Prince Dishes Up Some Philly Soul on ‘It’s Gonna Be Lonely': 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.
For all of Prince's musical virtuosity, his sound didn't emerge out of thin air. Instead, as with so many brilliant artists, it was a studious distillation of everything he liked, filtered through his own perspective and updated with modern technology. His self-titled second album was a perfect example of this approach.
By 1979, the sounds of Philadelphia soul that had dominated the pop and R&B charts in the first part of the decade had largely disappeared, replaced by disco. But the vocals on Prince were dominated by a defining characteristic of Philly soul: the falsetto. Prince would later have a hit with a cover of the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly, Wow," but throughout the record you can hear Prince channeling their lead singer, Russell Thompkins Jr., with every note sung in his high register.
The falsetto shines on the ballads, in particular the closer, "It's Gonna Be Lonely." As with "Still Waiting," it's possibly inspired by a breakup he'd had at the time, with Prince projecting how he would feel if his girlfriend was to leave him. But while the lyrics are somewhat generic, the music feels like a a new take on Philly soul, with swirling keyboards replacing those lush string arrangements. If only that opening guitar lick had been played on a Coral electric sitar, it could have sounded like it came straight from Philly's Sigma Sound Studios.
Within a decade, technology had made it easier for artists to pay homage to their heroes via sampling, which took the actual elements from a record and transformed them into something new. For all the controversy over unauthorized samples and whether it was the same as writing a new piece of music, the practice undoubtedly helped hip-hop go mainstream in the '90s thanks, in large part, to the many hits produced by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs that used familiar material.
Much of Kanye West's reputation, as both a producer and recording artist, came from his innovative use of samples. A different version of "Big Brother," a track from West's third album, 2007's Graduation, was recently discovered and includes a sample of the distorted electric guitar part from "It's Gonna Be Lonely." As Uproxx found, it had even been hiding in plain sight for six years, as part of a documentary where West was playing "Big Brother" for the subject of the song, Jay-Z.
The released take of "Big Brother" (embedded below) features a guitar part very similar to the sample. But since the song's credits don't list Prince as a co-writer, it's possible that he didn't give West his permission to use the sample and it was tracked live in the studio.
Regardless, Prince was an admirer of West's use of samples, in particular his No. 1 hit, "Gold Digger," which incorporated Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." In 2015, Prince raved to Medium that “the way he made something new with that sample was perfect.”
Listen to Kanye West's "Big Brother"