In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Here, we come to a sort of ending. In 1984, Prince Rogers Nelson’s “When Doves Cry” became his first #1 single and, later, that year’s biggest hit. In the seven-odd years that followed, Prince topped the Hot 100 four more times. For anyone else, a total of five #1 singles would be a titanic achievement. For Prince, that number is laughably tiny, and it doesn’t tell anything close to the whole story. The hits that Prince wrote for other artists don’t tell the story, either. For a long stretch of time, Prince was everywhere — the shadow looming over the pop charts.
In his heyday, Prince was one of the most relentlessly inventive forces working in any art form. In the time after “When Doves Cry,” Prince essentially made himself the main character in the story of popular music. Everyone else on that landscape, even dominant figures like Michael Jackson and Madonna, had to pay close attention to what Prince was doing. (Both Jackson and Madonna wanted to work with Prince. Prince said no to Jackson and yes to Madonna.) Lots of people wanted to work with Prince. In the ’80s and early ’90s, virtually everyone in pop music wanted some of what Prince had, and Minneapolis became the sun around which the pop-music industry revolved.
When Prince ascended to #1 for the final time with his 1991 song “Cream,” the song that he deposed at #1 was Karyn White’s “Romantic,” a track co-written and co-produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jam and Lewis had become a hugely important two-man hit factory only after Prince fired them from the Time. In their time, Jam and Lewis made a vast pile of classics, but their success was almost certainly contingent on Prince reshaping the landscape. Tons of other Minneapolis musicians — some of them Prince associates, some of them probably just people who’d walked past Prince in a hallway a couple of times — also started making hits. Invariably, those hits sounded like Prince songs.
A few weeks before Prince’s “Cream” hit #1, for instance, the Minneapolis group Natural Selection made it to #2 with “Do Anything,” a song co-written by Ingrid Chavez, the Prince protege who also co-wrote Madonna’s “Justify My Love.” “Do Anything” sounds like K-Mart-brand Prince. (It’s a 5.) A lot of that era’s hits sounded like K-Mart-brand Prince. In fact, it often seems like the person least interested in chasing Prince’s sound during that era was Prince himself. “Cream,” for instance, definitely sounds like Prince, but you can hear the man pushing himself, trying to come up with something different.
After the blockbuster success of Purple Rain, both the album and film, Prince could’ve kept making records like that. Instead, he followed his own muse and floated off in different aesthetic directions. Sometimes those directions hit, and sometimes they didn’t. Prince always kept half an eye on the charts, and he was careful not to make anything too commercially alienating, but he wasn’t trying to repeat himself. When Prince last appeared in this column, it was with the utterly deranged cut-and-paste blockbuster tie-in “Batdance.” Prince’s Batman album might’ve been made for relatively cynical reasons, but it still had plenty of weirdness in it, and it was a big double-platinum success. Prince’s next move did not do so well.
In 1990, Prince wrote, directed, and starred in the Purple Rain sequel Graffiti Bridge, his second auteur move after the 1986 bomb Under The Cherry Moon. Graffiti Bridge was another critical and commercial disaster, barely making back half of its budget and earning Prince multiple Razzie nominations. (The Razzies are a worthless endeavor, but in this case, they truly do indicate that people were not interested in seeing Prince make movies. He never made another one afterwards.) Prince’s Graffiti Bridge album only went gold, and only one of the soundtrack’s Prince singles, the moody vibe-out “Thieves In The Temple,” made the top 10, peaking at #6. (It’s an 8.)
The chilly reception for Graffiti Bridge, both the movie and the album, convinced Prince that he needed to make something more mainstream. Rap, house, and new jack swing were all over the charts by 1991, and Prince’s flirtations with all three genres had been somewhat half-hearted. He wanted to lock in with those sounds. By then, Prince was no longer playing with any of the members of the Revolution, his old backing band. So he put together a new group called the New Power Generation, naming the band after one of the songs on Graffiti Bridge. (“New Power Generation” peaked at #64.)
Prince’s whole idea for the New Power Generation was that it would be a bigger, funkier band with a revolving membership and a more contemporary feel. While filming Purple Rain, Prince had noticed three extras who were good dancers, and he kept them in mind when they later formed a band. With the New Power Generation, those three extras became Prince’s regular dancers, and one of them, Tony M, became his in-house rapper. Prince debuted the New Power Generation on his Nude Tour of Europe, and he gave them equal billing on his 1991 album Diamonds And Pearls. On that album, the NPG are credited as co-writers and co-producers.
There’s a whole lot of swagger on Diamonds And Pearls, but there’s some anxiety, too. Prince’s pop songwriting skills were still insanely sharp, but you can hear him attempting to update those skills to fit a new moment. They don’t always work. Tony M’s raps, for instance, are mostly terrible. (It took a long time for pop stars to figure out that they could just bring in actual big-name rappers as featured guests on singles. The idea that Prince needed a rapper in his band was just goofy.) Also, in a pop climate that was more comfortable with frank depictions of sex, Prince was still above and beyond. “Gett Off,” the lead single from Diamonds And Pearls, is an all-time banger, and Prince famously debuted the song at the 1991 VMAs with his ass hanging out. But the song was probably too horny for radio, and it peaked at #21.
Prince released “Cream” as the second Diamonds And Pearls single when “Gett Off” was still climbing the charts, and while it’s not quite as outwardly sex-obsessed as “Gett Off,” it’s still pretty close. “Cream” got a big rollout, with an extended video from director Rebecca Blake, who’d previously done Prince’s “Kiss” video. There’s a whole prologue with its own storyline — Prince is in an old-timey train station, and everyone there is horny for him — before the video turns into a grind-happy soundstage performance. Everyone in the “Cream” video stays more or less fully clothed, but the clip still manages to imply that there might be a dancer orgy happening mid-performance. It’s a great video, one that lingers on Prince’s own showmanship without too many distractions.
Despite the song title and the video and everything else, “Cream” isn’t really a song about sex. It only pretends to be a song about sex. On the surface, “Cream” seems like it’s an ode to infatuation: “It’s your time/ You got the horn, so why don’t you blow it?/ You are fine/ You’re filthy cute, and baby you know it.” But Prince later became fond of saying that he wrote the song while looking in a mirror. So it’s more likely that “Cream” is Prince talking to himself, building himself up, reminding himself of who he is: “You’re so good/ Baby, there ain’t nobody better/ So you should never ever go by the letter.” It’s hard to imagine Prince ever having a moment of self-doubt and needing that reminder, but the man was a human being. Maybe we all need to look in mirrors and tell ourselves that we’ve got the cream sometimes.
Musically, “Cream” is a very cool little sideways move for Prince. It’s nothing like the hard, percussive funk of “Gett Off.” Instead, it’s a flirty, bluesy strut of a track. At the time, some critics heard “Cream” as Prince’s homage to T. Rex’s preening 1971 glam-rocker “Bang A Gong (Get It On),” and there are certainly echoes of that song in the syncopated guitar-stabs and some of the lyrics. (“Bang A Gong (Get It On),” T. Rex’s biggest American hit, peaked at #10. It’s a 9.)
In “Cream,” I also hear bits and pieces of Bonnie Raitt’s casually elegant blues-rock, which was at its peak in the early ’90s and which Prince definitely loved. Prince and Raitt recorded some never-released music together at Paisley Park in 1988, and Prince later covered Raitt’s 1991 song “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” (“I Can’t Make You Love Me” peaked at #18. Bonnie Raitt’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Something To Talk About,” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)
Ultimately, though, “Cream” is a whole lot funkier than anything that T. Rex or Bonnie Raitt ever made. The song opens with cowbell, and it leans into its groove hard. The bluesy guitar interjections and horn-blats give the track a bit of an out-of-time feeling, but those things serve the beat. Prince’s delivery sometimes comes out as a sigh or a groan or a grunt, but it always sounds smooth, and it’s always in the pocket. Even when he’s singing self-affirmations, Prince comes off overpoweringly horny. It’s fun to imagine him staring into a mirror and really liking what he sees. For most people, literal narcissism would be a glaring character flaw. With Prince, it just kind of makes sense.
In retrospect, it seems truly strange that “Cream” was one of Prince’s five #1 hits — though not as strange as the fact that “Batdance” is also one of those five #1 hits. “Cream” is a slick, silly, extremely fun song. It’s playful and sexy and catchy, and it shows Prince doing something that wasn’t really part of his regular repertoire. But it’s ultimately a fairly minor Prince number, not one of the man’s almighty bulletproof bangers. Prince still had plenty of those left to go.
Prince followed “Cream” with the lush and opulent ballad “Diamonds And Pearls,” and that song peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.) The Diamonds And Pearls album eventually turned out to be a big, fat double-platinum hit, a real bounce-back after Graffiti Bridge. Within a year, Prince recorded a follow-up, an LP with an unpronounceable-symbol title that came to be known as The Love Album. That album’s first two singles, “My Name Is Prince” and “Sexy MF,” didn’t do so well on the Hot 100. But the straight-up psychedelic masterpiece “7” went top-10 — peaking, appropriately enough, at #7 — and the album went platinum. (This might be a mathematical paradox, but “7” is a 10.)
After that, everything fell apart. Prince got into a years-long public feud with Warner Bros., his label. He famously changed his name to the Love Album symbol, forcing the media to refer to him as the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and he took to writing the word “slave” on his cheek. This wasn’t good for business for either Prince or Warner, and the media quickly turned Prince into a running punchline. But amidst all that rancor, Prince still managed one last major hit. The 1994 single “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” which soon became the subject of an ongoing plagiarism suit in Italian court, managed to climb as high as #3. (It’s a 7.)
After that, though, Prince was not remotely concerned with making hits. He cranked out a whole ton of music to free himself from his Warner contract, and then he cranked out even more music independently when he was done with that contract. He came out with the triple album Emancipation in 1996 and then the quintuple album Crystal Ball two years later. He sold CDs on the internet when the internet wasn’t yet anywhere near the point where big stars could efficiently sell their own music without label assistance. Prince also went through heavy personal stuff around that time. In 1996, Prince’s son Amiir died a week after being born. In 2001, Prince’s friend Larry Graham, the former Sly And The Family Stone bassist, convinced Prince to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Prince started calling himself Prince again in 2000, and he continued to crank out new music, sometimes making temporary one-off deals with major labels. Eventually, he even made a new deal with Warner. In the 21st century, Prince remained a huge live draw and a subject of widespread fascination, and he had a few more tremendous big-stage moments — the famous “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2004, the greatest Super Bowl halftime show of all time in 2007, the last-minute booking as Coachella headliner in 2008. The New Power Generation finally broke up in 2013, and Prince replaced them with an all-female backing band called 3rdeyegirl. A bunch of former NPG members joined up with Nick Jonas and became the Administration, Jonas’ backup band. (Nick Jonas & The Administration’s highest-charting single 2009’s “Who I Am,” peaked at #73. As a member of the Jonas Brothers, Nick will eventually appear in this column.)
As busy as he stayed in the 21st century, Prince did not get back to the business of making hits. After 2000, only one Prince single even reached the Hot 100. (2006’s “Black Sweat,” an underrated banger, peaked at #60.) Prince seemed entirely fine with this. He lived at his Paisley Park compound, made music when he felt like it, and played live shows that melted people’s brains. He seemed happy and healthy, so it was a genuine shock when Prince died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016. Prince was 57 when he died. The week after his death, five of Prince’s albums returned to the top 10. He actually became 2016’s highest-selling artist.
Prince didn’t stop shaping the pop charts after landing his final #1 hit. He didn’t even stop shaping the pop charts when he died. You can still hear hit songs that sound like attempts to catch up to Prince. Prince’s pop-chart echoes might not be as sharp and defined as they once were, but they haven’t faded completely. I can’t imagine that they ever will.
BONUS BEATS: British pub-rock veteran Graham Parker sometimes does a sort of garage-rocky version of “Cream” at his live shows. Here’s the live version of “Cream” that Parker and the Figgs released in 1997:
(Graham Parker’s highest-charting US single, 1985’s “Wake Up (Next To You),” peaked at #39.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor covering “Cream” at a 2019 solo show in Los Angeles: