27 Years Ago: Why ‘Carmen Electra’ Doesn’t Deserve All the Hate
In 1993, Carmen Electra drew withering scorn from Prince fans and dance music aficionados alike before sinking without a trace. But was it really the worst product ever released by a Prince protege?
The self-titled debut album by the actress, rapper, model and media personality formerly known as Tara Leigh Patrick, was produced, written and performed by Prince. The LP also received input from the New Power Generation, as well as a few co-writes by Anthony Mosley who performs as rapper Tony M.
Originally titled “On Top,” the disc was released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records label six months later than initially planned amid little-to-no fanfare. Despite big budget videos for singles “Go Go Dancer,” “Everybody Get on Up” and “Fantasia Erotica,” the album failed to chart.
By any metric, Carmen Electra was never going to make music in a similar vein to Prince protégés like Apollonia, Vanity, Sheila E., Jill Jones and Ingrid Chavez. Still, the fate of this collection of would-be dance-floor bangers proved particularly dire. The fact that Carmen Electra became the last release by Paisley Park Records, which folded shortly thereafter, can be seen as a fitting epitaph for the misbegotten platter. So let’s just accept that the high point of Prince’s creativity here was bestowing Ms. Patrick with her new electrifying moniker and leave her rapping and Prince’s backing tracks to the dustbin of hip-hop history, right?
Well, no. A quick spin around the internet reveals that many people don’t want to forget the album. In fact, they love to hate it.
In 2012 Spin published “The 50 Biggest White Girl Rap Moments of All Time,” where Ken Bachelor excoriated Electra’s titular debut: “A well-produced but…terrible album of Electra rapping and singing about pole dancing, club dancing, [and] partying.” Humor website i-mockery included Prince and Electra’s collaboration among “Albums That Sucked,” placing it among such august company as Fabio After Dark and Hulk Hogan and the Wrestling Boot Band. In 2016, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby ranked Carmen Electra dead last among Prince’s official, pseudonymous and protégé projects, with the cruel and misogynistic dismissal, “Prince’s… label basically became a way for him to get laid.”
Carmen Electra is far from an unsung classic, but neither is it an unmitigated disaster. Like many of Prince’s side projects, the music on the album is a hodgepodge of tracks and snippets set aside in various stages of development. While the bulk of the music was tracked from spring, 1991 to summer, 1992, Prince Vault reports that “Fantasia Erotica" was recorded in late 1989, with “Good Judy Girlfriend” dating back a year prior, and originally slated for Prince’s unreleased Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic album. If you want to be pedantic, “S.T.” features the oldest music on Electra’s self-titled debut. The song not only samples the Ohio Players' 1974 hit “Skin Tight," it also features the NPG playing bass and horn arrangements that hew quite closely to the Ohio Players’ instrumentation.
Prince’s protégé projects frequently indulged in experimentation, in effect creating a shadow discography where Prince could test out stylistic shifts and detours that he could bookmark for his future official releases. At other times, side projects could explore styles that Prince’s pop proclivities had left behind, like the jazz fusion of Madhouse, or the funk rock of Mazarati.
Carmen Electra takes two concurrent paths. One route is experimental, like the minimalist electro-funk of “Step to the Mic,” the herky-jerky collision of new jack swing and video game bleeps of “Good Judy Girlfriend,” and three brief impressionist segues that feature in order: random horn snippets that sound like outtakes from Prince’s 1987 tune “Adore,” someone spinning a radio dial past fragments of Prince related projects circa 1992-93 and eleven seconds of chatter about the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The other course charted on the album is impeccably produced, commercially minded early '90s dance tracks, complete with all the clichés of the genre: washes of scratches, razor tooth orchestral stabs, backwards drums, reverberating high hats and enough heavy breathing to fog the windows of a commercial greenhouse.
“Go Go Dancer,” the advance single recorded in late 1991 and released on June 18, 1992, exemplifies this approach. Amid the clutter of Brazilian carnival whistles, crowd noises and squelchy coils of synthesizer, Electra taunts, “In the back of my mind, an animalistic ritual!” Then Prince’s guitar emerges from the claustrophobic production to steal the show. His solo, warped, slurred and backward tracked like Adrian Belew’s 1980s work with King Crimson is so good it overshadows Electra’s rapping.
To give Electra her due, the rapping is entirely credible if lacking in spontaneity. Her enunciation is perfect and her timing is impeccable, less an erotic sex machine than an unseasoned performer doing her damnedest. Given Prince’s known perfectionist’s propensity, it’s safe to assume he pushed Electra to nail the raps. She gives it her all, coming across as hard working and well-rehearsed.
The problem is that Carmen Electra bets the farm on these dancehall bangers. There are too many of them and none work as well as “Go Go Dancer.” Electra’s rapping, earnest and likable at first, gets tiring with repetition. She’s going for tough, bawdy and street, but by the time she’s finished spitting rhymes through “Step to the Mic,” “Everybody Get on Up" and the thicket of James Brown samples on “Go On (Witcha Bad Self)," Electra resembles a snotty and bratty twelve-year old trying to act worldly beyond her years. A few hard dance tracks would have been effective. Half an album's worth grows grating.
Despite the cringe-worthy couplet, “Speak American, no! Speak Carmenese!,” “Fantasia Erotica” is an improvement. Over a thumping disco kick drum and weirdly buzzing sound effects, Electra sings rather than raps, and carries an engaging funky pop melody. It’s a credible, breathy and seductive disco diva performance, marred only by nasal interpolations of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” that seem to be shooting for Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” come on, but land closer to Ethel Merman’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” bellow.
Counterintuitively, it’s the weird bits on Carmen Electra that work best. While the pounding dance tracks turn to tough sledding, the three segues are short enough to be mysterious and intriguing. Similarly, the succinct singsong track “Fun” is like a fresh tropical breeze as Electra makes, well, fun of the sexy image that the rest of the record works too hard to establish.
“All That” goes completely off the dance music script, delivering sexy soul jazz with surging, coiling horn charts. It’s here that the album becomes a great Prince and the NPG record, featuring a sensuous and beguiling vocalist. Amid shuffling drums and plangent electric piano, Electra’s vocals dovetail from breathy whisper to sexy purr. It’s the best song on the album.
Still, despite the best efforts by Prince, the NPG and Electra herself, the record stiffed. Prince and the titular artist eventually broke up as a couple, but seemed to stay on good terms. Electra, who seemed mannered on her debut album, grew more comfortable in her skin, recording tunes like 2012’s “Werq” and the 2013 Billboard dance chart entry “I Like it Loud,” dance anthems far more catchy and tuneful than anything on Carmen Electra.
With more experimentation, Electra’s debut album could have been a cult gem, the kind of disc where Prince fans could dig for hidden clues and ask perhaps unanswerable questions. Instead Carmen Electra got buried in claustrophobic beats, repetitive would-be edgy rapping and more string stabs than the shower scene in Psycho.