Prince Refuses to Play it Safe With ‘Sexy MF': 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.
Prince reclaimed commercial momentum on 1991's multi-platinum Diamonds and Pearls and – as was so often the case – then decided to swerve sharply away from the middle of the road.
He could have (maybe even should have) played it safe. Instead, Prince's follow up would notably include a series of live studio sessions, take an unpronounceable glyph for its title and feature an advance single nobody could play on the radio. Dubbed the Love Symbol Album, it sold roughly half as many copies in the U.S., and finished two spots further back on the Billboard charts.
Leading off with "Sexy MF," a raunchy James Brown-inspired romp which grew out of a pet phrase by guitarist Levi Seacer, didn't help. The song, which arrived on June 30, 1992 while Prince was still out on the road in support of Diamonds and Pearls, was never destined to do anything on the charts – not with dozens of iterations of "sexy motherf---er" sprinkled throughout the song.
No, the point seemed to about proving that Prince could still push boundaries, even within the context of his first must-listen party track since 1987's "Housequake."
He focused on capturing an old-school first-take feel, even while adding a modern hip-hop element from Tony M, then stepped back so that the New Power Generation – a band that had significantly toughened up on the road – could play with newfound wit and style. "Sexy MF" ended up as something diametrically opposed to the polished but sometimes strikingly conservative Diamonds and Pearls.
"It was recorded in about 20 minutes, half an hour," keyboardist Tommy Barbarella told Rolling Stone in 2016. "I hated my organ solo on 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."
Using a cryptic symbol as the album title – the same one he'd later legally adopt as his own name the following summer – wasn't the only hint of what was to come. As "Sexy MF" (predictably) stalled out at No. 66 on the Billboard singles charts, Prince seemed to be taunting Warner Bros. – despite having just signed a lucrative new deal.
Prince shot a video, which features a illegal-card game raid, a gun with a microphone instead of a barrel, a menage a quatre dream sequence and a banana-yellow BMW, but never submitted it to MTV for air. Instead, in a tip of the hat to his looming turn toward the indie model, Prince sold a 10-minute extended cut directly to fans for $9.95.
He had engineer Tom Garneau create a clean version; they used an Akai S1100 Sampler to replace "every instance of the word 'f---er' with a Prince scream," Garneau said in Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks. Prince then leaked the song directly to clubs and radio stations, bypassing the traditional channels completely.
What they heard was an artist unafraid to celebrate his roots while still taking chances – both creatively and personally. Even this late in his career, even after a notable chart rebound, Prince remained ... well, Prince.
He would occasionally work with the New Power Generation, in one form or another, through 2015's HITnRUN Phase Two, his final official release. But "Sexy MF," as visceral and funky as anything Prince ever did, remains one of their collaborative high points.
"If you compare it to the Revolution, it was just a very different kind of band – different kind of musicians – and this band could actualize absolutely anything he envisioned," Barbarella added. "If it was in his head, we could make it happen. I think he loved that for a while. I'm very proud of how tight we were. In 'Sexy MF,' everyone was sure there was a James Brown loop tucked in there. 'Well, there's loops in there, right?' 'Nope.'"
Prince Year by Year: 1977-2016 Photographs