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Prince v. Michael Jackson : Back to 1991

Updated on November 19, 2016

Prince & MJ were at the top of their game back in 1991, with the releases of Diamonds & Pearls / Dangerous, both milestones in their respective careers. Let's take a trip back to the early 90's and see how those two albums fare against the other. Let's discover why the year 1991 was a turning point for those two musical geniuses.

Before 1991...

The 80's are over and the question is : how will the two artists responsible for some of the decade's most important hits fare against the then white-hot bands such as Nirvana ? Or the whole grunge movement ? Some feared that pop as it was known then would suffer the same fate as disco in the late 70's. Both Purple Rain (1984) and Thriller (1982) had made MJ and Prince icons but they were both in need of a career boost by 1990.

MJ's last album, Bad (1987), while immensely successful, failed to match the commercial or critical success of its predecessor. The album is still one the biggest seller in the history of music and it was simply impossible to match Thriller in terms of sales. But perhaps more damageable is the fact that since the release of the album, MJ increasingly became tabloid-fodder and even ended up being known as Wacko-Jacko. It is something he would have to endure for the rest of his career. That's a shame, as the Bad Tour broke records and lasted for almost 2 years (ending in 1989) and represented the highest point in MJ's career as a live performer. However, it seemed that people were growing more interested in his private life than in his music. In 1991, it had been almost 4 years since the release of new material. It was time for a new MJ album, if only to prove that the man was more than what those crazy tabloid stories made of him.

MJ's last album sold between 30-45 million copies but his reputation took a hit as he became the favorite target of tabloids in the late 80's.
MJ's last album sold between 30-45 million copies but his reputation took a hit as he became the favorite target of tabloids in the late 80's.

Purple Rain took the world by storm in 1984 and sold over 22 million copies worldwide. Prince decided to follow the album by constantly redefining his sound in the following albums, which were released litterally every year. It is amazing to think that in the 80's alone, Prince released over 10 albums, not including the uncredited work he did on the album of others. While all his albums sold well, none matched the success of Purple Rain and sales declined gradually. His last non-soundtrack studio album of the 80's, 1988's Lovesexy, sold approximately 2 million copies worldwide. He composed the soundtrack to the 1989 film Batman and it was a great success, selling 11 million copies, but this was likely caused by the publicity around the film and the album is often forgotten or overlooked by fans. Prince's first album of the 90's, the soundtrack to his 1990 film Graffiti Bridge, sold around 1 million copies. This was disappointing, especially considering that the album did much better than the movie, which bombed and was reviled by critics. After the disaster of Graffiti Bridge, Prince was in need of a commercial and critical hit.

Prince's Graffiti Bridge movie was, in 1990, a commercial and critical disaster. The soundtrack did a bit better, but the sales were far from what he was once capable of.
Prince's Graffiti Bridge movie was, in 1990, a commercial and critical disaster. The soundtrack did a bit better, but the sales were far from what he was once capable of.

A new sound

Both MJ and Prince understood that they needed a new sound in order to make an impact on the changing public, opting for a more urban vibe. The resulting albums showed the versatility of these artists and shocked many upon release.

DANGEROUS

MJ dropped producer Quincy Jones in favor of Teddy Riley, a pioneer of new jack swing, for the album that would eventually become Dangerous.


Michael Jackson's Dangerous
Michael Jackson's Dangerous

Dangerous was released November 26, 1991 and went on to sell 32 million copies worldwide with 7 million in the US alone. It took 16 months to record, then the longest in MJ's career. It is shocking when compared to Prince's completely different work ethic, who typically releases albums very quickly, sometimes recording for only a few weeks. The album was filled with hits, containing 9 singles, the most popular being the No. 1 Hit Black or White, a guitar-driven song about unity (or interracial love, depending on who you ask). The sound of the album was noticeably different than 1987's Bad, new jack swing being relatively new and MJ decided to go forward with this approach. Like all other MJ records, the album is still very commercial and aimed at destroying the charts (it did). The new jack swing sound fits him well and some songs on the album are classics, my favorites being Jam, Who Is It and Dangerous. The album opener, Jam, is a very agressive song, full of energy and MJ wisely chose it as the concert opener for his Dangerous Tour. Most songs that follow are made in the new jack swing fashion but some are closer to the classic 80's MJ sound, such as Heal the World, Will You Be There or Gone too Soon. Today, the album might sound quite dated due to its early 90's sound and some might argue it does not possess the timeless quality of Thriller or even Bad. The album also contains more filler tracks than those two albums, tracks such as Can't Let Her Get Away and Keep the Faith being quite forgettable. However, Dangerous contains 14 songs, then the longest MJ album, using the CD capacity to the maximum. Lots of tracks were recorded for the album but never included, the best being Someone Put Your Hand Out. Personally, it is my second favorite MJ record after only Bad. Most songs are infinitely danceable and the dated 90's sound is part of its charm for me. Dangerous is also the last album released before MJ's reputation took a serious blow in 1993 and seems to be the last in which most of the songs are genuinely upbeat. Lyrical themes are classic MJ, dealing with romance, children, world-improvement, etc, while his latter albums often referred to his mishandling by the press and victimisation. It remains the bestselling new jack swing album ever. It put MJ back on top of the charts (and the world). The MJ fever was back, but only for a short time.

Black Or White

DIAMONDS & PEARLS

Prince, who disbanded The Revolution back in 1986, decided to create another backing band, The New Power Generation (NPG), that notably included rapper Tony M. Prince opted for a more urban radio-friendly sound and the result was Diamonds & Pearls, released on October 1, 1991.

Prince's Diamonds & Pearls
Prince's Diamonds & Pearls

The album reached No. 3 in the US charts and went on to sell around 5 million copies worldwide. The album contained 6 singles, including the No. 1 hit Cream. It was Prince's biggest commercial hit since Purple Rain back in 1984 (excluding the soundtrack to Batman). The album's sound is very radio-friendly, containing some of Prince's most mainstream pop/rock songs since a long time. The album was recorded during various sessions from 1989 to mid-1991, so it is hard to tell how long exactly it took. It sounds like Prince was clearly aiming to make an impact on the charts, trying to make every song a potential hit (5 were US Top 40 Hits). The album even includes rap, a surprising fact considering that Prince himself expressed his disdain for it in the late 80's. The album is very pleasing to listen to and not a very challenging one. My favorite tracks are Thunder, Diamonds & Pearls and Gett Off, the latter being one of Prince's most unique songs and an instant classic. Like Dangerous, the album might sound dated to some, due to the use of drum machines, lots of synth and the presence of rap in some songs. The presence of new jack swing is felt on some tracks, especially on the agressive opener Thunder (in some ways the equivalent to MJ's Jam). This album is a favorite of mine, even if it is slightly inferior to the albums Prince released between 1982 and 1987 (his best remains 1987's Sign 'O' the Times). The ballad Diamonds & Pearls is probably one of Prince's most beautiful, with the adition of Rosie Gaines on vocals making this song a fan favorite and concert highlight. Lyrical themes of the album are typical Prince (sex, love, money...). The success of the album put Prince back on top of the charts and helped forget the disaster of Graffiti Bridge. It proved that he was still able to write straightforward radio-friendly hits that remained uniquely Prince. However, like for MJ, the year 1993 would prove to be a difficult one.

Cream

A new look and world tour

Prince and MJ decided it was time to change their image to attract the new audience. Both artists then promoted their albums with extensive world tours and public apparitions.

Michael Jackson / The Dangerous World Tour

Like he did in 1987 for Bad, MJ decided to update his stage persona. This time, he traded the gangster/street elements of Bad for a more military style. This military influence was obvious during the Dangerous Tour, in which many of the dance routines looked like marches and was developed even further during the following HIStory Tour (just watch the ridiculous teaser for that album). The album was promoted through 9 music videos with some of them, like Black or White and Jam, becoming instant classics. My favorite remains the David Fincher directed Who Is It, which is suprisingly dark. To me, the persona he projected at the time was one that was less accessible or sympathetic but still extremely fascinating. The public responded strongly, and the Dangerous Tour kicked off on June 27, 1992, to great success. Suprisingly, the tour did not stop in the US at all, perhaps due to MJ's mishandling by the press there. However, MJ performed the halft-time show of Superbowl XXVII, which is still considered one of the best ever. The tour ended on November 11, 1993, due to MJ supposedly suffering from health problems. I personally enjoy the Bad Tour much more that the Dangerous Tour, as MJ seemed to have much more fun and he sang almost everything live. Sadly, the Dangerous Tour would also be the beginning of his rising use of lip-syncing. The following HIStory Tour was entirely lip-synced. Still, the Dangerous Tour remains top-notch entertainmnent and is a joy to watch on DVD.

MJ live in 1993, here in full Dangerous-era costume.
MJ live in 1993, here in full Dangerous-era costume.

Jam (Live in 1992)

Prince / The Diamonds & Pearls Tour

Prince drastically changed his image during the Diamonds & Pearls era. I think it was his biggest change since Lovesexy back in 1988. He notably cut his hair and dressed in expensive-looking colorful costumes, always very elegant yet uniquely over-the-top. He looked much more classy and it still is my favorite look for him. The androgynous god-loving poet of Lovesexy was gone. His ability to shock was not (just watch his 1991 MTV Video Awards Performance below...). His new persona would be promoted through 8 lavishly produced music videos, the most impressive being Gett Off. To me, his change of looks would compare to David Bowie's during the Let's Dance era back in 1983. Prince was often accompanied by two beautiful dancers (named Diamonds and Pearls) during promotion for the album. They would also remain by his side for the then-upcoming tour. During that period, Prince did a famous photoset with Herb Ritts that remains one of his best and the pictures were used on his first greatest hits release in 1993. The Diamonds & Pearls Tour kicked off on April 3, 1992 and would last until July 12, 1992. This is noticeably shorter than the Dangerous Tour but one must not forget that Prince got back on the road to promote his next album, the Love Symbol album, on March 8, 1993. Like MJ, Prince decided not to tour the US for reasons unknown. The tour was very successful and showcased the excellence of his backing band The New Power Generation, with emphasis on rap and hip-hop elements. A horn section was added during the tour and it would have an important influence on Prince's following albums. The tour is sadly still not released on DVD. Prince's style during that period seems to have attracted french director Luc Besson's eye, as he offered him the role of Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element (some concept art from July 1992 recently surfaced on the internet). Prince would have been perfect for the role but his touring schedule sadly prevented it from happening.

Prince during the Diamonds & Pearls Tour in 1992
Prince during the Diamonds & Pearls Tour in 1992

Gett Off (Live in 1991)

Aftermath

Both artists suffered from blows to their reputations and declining sales during the rest of the decade. Following Dangerous and its tour, Michael Jackson hit a career low when the 1993 sexual abuse accusations against him were made public. He then became even more reclusive and released only two other complete studio albums, 1995's HIStory and 2001's Invincible, until his death in 2009. Despite his personal problems, these albums remained excellent and his rare performances were electrifying. HIStory, while very popular, didn't reach the same level of success and recognition as Dangerous but kept the same new jack swing sound. The Dangerous Tour was also the last in which MJ sang some songs live. Controversy followed him for the rest of his lifetime and his personal life seemed to become more interesting than his music for many. The This Is It Tour would likely have been MJ's comeback but his untimely death prevented it from happening. His musical legacy will live on forever, as more and more fans of all ages discover the true genius that was the King of Pop.

R.I.P. 1958-2009
R.I.P. 1958-2009

Prince followed Diamonds & Pearls with 1992's Love Symbol Album, which was another major success for him and his band The New Power Generation. Things got ugly in 1993 when he decided to break with his record company and to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol. He famously performed on stage with the word SLAVE written on his face. Prince announced that he was dead and that he was now The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (TAFKAP). All this confused the mainstream public and sales declined, never again reaching the success of Diamonds & Pearls. That's a shame, as his albums were mostly very good, especially 1995's The Gold Experience. It didn't help that albums from Prince and TAFKAP were being released almost simultaneously, creating even more confusion. Prince also faced personal problems when his only child died in 1996. He kept releasing albums every year and attempted a comeback in 1999 with Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, which proved to be a failure. He then became known as Prince again and his 2004 album Musicology finally put him back on the map, being his most successful in years. Cream remains his last No. 1 Hit on the US Hot 100. Prince passed away in 2016. Heaven sure got a lot funkier.

R.I.P. 1958-2016
R.I.P. 1958-2016

The hard question... which album is your favorite ?

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