Before there was Appollonia, Jill Jones or Shelia E there was Denise Katrina Matthews. Better known as Vanity with her girl group Vanity 6, she was Prince’s first major protege, or if you care to remember, Prince’s first public “girlfriend”. Vanity’s first project would basically be The Time backing a pair of dancers who included Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie.
While Vanity 6 was a one off (later to be known as Appollonia 6), it gave Prince fans some insight into his many creative personas. Those alter egos often required beautiful women to act as props for his pop oriented material.
Vanity 6 was a combination of Minneapolis funk with light new wave pop. Much of the album was a continuation of musical themes that either Prince established on 1999 or the Time on What Time Is It? Who sung, played or wrote the material became blurred as it seemed the entire Minneapolis funk camp contributed to the development of Vanity 6.
Morris Day (or was that Prince) provides his brand of humor and sass on “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)”. The song even features Vanity rapping. Writing credits extend to everyone from Dez Dickerson, Terry Lewis and Jessie Johnson to Prince himself. Of course no early ‘80s Minneapolis funk album was complete without some kind of new wave influence. Simple songs like “Drive Me Wild” were as much influenced by Kraftwerk as anyone from Prince’s camp.
In keeping with new wave’s infatuation with the ’50s, at least one song, the first single “He’s So Dull” uses the retro template. There were four singles from the album yet most people would be hard pressed to remember any of them except for the hit “Nasty Girl”.
The short choppy notes of “Nasty Girl” and its syncopation was reminiscent of Prince’s “Automatic” from 1999. Like most of the purple funk coming out of Minneapolis circa 1982, the songs were silly, if not downright dumb. Despite this, songs like “3×2=6” offered catchy melodies along with its funny lyrics.
The silliness aside, “Nasty Girl” previewed the kind of female empowerment that Madonna would bring to the pop charts a few years later. The ideal that a woman could openly use her sexuality to get what she wanted was not new in music, but never before had it been so raunchy and catchy. That might be lasting legacy of Denise Matthews and Vanity 6.
Some might dismiss Vanity 6 as a mere novelty based of beautiful stage performers. In reality, Vanity 6 like Appollonia 6 would allow Prince sandbox for his more mainstream pop ideals. What Vanity 6 might have lacked in singing ability, they more than made up in showmanship and opened the door to a string of Prince side projects and collaborations that were often interesting.
After Mathews made an notorious split from the Prince camp, she was replaced by Apollonia who filled the vacancy to short term fame staring opposite Prince in Purple Rain. Much of the style and some of the success followed Mathews however as she recorded two solo albums Wild Animal (1984) and Skin On Skin (1986). After that, she just dropped out of the limelight.
Denise Matthews had moved away from the image she curated under the guidance of Prince. She became a born again Christian and devoted her life to more spiritual enterprises (while renouncing her Nasty Girl past). Sadly she passed due to kidney failure in February of 2016. Her death may have rekindled some renewed interest in this long out of print recording. It was last re-issued in 1988 on CD and cassette. Hopefully it will re-released (maybe even re-mastered) as a digital download.
Today, everyone wants to be nasty or even vulger in the race to grab the fleeting attention of listeners in a fractured media world. What makes vintage raunch like Vanity 6 so appealing is that by today’s standards the trio of Matthews, Bennett and Moonsie put on a classy act.