After singing almost entirely in falsetto on his first few records, Prince let his entire vocal range shine on 1982’s 1999. Its closer, “International Lover,” is one of the tracks that displayed the whole Prince, from lower notes to the most piercing screams. Perhaps as a result, it earned him one of his first two Grammy nominations, for Best Male R&B Performance, although it lost to Michael Jackson‘s “Billie Jean.”
When Prince came up with the foundations of “International Lover,” he was working on material for the Time, a band made up of his Minneapolis compatriots who would later portray his adversaries in Purple Rain. Using the pseudonym Jamie Starr, he wrote, performed and co-produced all the music except for the lead vocals on their first two records and most of the third.
According to PrinceVault, “International Lover” stemmed from sessions for their second album, What Time Is It?, which turned out to be their breakthrough. It was recorded the same days as “The Walk” and a few days after the stylistically similar “Gigolos Get Lonely Too.” But he ultimately decided to keep it for himself, and it not only closed 1999, but also served as a b-side for European versions of the “Little Red Corvette” single.
Sonically, “International Lover” resembles “Do Me, Baby” from 1981’s Controversy. It oozes sexuality in equal measure to his previous ballads, but Prince’s approach to the subject matter is wittier here. The Detroit News’ Jim McFarlin summed up this transformation in a review of Prince’s 1999 Tour: “Sexual themes still possess Prince’s music and manner, but his brash depiction of them has been greatly sublimated,” McFarlin wrote during a six-night stand in Detroit. “He is showing a sensitive side for the first time in performance, smiling and joking easily, more seducer than cocksure exhibitionist.”
In a tongue-in-cheek extended metaphor, Prince beckons the song’s subject to board his plane, the Seduction 747, en route to a place called Satisfaction. Prince sells the concept with his sincere delivery. In the comprehensive book DanceMusicSexRomance, diligent Prince chronicler Per Nilsen even suggests that the song is about Prince using sex to “escape feelings of loneliness.” This might sound like a reach, but Prince really did bring out the sensitive side of the song during the piano rehearsal that makes up the posthumous Piano and a Microphone 1983 release.
The 1999 tour gave “International Lover” an extended appearance, where it served as the lead-in track to set closer “1999.” Prince stretched the pilot metaphor far beyond breaking point with additional spoken word segments, and his staging for the song went one step further. Per Nilsen, again: “The finale of ‘International Lover’ had Prince performing a striptease and humping in the bed, which arose from the top tier of the stage, silhouetted against blazing red blinds.”
Despite its blockbuster outing on the 1999 Tour, Prince rarely performed “International Lover” on subsequent tours. Instead, he would sometimes tease the audience with its first 30 seconds or so before moving onto something else. The song marks the point where his star had risen so much that, in a few years time, he would be jet-setting to tour stops around the world, truly as an international lover. But sadly, it appears he never named a private jet the Seduction 747.
This wouldn’t be the last time Prince wrote a song from one of his protegés before deciding to record it himself. In 1986 he took “Kiss” back from Mazarati, a short-lived group with whom Revolution bassist Brownmark was working. But this time, Prince won the Grammy for his efforts (Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in 1987).