purple One bringing a bong into the booth.
If notorious control freak Prince deigned to include a bong on one of his masterworks, surely he must have lit up before. Regardless of anyone’s feelings towards cannabis, the public needs to know how one of the most important musicians of pop history acted when he was stoned. The only remaining question is, who is hiding a stoned Prince story from the rest of us? Could it be Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, the instrumentalist couple that introduced Prince to Led Zeppelin? Perhaps it was Dez Dickerson, the guitarist that answered the 21-year-old’s newspaper ad in 1979. Maybe Prince tried it backstage with Rick James before their rivalry developed, like the Beatles smoking with Bob Dylan. If you’re a Prince associate with a secret, dearly beloved, please come forward.