By the early 1980s, Prince was embracing his own increasing power—and provocation—as both a genre-busting artist and as a gender-bending cultural force. Dirty Mind, the singer’s bawdy punk-funk collection, had become an instant classic upon its release in 1980. His follow-up, 1981’s Controversy, finds Prince acknowledging his newfound infamy: “I just can’t believe all the things people say/Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” he sings on the title track. And while listeners had plenty of questions about Prince, he delighted in giving them few direct answers—an approach that would pay off throughout the decade, as the mysterious singer ascended the pop throne. Controversy—which features regal assists from Lisa Coleman, Dr. Fink, and Bobby Z., who’d rule alongside Prince as members of The Revolution—finds the singer pushing back against the reactionary political conservatism of the Reagan regime, whom he addresses directly in the punk protest of “Ronnie, Talk to Russia.” Meanwhile, the funk-pop propulsion of Controversy’s “Sexuality” and the slow-jam seduction of “Do Me, Baby”—the latter of which features nearly eight minutes of erotic enlightenment—let you know that His Royal Badness still very much had a dirty mind. The carnal delight of tracks like “Private Joy” and the raunchy romp “Jack U Off” makes it clear that, in some ways, Controversy is an unapologetically sexual sequel to its predecessor. But the album also finds Prince taking on politics (again, “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”) and religion (“Annie Christian”). And Prince has never been straight-up funkier than on “Let’s Work.” Ultimately, Controversy provides a euphoric escape from the unknown in uncertain times, and sets up Prince for the pop-altering triumph of 1999.

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