While Prince had remained one of the most respected and innovative artists of the eighties, by the time that the decade had come to an end many felt that his glory days may be far behind him. Following the multi-platinum success of 1987’s Sign o’ the Times, he had been given carte blanche on what projects he could pursue next but after abandoning his highly-anticipated Black Album at the eleventh hour he instead turned his attention to the more mainstream Lovesexy as its successor. Yet his decision to provide the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s big budget adaptation of Batman would both open him up to a new audience and criticism from his devoted fanbase, a double-edged sword that would provide him with further success but in later years was viewed as an artistic failure. With its follow-up Graffiti Bridge doing little to convince the world that he hadn’t lost his magic tough the future of Prince seemed uncertain.
In the fall of 1991 Warner Bros. released his latest offering and the first with his new backing group the New Power Generation. More focused and inspired than his recent output, Diamonds and Pearls saw Prince conquer the charts once again with an array of hit singles that would include the explicit Get Off but by the time the dust had settled he had already commenced work on his next album. Entitled Ƭ̵̬̊, the unpronounceable symbol he would later temporarily adopt as his stage name, since would reunite in the studio with guitarist Levi Seance, Jr., keyboardist Tommy Barbarella and the rhythm section of Michael Bland and Sonny T., with contributions from actress Kirsty Allie and model Carmen Elektra. The sessions for the album took place during the promotion of Diamonds and Pearls at Prince’s private studio Paisley Park in his home state of Minnesota and much, like its predecessor, the first single to be released from Ƭ̵̬̊ would be a song that see Prince at his commercial best while provoking the public with sexually-charged lyrics.
Sexy MD was ostensibly a jam captured on tape that would showcase the tight musical arrangement of the New Power Generation, with each member given their moment to shine as their singer crooned, ‘You sexy motherfucker!’ Recorded during a single session in December 1991, barely a week after the release of the Diamonds and Pearls single, the song would draw heavily from Prince’s various musical influences, most notably swing and jazz and was the culmination of ideas brought together by Prince, Seance, Jr. and rapper Tony M. First performed in front of an audience at the Glam Slam in Minneapolis in January 1992, the song also featured a horn section from saxophonists Kathy Jensen and Brian Gallagher, trombone by Mike Nelson and trumpets courtesy of Dave Jensen and Steve Strand.
The music I make a lot of the time is reflective of the life I am leading
For many, Sexy MF represented an unusual departure even for such an unpredictable artist. ‘I was talking to Chris Rock and he said the same thing, ‘Every time you put out an album I think you’ve lost your mind,’ explained Prince to filmmaker Spike Lee. ‘The music I make a lot of the time is reflective of the life I am leading and Sexy MF came during the period I had at the Glam Slam disco and I was hanging out a lot. There was a dance troupe there and the sexier the dancers, the bigger the revenues and the nosier the crowd. It’s funny but you have to remember that was during the time when the biggest club song was Bitch Betta Have My Money. When you hear something constantly, you can get swayed by the current. I was swayed by hip hop at the time.’
Hip hop would have a considerable influence on Prince during the making of Sexy MF. Having initially evolved from disco in the early eighties, over the following decade hip hop had become a dominant force within the music industry through the commercial success of Run-DMC and Public Enemy but after the influence of N.W.A. the nineties would see the rise of gangsta rap, a subgenera that would gain notoriety for its often misogynistic lyrics and focus on scantily-clad women in the music videos. But at the time that prince entered the studio in late 1991 hip hop had yet to anger the masses and in recent months the American charts had seen hit singles from the likes of P.M. Dawn and 3rd Bass. While the song may have undoubtedly been sexual in nature, Prince would insist that this was never his intention. ‘People hear the sex in my songs much more than I ever write it. If you listen to the words in Sexy MF you’ll see they’re about monogamy rather than promiscuous sex,’ he told the Observer.
While Sexy MF would seem like a meticulously-crafter number that incorporated various styles and instruments, in truth the song came merely from a moment of inspiration that would take less than half an hour to record. ‘Levi was always joking around with some phrase he thought was funny. He’d start doing some simple little riff, stop and say the phrase. Sexy MF was like that,’ Barbarella recalled to Rolling Stone. ‘It was recorded in about twenty minutes, half an hour. I hated my organ solo in it. I wanted to make it better and fix it but Prince was like, ‘No, it’s fine, just leave it.’ He wanted that spontaneity with that band. If you compare it to the Revolution it was just a very different kind of band. Different kind of musicians and this band could actualise absolutely anything he envisioned. If it was in his head we could make it happen. I think he loved that for a while.’
Prince’s hip hop influence had already been felt in much of his earlier work, specifically the successful Gett Off single that had been released the previous year and once again he would incorporate rap into the song, performed by both himself and co-writer Tony M. ‘I’ve gotten criticism for the rap I’ve chosen to put in my past work,’ he would admit Interview Magazine in 1997. ‘But there again, it came during my friction years. If you notice, not a lot of stuff is incorporated into my sets now. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you hear the new remixes we are working on. On the rap tip though, it is an old style and I have always done it kind of differently…half sung, you know, like Irresistible Bitch and some of the other things I used to do.’
Released through Warner Bros. as the lead single from Ƭ̵̬̊, Sexy MF would understandably encounter controversy due to its profanity, prompting the song to only peak at number nineteen on the US R&B Billboard charts, It would, however, enjoy modest success in Britain where it claimed to number four and remained in the Top 40 for a further six weeks, providing him with his thirteenth UK Top 10 hit in the UK. And while MTV had been a necessary commodity in the music industry by this point he decided to avoid gaining the approval of the network. ‘Prince didn’t even bother submitting his video for Sexy MF, one of his best songs in years, to MTV and except for ‘pay’ video, like Video Jukebox or club play, neither the clip nor the song will probably ever be broadcast,’ claimed an article published by Spin.
In many ways both Sexy MF and Ƭ̵̬̊ could be described as the end of an era for Prince as, following the release of the overlooked Come in 1994, he embarked on a publicised legal battle with his record label that would ultimately result in the singer refusing to release material under the moniker of Prince. Despite enjoying success the following year with The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, his first UK number one, he would adopt the Ƭ̵̬̊ symbol as his new stage name, prompting his fans and the media to refer to him as Artist Formerly Known As. ‘I had searched deep within my heart and spirit and I wanted to Mae a change and move to a new plateau in my life,’ he confessed to CNN’s Larry King. ‘One of the things I did was change my name, it sort of divorced me from my past and all the hang-ups that go along with it.’