According to Blender magazine's Keith Harris, Controversy is "Prince's first attempt to get you to love him for his mind, not just his body", as it "refines the propulsive funk of previous albums and adds treatises on religion, work, nuclear war and Abscam."Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic also remarked on its music in how it "continues in the same vein of new wave-tinged funk on Dirty Mind, emphasizing Prince's fascination with synthesizers and synthesizing disparate pop music genres".
Controversy begins with its title track, which raises questions that were being asked about him at the time, including his race and sexuality. The song "flirts with blasphemy" by including a chant of The Lord's Prayer. "Do Me, Baby" is an "extended bump-n-grind" ballad with explicitly sexual lyrics, and "Ronnie, Talk to Russia" is a politically charged plea to President Ronald Reagan. "Private Joy" is a bouncy bubblegum pop-funk tune, "showing off Prince's lighter side", followed by the "childlike treatment of evil" in "Annie Christian", which lists historical events such as the murder of African-American children in Atlanta and the death of John Lennon. The album's final song, "Jack U Off", is a synthesized rockabilly-style track.
In a contemporary review for Rolling Stone, music critic Stephen Holden wrote that "Prince's first three records were so erotically self-absorbed that they suggested the reveries of a licentious young libertine. On Controversy, that libertine proclaims unfettered sexuality as the fundamental condition of a new, more loving society than the bellicose, overtechnologized America of Ronald Reagan." He went on to say, "Despite all the contradictions and hyperbole in Prince's playboy philosophy, I still find his message refreshingly relevant."Robert Christgau was less enthusiastic in a generally favorable review for The Village Voice, in which he wrote that its "socially conscious songs are catchy enough, but they spring from the mind of a rather confused young fellow, and while his politics get better when he sticks to his favorite subject, which is s-e-x, nothing here is as far-out and on-the-money as 'Head' or 'Sister' or the magnificent 'When You Were Mine.'"
Controversy was voted the eighth best album of the year in the 1981 Pazz & Jop, an annual critics poll run by The Village Voice.