Prince was already famous when Purple Rain was released, but that album put him in the company of giants almost instantly. After struggling for several years and getting no traction with mainstream radio (outside of his late-disco era single ”I Wanna Be Your Lover“) and even getting booed off the stage when opening for the Rolling Stones in 1981, Prince’s album 1999 finally achieved mainstream success, mostly due to the massive MTV airplay of the title track and ”Little Red Corvette”.
With that record, Prince finally had the mainstream success he worked so hard for, but for the then-26 year old, it wasn’t enough. While Michael Jackson had capped off the mega-success of Thriller with a ten minute short film for the title track, Prince would make sure his next album would have an accompanying full length feature film. And make no mistake–the movie was the cherry on top of the album, not the other way around–the album’s first single came out nearly three months before the movie did, and the album came out over a month before. It was a genius move-by the time crowds lined up to see the movie, they already knew all the songs. Purple Rain: The Movie was a giant commercial for the more important product-the music.
There are those who say that Purple Rain isn’t Prince’s greatest album; the usual recipient of that particular accolade is usually his 1987′s double album Sign O’ the Times. And from an objective point of view, they are probably right-Sign has more variety musically, it’s a little more daring and goes a little deeper than Purple Raindoes. But of the sixteen songs on that album…let’s face it, there are one or two that you skip over when you listen to it now. No such deal with Purple Rain; all nine songs are gems, all could have been singles, all are iconic. Track #6, the lascivious “Darling Nikki”, about a girl Prince encounters while masturbating with a magazine in a hotel lobby, so offended Al Gore’s wife Tipper when she heard her young daughters listening to it, that she started the PMRC-Parent’s Music Resource Center, the reason there was all those “explicit content” labels on all theawesome and nasty controversial CDs you had as a kid. My point being, even songs that weren’t singles reached the ears of angry parents. That was the power of Purple Rain.
Prince, at least back then, understood that Purple Rain was the kind of mega-success that happens only once in the career of any artist. Unlike his chief rival on the pop charts at the time, Michael Jackson, who spent five years trying to craft the next Thriller (Bad is a decent enough album, but it' no Thriller.) Prince just kept releasing new music every year, and didn’t try to top himself, at least commercially. Sure, none of the albums he released over the next decade following Purple Rain sold any where near what that album did (although by today’s standards they would all be considered mega-successes) but almost all had at least one iconic hit single come out of them, ”Rasberry Beret”, “Kiss”, “U Got the Look” and ”Diamonds and Pearls” just being a few of them.
Of course, the album’s greatest legacy is its own continued success; Purple Rain is regularly ranked among the greatest albums in popular music history. Time magazine ranked it the 15th greatest album of all time in 1993, and it placed 18th on VH1′s Greatest Rock and Roll Albums of All Time countdown. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the second-best album of the 1980s and 76th on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. To date, it’s sold twenty million copies.