The recently departed, profoundly revered artist known as Prince was heralded for an array of tunes with trademark motifs: innovative soul/rock/funk fusions…tempestuous sexuality…piercing falsettos…enigmatic lyricism…gender-bending sensuousness. Yet the singer/songwriter/musician also penned and performed a strong collection of socially conscious tracks throughout a multi decades-long career. In honor of what would have been Prince Rogers Nelson’s 58th birthday (which he wouldn't have celebrated due to religious beliefs), we present a small sampling of his tunes that speak to society’s complex contours and how we live.
“Paisley Park” and “Pop Life” From Around the World in a Day (1985)
While Sign O’ the Times is often heralded as Prince’s overtly socially conscious outing because of its title track, the singer/songwriter took on deeper themes aplenty on the succinct Around the World in a Day, featuring his band the Revolution and no. 2 pop hit “Raspberry Beret.” His musings on inner peace could be heard on the second track “Paisley Park,” which shares a name with Prince’s estate and studio space in Chanhassen, Minnesota. With freewheeling, distorted guitar riffs and a bobbing ferry wheel tune, Prince presents the song-based park as the go-to spot for contentment. Amid sounds of childhood whimsy, adult realities are present: A woman suffers from being with a philandering spouse who dies without forgiveness. A man sheds tears upon receiving notice his home has been condemned. Yet when one aches, the happiness of Paisley Park doesn’t require a physical journey, for the space is carried within—plainly stated, “Paisley Park is in your heart.”
A few tunes later, Prince continues the commentary on “Pop Life,” a top 10 hit on both the pop and r&b charts. The song has a sparse funk breakdown with a message not usually associated with a rock-and-roll lifestyle—that young people should stay in school and avoid drug use. (Prince would return to the idea of getting down sans substances in 1987’s “Play in the Sunshine.”) Stemming from an entertainer known for unorthodox aesthetics and rapturous expression, “Pop Life” extolled the virtues of clearheaded focus.
“Sign O’ the Times” From Sign O’ the Times (1987)
As seen immediately with its packaging, Sign O’ the Times seemed to convey a more serious Prince, even though the set itself had plenty of rollicking moments as exampled by the Sheena Easton duet “U Got the Look.” As opposed to focusing on his physical beauty, the Times cover features the blurred artist in the foreground, only half of his face visible and a collage of instruments, billboards and shrubbery in the back. The collection’s title track got to its business in stark terms with a haunting, looping melody, detailing the horrors of HIV/AIDS, gang warfare, the crack epidemic, poverty-based hunger and the threat of global conflict. Commenting on the allure that getting high holds time and time again for humanity, Prince sings, “It’s silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly…” A somber part of his canon that departed thematically from previous singles, “Sign O’ the Times” ended up being a huge release for Prince, reaching no. 3 on the pop charts and no. 1 r&b.
“Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” From Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Director Spike Lee was approached by Prince to direct the music video for “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” with Prince stating that he wouldn’t appear in the clip. Lee thus created a short black and white film profiling a family struggling to make ends meet, also presenting domestic and international images of the impoverished juxtaposed with those in power. A second version of the video was also released featuring Prince and his latest band the New Power Generation.
The track itself appeared on the multiplatinum album Diamonds and Pearls. “Money” appeared not long after the erotic juggernaut “Gett Off” and “Walk Don’t Walk,” the latter showcasing a clever repetitive rhyme scheme to promote self-esteem. On “Money,” Prince presents characters in a layered narrative: A dude who’s addicted to gambling takes out his frustrations on his lady, while another who’s looking for partnership in a surefire investment finds nothing but charlatans. Before the final iteration of the chorus, Prince brings up the issue of young people being sent to war for the sake of financial power. Again with a hook calling for listeners to self-reflect, “Money” was another hit, reaching the top 25 of the pop charts and top 15 r&b.
“Gold” From The Gold Experience (1995)
Aiming to get out of his contract with Warner Bros. and appearing with the word “SLAVE” etched on his face, Prince had started to refer to himself using the unpronounceable glyph O(+> as of 1993, later releasing The Gold Experience. “Gold” was the album’s last track, a minor release on the charts that relied on a traditional pop-rock anthem sound with religious references. The single’s super easy-to-sing-chorus also had telltale Prince themes—to let go of material obsessions and peer pressure to focus on being true to yourself.
Fast forward two decades with industry changes galore and we reach one of Prince’s final releases—the NPG label single “Baltimore,” featuring the vocals of Eryn Allen Kane and profiling the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, young African-American men who died after encounters with law enforcement officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, respectively. Prince would later state he wrote the track while watching riots erupt in the titular city after the death of Gray in April. He then headlined a Rally 4 Peace concert the following month. “Baltimore” called for community-oriented love and the elimination of guns to solve conflict while relying on the “no justice, no peace” calls that are a cornerstone of protest movements. The music itself offers uplift, replete with strings, sunshine vocals and instrumental solos. At the end of the accompanying lyric video, Prince left a personal statement sharing his thoughts on flawed social structures and the power of new generations.
Additional Prince songs with socially conscious themes:
“America” and “The Ladder” from Around the World in a Day (1985), “Round and Round” (performed w/ Tevin Campbell) and “Graffiti Bridge” (performed w/ Campbell and Mavis Staples) from Graffiti Bridge soundtrack (1990), “Live 4 Love” from Diamonds and Pearls (1991).