Following Prince's death in 2016, the song rose to number one on the US and UK iTunes Charts, allowing "Purple Rain" to re-enter the Billboard Hot 100 at number 17, later reaching number four. It also re-entered the UK Singles Chart at number 6, making it two places higher than its original peak of number 8. Originally peaking at number 12 in France, "Purple Rain" reached number one on the national singles chart. As of April 30, 2016, it has sold 1,186,215 copies in the United States.
The song was recorded during a benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis on August 3, 1983. The performance was guitarist Wendy Melvoin's live debut with The Revolution, at the age of 19. City Pages described the 70-minute performance as Prince's "sweatiest and most soulful hometown concert yet", and drummer Bobby Z stated, "it certainly was one of the best concerts we ever did".
The concert was recorded by David Rivkin (a.k.a. David Z, brother of Bobby Z) using a mobile recording unit brought in from the Record Plant in New York City, staffed by engineers Dave Hewitt and Kooster McAllister. The basic tracks for three songs were used on the Purple Rain soundtrack: "Purple Rain", "I Would Die 4 U", and "Baby I'm a Star". Prince performed overdubs while working at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles from August–September 1983. A solo and verse from the original recording were edited out and replaced with a different verse, changing the length from eleven to eight minutes. The extra verse was about money, but was removed because it diluted the emotional impact of the song.
After recording the song, Prince phoned Jonathan Cain from Journey asking him to hear it, worried it might be too similar to "Faithfully", a Journey single composed by Cain which had recently been in the charts. Cain reassured Prince telling him the songs only shared the same four chords.
Prince once explained the meaning of "Purple Rain" is as follows: "When there's blood in the sky – red and blue = purple... purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.". The phrase "purple rain" did appear earlier in the lyrics of the Top Ten-charting song "Ventura Highway" by America in 1972. That song was written by Dewey Bunnell.
"Purple Rain" opens with a lone guitar quickly followed by live drumming and a prominent organ, evoking images of church gospel music. Three verses are each followed by a chorus, with a building emotional delivery. In the context of the film, each verse ties into a different strained relationship Prince's character has and his desire to reconcile. The first verse is dedicated to his father, then his ex-girlfriend (Apollonia), and then his band mates. After the final chorus, a guitar solo takes over the song. The song ends with a piano solo and orchestral strings. Prince's vocal range spans from the low note of F3 to the high note of A5.
The song was a staple of Prince's live performances. He played it on nearly every tour since 1984, except for a period after his name change when he avoided his older hits for a few years. At Super Bowl XLI's halftime show, in which he was the featured performer, "Purple Rain" was featured as the last song of his set and was, appropriately, played during a downpour at the stadium, which when combined with the purple stage lighting created the song's signature image. Prince performed the song as the opening of a medley of his hits with Beyoncé at the 2004 Grammy Awards, and also at the 2006 Brit Awards. Purple Rain ended up being the final song Prince performed live during his final concert in Atlanta, Georgia on April 14, 2016.
In order to be released as a single, the song was shortened from 8:45 to 4:05.
The B-side, "God", is a much more overtly religious number (Prince's most religious), recalling the book of Genesis. The song also features extensive vocal experimentation. Towards the end, Prince mentions "The Dance Electric", which was a song given to former band member André Cymone. In the U.K., the 12" single also included an instrumental of "God", also known as "Love Theme from Purple Rain", an edited portion of which appears in the film.
"Purple Rain" became the debut single of American recording artist and The X Factor's season one finalist, Stacy Francis. She first performed the song on The X Factor Judges' Houses episode, in front of her mentor Nicole Scherzinger and Enrique Iglesias. Her powerful vocal performance received positive feedback, with Iglesias commenting: "I think the neighbors can hear that!"
Francis eventually released a studio version of the song as her debut single on May 29, 2012. She dedicated the single to her supporters who have been supporting her ever since she was eliminated from the competition and motivated her to do a studio cover of the song.
Dami Im, the 2013 winner of the Australian version of The X Factor, performed this song in week two of the series, and again as one of three songs during the Grand Final, as the "Best Live Show" Song Im recorded a version for her self-titled album, which debuted at number one in Australia. On the morning of 21 April, 2016, Im performed live on Australia's Channel 7's The Morning Show in an emotional tribute to Prince.