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Review: Prince's “Don’t Play Me”

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


In 1998, after Prince finally got out of his contract with Warner Bros., he released a four-CD set named Crystal Ball (3 CDs of outtakes, one ‘bonus’ CD of new material).


That same year, Prince sat down for an interview with Black Entertainment Television’s Ed Gordon. During the interview, Gordon made mention of Crystal Ball and implied that its sales figures—at the time, around 100,000—must surely be a disappointment, especially when compared to the millions of copies of each release Prince had sold while at Warner Bros.


Prince hastened to disagree, explaining that while he received something on the order of 10% of $10.00 or so (the wholesale price of a new CD) under his contract with Warner Bros., he pocketed between 85% and 95% of the wholesale price of Crystal Ball, depending on how he sold it.


“You know how much Crystal Ball goes for?” Prince asked Gordon, who indicated that he did. (It was selling for around $50.00.) Then came a priceless moment where Gordon, having done the math in his head, realized that the little man sitting opposite him was in the process of cashing out what amounted to a winning lottery ticket, $40.00 at a time.


Seven years later, Crystal Ball had sold a million copies. That’s right, $40.00 times one million. Do the math on that.

Hidden in the hours’ worth of material on the Crystal Ball set, was a tune named “Don’t
Play Me. In a way, it’s Prince’s version of Al Green’s “Belle.” This was Prince’s farewell song to fame.


But Prince also had an ace in the hole - the internet. Prince knew, if he could only get full control of his name and his music, that he could make more money than he ever had before, even while his popularity remained at levels it hadn’t dipped to since back when he was a wide-eyed, afro-wearing guitar prodigy.

Listen to “Don’t Play Me” and you’ll hear none of the wistfulness of “Belle.” The latter tune sounds like Al Green recorded it with one eye on the Lord and the other still focused on everything he was leaving behind - the money, the women, the notoriety and the fame. On “Don’t Play Me,” Prince isn’t wistful.


       Musician Prince (L) performs onstage ... 

      Frazer Harrison, Getty Images North America

He’s pissed off. He’s also supremely confident…as you might be if hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world were insisting on Pay Pal’ing you $49.99 for something that cost you only a few dollars to make and only a couple more to ship.
“Don’t Play Me” is a series of accusations set to melody. It’s a list—all the reasons that, in Prince’s mind, his music doesn’t ‘get played’ on the radio anymore. There’s a double entendre at work too. For those not familiar with American slang, “don’t play me” means “don’t fuck with me.”


I’m over thirty and I don’t smoke weed
I put my ass away
I use proper English and I’m straight
I’m the wrong color and I play guitar


The thing is, while each accusation has the ring of truth, each also obscures Prince’s own complicity. Meaning, in order to “put [your] ass away,” wouldn’t you have to have been showing your ass in the first place? And wasn’t Prince always the wrong-colored guitar player?


And didn’t he used to intentionally play coy about both his indeterminate racial background and his ambiguous sexual orientation? And what’s with the underhanded knock on hip-hop? (“I don’t smoke weed”/“I use proper English.”) Didn’t Prince used to employ a rapper in his band and hasn’t he cut a few rap-influenced tracks himself?

That said, I know where Prince is coming from. The music industry makes the bulk of its money as a result of the efforts of the young and eager ‘developing artist.’ After all is said and done, those newbies often end up clearing pennies per CD sold.


The industry makes the least off of the older and wiser ‘mature artist,’ the ones with an established fan base and, more importantly, a history of being fucked by the industry. So when Prince says that he can’t get his records played on the radio because he’s old and he’s no longer willing to pimp himself, best believe it’s true.


Of course, Prince doesn’t mention one of the other reasons his songs don’t get played anymore—taken as a whole, they just aren’t as compelling as they used to be. One of the reasons for this is Prince can release anything he wants as often as he likes.


And in all likelihood, there’s always someone around who’s going to tell him that it sounds wonderful.


Hell, there might even be someone at Paisley Park whose job is to hang around the studio saying stuff like, “Boss, you sound great today.” In other words, there’s no quality control. And maybe there shouldn’t be. What’s wrong, Prince asks, with an artist recording whatever he wants to record whether it be hit-bound or not? Buy it if you want it, he argues. If you don’t want it, don’t buy it. Simple enough.


If your hardcore fan-base is a million strong and if you get to keep 90% of the profits, that business model can work for you. If, on the other hand, you’re getting pennies on the dollar, well…. Let’s just say you’re going to be needing that next hit.
If “Don’t Play Me” was just bitter, it wouldn’t be as telling a record as it is. But there’s more to the record.


Hidden between the accusations and recriminations are other reasons—maybe even the real reasons—that Prince was pulling away from the music industry. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” Prince sings, “And it ain’t what you say.” And, “You couldn’t pay enough now to make me feel like a star.”


The problem with fame is that it can give you everything you’ve ever wanted, but it can’t give you a damn thing you actually need.


It must be a cold and lonely feeling, to have every material item you’ve ever wanted and still feel like there’s something missing. It’s enough to drive you to drink. Or in Prince’s case, to God.


Near the end of “Don’t Play Me,” he drops this one on us: “The only fame is the light that comes from God and the joy you get to say His name.”


A couple years later, when it was announced that Prince had become a Jehovah’s Witness, I can’t say I was surprised.


Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.


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