Prince’s ‘7’ Provides the First Inklings of a New Name: 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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.
"7" was slow in arriving – too slow, in fact, to save 1992's Love Symbol Album – but it nevertheless had a sweeping impact on Prince's career. And not just because it gave him another Top 10 hit.
The always-idiosyncratic Prince took his sweet time in releasing the song, and that was another strike against his then-new studio project. First, of course, was the un-sayable title. Then, there was his choice of singles. Prince initially insisted that the label release "Sexy MF," which was unplayable on the radio. He followed that up, incongruently, with "My Name Is Prince." (The problems there? 1. Not for long, and 2. Its hip hop-inflected sound was both jarring and unrepresentative.)
New Power Generation, appearing on their Prince second studio project, were coming into their own as collaborators too – and the solo-recorded "My Name Is Prince" didn't highlight that, either.
"I really like the Symbol album, because it was the most 'band' record. He wanted a band sound," Tommy Barbarella, Prince's early-'90s keyboardist, told Rolling Stone in 2016. "And then of course when the record comes out there's that track 'My Name Is Prince.' That's all him and ... we're all like, 'Nooo!' There were a lot of other better songs on there, and we all felt like the single kind of killed it."
Finally, Prince decided to release the Eastern-inflected "7," the song Warner Bros. wanted to put out all along – and it soared to No. 7 on the Billboard chart. Unfortunately, it was too late to get sales for Love Symbol Album back on track. The project finished at a respectable No. 5 in the U.S., and eventually went platinum, but those figures were far off the pace of Prince's preceding Diamonds and Pearls – which ranked as his second-best selling album ever.
Even those who took a chance on the Love Symbol Album might have come away confused. The surging New Power Generation consistently surrounded Prince's narratives with a string of sturdy R&B-powered dance grooves – but those narratives were often plainly bizarre. After the calculated pop precision of Diamonds and Pearls, Prince delved into an album-length concept involving a princess, the Gospels and a magical chain of some sort – complete with spoken-word interludes between songs.
In this setting, "7" seems to fit in as a reference to the trumpets of the apocalypse. Separate from that, however, every part of this song came to new life – from its mystically intriguing acoustic work to the loping, Lowell Fulson-sampled beat to its soaring, layered choruses. Freed of this often-impenetrable concept, "7" simply soared. Why it took that long to arrive, only Prince knew. He was always apt to do what he wanted to do, regardless of the commercial implications.
That too is how Prince ended up changing his name to this album's unpronounceable symbol, an idea that grew out of a scribble created for the cover of the "7" single. Prince turned to a 24-year-old freelance artist named Lizz Frey for the design idea.
"He said please make a beautiful seven," Frey told Page Six in 2016. "I drew it by hand." When Prince saw it, she adds, "he changed his mind and said we'll use it for the entire album. Then he drew a circle with a cross over it, and said that's what he wanted."
Frey later worked with a Minneapolis design firm to refine the image, never knowing that Prince would soon assume it as his name. In the meantime, like untold numbers of label execs, print editors and DJs, she had no idea how to actually refer to the symbol that Prince went by from 1993-2000. "He said, 'The pronunciation exists on a different level of existence," Frey added.
Tellingly, in the video for "7," Prince symbolically kills off a series of versions of himself. That painful process began in real life with this song.