Song Beneath the Song: “Darling Nikki” by Prince


“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!



About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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11 Responses to Song Beneath the Song: “Darling Nikki” by Prince

  1. Hank Cherry says:

    I remember playing this out of a boombox at my house and watching my mom get very uncomfortable.

  2. J.M. Blaine says:

    I love the way the Purple Rain soundtrack is so strong that this song — awesome in every way — was used as the throw-away track in the film. The song where Billy tells Price, “Kid, nobody gets your music but you.”

    Also, the looks between Apollonian and The Kid while he’s playing the song.
    Prince is at his best when he’s obsessed with God & sex.

    Okay Greg, now pull-apart “Head”.

  3. Jim R says:

    Music is always open to interpretation as I’m sure most could agree with. In the case of ‘Darling Nikki’ I hear it as yes, he meets here in a hotel lobby. He notices her getting off to a magazine ( metaphorically meaning she is really enjoying it)
    After she sells her services to him they leave to go to her castle. I think ‘Grind’ is just that. He’s confused cause he had an experience that did not actually involve sex and he can’t understand how he body will never be the same (or feel like that) with no sex.
    Leaving her number on the stairs is cause he’s in her basement-the dungeon of her castle.
    The ‘come back Nikki come back’ is his fear of never finding her and/or never having that experience again.

  4. Elissa says:

    I like purple rain the movie is good

  5. Elissa says:

    I like purple rain

  6. Kerry Beret says:

    It is about Vanity. She worked with him on the movie script and score. Initially it was meant to be sexually complimentary but when she walked out on him, he changed a few words and the vibe of the song. It went from inside joke to basically calling her a prostitute i.e willing to sleep with anyone for career advancement. After they broke up, he came to feel that she was just sleeping with him for what he could do for her. He, however, was very much in love. Prince has a 1,000 ways to describe sex but he says ” Her luvin will kick your behind”. The use of love instead of grind or some other slang is deliberate. There was love but ultimately her career was more important.

    “She’ll show you no mercy” but she will teach you how to grind ( or hustle) two terms often used synonymously for sex or using someone. I believe he uses the two meanings interchangeably here.

    In reality, he did meet Denise Mathews in a hotel. The magazine is something like US as she desires stars and stardom. She approaches him at the awards show and propositions him. She is a fiend and a demon because she wants to lead him down to hell by having him compromise himself musically by using his stardom to promote her musically.

    Again, in real life this is what happened. She wanted equal fame but lacked his discipline and talent. He wanted to coach her and control her career. She was being courted by rival production companies that promised her the moon. This is why she left him right before filming.

    In reality her leave taking was sudden and impersonal. I believe she or her agent sent him a letter ( a phone number on the stairs which thanks him for the career assist and to call her if he wants some more explotational sex). Ouch.

    However, the movies and records she was promised were based on exploiting her incredible sexiness and with no thought to her development as an artist. Basically doing to her what she had accused Prince of doing whilst reinforcing he perception of her as a celebrity whore and wounding both his heart and pride.

    They were both very bitter about how things worked out and the end of the relationship. It is this rage and betrayal that makes his performance of that song in Purple Rain so powerful. He sings it right after Apollonia tells him she’s going to work with Morris and is seen cozying up to him at the club. He still loved Vanity and the casting of a clone was a very deliberate f**k you, as is how dirty he makes her seem in that song ( remembe she is visibly shaken though there never really a strong explanation for why.)

    When he screams for her to come back it is both an anguished plea wrenched unwillingly from his heart for her to make amends and also a taunt to come back and be “used” some more since that seems to be her game now. It is a very sad song really. Especially when you consider the epithet he gave her on stage the day he learned she had died. First he checks himself and replaces the famous icon “Vanity” with the real woman he loved and who he never quite got over “Denise”. He then says ” We were deeply in love. (!). She loved me for the artist I was and I loved her for the artist she wanted to be”. That’s the tragedy of Darlin’ Nikki in a nutshell.

    Lastly all of the references to her devices, his head spinning, his body never being the same are references to Vanity’s drug use, especially meth, and her introducing it to Prince. This was the other huge bone of contention they had. While Prince may (or may not) have been an occasional drug user, in general he frowned upon it. He especially avoided things which could damage his vocal capacity. Vanity would not do the same and, sadly, in the run-up to Purple Rain’s filming, she became more and more involved with drugs.

  7. Sanabeadz says:

    Love Prince Forever

  8. RaTheSunGodOE says:

    what are you guys talking about he is SUUUUPER inappropriate.

  9. Julie Branin says:

    Compare lyrics of “Nikki” and “Darling Nikki” . . . you’ll get a completely different meaning!

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