An Abbreviated Guide to the New, Massive Prince 1999 Box Set

Image: Allen Beaulieu/NPG Records/Warner Records

“Princemas” is how a friend of mine referred to last Friday, the release date of a six-disc/10-LP box set devoted to the recording sessions that led to the creation of Prince’s landmark 1999 album. This Super Deluxe Edition sports 65 audio tracks, including the original 1982 album, a disc of b-sides, remixes, and edits, a pristine recording of a concert that took place November 30, 1982, and most excitingly, two discs of previously unreleased recordings from Prince’s legendary vault. (Tack on another 12 tracks via the included DVD that was recorded at another show during this era.) For fans, “embarrassment of riches” doesn’t even begin to describe what this is. The Prince Estate has knocked it out of the park with this one, delivering fans hours of gorgeous-sounding material, including songs that had not widely circulated (if at all) in the rather vast and decades-long Prince bootleg trade.

A huge motivation for writing this post is to signal to all involved that this is a job well done and that I want more. I cannot even imagine what an expanded version of Parade would look like or the size of a box that would be needed to appropriately capture Prince’s blisteringly prolific process during the sessions that eventually spawned his 1987 masterpiece Sign o’ the Times. A suitcase? I don’t care. I want it. I will pay whatever for it. I will listen to all of it. Much of it repeatedly, I’m sure.

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I’ve spent the past week immersed in the 1999 set (it took me a few days to get through it all and then some more to absorb it), and in some ways, it’s like listening to a whole new album. I’ve never cared this much about 1999, the middle of three nearly back-to-back breakthroughs for Prince. His third album, 1980's Dirty Mind, brought his singular artistry into focus. 1999 was a commercial crossover, sporting his first pop Top 5 (“Little Red Corvette”) and other classics like the title track and “Delirious.” 1984's Purple Rain is when he became a superstar.

While a tread of sonic consistency runs throughout 1999—an icy sheen, arpeggiated synths that shiver along, Prince’s beloved LinnDrum—its sessions were varied. The vault discs sport a host of new wave and synthetic rockabilly tracks that “Delirious” merely hinted at. There were marathon funk workouts (“Purple Music,” “Colleen”), torch songs (“How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore”), a dabbling with the psychedelia that would intensify post-Purple Rain (“Moonbeam Levels”). The vault discs here show Prince’s progress—“Feel U Up” is a goofy bit of Minneapolis electrofunk that would eventually be tightened and fastened with a pitched-up vocal years later for Prince’s aborted Camille album. “Bold Generation” would finally be released officially almost eight years later as “New Power Generation” on Graffiti Bridge. Alternate takes of “International Lover” and “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore,” bring out new flavors by sheer virtue of Prince’s spontaneity. I never got “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” until I heard the somewhat slowed down, melodically richer “Original Version” included here. It’s like I’ve been given a whole new song. It’s like I’ve been given a gift.

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For as much as its creator’s eyes were turned to the future, 1999 is still very much a product of its time. “Vagina” was originally considered for Vanity 6, perhaps around when Prince proposed his protégé Denise Matthews go by the name Vagina. (She balked and went with Vanity.) “Lady Cab Driver” features a bridge that depicts abusive rage at its titular chauffeur. “Extraloveable,” one of the most beloved unreleased songs of this era among Prince fans for its room-shaking groove (apparent even through the layers of hiss that multi-generation dubs have caked on) and indelible hook, does not show up here, most likely because of a line in which the narrator threatens to rape his object of desire. It’s tempting to read the lyrics of “Something in the Water” as a parody or even exploration of the cluelessness that comes with male self-entitlement (“Must be something in the water they drink/It’s been the same with every girl I’ve had/Must be something in the water they drink/Because why else would a woman want to treat a man so bad?”), but it could just as easily have been sincere. (It’s not the water, babe, it’s you.)

So, fair warning, it’s not reliably woke stuff. (Lest you forget “Girl got an ass like I never seen/And the ride is so smooth/You must be a limousine,” formed the bridge of “Little Red Corvette.”) But it’s part of a bigger picture of free communication during a time when Prince was just starting to turn out songs with the seeming ease of shedding dead skin. I certainly do not like everything in Prince’s catalog, not even everything included on this set, but I marvel at its vastness all the same. The amount of creativity and ingenuity here, in an era that, most would argue, predates his artistic peak, is a simply astonishing natural resource, a waterfall of imagination, a dense forest of ideas. I’ve collected my 15 favorite tracks (ignoring takes/songs a casual listener may already be familiar with) in the playlist below. Enjoy, I know I am.

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Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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