When I was between the ages of seven and nine, in what I now realize was likely a maneuver to get some reading time in without my distracting her from across our thin-walled apartment, my mom would take me on a bi-weekendly excursion to Meekins Library in Williamsburg, MA.
Tucked in a badly-lit corner of the stone building was a bank of three mid-nineties desktop computers, which I would rush to so that I could play The Magic School Bus Explores the Solar System, or Math Blaster! or, holy grail amongst the early desktop-era computer games, The Oregon Trail.
Over the last few days, there’s been a tweet bouncing around the Twittersphere™ explaining that the beloved adventure game (which, for those of you unlucky enough to have missed its heyday, mostly consisted of decimating as many local buffalo populations as you could before eventually dying of scurvy) was first invented in 1971 as part of a history lesson for an eighth-grade class at Minneapolis’s Bryant Junior High.
The tweet goes on to point out that among the eighth-grade students attending Bryant Junior High in 1971 was one Prince Rogers Nelson.
Having done no research whatsoever to verify the veracity of Oregon Trail’s invention or Prince’s middle school attendance history, I am now 100% certain that Prince was the inventor of my favorite childhood computer game.
This is the way it always goes: by both design and happenstance, the artist formerly known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” was, for the majority of his 57-year life, a figure whose mythology was inextricable from his biography.
Legends of 24-hour one-man recording sessions intertwined with rumors of apocalypse-heralding albums born out of ecstasy-induced demonic possession so seamlessly that from the outside looking in, it became impossible to tell (or care) where the truth stopped and the fiction began.
The blurred lines between the two make for a strange dichotomy: an unshakeable belief in someone who is definitionally unbelievable. When the news came through that Prince was dead, I was crying before I even considered the possibility that it was true.
Yet for all the mystery that swirled around him in life, and all the myths that have echoed out in the wake of his passing, there is one thing we know for certain: the Purple One was a hooper.
The stories are endless: Eddie and Charlie Murphy getting washed off the Paisley Park court (immortalized forever in the Chappelle Show parody); a notorious mid-concert viewing party of a Chicago Bulls playoff game; the occasional skills challenge segment of his stage show; that time he was sued by Carlos Boozer for renting his house and then transforming his master bedroom into a hair salon without permission. Prince’s love of hoops is as inseparable from his legacy as his Iverson-esque short-guy hero-ball mentality.
This brings us (only 517 words in, honestly lighter than I expected) to today’s awards:
To honor the fifth anniversary of the Minnesota legend’s passing, his enduringly brilliant music, and his long-standing love of basketball, we’re going to give out a series of Prince-themed, NBA-Awards-style accolades, highlighting some of his best singles, b-sides, and the like. So without further ado, welcome to:
THE 2021 INAUGURAL NATIONAL PURPLE ASSOCIATION (NPA) AWARDS
The main attraction: All-NPA Teams!
This series of awards recognizes fifteen of the top-tier Prince songs. Mirroring the All-NBA’s Guard, Forward, and Big positional breakdown, each All-NPA Team must have one (1) opening track, one (1) closing track, and three (3) tracks from any other position on an album, or songs released as a non-album single (for simplicity’s sake we’ll call these “Middle Tracks”)
Third Team All-NPA
Middle Track One: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (Sign o’ The Times)
Middle Track Two: “When You Were Mine” (Dirty Mind)
Middle Track Three: “Erotic City” (b-side to “Let’s Go Crazy”)
Closer: “Purple Rain” (Purple Rain)
Is it insane to put the most indelibly famous Prince track of all time at third on the list of Prince closers? Quite possibly! I’d prefer to frame it as a testament to the genius of the Minnesota Miracle Man (where my Gordon Bombay heads at?) that his roster of unfuckwithable album-enders runs as deep as it does.
If his closing roster is deep, Prince’s shooting percentage on first tracks is G.O.A.T-worthy, making the third team opener one of the more difficult positions to lock-in. An immense amount of love goes out to just-missed-the-cut contenders “Controversy,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Sign O’ the Times,” “Musicology,” and “Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic,” but ultimately it’s the less celebrated “3121” that edges out the competition, capturing the perfect mixture of Prince as funk-forefather and quasi-demonic dirtbag; the host of a party we’ll never be cool enough to attend.
“When You Were Mine” is second only to a soon-to-be-revealed first-team selection in the canon of romantic Prince tracks, showcasing the delicate end of The Purple One’s falsetto as he warbles an ode to lingering lost love, semi-permeable post-relationship boundaries, and thruples. It also features the best worst-sounding guitar in the history of recorded music.
Its third-team companion, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” lives in similar thematic territory, a relationship drama peppered with just enough bizarre details to make you do a double-take. There’s also a (potentially apocryphal) legend of a power outage that blew out a portion of the recording console during the song’s recording, and resulted in its characteristic carved-out-with-a-spoon soundscape; but regardless the cause, it’s easily one of the coolest sounding Prince tracks on record.
Finally, “Erotic City” rounds out the All-NPA third team; likely the second best song anyone has ever written and then said “nah, lets not put this on the album” (leader of the pack coming up soon).
Second Team All-NPA
Middle Track One: “Housequake” (Sign o’ The Times)
Middle Track Two: “Do It All Night” (Dirty Mind)
Middle Track Three: “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” (Musicology)
Closer: “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” (Prince)
The first time I listened to the final track on Prince’s self-titled sophomore album, I nearly drove off the road. The impact of “It’s Gonna Be Lonely”’s last chorus still hits like a sledgehammer to the chest, 12 years since I first heard it and 42 years since it dropped.
Bookending the All-NPA Second Team is “1999,” not-even-that-debatably the holy grail of opening tracks, which only gets bumped from the first team because of a long-standing (and largely nostalgia-driven) bias–more on that soon.
“Do it All Night” is in many ways the apex of young gun Prince, 22 and already able to muscle an impossibly deep pocket into possibility while playing nearly every instrument (and running point on engineering duties under the alias Jamie Starr).
Meanwhile, “Housequake” showcases the cocksure, “shut up already” yelping master of ceremonies persona, directing celebration from on high while synthesizing James Brown and George Clinton at warp speed, and mocking his audience for not being able to keep up.
Rounding out the second team is “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance”: Musicology was the first full Prince record I consciously consumed, and while the title track was the highlight for me in the moment, its follow-up has stuck with me the longest. In the process, it’s completely redefined my understanding of what someone could do with a guitar, so long as that someone had both a virtuosic technical facility and an unparalleled sense of musical taste.
First Team All-NPA
Opener: “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (Prince)
Middle Track One: “I Would Die 4 U” (Purple Rain)
Middle Track Two: “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (b-side to 1999)
Middle Track Three: “The Beautiful Ones” (Purple Rain)
Closer: “Adore” (Sign o’ The Times)
It seems telling that when ranking Prince songs, the five tracks rising to the top for me also happen to showcase five fairly diverse iterations of the artist:
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” (one of the earliest tracks I became hooked on) presents the young and coy Cassanova, sneaking pseudo-incestuous romanticisms into an on-the-surface sugary love song.
“Adore” is the fully-in-his-bag crowd-controlling soul crooner, milking every ounce of drama from each melodic run.
“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” is The Kid at his pure songwriting peak.
And then there’s “The Beautiful Ones”: I fumble with the words to explain listening to this song for the first time–something about a car wreck; something about combustion; something about a body straining against itself until it bursts. I had never heard anyone sing the way Prince does on “The Beautiful Ones,” and I don’t expect I ever will again. One of the all-time greatest love songs.
Even so, “I Would Die 4 U” has long been the torch-bearer in my Prince pantheon, inexplicably balancing all the essential danceability and AaaaoooOOOOing of his best party tracks with an emotional tonnage that would cave most pop songs in on themselves.
There’s something perfectly emblematic, perfectly career-encapsulating to Prince at once claiming the mantle of a holy savior, and humanizing him to the point of relatability–somehow contorting religiosity into a desperate plea for love, for acceptance, for the opportunity to be the one that someone believes in.
Because no matter the song, this is the way it always goes: the track starts, and Prince, this strutting miracle, this pure embodiment of talent, and sex, and genius, and cool, somehow grounds himself for long enough that we have the chance to hold him; long enough that when the track is done, when he is gone, we mourn him as if he belonged here.
It’s been five years, and I’m still working on fully celebrating those moments, rather than worrying about the day they stop feeling new and start becoming habitual. I know that someday, the seemingly endless vault of unreleased masterpieces, and unfinished-yet-somehow-perfect demos, and long-hidden live show recordings will be empty.
I know that someday we will run out of “new” Prince.
But then I put on Purple Rain. Or Sign o’ The Times. Or Dirty Mind, or Slaughterhouse, or Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, or Controversy, or (nearly) any of the 39 completely astonishing albums he made–and something always surprises me. Something always knocks me off my feet.
And that is truly something to be grateful for.
Some Essential All-NPA Honorable Mentions:
- Openers: “Musicology” / “Let’s Go Crazy” / “Rave Un 2 The Joy Fantastic” / “Controversy” / “Sign o’ The Times”
- Closers: “Batdance” / “Sometimes It Snows In April” / “U Make My Sun Shine” / “Last December”
- Middle Tracks: “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” / “Electic Chair” / “Kiss” / “Little Red Corvette” / “Silicon” / “BREAKFAST CAN WAIT” / “Cream” / “Forever In My Life” / “Man ‘O’ War” / “The Morning Papers” / “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” / “The Everlasting Now” / “Erotic City” / “Dark” / “Papa” / “I Wonder U” / “Darling Nikki” / “Do Me Baby” / “Extraloveable (Reloaded)” / “Girls & Boys” / “Baby I’m A Star” / “Private Joy” / “Dark” / “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” / “Diamonds and Pearls” / “Vicki Waiting” / “She’s Always In My Hair” / “P. Control” / “So Far So Pleased” / “Judas Smile” / “U KNOW”
A Few Additional Awards With No Accompanying Justification:
NPA DPOTY (Derivative Protege Of The Year, AKA the best essentially-a-Prince-song by a non-Prince artist)
- “F**k My Brains Out” – The Dream, Sextape 4
- “Make Me Feel” – Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
- “I2I” – Powerline (Tevon Campbell), The Goofy Movie Original Soundtrack
- “1+1” – Beyonce, 4
NPA DPOTY: “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” – D’Angelo, Voodoo
NPA Sixth Track of the Year (best Prince non-album B-side)
- “17 Days”
- “She’s Always In My Hair”
- “Extraloveable (Reloaded)” (later reworked and released on HITnRUN Phase 2 as “Xtraloveable,” but we’re counting it)
- “Erotic City”
NPA Sixth Track of the Year: “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”
NPA MVP (Most Valuable Prince, aka track with the most important impact on its associated album, NOT THE BEST PRINCE TRACK EVER)
- “Purple Rain” (Purple Rain)
- “Diamonds and Pearls” (Diamonds and Pearls)
- “BREAKFAST CAN WAIT” (ART OFFICIAL AGE)
- “Kiss” (Parade)
NPA MVP: “Raspberry Beret” (Around The World In A Day)
If you want to hear the songs included in this article, you can swing by the links below:
Nate’s Top 100(ish) Prince Songs