Relax. Most of the material on Controversy originates from the era where we remember Prince fondly for strutting around on MTV like a funny little hairy lady, rather than from his semantically perverse, bodily-fluid-obsessed later years.
What’s surprising for a tribute album is that only five or so of these songs have ever troubled the singles charts. Consisting of (mainly) lesser-known artists covering (mainly) lesser known tracks, Controversy has to work pretty damn hard to create an impression, at least outside of the die-hard fanbase.
Prince is already feted by proxy for successful cover versions of his songs, the most successful ones having been clear homages rather than radical reinventions. Sinead O’Connor‘s Nothing Compares 2 U was a bolder step in the same soulful and sorrowful direction. Tom Jones‘ Kiss imported a truckload of much-needed purple mojo on a wholesale basis, prolonging the old goat’s appeal to the ladies by a few months at least. And Chaka Khan‘s I Feel For You, as well as being inconveniently long-winded to text, was essentially a facsimile of the original. There’s probably a good reason for this conservative tactic: as this compilation attests, Prince tunes are just as much about the attitude as the songwriting, if not more so. And keeping the attitude means keeping the sound.
This is an album of two halves: genre-led reinventions of the better-known songs, and faithful reproductions of the lesser-known ones. Unsurprisingly the faithful reproductions fare a lot better. D’Angelo‘s She’s Always In My Hair and Rob Mello‘s Critical are angular, bombastic and funky – and sound great. Soulwax‘s Starfish & Coffee and Osunlade‘s Crazy You are as sleek and jazzy-smooth as their creator intended. The only real diversions from the Prince originals are the vocal stylings of the performers, which typically works out just fine. If this sounds unadventurous, the more esoteric tributes give a strong case for staying true to the spirit of Prince’s own recordings.
And those esoteric tributes fall very flat indeed. Swedish chanteuse Stina Nordenstam drags Purple Rain kicking and screaming into her world of scratchy arctic minimalism. Alphabet Street is given the French Nouvelle Vague work-out by Blue States, and threatens to out-cheese DJ Otzi. Girls & Boys and Sign of the Times are mangled, respectively, into Peter Andre cod-reggae and impenetrable rumbling dub. Most unforgivably, indie also-rans Hefner slow Controversy down to 33rpm, sling on a lazy backbeat, and end up with a woefully dated trip-hop travesty bled dry of any of the bounce and sexiness which made the song so great in the first place.
Not all of this is entirely the fault of the artists in question. It’s just that you’re up against a pretty tough challenge if you strip out the essential, defining funkiness or soulfulness of a Prince tune without something equally captivating to replace it. Crudely crowbarring it into your favourite genre results in a throwaway novelty version rather than a bona fide interpretation.
Only 7 Hurtz and Peaches strike cover-version gold here, maintaining the spirit and attitude of Sexy Dancer while adding their own trademarks, unsurprisingly in the case of Ms Peaches a foul-mouthed dollop of streetwise lady sass. Prince’s bizarrely priapic androgyny gets flipped on its head here, with the song stripped down to its beat alone and the spaces filled with some kick-ass man-baiting.
Had it been wholly conceived as a faithful homage, this would have been a satisfying, if predictable album. Or, if more of the tracks had balanced the funkiness or soulfulness which defined Prince in the ’80s with original ideas, it could have been excellent. As it is, it’s a mish-mash of contributions with plenty of highlights, but it doesn’t really do justice to Prince’s seminal ’80s output.