The legacy of Vanity 6 remains secure.
Prince’s 1999 is rightfully considered a milestone in ‘80s pop music. The artist’s first double album, it spawned two Top 10 pop hits (plus one Top 15) and kickstarted the crossover that culminated in 1984’s diamond-selling Purple Rain. Such is the album’s reputation, in fact, that it has more or less entirely overshadowed two other Prince-related projects released earlier in 1982: What Time is It?, the second album by his hard-funk spin-off project the Time; and Vanity 6, the first—and, it turned out, only—album by the eponymous girl group.
There are reasons why Vanity 6 isn’t as well-remembered as its big purple sibling. The album is slim: both in quantity, at only eight songs and just over 31 minutes, and to some extent in quality. With the exception of the sole hit single, “Nasty Girl,” there are no bona fide classics here; nothing to compare with the Time’s “777-9311,” let alone Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” And with their soft porn aesthetic and less-is-more stage attire, the group seemed deliberately conceived to be treated as trashy and disposable—which they were, meeting with catcalls from audiences and scathing reviews from critics when they debuted as the opening act on Prince’s 1999 tour.
But despite (or because of) these tawdry origins, Vanity 6 remains a minor treasure in Prince’s expanded discography. The songs, while disposable at first glance, included some of the producer’s most daring arrangements to date—particularly the stripped-to-the-chassis proto-techno of “Drive Me Wild” and “Make-Up”—as well as a few shoulda-been hits: notably “Wet Dream,” a lusty synthpop confection that predicted Like a Virgin-era Madonna, and “He’s So Dull,” a dead ringer for the retro-flavored New Wave of contemporary groups like the Go-Go’s. Then, of course, there’s “Nasty Girl”: a strong contender for the most sonically influential Prince song of the era, its perfect crystallization of the Minneapolis Sound has spawned a good half a dozen beats in Pharrell’s discography alone.
While the whole of Vanity 6 doesn’t necessarily exceed the sum of these parts, the album has an enduring camp appeal. Of the three members of the group—the “6,” of course, being a reference to their combined number of breasts—only one, Brenda Bennett, had professional singing experience: Susan Moonsie, who robotically speak-sings the electronic tracks, was Prince’s off-and-on girlfriend; while Vanity herself, née Denise Matthews, was a former pageant model and B-movie actress from Ontario. This gives Vanity 6 a quality of spunky amateurishness that outweighs the cynicism (not to mention sexism) of their premise. Vanity’s vocals on closing ballad “3 x 2 = 6” sound like an endearingly earnest karaoke performance; and on the funky “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up),” even Prince gets in on the fun, making an uncredited cameo as a rival for Vanity’s boyfriend’s affections who trades barbs with the girls over the phone.
Indeed, it’s the camp qualities of Vanity 6 that seem most ripe for rediscovery by contemporary audiences. From the outrageous back-and-forth between Prince, Vanity and Brenda on “If a Girl Answers” to the frontwoman’s purred request for “seven inches or more” on “Nasty Girl,” these songs are begging for reinterpretation by some aspiring drag queen. And of course, it’s worth noting that the album itself is a kind of drag performance: Prince writing his own larger-than-life persona into female form, adding some much-needed complexity to a group that was widely viewed as a crass T&A act at the time.
Unfortunately, for all its charms, Vanity 6 seems doomed to languish in obscurity. The album has been out of print since the ‘90s, and isn’t offered through any of the major streaming services: the wide availability of individual song rips on YouTube, while convenient, doesn’t suggest that Warner Bros. is interested in maintaining its intellectual property. Maybe things will change after this summer’s release of the posthumous Originals compilation, which is set to include Prince’s demo version of the group’s “Make-Up”; more likely, however, Vanity 6 will maintain its small cult audience and that will be that.
But whatever happens to the album itself, the legacy of Vanity 6 remains secure. From Megan Thee Stallion to Cupcakke to Cardi B, today’s pop music landscape is full of “nasty” girls, most of whom are earning the critical plaudits Vanity and company never could. Wherever there are young women singing disarmingly raunchy lyrics in revealing lingerie, we have Vanity 6 to thank; it’s their own little nasty world, and we’re just living in it.