The title of Prince’s 14th studio album, released 25 years ago today, was unpronounceable. Today, it’s iconic — synonymous with the name the artist would give himself the following year. What seemed like an alienating or antagonistic move at the time turned out to be another, and perhaps the most profound, example of Prince refining and continuing to create his own mythology through his life and work.
Always playing ambiguity like a symphony, Prince put a gold male/female symbol on the jewel case of what eventually became referred to by most as the Love Symbol Album. The dawn of the ’90s was an insanely ambitious time for Prince. Hot off of the double platinum Diamonds and Pearls, much of Love Symbol was conceived and recorded around the same patch of time and with the same musicians, the New Power Generation.
Hotter than truly any other artist in pop and on MTV at the time, Prince found himself at the top of the mountain creatively, amid a tumultuous relationship with Warner Bros., having just signed again with the label for another deal that he was soon to chafe under. Love Symbol marks a period of personal and professional transition for Prince, who felt the label was putting too much of a clamp on his creativity, trying to dictate the pacing and length of his releases. Thus, the high concept Love Symbol “rock opera” — the final record Prince would release under his original name until 2000 — famously covered as much musical territory he could pack onto one CD.
During a flurry of writing and recording music, promoting and touring behind Diamonds and Pearls, Prince created the music on Love Symbol as a soundtrack for a film he was developing. The straight-to-video 3 Chains o’ Gold (which also featured Kirstie Alley) illustrates the story, in Love Symbol’s lyrics, of Prince rescuing an Egyptian princess played by his then-muse and future wife, Mayte Garcia. Love, passion, sex, and togetherness are themes throughout the record.
It’s not a shock the public didn’t really get it, and that the label didn’t know what to do with the album. Love Symbol initially garnered modest sales and a muted critical reception. Star Tribune music writer Jon Bream called it “a royal disappointment,” suggesting that the album’s rap elements sounded derivative. “Prince used to be hip,” wrote Bream. “Now he’s just another hip-hopper.”
For others, though, Love Symbol stands as a soulful, sexy, spiritual and overflowing masterpiece, and a balanced collection of songs. Anchored by the singles that some fans place among Prince’s greatest songs, Love Symbol bobs and weaves musically between love ballads and his own patented brand of raunchiness.
“Sweet Baby,” “Damn U,” “And God Created Woman” all ooze with sexiness and flavor. Prince even took a rare dip into reggae territory with “Blue Light.” Eschewing radio-friendliness, Prince launched the album with the funky and frank “Sexy MF” as a first single. The James Brown homage remains a defining Prince floor-filler to this day.
The artist also incorporated the popular New Jack Swing sound (previously used to great success by his Minneapolis peers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) on “I Wanna Melt with U,” “The Max,” and the boastful “My Name is Prince.” In full rap mode, Prince attempted to drop the gauntlet for anyone who questioned his creative strength and dominance. Performing the song on The Arsenio Hall Show the following February, Prince famously burned Bream’s review on stage. Ouch!
It’s a Prince signature song, “7,” that stands as the spiritual climax of Love Symbol and has endured as a high point of his ’90s output. The song ties the theme of the album, essentially his own life story at that time, together. As depicted in the famous video — a still of which graces the cover of Love Symbol — Prince rescues his princess, Mayte, from her father’s assassins, who are dressed as corporate executives. They dance together and lead a group of children through streets of gold. (The video also features the onscreen debut of Prince’s dove Majesty.)
In her book The Most Beautiful, Garcia fondly recalled the filming as the moment they fell in love. “We changed during that shoot,” she wrote. “There was a moment when I looked at him with tears in my eyes. All I could say was, ‘This is everything I love.’”
Overtly metaphysical in its self-reflection and spiritual awakenings, Love Symbol has cemented itself as a pivotal album in Prince’s career. Prince paints a picture within the record’s grooves that 25 years on feels uniquely autobiographical. While gangster rap, “new country,” and grunge dominated 1992 commercially, Prince followed his own path and brought self-awareness to new heights with Love Symbol. It remains, in content and concept, the year’s most beautiful.
Danny Sigelman is a DJ, writer, musician, and artist who has worked for Radio K, KFAI, The Current, China Radio International, and Secret Stash Records. He’s author of the book Heyday: 35 Years of Music in Minnneapolis. Follow him on Twitter.