Years After Prince's Death, There's Still So Much More to Learn About His Musical Life

Owing to the lack of any formal rubric, like a standardized test, musical “genius” is hard to qualify. You know it when you hear it. The measure of an act can come down to how obvious they make it: Could anyone with working ears deny the genius of Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, or Stevie Wonder? Floating beneath the no-shit tier is a strata of the arguable: Were the early house pioneers like Frankie Knuckles geniuses for stumbling into a form that well surpassed in popularity the disco they sought to emulate? Is Kendrick Lamar a genius (lyrically, vocally, musically, all of the above)? Does Cardi’s wit make her a genius? Is Kanye a genius because he says he is? During the most recent Verzuz battle, I thought about whether Patti LaBelle qualified as a genius—musically, she’s not known for much beyond her voice (she only writes some of her songs, and not may of her signatures) but wow what a voice, what invention she engages in night after night, song after song, spontaneous ad-lib after spontaneous ad-lib. (I ultimately decided that she is.)

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Prince is one of those obvious geniuses. He is, in fact, probably the consummate musical genius for his ability to sidestep the qualification conundrum entirely with sheer quantity. He played some 27 instruments on his first album, 1978's For You. For a long stretch, he averaged one album a year, and in his heyday wrote hits not just for himself but for the likes of the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Sheena Easton, and Martika, not to mention his fleet of proteges and side projects. He famously recorded way more music than he ever released (sometimes as a result of record company blockage) and when he died way, way too early in 2016 at the age of 57, he left behind a vault of songs that his estate and former record company, Warner Bros., have cracked into and have been steadily releasing output from in the intervening years. Purists have their gripes (2017's expanded Purple Rain contained a hideously brick-walled remaster of the classic album, and its disc of vault tracks was incomplete and too often of middling sound quality), but overall, I think they’ve done a good job. This is particularly so on the recent releases, like the ingeniously conceived Originals (a compilation of Prince’s reference tracks of songs that he’d go on to give other artists, like the Time’s “Jungle Love” and Sheila E’s “Glamorous Life”) and last year’s 1999 super deluxe edition, which got the remaster right and contained two great vault discs as well as recordings of two concerts. One could reasonably argue that a gold standard in archival reissues was achieved with that one.

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However, nothing could have prepared anyone for what the estate and archivist Michael Howe have accomplished with its latest super deluxe package, a sprawling, nine-disc set devoted to the time period in which Prince recorded what many (but certainly not all) regard as his masterpiece, 1987, Sign ‘o’ the Times. I’m so stunned by this thing that whatever words I use to describe its majesty will only sound hyperbolic. Please bear with me. I can’t think of a better single release of music... ever? This is it, the standard against which I will judge everything. It’s all downhill from here for me. If anyone asks me what 10 albums I’d take to a desert island, this is No. 1 (I like being able to cheat the system by taking eight discs worth of music—the ninth is a DVD of a concert). In fact, I wish someone would send me to a desert island so that I could bring this and just spend the rest of my life listening to it.

The reason the original two-disc SOTT album always off as so virtuosic even compared to Prince’s virtuosic output of the ‘80s (and, I’d argue, the first half of the ‘90s though it was spottier at that point) is because it just does so much. There’s full-band, straight-up funk and minimalist sideways funk. There’s a song about a dream that sounds like it was recorded underwater (“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”). There’s the best love song he ever wrote (“Adore”). There’s the second-best love song he ever wrote and the best expression of his gender duality (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”). There’s social commentary that doesn’t editorialize because it doesn’t have to (the title track). There’s religion (“The Cross”), there’s sex (“Hot Thing”). The third song on the first disc is a suspected shot taken at house music, which was just cresting into mainstream dominance (“Housequake”); the third song on the second disc has an unmistakable house beat (“Strange Relationship”). Sign ‘o’ the Times is the single most complete document of Prince’s seemingly limitless capabilities.

On a recent episode of the official Prince podcast, whose current season is devoted to Sign ‘o’ the Times to promote this set and is the single best commercial I’ve ever listened to, Prince’s collaborator and fiancée at the time Susannah Melvoin said that failure made Prince work harder. He was coming off the laughingstock flop Under the Cherry Moon and had something to prove. Boy did he. Times would go on to be nominated for Album of the Year at the 1988 Grammys but lost out to U2. In response, Prince told Rolling Stone in 1990: “I don’t go to awards shows anymore. I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else. But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too.’ [...] But you will not do ‘Housequake.’” This is all true and his greatness is so self-evident that no further explanation is needed.

The original album’s remaster is a welcome upgrade. Where it once sounded murky, Sign ‘o’ the Times now sparkles. The low-end, in particular, is more robust. For a while in the mid-‘80s, before house music emerged as a dominant aesthetic blueprint, pop lost its sense of low-end. The beats just didn’t pound. Now SOTT’s do. Rounding out this mix renders Times timeless, as it should be. The set’s third disc is devoted to edits, remixes, and B-sides. Of that last group, some of Prince’s finest emerged us this era, including the goofily infectious extended dog/cat metaphor “La, La, La, He, He, Hee” and the practically slapstick “Shockadelica,” which Prince performed as his helium-voiced, androdgynous Camille persona.

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An entire Camille album was test-pressed and then scrapped during this period. It’s one of several abandoned projects that the three discs of vault tracks tease at. Initially, the project was originally conceived as a follow-up to Prince and the Revolution’s Parade, a whimsical (almost childlike in its psychedelia) album called Dream Factory that, in subsequent drafts became a double album. Prince kept working and eventually produced enough material to span a triple album, Crystal Ball, which was eventually rejected by Warner Bros. Prince pared that album down, resequenced it, and slapped the destined-to-smash “U Got the Look” on it and it became Times. The evolution of the release was so drastic that just three songs intended for the original Dream Factory configuration made it to SOTT (and one, “Strange Relationship,” was radically altered—stripped of its Middle Eastern influenced and Camille-ized).

What’s amazing about this package is it’s now possible to cobble together the various iterations of Dream Factory and Crystal Ball via the vault tracks (the only track missing from the latter is “Rockhard in a Funky Place,” which eventually made its way to The Black Album, though that one’s not available for streaming...yet). And so you get to see what could have been in perfect fidelity. To illustrate what I mean, here are playlists representing the various configurations of unreleased albums:

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There’s a real Schrödinger’s box set quality to this release, as it contains virtual a multiverse of possibilities. I don’t just refer to albums that were scrapped or the planned musical The Dawn from which vault highlights “The Cocoa Boys” and “When the Dawn of the Morning Comes” (which, along with “Walkin’ in Glory,” adds gospel to Prince’s multigenre pot). I mean a world where the sprawling 10+-minute “Crystal Ball” was released as a single (the 7" edit here makes a strong case for its possibility as an avant pop hit). A world where Dream Factory spawned a “Wonderful Day” single (there’s a 12" mix here of a song that never was officially released). A world where “Strange Relationship” made it to club playlists on the strength of a Shep Pettibone remix with orchestra hits and an even more pummeling four-on-the-floor beat. While many of these newly released songs were seemingly aimless one-offs, so many of them sound fully realized—as Prince’s main engineer at the time, Susan Rogers, explained on the official Prince podcast, he didn’t demo in the traditional sense. Yes, he’d sometimes work and rework songs he laid down (sometimes taking years to revise, as the SOTT single “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” attests—its original version, included here, dates back to 1979). But generally, if he was cutting, he was hoping to create the canonical version. That makes the 45 songs unreleased songs a cut above typical artist scraps—so many of these are complete works in their own right.

Prince was a Gemini and so into duality that his riff on the Batman legend was a split-down-the-middle character comprised of one-half Batman, one-half Joker (named, you guessed it, Gemini). He was a man of facets, some of them contradictory. The fascinating contradiction here is that while SOTT was his first “solo” album since 1981's Controversy, the spirit of aspiring collaboration lives in this set. It’s not just in the discarded Revolution tracks, not just in the remaining traces that Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman’s contributions left on the record (which, in one of Prince’s worst tendencies, were underplayed), but on songs Prince wrote for various other artists like Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt that were ultimately rejected by them. Mitchell turned down “Emotional Pump” because, as she would in an interview recall telling Prince, “‘I can’t sing this, I’d have to jump around in a black teddy. You think I should be jumping around in a black teddy?’ He said, ‘Oh Joni, we don’t do that anymore!’” “I Need a Man” was offered to Raitt but originally written in 1981 for the Hookers (his protege group that would eventually become Vanity 6). Prince also offered Raitt “There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool.” Regarding the collaboration that wasn’t, Raitt said in 2016: “I appreciated the enthusiasm, but they were not in my key. The topics were not things I was comfortable singing. It was something like ‘You can mess me around all over town/ But we’re still cool/ I like being your fool.’ That’s not something I’d sing.” Additionally, a song Prince worked on with Miles Davis for the jazz legend’s Tutu album, “Can I Play With You?,” was eventually withdrawn by Prince himself for not jibing with the rest of Davis’s album. Now it lives.

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What was lost is gained. What I love about this set isn’t just the funk, the accessible experimentation that can leave you feeling like you’ve just orbited a new genre that you’ll never get to explore, or Prince’s boundless humor, but this sense of excitement over what could be. It’s that feeling of the brink, of the possibility of toppling right over the edge into joy—the sweet spot of life really, as once you’ve crossed the threshold, diminishing returns are inevitable—that characterizes this release and makes it a thrill bordering on narcotic. For transmitting that intoxicating prelude to genius, this box set is invaluable.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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DISCUSSION

I hear his Paisley Park concerts were just something you had to be part of. I never got to go but I know a couple of people who did hit a couple of them and it was described to me as an ever impromptu, ever changing jam session/concert experience unlike anything they ever had done or have seen since.