Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Neverending Debate: MJ vs. Prince

It started on Facebook yesterday when I posted as a status that as much as I love MJ, I feel that Prince is the greatest musical genius of the past 30 years. I got great feedback from my friends on there, including my cousin, and inspired me to try to tackle one of the hardest debates ever.

Who was better: Michael Jackson or Prince. For years I thought this was one-sided and now, I'm not so sure. I won't answer the question but I'll just create some talking points based on what I know about their careers.

First let's get this out of the way. Over the last 30 years, few artists have had the musical influence that both have had. It astonishes me that both were born in 1958 and before they were 30, they produced some of the greatest music ever. Maybe because I'm now starting to reach the same age they were in their prime, it's mindboggling what these guys did.

MJ has his imitators (Usher, Justin Timberlake), Prince has his (D'Angelo, The-Dream). They both changed the sound of R&B and pop music - MJ gave it polish and edge, Prince gave it rawness and creativity. And I say imitators with respect to how they carried on the legacy.

Both of them studied James Brown/Jackie Wilson and other greats and meshed their own style with that. MJ was influenced by the legends of Motown around him, Prince by his father's jazz background and the various funk bands of the 70's. Both were/are incredible showmen that are some of the best live acts music has produced.

So now let's break down the argument. I'm not the best judge on both careers but I'm gonna try based on what I know.

PRIME (1979-1993)

Both Mike and Prince made a splash in 1979 ("Off the Wall" album and "I wanna be your Lover" single). That started off them owning the 1980's and making some New Jack swing albums in the early 1990's.

(If you want, you can argue that Prince helped influence New Jack Swing. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis co-wrote some of the biggest NJS hits of the day and they were former members of The Time - the greatest Prince affiliate ever.)

Prince made more albums, MJ had more hits. You can argue that MJ didn't make any missteps during this point except maybe his own stardom and making each album an event. Some of Prince's albums aren't good from this time but just when relevance passed him by, he rediscovered it.

What may give Prince an edge here is that he didn't just promote his career, he promoted other people as well. During this time, he wrote hits for Morris Day & The Time, the Bangles, Sheila E. and others (not to mention Chaka Khan and Sinead O'Connor covering his songs to No. 1 on the charts).

But then again, Michael Jackson only became the biggest star on the planet, reunited with his brothers, introduced the moonwalk, had the biggest selling album ever, performed at the Super Bowl and broke down racial barriers on MTV and co-wrote one of the biggest selling singles ever ("We Are The World") which also raised money for charity. Tough call, and we haven't even broken down their own music.


Michael Jackson changed R&B forever with "Off the Wall" - a mix of dance songs, ballads and maturity that set the stage for what he'd do with Thriller. Thriller changed music forever because of great songs, great videos, outstanding production, and a perfect storm that had been building since he was in the Jackson 5.

There isn't enough room to describe how great this album is. Still remember the excitement of buying it in 2002. The 20th anniversary edition.

I loved Bad for the hits and Dangerous because I grew up with it - but critics say they weren't as good as the first two. Whatever man. Bad had 5 No. 1 hit singles (most ever on 1 album) not counting Smooth Criminal. Dangerous was a great New Jack Swing album with Teddy Riley that still crossed genres and showcased his stellar writing.

Invincible was pretty much an album people loved or hated. A comeback that made waves but didn't have many hits that impacted the radio. But Butterflies was a great R&B jam.

It would take way too long to list all of Prince's albums. To me his downfall was doing too much instead of quality control. But his significant ones to me are Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, Sign O' The Times, Diamonds and Pearls, Love Symbol, and Musicology.

Dirty Mind and 1999 made Prince a star before Thriller came out. Purple Rain was his "Thriller" - one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever. A mix of funk, rock, R&B, computerized love and angst that made him a superstar.

Sign O'The Times was a risk because he fired The Revolution and did it all himself. One of the great double albums ever - it crossed so many genres (jazz, R&B, rock, pop, 50's pop, funk), lyrically hit on many issues of romance and the issues of the day. An underrated classic IMO.

Diamonds and Pearls/Love Symbol were great New Jack Swing albums and like MJ, it showed how he could update with the times and still be unique. And Musicology to me was a great comeback album that showed him aging well and still being able to make music that hit the masses.

If you use Rolling Stone's barometer of their 500 Greatest Albums list. Prince has 4 on there and MJ has 3. Dangerous to me >>>>> Diamonds and Pearls/Love Symbol (the songs on Dangerous hold up better in my opinion although I love Gett Off, Sexy MF, Diamonds and Pearls). But Musicology >>>> Invincible as far as a better comeback album.

Thriller and Purple Rain are even. Off The Wall and 1999 are too. So you're left with Bad vs. Dirty Mind and Sign O' The Times. Not a bad debate to break down in depth one day (and I forgot about Prince's Black Album)


Let's accept that "Billie Jean" is Michael Jackson's most critically acclaimed single. Let's accept that "When Doves Cry" is Prince's most critically acclaimed single. You want to break those songs down, be my guest.

Take MJ's best 10 singles and put them up against Prince's? Let's just pick 10 hypothetically.

MJ: Billie Jean, Beat It, Off The Wall, Bad, Smooth Criminal, Human Nature, Man In The Mirror, Don't Stop Til You Get Enough, Black or White, Heal The World

Prince: When Doves Cry, 1999, Kiss, U Got The Look, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Little Red Corvette, Let's Go Crazy, Raspberry Beret, Gett Off, Sexy MF

Some of the best R&B/pop of the last 30 years. Think about how many songs I didn't include. (MJ: Dirty Diana (my fave), Rock With You - Prince: If I Was Ur Girlfriend, I Would Die 4 U).

Prince's songs span more genres, Michael's made you dance and think. Prince's introspection pre-Musicology (Strange Relationship, Sign O'The Times) doesn't get as much credit just like MJ's ballads (Break of Dawn, Lady In My Life) probably don't.


Prince - his guitar playing. We all know about his virtuoso musicianship and sometimes that overlooks how he can hold his own with some of the best. Listen to his solos on "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", "Little Red Corvette" and especially The Time's "777-9311" if you don't believe me. He owned "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" when he was inducted into the Rock'N Roll Hall of Fame. I won't dare say Prince is one of the greatest guitarists of the last 30 years but he can shred with anybody to prove that he can play.

Michael Jackson - his songwriting. This was rediscovered in depth after his passing but MJ had the ability to write on a range of topics. For all of his superstardom, he never lost that ability to see beyond himself to write about the world around him as well as within. I watched the Jacksons "American Dream" and I saw a point where MJ said he had stories that he wanted to tell away from his brothers. Safe to say he brought us closer to him and I can't say this enough - he WROTE AND PRODUCED "Billie Jean" himself.

I can go on and on breaking this down but let's face it - this blog has already gone on long enough and I've made my point. Prince might be the greatest musical genius of the past 30 years but Michael was the greatest entertainer in that time period. Both of them are icons and while MJ has passed us on, let's appreciate Prince while he is making more accessible, grown folks music.

Makes me wonder what if they actually did collaborate on "Bad" - a dream we'll never know. But here's a treat I found on Youtube last year


  1. What can I say Evan, you have successfully made me think yet again...Though I will say I am and always will be an MJ fan, you gave me a lot to look into about Prince and his music, because to be perfectly honest of all of the songs of his you listed, I know two of them, and thats just barely. So thank you for giving me some new music to check out and mull over. Amazing writing as always.


  2. Thanks Amber :) I got turned on to Prince late myself - bought Musicology in 2004, greatest hits CD in 2005 and then Sign O'The Times in DC later that year. I'd recommend The Very Best of Prince or Ultimate Prince as a start to dig into his music.

    You can love both and be cool. I just have a wide appreciation for Prince now after loving MJ for so long.

  3. I agree with your comment that MJ was the best Entertainer and Prince was the best "musical genius".

    I often think Prince is overlooked when it comes to people talking about the best musicians of the past few decades. I am a huge fan of his (and MJ as well)... I definitely think MJ had a bigger world-wide impact as an entertainer/performer/public character, but Prince had a big role in shaping the music we heard over the past few decades.

    I think Prince had a bigger musical impact with his proteges and affiliations to other bands in the 80s/90s, his music videos were just as fierce as MJ's, his ability to make a splash with his overtly sexual image... plus I love dancing with the hand signs on I Would Die 4 U lol

    MJ, by the mid-90s, was just known for his personality, plastic surgery, family, and court cases. Though I loved "Butterflies" off his Invincible album, it didn't hit like "Musicology" for sure.

    Whatever. I totally agree with you. I love them both, but I used to want to be Mrs. "Symbol" when I was a kid lol

    1. idk i would say mj had a major mark imo in up to 4 decades i think invicinble had more airplay and video play

    2. idk i would say mj had a major mark imo in up to 4 decades i think invicinble had more airplay and video play

  4. Prince is definitely overlooked. Consider this. Janet Jackson doesn't have a legendary career without Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis, both of whom were Prince proteges.

    When Musicology dropped and he was inducted in the Rock N Roll HOF, thats when people realized that for all his craziness and narcissism - he was a genius and a showman on par with anybody.

    Prince had his "Thriller", but could MJ make an album like "Sign O'The Times"? It doesn't take away from MJ's greatness and uniqueness but it shows even more why Prince musically was one of a kind.

    Hahaha Mrs. Symbol. I would've loved to been around you then