Prince > Michael Jackson

Prince, Sign 'O' the Times (available for free for all you Amazon Prime havers)

A few months ago, I was listening to a Michael Jackson song--"Bad," probably--in the way that it is occasionally possible to hear something you've heard a thousand times with comparatively new ears. What I heard was a basically strong melody and composition that was positively swimming in dated 1980s recording effects--compression, chorus (a light delay that is more or less coterminous with 80s-sounding music), synthesizers everywhere rather than actual instruments. If it were a song produced by anyone else, I would set it aside as a nostalgia piece, and nothing more. Having heard it in one song, it was easy enough to hear in the rest--Dangerous ups its production values to the state of 1989's art--and it made me wonder how something so obviously time-contained could remain so popular. But people still like Bon Jovi, so there really is no accounting for taste.

By comparison, this is disc 2 of Sign 'O' the Times:
"U Got the Look"
"If I Was Your Girlfriend"
"Strange Relationship"
"I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"
"The Cross"
"It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night"

Seven songs, six of which are legitimate Prince classics, one of which ("The Cross") on the short list of his best songs ever. The seventh song is a nine-minute funk jam and workout, a format at which Prince excels. What's impressive is how the songs vary: "U Got the Look" is very late-80s in its production; "The Cross" could be from pretty much any period of time. But even accounting for the time-bound features of the album, it transcends them all. A few speculative reasons for this: for as much as Prince is synonymous with synthesizers, he is also a multi-instrument specialist, and it makes a notable difference that many of the synth-y sounds are actually guitars; it gives a fullness to the composition of each track that Michael Jackson can't hope to match, even on his Quincy Jones-produced songs (whose merits redound to Quincy Jones, if anyone). Many of Prince's songs would be as good, or better, stripped of their studio-enhanced qualities. The songs manage to cover a wide range of textures and song styles, but all sound quite distinctively of Prince.

And really, any comparison of Michael Jackson and Prince will face the depth-of-catalogue issue: Michael had Off the Wall (parts of it), Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous (parts of it), and a few late singles of negligible quality. Prince had Controversy, Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, Sign 'O' the Times, Lovesexy, and Diamonds and Pearls before turning into the r&b Ryan Adams, releasing so much music so quickly that it becomes hard to track what's good. MJ might (barely) have had a higher peak, but Prince produced more quality music over a longer period.

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