Wanna Be Startin Somethin v. Let's Go Crazy
On the contrary, Wanna Be Startin Somethin doesn’t open with any Prince-type dramatics. Michael was all business. A programmed staccoto beat opens up the song. “BAM BAM BAM!” and you’re in. While Let’s Go Crazy is a heavy rock groove, WBSS is a funky, sweaty post-disco dance track. Michael adds a new rougher edge to his high tenor voice as he pleads and grunts throughout the track. The Swahili chant at the climax of the song is the most famous part.
Both songs are message songs - WBSS focuses on gossip while Let’s Go Crazy has a more religious ring to it.
This is a tough pick, because both openers make a strong statement about who these men are and it highlights what their strengths. Michael, the song and dance man who is gradually abandoning his teen idol image. And Prince, one of the few black musicians since Chuck Berry with a real love of the electric guitar.
Both songs are jams and this one comes down to a matter of taste. But me? I find WBSS a tad more irresistible, and I loved watching Michael perform this on his tours.
Winner? Wanna Be Startin Somethin
Baby Be Mine v. Take Me With U
As for Take Me With U, it’s a duet with Apollonia. The best thing about this track to me are the visuals with the film. This song was played early in the film when Prince took Apollonia for a motorcycle ride early in their courtship. The song sounds like a bright sunny day, just like the one it represented in the film. It’s a happy song about romance - I can’t get mad at that. Also, I love the drums on this song. Prince added the tom-fills as overdubs, and they're brilliant. Also, this song is a rarity on the album in that the whole band played the song together. Though Prince was the producer, this one was a true group effort.
Still, I can’t resist the synth grooves of Baby Be Mine and Michael’s voice on that song. He was singing at the top of his voice, something he stopped doing after this album. For those reasons, I gotta roll with Mike here.
Winner - Baby Be Mine
The Beautiful Ones v. The Girl Is Mine
Now onto The Girl Is Mine. This one is comparable to Prince’s Take Me With U in terms of its sugary pop sweetness. It isn’t a bad song, but in my opinion it’s the weakest one that Michael and Paul McCartney recorded together. (Check out their other songs, The Man and Say Say Say). Also this is the first album on Thriller where the musicians from the soft rock group Toto step in to provide the instrumentation. My favorite thing about the song is Michael and Paul arguing over the girl. Michael tells Paul in his falsetto whisper, “Paul, I told you. I’m a lover not a fighter.” This is perhaps the most entertaining thing about the song. Again, it’s not a bad song, but not as strong as the previously heard Wanna Be Startin Somethin and some of the other Thriller tracks. In comparing this innocent song to The Beautiful Ones, the winner is really clear here.
Winner? The Beautiful Ones
Thriller v. Computer Blue
I used to view it as a generic post-disco pop song, but now I have more respect for it. There’s a lot going on that makes this song so damn catchy and memorable. The Linn-programmed beat and percussion, the guitar melodies, the creepy bass synth, etc. It’s a great dance track. Now if the music video was never made to go with this song, then this song would come across as weird and random. Because of its video and memorable images and lyrics, this is one of the most popular songs of all time.
And there’s a new dimension to Michael’s singing. He’s still a tenor, sure. But there’s a creepy raspy tone inserted to convey the horror of the song’s lyrics. Also his layered background vocals are nothing short of amazing. There’s no doubt in my mind that this was the peak of Michael’s singing voice. Now onto The Purple One.
Computer Blue is another standout on Purple Rain. I love the bass groove and the guitar showmanship. There are no lyrics really…it’s just a melodic, experimental jam. The song’s melody is so pure. It sounded just as beautiful when Prince’s father played it on the piano in the movie.
This is somewhat of a close one. But as much as I love Computer Blue, it sounds like a fun jam session while Thriller sounds more like a complete track. Both songs are diverse, but Prince’s lack of vocals hurt him in this one. Meanwhile, Michael went all out.
Darling Nikki v. Beat It
Beat It is a legendary tune and you could argue that it paved the way for the music on Purple Rain. Michael was an R&B singer adopting a straight-up rock sound this time, and Prince would later have similar success doing the same. Back then, black singers were not writing and performing this kind of music. Michael was the first black artist to be accepted by MTV and Prince followed right behind him.
Since I opened up by talking about Eddie Van Halan’s contribution to Beat It, I’ll go ahead and speak about the song. I will say that the opening bars to the song throws the listener for a loop right away. We get the haunting gong sounds of a Synclavier first, followed by a drum programmed loop. After four measures of this, BAM!!! We get a loud rock guitar melody accompanied by Toto’s Jeff Porcaro playing live drums. Like Wanna Be Startin Somethin earlier, this track is aggressive and in your face. But in a louder, more rock and roll kind of way. Like on Baby Be Mine, Michael sings at the top of his bright tenor voice but now there’s an urgency to it. He occasionally grunts, growls and makes funky kung-fu noises. “Just Beat it! Haw!!!”
The song is memorable for its video, choreography, the red jacket, and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo.
Darling Nikki is also a legendary song but for a different reason. It’s sexually explicit lyrics were the reason why Parental Advisory stickers were put on albums. Tipper Gore threw a fit when her 11 year-old daughter was caught listening to the song, and she founded the Parent Music Resource Center.
Controversy aside, this was never one of my favorite Prince songs. Like The Girl Is Mine from Thriller, this song isn’t bad by any means. But it just never resonated with me like the others. The Revolution is absent from the track, as Prince produced and performed it all on his own.
Winner? Beat It
When Doves Cry v. Billie Jean
Prince is a bold musician. When Doves Cry is a pop tune with no bassline. At all. That’s almost unheard of. It’s a sparse song, only a Linn-programmed beat (again with pitched down rim shots and claps, which is a trademark of Prince’s sound) , a wailing guitar and some moderate synths.
This is also one of the songs on Purple Rain where Prince dares to compete with Michael vocally. His layered background vocals are amazing - the harmonies range from baritone to falsetto wails. The song’s lyrics represent the movie’s story perfectly. Also, this is another track penned entirely by Prince himself. Despite appearing in the music video, there is no Revolution on this song.
Now for Billie Jean.
Ironically, When Doves Cry is renowned for not having a bassline, but its bass groove is the key ingredient for Billie Jean. Louis Johnson (from the funk duo, The Brothers Johnson) played the bass guitar here. What’s special about it, however, was the way it was mixed. It was layered numerous times, giving it a depth that otherwise doesn’t exist. This is why Billie Jean is a hard song to replicate in a live performance.
Another way it differs from When Doves Cry is that jazz musician N’dugu Chancler played live drums on the song, adding to its funk. In fact, Billie Jean is played by a team of established studio musicians such as Greg Phillinganes (synths) David Williams (guitar) and Bill Wolfer (synths).
Both songs are funky and have lyrics about a turbulent relationship. Billie Jean tackles the issue of uncertain paternity, while When Doves Cry is about a couple in love who are having serious problems.
I will say, I question whether or not the narrator in Billie Jean is telling the truth. The reason is because in the video, you see Michael shush Billie Jean’s neighbor before sneaking up the stairs to her apartment. The neighbor immediately calls the cops. She definitely recognized Michael and felt he had no business there. It’s up in the air if Michael’s character was telling the truth. Like in the video for Thriller, Michael was again playing the hero and villain of his own story.
Both songs are deep and serve as the centerpiece for their respective albums. It’s a close one, but if I were tied to a chair and forced to pick, I’d go with Billie Jean.
Winner? Billie Jean
Human Nature v. I Would Die 4 U
I’ll start with Human Nature. It’s a nocturnal lullaby with one of the best melodies ever recorded. This was another of the advantages to having Toto work on this album. It was written by the band’s guitarist Steve Porcaro, and John Bettis added lyrics later. Steve’s bandmates thought the song was too “R&B” for them, so they passed on it. Quincy accidentally heard the song’s demo on a tape Steve sent him, and the rest is history.
This was one of my favorite songs to see Michael perform live. Michael always sang the song sweetly but with more of an edge while on stage, regardless of the tour. The live instrumentation also sounded heaps better than the studio version. This was a song written by a musician for musicians. When Toto didn’t record it for themselves and gave it to Michael, Quincy gave the song a polished sheen that kind of dilutes the groove for me. I much prefer the live versions of the song. Michael’s sweet and breathy falsetto still comes across as a winner here. Hell, this song overall is a winner. Period. I just prefer the live versions.
I Would Die 4 U. OK, my favorite Prince songs of all time are Erotic City, The Beautiful Ones, I Would Die 4 U, and Lady Cab Driver. So I am trying not to be biased here. But this is damn near the perfect pop song. I love the synths, the melody, the vocals, everything about it.
As much as I adore Human Nature, I Would Die 4 U is my preference.
Winner: I Would Die 4 U
Pretty Young Thing v. Baby I'm A Star
This one is easy. I was never a fan of Baby I’m a star. This is the only song on Purple Rain that I don’t like and skip almost each time. The melody is weak and minimal. I just never liked the song. Why couldn't something stronger like Erotic City have taken this spot?
PYT, however, has much more going for it. Michael opens and closes the song speaking in that quiet whispery voice of his. I find it hilarious and charming. The funk here is undeniable. It’s not as funky as Billie Jean, but it’s certainly a synth funk number. Michael’s versions of funk are not outright in your face like George Clinton, James Brown or Rick James. Instead, Michael polished his funk with synthesizers, giving songs like this one a more pop appeal. There’s not much I can really say about it though. I enjoy listening to it. It’s funky, it’s cute, it’s electric. I’m just kind of at a loss for words.
Winner: Pretty Young Thing
The Lady In My Life v. Purple Rain
I’ll start with The Lady in My Life. People to this day say that this is one of the best vocal performances Michael ever gave as an adult and I agree. Michael even said in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he was having a hard time with this song for hours until Quincy pulled him aside and told him to “beg.” This song is another example of Quincy bringing out the best in Michael.
When I was a kid, I didn’t care much for this one. It’s a soul ballad, and it doesn’t pick up until the last minute or so when Michael starts begging and pleading for this unnamed woman. It’s a good song, but it’s not one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs, nor is it one of my favorite songs in general. I would say that the album’s title track would be a better album closer, but having this long ballad as the fourth song would drag the pace of the album, so I can see why it was given the last spot.
Now for Purple Rain. This is Prince’s signature song and the one everyone was constantly singing when after died. I have to be in the mood to listen to it. It’s a slow rock groove and an epic one at that, but like The Lady In My Life, it doesn’t pick up until the climax. The guitar solos and the falsetto “Whoo-hooo-hoo-ooo–ooos” are brilliant. Those are the best moments in the song in my opinion but they don’t happen until the final moments.
Winner: Purple Rain
So let’s do a round up of the winners.
Baby be mine
The beautiful ones
I would die 4 u
Thriller - 6
Purple Rain- 3
I actually thought it would be much closer, but Thriller basically wiped out Purple Rain. But again, some of these decisions were close ones.
One final thought is that four of the songs on Purple Rain were recorded live the summer of 1983 and Prince added overdubs to them later in the studio. (Let's Go Crazy, I Would Die 4 U, Baby I'm A Star and Purple Rain) I can't help but wonder if the album would have been as strong if the live tracks were never polished and improved later? Prince re-recorded a lot of the lead vocals, added new parts, etc. The result was a masterpiece for sure.
While I'm on that subject, while Thriller and Purple Rain may be the most famous albums by Prince and Michael, I think they had stronger albums. In my personal opinion, BAD is a stronger album than Thriller. I also find the Batman and Emancipation Prince albums to be stronger than Purple Rain. But that's my opinion.
Anyway, thanks for reading and let me know which album you like better in the comments.