On 2 February, 1980, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Prince peaked at #11.
It’s hard to believe, but for two years it looked like Prince might be a one-hit wonder. His first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was the only top 40 single off his second album, Prince. For You, his first album scored no hits; neither did either of his next two albums, Dirty Mind and Controversy. It wasn’t until the end of 1982, when “1999” broke the mold for what an R&B singer could sound like, that Prince announced that he was on the charts to stay. It didn’t help matters that in the early 80s, Prince was giving uninformatively coy interviews like this one on national television, but his reticent personality aside, he sounded like a one-hit-wonder, and his output put him on the track to be one.
I personally think that Prince was actually the cliché that people throw around too often without thinking — he was ahead of his time. But not in the usual sense that he created something that other people followed. Instead, I mean that in 1979, when this song was recorded, Prince was working in a musical environment that didn’t suit him. On “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, he’s trying to play disco, but it’s not a disco that sounds like the rest of disco. Sure, it mixes in just fine with all the other disco that was being played at the dawn of the 1980s, but it sounds different. You hear this sandwiched between contemporary Donna Summer and BeeGees songs, and your ears perk up — this is not your standard disco song! — and then you go back to the litany of syncopated violin bursts.
Disco, and even soul, were too small and constrained for Prince in the early 80s, not just in terms of its structure and instrumentation, but also in terms of its scope. Disco is meant for a smoky dance club with a mirror ball and dry ice, and despite his size, Prince’s showmanship was never going to fit into that kind of atmosphere. His stage personality was too vibrant, too emotional, too explosive and sexy to stand only four feet above its audience. Prince had to break out, musically and physically, from the constraints of a club; he really needed to be the R&B equivalent of an arena rock band, Motown’s Kiss. Such a thing existed, but it wasn’t exactly popular: George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic was a feast for the senses, filling an arena with all sorts of incredible musical and theatrical craziness; critically well-regarded, it only scored two top-40 hits in the years before Prince had his first hit. The stage wasn’t set for soul to be bigger than any room that tried to hold it.
You can hear it in the music on “I Wanna Be Your Lover”: The taut, tight guitar that starts the song’s pulse; Prince’s falsetto that here sounds genuine, not ridiculous, straining at the bit… every time Prince goes into “I don’t want to pressure you baby, the tension in the song builds through the chorus and wants to burst into a flare of music, but then backs down to that basic pulse again. In the future, Prince wouldn’t have those constraints: he’ll be more mature, less constrained, and the nature of how music is produced and consumed will give him the space he needs to be the superstar we remember him as.