Jheri Curl June Special: Prince

I think we’ve already established that we are huge fans of Prince here at the ol’ DDP, so we have to do something to celebrate his 56th birthday tomorrow, June 7–especially when that birthday falls right at the end of the first week of Jheri Curl June. And besides, if we’re really going to celebrate jheri curl music this month, it’s important to acknowledge that Prince practically invented it: he was the first R&B artist to popularize the use of synthesizers instead of horns, a major cornerstone of the jheri-curl sound. So today, instead of choosing just one Prince track for Jheri Curl June, we’re going to present an informal history of Prince’s role in the jheri-curl movement, musical and otherwise.

Doing his best Carl Carlton; photo stolen from Sandra Rose
Doing his best Carl Carlton; photo stolen from Sandra Rose

Prince’s role in jheri curl music started well before he ever sported an actual jheri curl. In 1978, when he released his debut album For You, he was still rocking a rather impressive afro (see left). Musically, too, the album is comprised mostly of fastidiously arranged smooth soul-folk-jazz compositions, with a touch of disco, and one song (“I’m Yours”) that sounds like it comes from an alternate dimension where Toto has a Black singer. A few of the tracks, especially “In Love” and “Just as Long as We’re Together,” have a kind of proto-jheri curl feel, like disco but with synths instead of live strings. But it’s his first single, “Soft and Wet,” that really encapsulates the new sound. Its shot of smoothed-over P-Funk is the activator that would transform Prince’s late-’70s ‘fro into the luscious jheri curl of the ’80s. It also helps that the title could be describing an actual jheri curl.

Prince in 1979; photo stolen from somebody’s Pinterest

By the release of his self-titled sophomore album in 1979, Prince had gone from an afro to a heavily stylized blowout that made him look a bit like a mixed-race, mustachioed Farrah Fawcett. But his music was becoming more and more jheri-curl. Third single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” added a more pronounced pop sensibility to the mix, with an extended one-man-jam coda that practically codified the whole musical vocabulary of jheri curl: muted plucked guitars, clean slap bass, and synthesizers that sound like a porno set in outer space. And while “I Feel for You” would eventually find wider fame (and an even more jheri-curl arrangement) with a cover version by Chaka Khan, the blueprint was already intact on Prince.

Outtake from the Dirty Mind cover photo sessions; stolen from somebody’s Tumblr

With Dirty Mind the following year, Prince’s jheri-curl sound began to fall into place–if not his actual jheri curl, which he appears to have taken a flat-iron to. The title track lends some funk to the robotic throb of new wave, while lead single “Uptown” commemorates Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis as a city that embodies the cosmopolitan, culturally hybrid characteristics of the jheri curl: “White, Black, Puerto Rican / Everybody just a-freakin’.” And “Head”determinedly puts the kink into his curl, laying out its horny narrator’s tale of seducing a virgin bride on her wedding day atop a luxurious bed of funk bass and squealing synthesizers.

Jheri curl at last in 1981; photo stolen from prince.org

For all its innovations in JCM, though, Dirty Mind was a little too punkish and minimalist to fully embody the genre. Fittingly, Prince’s jheri curl music would flourish at the same time as his curl itself, with 1981’s Controversy. Just like with Dirty Mind, the title track leads the way, marking perhaps the first and last time the Lord’s Prayer has ever been recited to the tune of jheri-curl funk. “Private Joy” falls more on the pop side of the equation, but all those synthesized handclaps are just funky enough to remind us that we’re not listening to a Cyndi Lauper song. “Let’s Work” brings us back to the funk, while closing track “Jack U Off” invents a whole new hybrid subgenre Callie has dubbed rock-a-jheri.

From the 1999 cover sessions; photo stolen from prince.org
From the 1999 cover sessions; photo stolen from prince.org

With his 1999 album the next year, Prince introduced the subgenre of electro-funk to the jheri-curl mix, with epics like “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” sounding a bit like Kraftwerk after a trip to the hair salon. “D.M.S.R.” (short for “Dance, Music, Sex, Romance”) was a slightly more organic funk manifesto in the tradition of “Uptown,” with Prince instructing “people everywhere” to “loosen up their hair”–a tall order when everyone in the audience was probably jheri-curled to the nines. Finally, “International Lover” is probably both Prince’s most jheri-curl ballad and, fittingly, his greasiest, with an extended sex-as-transcontinental-flight metaphor that anticipates R. Kelly and includes lyrics instructing some lucky lady to bring her lips, arms, and hips “into the upright and locked position.”

Intense in 1984; photo stolen from somebody's Tumblr
Intense in 1984; photo stolen from somebody’s Tumblr

After six years of pioneering the genre, Prince at last brought jheri curl music into its baroque period with 1984’s Purple Rain. Opening track “Let’s Go Crazy” brought back the jheri-curled preacher persona of “Controversy” while further developing the melding of pop, funk, and rock that began with “Jack U Off.” And “When Doves Cry” might just be his crowning achievement in JCM: a song so sublimely jheri-curl that it transcends the fetters of its genre and ascends to the ages. It sounds so much like 1984, it actually becomes timeless.

Indeed, Prince defined jheri curl music so much in the first half of the 1980s that the only thing he could really do in the second half was leave it behind. His follow-up to Purple Rain, 1985’s Around the World in a Day, practically abandoned Black music entirely in favor of a mannered Eighties version of psychedelia; 1986’s Parade introduced live horns and a more jazz- and soul-inflected style. By the end of the ’80s, when his innovation had slowed down and he began to aim once again for the R&B charts, the dominant sound had already shifted to New Jack Swing. Fittingly, Prince also lost his actual jheri curl at the same time as he departed from jheri curl music.

Prince sans jheri curl, like Samson without his hair; photo stolen from Getty
Prince sans jheri curl, like Samson without his hair; photo stolen from Getty

But on the occasion of his birthday and on this first week of Jheri Curl June, let’s remember that many of Prince’s greatest achievements were made in the thrall–both musically and folically–of jheri-dom. Quite simply, there wouldn’t be a Jheri Curl June without Prince. And while that’s probably near the bottom of the list of things we would miss without Prince, at least it’s above Carmen Electra.

And with that, the Spotify playlist gets 15 tracks longer. We’ll see you next week…happy birthday, Prince!

3 Replies to “Jheri Curl June Special: Prince”

  1. Interesting approach to Prince: hair as a metaphor for his creative arc. As for Prince not innovating so much after ‘Purple Rain’,his innovation may have been even broader after that.His sound just matured and grew in scope.

    1. Yeah, in all honesty this post doesn’t do his work justice. I think Purple Rain is probably the most polished incarnation of his early sound, but he was at the peak of his creative powers in ’86-’87. Parade and Dream Factory/Crystal Ball/Sign “O” the Times might be the most unbelievable two-year streak I’ve seen in any artist, period.

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