Prince’s Debut Album, Re-imagined

Go Booklets
4 min readJun 8, 2020

New album art asks “What if Prince was in a different head space in 1978?”

Prince’s birthday was today. I celebrated in two meaningful ways: I attended a Black Lives Matter event where I live (Woodinville WA), and I was creative. For the latter, I considered this question — what if Prince chose a different, more colorful cover for his debut record, For You? What might that look like? Instead of purely speculating, I created that new art.

Before you scream “BLASPHEMY” (Prince admirers can be tough critics), let me share that I graduated with a degree in Fine Art and Art History. I’ve worked professionally in art direction for 28 years and counting. I’ve also recorded multiple albums of music according to Prince’s formula “Produced, Arranged, Composed, and Performed by…”

So please know I come in respect.

From Distrust to Control

It’s well documented just how thin Prince’s patience was for the music industry. That began early in his development.

By his late teens, Prince had an impressive resumé. He exchanged a typical adolescence for working tirelessly on his craft — becoming a proficient singer, pianist, guitar player, and drummer. He completed session work with men three times his age and experience. He signed a management deal with American Artists. He aligned bandmates, studio engineers, promoters, and an assistant to his mission.

But when Prince received his first record deal offer, he had yet to accomplish anything on the biggest stage. That didn’t stop him from attempting and succeeding to play hard ball with a major.

Prince’s stipulations for signing a record deal (1977)

His negotiations with Warner Brothers were uncompromising and short. Because new artists didn’t produce their own records, and Prince insisted he could, Warners demanded he prove it. They sent Earth, Wind & Fire along with chairman Mo Ostin to a recording session.

Prince jumped between instruments in whirlwind fashion. He played wonderfully. One by one, the label representatives offered their blessings of approval and dispersed. Prince was annoyed but relieved.

Warners granted full creative freedom and control over his music and image. The offer was good for three records. More importantly, they would treat Prince as a pop music act (instead of a narrower lane like R&B). Where record labels invest heavily, broader appeal and influence are possible.

Prince was emboldened by his victory.

The Wrong Frame of Mind

The production quality on his first album was flawless. It’s an eclectic offering of rock, folk, disco, R&B, balladry, and a cappella. But the collection also lacked authenticity. Long hours and constant reworking left the material feeling contrived. This was by Prince’s own admissions.

On what would become the lead and title track, “For You,” Prince layered his voice 47 times. It’s a beautiful arrangement and a warm, inviting message:

All of this and more is for you.
With love, sincerity, and deepest care —
my life with you I share.

His impressive vocal range positioned him among just a handful of singers in pop music history (by the number of notes successfully hit on record). But the artist was exhausted.

Prince’s hand-picked art for his debut record (1978)

As the light shone brightly on the prodigal talent, Prince began to withdraw. He called a photographer to his home. He posed in a dark room lit only by candles. His facial expression was stern. The focus was soft, not sharp. Instead of making a bold or intimate introduction, Prince offered a fleeting glimpse.

But what if this photo was featured instead?

Prince (1978)

For You was the first of many forays into elusiveness. Prince didn’t just enjoy privacy, he built his life around reclusion. Instead of moving to a media capital (e.g., Los Angeles or New York), he remained in Minneapolis. He obfuscated his age, heritage, and more in interviews. He didn’t have a mobile phone.

For You, Anew

In my book, BlueCloudz, I traced Prince’s upbringing and how that shaped his personality, relationships, and choices. I accepted the challenge of Alan Leeds, his former tour manager and President of Paisley Park Records, who called for an examination of Prince’s abandonment issues. He believed Prince’s behavior followed a pattern he’d seen with other artists he supported (e.g., James Brown).

For all that held Prince back, he was resilient. I noted as much as I walked the Minneapolis neighborhoods where the artist grew up.

If you fail to patch a broken sidewalk in North Minneapolis, then the wildflowers explode forward in glorious color. It’s undeniable. Prince is like the prairie.

Now that’s an uplifting concept.

Prince stands naked in the fields (maybe it’s The Garden of Eden to his Christian fans). He is exposed but free. He looks upon the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN). They’re hazy, either coming into focus or disappearing along the horizon. His entire career lies ahead of him. It’s full of vibrance and hope.

Here’s what I see:

© Eric S. Townsend, “4 U” (2020)

--

--