Prince Runs Far Away From the Mainstream With ‘The Rainbow Children': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
In the time between 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and 2001’s The Rainbow Children, Prince underwent two changes. The first is more-or-less cosmetic: He resumed using his given name after spending much of the previous decade as an unpronounceable glyph. The second had a greater influence on his music, and his life: He was in the midst of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.
He had been introduced to the faith in the mid-’90s by Larry Graham, the former Sly & the Family Stone bassist. Prince eventually convinced Graham to move to Minneapolis. where, in addition to playing in his band, Graham served as a spiritual advisor to Prince. “We started studying the Bible on a regular basis,” Graham told the Star-Tribune. “And the more he learned, the more questions he had, like: ‘Why are we here? Where is everything heading? What’s the future for mankind, for the Earth?’ ”
Prince wouldn’t join the church until 2003, but those ideas were already on his mind by the time of The Rainbow Children, Prince’s 24th album—and the first to to re-assume the name Prince. The record is a sexualized psychedelic tale of newfound religious divinity, an amalgam of concepts hardly suppressed in the book of Prince lore. And the title track which starts off the album, a 10-minute jazz-inflected epic introducing the concept album’s surreal premise, is an extravagant expression of Prince’s identity regained.
Never one to feel too uncomfortable inhabiting the role of almighty holiness, “The Rainbow Children” opens with Prince’s voice manipulated to an almost unintelligibly low register, conveying a Creator’s narration of an unfolding, quasi-biblical story. The Almighty begins: “With the accurate understanding of God and His law / They went about the work of building a new nation / The rainbow children.” The narration persists over the song’s first four minutes, interspersed with hymnal gospel bursts delivered from Milenia, Prince’s four-piece backup vocalists.
Musically, the song also breaks radically from the radio-friendly formula of 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, venturing further into the spirit of the jazzier angles explored on 1992’s Love Symbol Album. “The Rainbow Children” sees Prince construct an environment of brightly frenetic guitar licks, a grounded walking bass line and sparkling piano melodies, jolted by the inspired wailing of New Power Generation saxophonist Jerome “Najee” Rasheed and anchored by recent drum addition John “The Magnificent” Blackwell.
The lyricism depicts a chosen population, the “rainbow children,” setting out to build a new civilization around an adulterated interpretation of God’s law. When Prince himself finally enters the picture halfway through, he incants, “Who is your real father? / The everlasting one / The one who came from nothing / And yet from this one, everything comes.” However, not all pass the test of loyalty to the “everlasting one.” When the “Wise One” enters with “his woman,” the latter succumbs to darkness and is banished.
While the parable relayed in “The Rainbow Children” is quite fantastically fictitious, it’s rife with allegories to Prince’s personal life. The concept album is said to represent Prince’s journey to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. And as Mayte, Prince’s first wife and former New Power Generation dancer, has written in her memoir, the “banished woman” development was aimed at her separation from the “Rainbow Children” author.
In case there was any misunderstanding, Prince makes clear the reemergence of his original identity by reaching back to his fourth album, 1982’s Controversy, to borrow lyrics from “Sexuality.” Retrofitting familiar turf into the uncharted mysticism of “The Rainbow Children,” he chants:
“Reproduction of the new breed leader – stand up, organize.”
It’s true, “The Rainbow Children” represented a significant musical and spiritual turning point in Prince’s career. But properly understood, it equally a reaffirmation that the creative and personal inventions for which Prince had always been known would continue to be honored—regardless of what if says on the album sleeve.