(May 17, 2024).  Much has been made about this year’s musical battle between Kendrick Lamar and Drake, with Kendrick’s diss track “Not Like Us” seemingly tipping the scales (and public opinion) in his favor with its No. 1 debut on this week’s Hot 100 chart.

It certainly has the feel of a game-changer with K.Dot clearly beating the very chart-conscious Drake at his own game by coming up with a banger molded in Drizzy’s musical image — one that will have clubs and stadiums (and TikTok) amped for months to come.  Based on early numbers, “Not Like Us” is projected to become Kung Fu Kenny’s biggest hit yet.

But maybe that new chart topper is a case of history repeating itself on popular music’s biggest stage involving two of Black music’s biggest male stars of their day.  

Forty years ago this week (on May 16, 1984), Prince released “When Doves Cry” — itself a game changer that flipped the charts in his Purple Majesty’s favor and would become the biggest Billboard hit of his career.

“When Doves Cry” by Prince spent 5 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 (and 8 wks atop the soul chart) in 1984

“Doves” was Prince’s musical shot heard around the globe that let America and the world know there was enough room for not just one but two young, Black prodigious megastars to dominate popular culture.

In fact, in 1984 Prince and Michael Jackson — the other prodigy — were men at the very top of their games who, by year’s end, had recorded the two most talked-about albums by Black musicians of a generation.  And while their rivalry was mostly imaginary — at least as far as we understood it at the time — “When Doves Cry” was the ‘80s equivalent of the more critically acclaimed musician (like today’s Kendrick) stepping into the more commercially successful artist’s (Drake’s) lane… and owning it.

Read also: What were Prince’s 57 greatest songs?

Prince — the multi-instrumentalist who’d written, produced, and played on all of his own music — had already won the hearts and pens of diehard fans and critics with his earlier albums and singles, including 1999Dirty Mind and Controversy.

While those LPs weren’t slouches commercially, particularly among Black fans, none of them had equaled the sales success of MJ’s Thriller or even his Off the Wall before that.  Indeed, by the beginning of 1984, Thriller had already sold more copies than all five of Prince’s earlier albums combined!

But “Doves” changed all that.  It was the musical bright line dividing one man’s dominance of the year’s first half and the other’s ubiquity during the second.  Michael Jackson had indeed ruled the first half of 1984 with the then-18-month-old Thriller.  That iconic album had spent the first 16 weeks of ‘84 lodged at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was still in the top three when Prince released “Doves” in May. 

By the end of the year, however, the album from which “Doves” took flight — the Purple Rain soundtrack — would spend the last 22 weeks of 1984 at No. 1 (and the first two weeks of 1985 there as well), culminating a year in which music’s two 26-year-old Black phenoms combined for a total 38 of the year’s 52 weeks at the top… bookending the calendar, no less.

Call it a case of Prince finishing the 1984 charts where Michael had started.

But Prince was also going artistically where no other Black musician, including Michael, had gone previously.  Not only was he preparing to take over pop music with “Doves” and, later, the other singles from Purple Rain, but he was unleashing the motion picture as well — a musical spectacle loosely based on his life that would top the box office and turn its lead actor into a multimedia sensation. 

In what was a crucial setup for the movie that would become the most successful Black-oriented film at the box office to that point in history, “When Doves Cry” was a master stroke of timing — even if unintentionally so — coming in the wake of the phenomenal run at No. 1 by Jackson’s Thriller (and exactly one week after the last of that blockbuster’s singles — the title track — had vanished from the charts).

Jackson had indeed knocked down previous barriers and paved the way for artists like Prince to realize greater commercial success, even creating a blueprint for other Black musicians to follow with strategically planned, pop-sensible singles (and eye-popping videos) that would appeal to the masses. 

Except, unlike Thriller and MJ, Prince had dispatched any notion of a soft entry á la the intentionally pop “The Girl Is Mine,” the schmaltzy, first Thriller single featuring ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.  Instead, Purple Rain’s introduction came via the deceptively emotional, yet uptempo “Doves,” a provocative musical gamble that bet its success on a sparse, mostly chord-free arrangement (sans bass) and a metaphorical lyric that would have everyone asking exactly what does it sound like when doves cry.

While it was closer to Michael’s more polished, accessible stuff than almost anything Prince had done previously, “Doves” still retained some of its artist’s edginess with its distinctive syncopated snare- and kick-drum rhythm powered by the Linn LM-1 drum machine (a favorite of Prince’s at the time), and synth chords — finally added in during the song’s third chorus — that, not unlike the haunting melody of “Billie Jean,” gave “Doves” an ethereal quality. 

It was a gamble well-played though.  “Doves” entered the Billboard Hot 100 during the week ending June 2 at a respectable (for the time) No. 57 and was at No. 1 just five weeks later… back when songs had to actually climb to the top to get there. 

Those six weeks were the fastest any single had risen to No. 1 in more than five years (equaling the pace of Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” in December 1978).  It even one-upped Jackson’s signature smash “Billie Jean,” which took seven weeks to reach No. 1 the year before.

What’s more, the crossover success of “Doves” (the song also topped the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs — then called Black Singles — chart for eight weeks) proved that, like Michael, Prince could coexist at the top of both worlds.

The song’s immense popularity and Prince’s burgeoning stardom created wild anticipation for the Purple Rain album and movie, the latter of which blended autobiographical elements with a dramatic, musical narrative.

The film’s late-summer success was unprecedented, grossing over $70 million in the United States and introducing Prince’s multifaceted talent to a wider audience. Purple Rain not only showcased its star as a musical genius — something his earlier Black audience already knew — but also as a compelling actor and storyteller, breaking new ground for Black representation in Hollywood.

Prince’s “When Doves Cry” had indeed revolutionized the music landscape. The song’s innovative sound combined with the Purple One’s emotional range (contrast where he starts the song vocally to where he ends it) showed the world that Black artists could transcend traditional genres and expectations.  His ability to blend rock, pop, and funk into a unique style opened doors for many young Black musicians who aspired to break away from conventional R&B and other norms. (Think future ‘80s acts like Ready for the World, The Family and others.)

By 1984’s end, “When Doves Cry” was named the year’s top single on both the pop and the Black music charts in Billboard, a feat Jackson had narrowly missed in 1983 when his biggest hit “Billie Jean” finished runner-up on both lists (to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” respectively).

More Prince-related reading: My visit to Paisley Park Studios exactly one year after the Purple One’s death there

Indeed the release of “When Doves Cry” may have unwittingly intensified what had previously been just a perceived rivalry between Jackson and Prince, two of the biggest musical icons of the 1980s.

In an era before Kendrick Lamar and Drake were even born and when the main prior musical beefs were of the Lennon vs. McCartney variety (and, to a much lesser degree within the Black community, maybe the very unheralded “Roxanne” hip-hop wars), MJ vs. Prince was a largely fan/media-concocted battle, triggered more by the artists’ similarities (and our own allegiances) than their differences: both men were born just months apart in 1958, both were diminutive in stature, both eschewed cultural norms about masculinity.

Both were musical and entertainment geniuses.

Yet, unlike today’s two principles Kendrick and Drake, neither Michael nor Prince — to this blogger’s knowledge — ever traded musical disses about the other (although Prince later famously turned down an offer to be the King of Pop’s duet partner — and antagonist in the music video — for the 1987 song “Bad”).

Still, “When Doves Cry” bears cultural similarities to Kendrick’s “Not Like Us.”  Before “Doves,” the Black dance/pop landscape had largely been Michael’s domain, much like Drake undisputedly owns the charts today.  Sure, other established Black male acts like Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and Ray Parker, Jr. were also having big pop success in the years leading up to and including ‘84, but none of those men had generated the kind of next-level excitement Prince did with “Doves.”  And no one would look at the “Little Red Corvette” singer the same afterwards (similar to the way Kendrick is being discussed today in the wake of his rap battle victory).

Ultimately, “When Doves Cry” catapulted Prince from an American soul (and upstart pop) chart phenomenon to a global superstar. Its success marked a pivotal moment in his career, transforming him into a household name and solidifying his place in pop music history. The song’s influence extended far beyond the charts, as it left an indelible mark on the music industry and popular culture as a whole.

Prince followed “When Doves Cry” with the more rock-leaning “Let’s Go Crazy,” much like Michael had followed “Billie Jean” with “Beat It” in ‘83. Like those predecessors, “Crazy,” which was billed as Prince and his band The Revolution, would top the soul and pop charts, too, giving Prince the double-double that Jackson had achieved earlier.

As far as the rivalry went, “When Doves Cry” certainly didn’t wipe MJ from the map, much like Kenny’s “Not Like Us” won’t spell the end of Drake’s ubiquity on the charts.

But “Doves” did add the Minneapolis legend to a discussion and debate that continues to this day about which artist was better (one that even Drake and Kendrick analogously invoked in their ongoing rap feud).  “Not Like Us” has done the same for Kendrick, whose name is likely permanently etched in the discussion for rap’s GOAT after his Goliath-slaying diss tracks this year.

The full impact of this year’s rap battle won’t likely be known for years, but today we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the true game-changer that was (and still is) “When Doves Cry.”

”When Doves Cry” – Prince (the long version)


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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By DJ Rob

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