No single descriptor could sum up Prince, and he was acutely aware of this, turning his perceived ambiguity into copy (“Am I black or white / Am I straight or gay?” his how he mimicked outsiders’ curiosity in 1981's “Controversy”) and rejecting labels openly in a litany of all the things that he wasn’t in 1984's “I Would Die 4 U” (“I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand”). He went by many names (Jamie Starr, Alexander Nevermind), wrote in many voices (most deliciously for his abandoned Camille album), mastered a multitude of instruments, and blended genres. He did so much to color and confound his persona, in fact, that if there is any one go-to word to describe Prince the artist objectively—not counting “genius,” which was commonly and I think justifiably applied to him—it’s “prolific.” With an album released almost every year in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a few of which were double-albums or multi-disc sets, perhaps the only thing that rivals his material’s quality in its capacity to astonish is its sheer quantity. He was a machine, and in the mid-to-late-’80s, he was as close to being a perfect machine as a human artist could possibly get.
But that’s only part of the story. Decades before Kanye West submitted several revisions of his Life of Pablo album for public consumption, essentially rendering an aesthetic out of his editing process, Prince was pitching and canceling albums left and right. Sometimes he’d change his mind so close to the release date that these works would be pressed and leak, as in the case of The Black Album and Camille. Dream Factory mutated into Crystal Ball mutated into Sign ‘o’ the Times. What didn’t see the light of day officially occupied as distinct a place in Prince lore as what did.
This combined with Prince’s terseness—his periodic allergy to interviews, his refusal to be recorded during them, his fondness for shortened words and proto-emoji—makes the official release of 11 tracks from Prince’s legendarily vast vault of unreleased material a morally complicated occasion. If Prince were alive today would we have wanted these released? It’s doubtful, and this question and answer matter if we are to consider his entire approach to communication, which necessarily included the art of withholding. (He refused prerelease publicity for his Purple Rain follow-up Around the World in a Day, effectively pulling a Beyoncé almost 30 years before Beyoncé.)
I think about how much artists say now, how rarely the extra social media chatter actually enhances their art or makes them more interestingly and endearingly human, and Prince’s taciturn nature becomes so appealing, so gloriously mystique-enriching in contrast. If only more people knew when to shut up as brilliantly as Prince did.
These new old songs come bundled in the deluxe reissue of Purple Rain, alongside a remastered version of that landmark 1984 album (recorded with his band the Revolution) and a disc of single edits and b-sides (the former of which are needless, the latter of which comprise no fewer than three essential songs from the man’s catalog: “17 Days,” “Erotic City,” and “God”).
The real prize of the set, though, is that disc of rarities, all recorded between 1983 and 1984 (there is some debate, though, as to whether the version of “Wonderful Ass” on the disc indeed originates from September ‘84 as noted, as it had previously circulated on bootlegs labeled as the 1986 version of that song). For a fan, it is, of course, a thrill to hear an album’s worth of new stuff from Prince beamed over from over 30 years ago, just as he was reaching his creative peak. Many of the songs previously circulated amongst diehards in substandard audio quality, while others like the studio version of “Electric Intercourse” previously were not known by fans even to exist. This disc is not just an audio upgrade, it’s a boon to any Prince collection as at least half of these songs can easily sit alongside his funkiest. They illustrate the sort of excess that Prince got away reveling in because he was so good at locking in a groove and letting it ride—the proto-house of “The Dance Electric” (which gurgles and hisses like “Thriller” plunged into Minneapolis deep freeze) stretches on for almost 12 minutes and, in my experience, justifies such indulgence. The similarly extended “We Can Fuck” shows how Prince cultivated humor in blunt sexuality. The same could be said for “Wonderful Ass,” on which Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman, a creative genius and invaluable asset to Prince’s catalog in her own right, sings lead vocal simultaneously with Prince, rendering the very concept of wonderful ass an egalitarian treat to be enjoyed by all. “Computer Blue,” here in its 12-minute “Hallway Speech” version really lifts off into a rave-up after the halfway point. It’s a funk explosion that the truncated version on Purple Rain doesn’t even hint at.
Aside from bootleg releases, many of these songs found their way out, as Prince songs were wont to do. “We Can Fuck” was revised as a duet with George Clinton on the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack in a toned down format (“We Can Funk”). “Computer Blue,” both the extended and original version on Purple Rain, incorporate the vault disc’s concluding “Father’s Song,” an instrumental Prince composed with his own father and appears briefly in the Purple Rain movie. Prince gave “The Dance Electric” to his childhood friend and former collaborator André Cymone, who released it as a single in 1985. It made only a minor dent on R&B radio, far from the “hit” Prince had foreseen. I contend that it would have easily gone Top 5 had Prince released it under his own name and so close to Purple Rain—like much of the man’s work time has done nothing to erase its sonic futurism, and its lyrical content about the need for people to love each other in the face of impending apocalypse (a more spiritually anchored version of the discourse in “1999”) feels more current than ever.
In a video promoting this deluxe reissue, Prince’s audio engineer Susan Rogers—yet another key collaborator in a stable of talented humans that I think would play very well if fictionalized in a prestige series about Prince’s life and music in the mid-to-late ‘80s (imagine watching his breakup with Vanity and rebound with Apollonia play out on screen!)—describes “Roadhouse Garden,” another just-released vault track, as “kind of a work in progress...a stop on a journey but not his destination,” saying that ideas on the track would later be applied to Around the World in a Day’s “Paisley Park.” Says Rogers:
Prince was so prolific that sometimes a song would be written as a way to another song, as a way of trying out an idea or a feeling just to see how well it will work. And then he would revisit that feeling or that idea on a later song that would take the idea a little bit further.
As much as it feels weird for these songs to see the official light of day without the explicit permission of the man who created them, the man who hawkishly lorded over his image to the extent of suing his fans for posting pictures of him on the internet, Prince’s ideas had a way of wiggling out over time, so that this release is not exactly out of step with the way his music would eventually reach people. He dipped into the vault for a few official releases, most notably 1998's Crystal Ball. The curation of this particular batch of songs, too, via his estate, is knowing and clued-in to fan demand. Minor audio quibbles on the vault disc aside, they did this right and I can’t wait to see what else they can do with this man’s unreleased body of work.
This is such a fan-focused release that for the uninitiated, that vault disc in particular is sort of an advanced lesson in Prince. The other two discs make a much better introduction. The remaster of Purple Rain turns up the sound for a mix that’s way less dynamic in range than the gorgeous original. I do not like my sound to come in block waveforms, so this remaster will not replace the original in my rotation. But it is in step with modern tastes, and anything that can convince kids’ ears of Prince’s greatness is a good thing for the world, in my opinion.
Even though Prince was an absolute superstar, there’s still much of his catalog that went unappreciated—the fact that masterpieces like “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “I Wish U Heaven,” and “Mountains” weren’t Top 5 smashes means our culture failed Prince on some part. It’s hilarious to think of people getting down to an oddity like “Love and Sex” or “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” when there’s so much rich material that’s been readily available, crying out to be loved for decades. If you don’t know the key two words of the narrative of “Joy in Repetition,” if you haven’t had internal debates about Prince’s best b-side (it’s “She’s Always in My Hair,” no wait, its “Shockadelica,” no wait, it’s “Girl,” no wait...), if you haven’t at least considered the notion that Parade is superior to Purple Rain, much listening awaits you. Go out there and rave unto the joy fantastic.