“What’s My Name” is a song that has intrigued me from the moment I heard it on a poorly recorded bootleg of the Ulysses show Prince produced back in 1993. It captured the essence of Prince from that time quite succinctly but also asked many questions of the mind of the man who composed it. It is a simple song masking a mixed up mind.
Prince was in crisis. According to one of his album covers, he was dead. He had the word “slave” scrawled on his face and, fuck, did he look thin. There genuinely appeared to be a moment of madness about Prince at this time; the gemini in him pulling him this way and that… the other person inside him. And at the heart of it a letter talking about new music. Beyond that letter was the songs.
The albums generated by this period of creativity (Come, The Gold Experience and Exodus) remain amongst Prince’s best work outside his 80’s purple patch – although The Gold Experience does suffer if listened to in isolation. This triple threat contains the rebirth of vivacity in Prince’s music. Pheremone, Dark, Space, Eye Hate U, Billy Jack Bitch, Shy, The Exodus Has Begun, Return of the Bump Squad, Big Fun – the list grows and grows. There’s still bloom in this blossom. The tinniness that would mar much production a few years later hadn’t quite crept in. There was still an earthiness about the sound. Songs like Race and Papa challenged and provoked. Cherry, Cherry, with its doo-wop smile, and Count the Days, with its sinister minister, still play easy on the ears. There is also a secondary layer of songs from this time that received obscure issue through the Crystal Ball venture. One of those is “What’s My Name”.
My naivety at the time led me to believe Prince’s call for “free music”. I got caught up in his fight against the corporate. How dare they stop him releasing music. How dare they stymie his creativity. Couldn’t they see what they had on their hands? Why on earth would they treat genius in this fashion? Tortured genius at that. Here was a man searching his soul, seeking identity and experimenting in this journey through his music. He was inviting us to listen to his internal monologue and a corporate was getting in the way. A man no longer wanted to be known by his given name. He was thrashing about, trying to get a grip on reality and songs were pouring out of him. I wanted to hear these songs. Prince, sorry, Not-Prince wanted me to hear these songs and Warner Bros. wouldn’t let us. Boo! Party Poop!
In the centre of this maelstrom was a song dealing with the very subject upon which his empire had been built. The name.
The delivery of the lyrics swing between a sulky, spoken, low in the mix murmur to screams and abandonment of sanity. They open with a casting aside of the name by which we’d known our hero for fifteen or so years, and a dismissal of the fame and fortune that had come with it. It sounds like the moment Prince, sorry, Not-Prince realised the shift in tastes and styles – curiously on a track that merges these tastes and styles quite superbly (oh, sweet irony). It is the middle section of the song that still thrills me when I listen to it.
“Take this bass, I can’t play it
It only makes me wish for the way it used to be
You could slap my face, but I got to say it
You never would have drank my coffee if I had never served you cream”
There’s a “Rosebud” feeling about the instrument pealing away from a loosening grip and falling to the floor. The bass becoming dormant at the feet of the maestro who can no longer see the worth of it. The spiteful notion of the quality of the music it has produced summed up beautifully in the metaphor that follows – a wonderful use of allusion here, too; Prince pushing the image of the Cream video to the front and centre of the mind of the listener. There is also a political element in this imagery: the coffee is black and isn’t palatable until it has white put into it. Not-Prince appears to be analysing the need for him to have diluted his music in order to gain that mass-market. He was, of course, lauded for the bi-racial line up of his band and the music world celebrated the mixed audience Prince played for through Purple Rain, etc. In this song Prince questions his actions and, maybe, his motives for compromising his music. The song then finished with a judgement sequence of couplets that finish the song off – a mural of Not-Prince’s mysticism which has a faint whiff of Prince’s. Oddly, however, there is the last line “Do you live a liar, or do you live for love”.
[extra analysis – ALSO there’s the reference to the quality of the music created by Prince in the coffee/cream metaphor. The simple lyric belies the complexity and ambiguity of its meaning.]
“Live for love” was a refrain of Prince’s throughout the early 90s. It is a natural continuation of his Paisley Park policy and for a time also captured the altruism for which Prince does not get the recognition he deserves – rightly so, I imagine from his point of view, because you have to look quite closely to see how charitable Prince is – anyway. The line “Do you live a liar” is the game-breaker here because, in my opinion, Not-Prince was being a little too black and white about an issue which was grey: the name change.
We all know now that Prince’s name change was centred around length of contract with Warner Bros. and in 2000 Not-Prince became Prince again. The soul-searching and the desperate pleas for him to be able to use his music as a therapeutic method through which to discover who he really was (I’m paraphrasing the argument here, obviously) were ditched. I recall be annoyed. More annoyed at myself for falling for it, I suppose, but also annoyed at Prince for playing the game the way he did.
What’s My Name is a toys being thrown out of the cot song of the highest degree, and I love it. I love the fact he is so sassy about right and wrong of the argument. I love that he is so petulant. I particularly love that it manifests itself in a mercurial moment of music; a furious bomb of noise and rhythm. The sublime bass, which of course he can’t play; the house-style keyboard riff, saturated in rave sweat, and the thunder of percussion neatly encapsulate the crazy of Prince’s mind from the time. It is a song that still resonates – this is the man who wrote the word “slave” on his face and the man who said, “Albums, like books and black lives, still matter” – the bitter irony here is another article in an of itself. It is a song for those who want to know who Prince was and is. It is a song that makes me smile.
I’ve wanted to write about this song for quite some time. Each time I got going though the momentum fizzled out. Listening to The B-Sides, the other night, reminded me of the massive arsenal of songs Prince has released and hardly anyone knows about. It is a strong back-catalog this Minneapolitan marvel has at his disposal. More people should know about this song. If only there was a way in which Prince could get his music to masses in a easy and accessible fashion?