After passing a "studio test" with producers Gary Katz, Russ Titelman, and Ted Templeman, Prince signed a six-figure contract - one of the largest ever for a new artist.
Prince's debut album, For You, sold 150,000 copies and received a modicum of critical praise. "Soft And Wet/So Blue," the first single from For You, sold 350,000 copies and reached No. 12 on the R&B chart. Prince's third album, Dirty Mind, basically another one man show, started to make inroads with the pop audience, but didn't have a strong single and was a step back commercially from his second album, Prince. "When You Were Mine" is the surprise of the album - a punchy, melodic new wave tune that could have come from the Police (and they would have been happy to have it).
Dirty Mind was the artistic bridge between the Prince of the past and the one who became a superstar. Prince began to gain a reputation as a highly charismatic, if over the top, performer: he stalked the stage in bikini briefs and high heeled boots, simulating sex with his guitar and various band members. This behavior raised eyebrows and inspired his next album title.
Controversy is bright synth pop splashed with black dance rhythms. Prince's natural voice replaced much of the falsetto of previous albums. The title track is classic Prince that deals with the sexual, social and racial close-mindedness of the time with gospel intensity.
Controversy, released in October of '81, was created during a prolific time in Prince's career. In between Mind and Controversy, he put together a great funk group, The Time, which featured future production stars Jimmy "Jam" Harris (keyboards) and Terry Lewis (bass), Cynthia Johnson (original lead singer, who left to sing with Lipps, Inc. of "Funkytown" fame), guitarist Jesse Johnson (who went on to a solo career), and lead singer Morris Day (who sparred with Prince in the film Purple Rain, and had a solo hit with "Fishnet"). Though filled with raw talent, most of the magical moments on the Time’s first three albums were generated by Prince.
1999 is the Prince's masterpiece. The double-LP format gave him more
space to stretch out and he finally connected with the pop audience. Chock-full
of hits, the album's best include the apocalyptic "1999," with its chunky guitar riffs, anthemic melody and jubilant vocal. "Little Red Corvette," a musical comparison between the feminine mystique and a muscle car, succeeds on every level with the elegant tension of the verses answered by the flowing organs, pounding drums, orgasmic guitar and vocal ejaculations of Prince on the choruses.