“DARLING NIKKI” IS A SONG about sex, but that’s not saying much, because all Prince songs are about sex. His second full album, Dirty Mind, was once described to me as the confessions of a sex addict set to a fusion of R&B and New Wave. 1999 is subversively raunchy; the title track is an R-rated twist on the Biblical “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die” motif, and I’m pretty sure the eponymous “little red Corvette” is a vagina. Purple Rain picks up where 1999 leaves off, with orgies and apocalypse. I can think of no possible meaning for “look for the purple banana till they put us in the truck” other than a colorful euphemism for “fuck until we die,” with said bruise-hued fruit a reference to his hard-on. You get the idea. Dude can sing all he wants about the color purple, but when it comes to sex, but The Artist Formerly Known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is anything but a shrinking violet.
But “Darling Nikki” feels different somehow. Couched in the singsong melody line and the ironical adjective attached to her name—how on earth is Nikki darling?—is a tale of a sexual encounter so devastating, so unprecedented, that even the guy who wrote about the ready-to-roar lion is his pocket has a hard time articulating what exactly went down. He’s fond of euphemisms, our Prince, but in “Nikki,” he’s not being playful as much as evading the awful truth.
Let me correct myself. As I read it, “Darling Nikki” is not about sex, per se, but about S&M. Nikki is a professional Dominatrix, a notoriously sadistic one. Prince (or, rather, the narrator) meets her, enlists her services, and spends an unforgettable night at her mercy. Then, because he’s Prince, they also shag. For this song, which is not terribly long, it’s best to parse each line:
I knew a girl named Nikki
“Knew” as in “was acquainted with,” but also in the Biblical sense, meaning they had sex.
I guess you can say she was a sex fiend
He’s struggling with the right words to describe what exactly she is, and this is the best he can come up with. “Fiend” here indicates a literal cacodaemon, one of Satan’s minions.
Met her in a hotel lobby
This suggests, first, that he’s on tour, or otherwise in town for a short period of time, and second, that she is a professional, professionals being known to meet clients in hotel lobbies for obvious reasons, although I’m not convinced she is a prostitute, as some have claimed.
Masturbating with a magazine
A strange choice of words. Why is it with a magazine, rather than to? Is it a magazine as in Hustler or Penthouse, or a gun magazine? Is it being used for visual or manual stimulation? And who is masturbating, Nikki or Prince?
She said, “How’d you like to waste some time?”
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
Here we have the first physical description of our sex fiend. She’s tiny! And the whole song hinges on the meaning of the cryptic word “grind.” Our first inclination is to write it off as a synonym of “fuck.” But it’s clearly not that. He sees her grind, maybe on videotape back in his room, maybe in still photos in the masturbatory magazine, and then is moved to hire her. Is he watching her have sex? Dance? Twerk? What? I move that “grind” is a euphemism not for intercourse, but for the various and exquisite tortures she inflicts on her charges.
She took me to her castle
I just couldn’t believe my eyes
She had so many devices
Every thing that money can buy
“Castle” is her place of employ, her own private dungeon, elegantly arrayed with pricey sex toys.
She said, “Sign your name on the dotted line”
Possibly a credit card receipt, but more likely a legal waiver, indemnifying Nikki of any damages caused during the session. That she requires this is cause for concern.
The lights went out, and Nikki started to grind
Again, it’s not Nikki and Prince who start to grind; it’s just Nikki. She’s the active participant here. He is the submissive, a mere foil for her torment.
The castle started spinning
Or maybe it was my brain
Prince has entered “sub-space.”
I can’t tell you what she did to me
Can’t, as in he doesn’t know, because it was dark, and he was likely blindfolded? Or won’t, because it’s too much even for Prince, the crowned prince of full disclosure, to disclose?
But my body will never be the same
This is why he had to sign that waiver. Does he have welts on his back? A brand on his buttock? A tattoo? Or did she just make him write SLAVE on his cheek?
Her lovin’ will kick your behind
She’ll show you no mercy
But she’ll show you how to grind
Self-explanatory based on what we know so far. Note that he never once says he regrets it.
And I think what happens now is, the session ends, and all the “grinding” has had an aphrodisiac effect on both Nikki and Prince, so they repair to his hotel room, a change of setting indicated by the musical interlude. When he says darling Nikki, the only time in the song he uses that word, that’s when they are having old-fashioned, non-BDSM sex.
Woke up the next morning
Nikki isn’t there
I look all over and all I find
Is a phone number on the stairs
The only unusual word here is “stairs,” but that means 1) Prince has a very big hotel room, and 2) He needed a word to rhyme with “there.”
It said, “Thank you for a funky time
Call me up whenever you want to grind.”
The song ends with him pleading for her to return, crying out like an animal, because he wants to…
Grind grind grind grind grind grind grind
Two more items of note about this song. It was not until I saw a particularly rousing live cover of it that I realized just how raucous it is. “Darling Nikki” could totally be a Led Zeppelin track. Seriously. Stop right now, close your eyes, and imagine Page, Plant, and co. breaking this down. Totally works, right? In retrospect, I think that’s the sound Prince was going for here; this track absolutely falls under the “Prince as guitar god” category.
Finally: the best part about “Darling Nikki” is that it’s the ultimate humblebrag. Prince has put himself in this painful, masochistic position, subjected his body to God knows what—and Nikki likes it. He has pleased her. Of all the characters in the Prince universe, Nikki the sex daemon is the hardest to sate—and our narrator has managed to do so. Prince rules!