Originally a sweet little acoustic airy number, Prince decided to armour up for Love’s eventual release, putting his full force behind the song’s scolding message to his fanbase. You’re cordially invited to stop giving him your wishlists and sass and here’s a top drawer dance beat to show there’s no hard feelings. This series of admonishments is what Michael and Janet’s Scream would sound like if their tabloid-bashing tirade was sent with love and interrupted with choruses of inspirational poetry normally found overlaying sunsets and waterfalls on Instagram. Shots fired with a loving kiss.
On the surface Private Joy isn’t a huge departure from anything found on the previous two albums; a lighthearted synth-pop song full of sunshine, baked in the mould of Uptown or I Feel For You. But if you look closer Prince has a whole new toolkit at his disposal. Firstly there’s the trademarked, anguished scream, a calling card that’s used all over Controversy and kept in the bag ever since. Then there’s the angsty guitar feedback that drenches the final minute; a subterranean howl later lifted wholesale for Orgasm on the Come album. Also introduced is Prince’s first use of the Linn drum, the machine that subsequently went on to power the majority of his 80s’ output. And finally there’s the dual interpretative nature of the lyrics which either see Prince being possessive over a girlfriend or singing a masturbatory ode to his penis. Choose your own adventure. If you take the high road then you get to speculate who Valentino is, the character also referenced in Manic Monday (and possibly inspired by the actor Rudolph Valentino). If you go the low road the only option is to assume it’s the name Prince gives to his Little Prince. I’m inclined to tread the second path and I can only send my sincere apologies to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Due to the way Lotusflow3r’s tracks flow into each other, the start of Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful is awash with the final waves of Colonised Mind, a departing rock tide that soon leaves us beached in pure funk. Part of me wishes the preceding track’s guitar could linger longer (although it briefly reappears when Prince tells us he can part the sea with it) but as the album’s sole party ambassador FGFBFW stands taller by stepping out of Lotusflow3r’s psychedelic waters. A jagged, block-rockin’ outcrop jutting out of the alluring Bitches Brew fog. The groove and lyrics feel better than Prince’s unrelated and unreleased Feel Good, and the frisky horns feel wonderful as they fondle the lean composition with feline tread. All the feels in four minutes of phat funk.
In my youth I had one wish request kept in reserve, ready for any benevolent genie visitation. It was for time to freeze and the oceans to be devoid of water. And then in a helicopter I’d go on a marine safari, exploring the depths on my own mouth-breathing terms. I know technically that’s more than one request, but as wishes in triplicate are the coin of the genie’s realm I figured I’d be fine as long as an unfrozen pilot was thrown in with the chopper. I’m reminded of this expedition fantasy whilst listening to One Kiss at a Time as it sounds full of Ruskin’s “endless perspicuity”; Proust’s “echo of great spaces traversed”. You don’t so much listen to One Kiss at a Time but glide through, admiring the sound constellations blinking around you, hanging in midair like suspended aquatic fauna. Calm brilliance. My earlier fantasies about this wish fulfilment would always collapse under the weight of petty details, such as the exact wording of the request so I don’t go over my quota. Or questions over whether the helicopter can pass through these suspended beings and if not will it harm sealife or get shot down by a volley of unyielding minnow bullets. But listening to this ballad puts me back in the Mariana Trench, my consciousness shrinking under the immense majesty instead of occupying itself with semantic minutiae.
Visions of a loved-up Prince playing with his toy box of mythological figurines in a garden of flowers, taking the Greek God of beauty and the biblical wife of King David and smooshing them together to see what happens. Two symbols of lust’s desire, making out. “Mwah! Mwah! What’s this? No bed? Then we’ll just have to stand”. There’s an innocent playfulness about Adonis & Bathsheba; a vulnerability which didn’t help it survive after getting dashed on the rocks of cynicism late on in its gestation. When Susan Rogers, Prince’s engineer at the time, first heard it she burst into laughter believing it to be “sappy and just plain silly” and this reception is the most likely reason for it being subsequently left to gather dust. An unfortunate fate as it truly gets better with every listen and what sounds saccharine during first impressions sounds divine by the third date. Prince may have quickly abandoned the song but he thought highly of the lyrics, reprinting them as a poem in a one-off magazine seven years later and telling Eric Leeds that they were some of the best he’d ever written. And with sumptuous phrases like “for them there is no morning, only night decisions so grand” or the Manic Monday reminiscent “crystal blue stream of desire and erotic rebellion that parades through their hearts and minds”, you can see he’s got a point. The beanfeast of sugary harp, horns and guitar may be over the top, yes, but so’s catwalk fashion and opera and Christmas! There’s a time and place for moderation and this swirling mass of halcyonic loveliness isn’t one of them.
The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
When Van Morrison wanted to see out his contract he wrote over 30 nonsense songs about ring worm and danishes. Lou Reed churned out an album of nothing but guitar feedback. And Prince submitted a short but damn fine album of leftover jazzy rock and blues that lesser mortals would go full Faust for. It may have been an anti-climax to the hyped up hordes expecting true Vault diamonds but ‘not being Moonbeam Levels‘ is a crime I can excuse. The album’s penultimate track Sarah was the most recent song recorded for the project and is three minutes of good ol’ funky, bluesy rock. Although I will concede that the lyrics are rushed at best. I’ve met at least two girls who were named directly after Bob Dylan’s Sara but I doubt this song has had the same inspiring effect on new parents. Prince’s “girl, you sho’ is looking pretty” poetry can’t compete with the baby boomer bard’s “scorpio sphinx in a calico dress”. However the music more than makes amends, featuring arguably the best line-up of the NPG having fun in the studio, under no pressure to create a platinum classic. If this was recorded as a Warner Bros kiss-off it doesn’t show. Spite can be a creative force – Morrison’s Ring Worm is freaking hilarious and Reed’s Metal Machine Trio was one of my favourite concerts of 2010 – but there seems to be no dark motives powering Sarah. Just masters of their craft kicking back and lettin’ the good times roll.
It starts with a fluttering intro that wouldn’t sound out of place on Purple Rain (but is actually cribbed from the end of the preceding track) and ends with jazz rimshots and a teasing glimpse of a guitar solo. In between is a piano-thumping, fire-breathing piece of solid-oak songwriting where Prince beats his chest and sings that he could sure as hell take the place of your man. The lyrics’ nod to jukebox-perennial Carly Simon only cements If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life’s status as the kind of belter-outer that karaoke was invented for.
The Gold Experience (1995)
Ahhhh the summer of ’93, I remember it well. Onyx’s Slam had just been released and there was a glut of hip hop tracks still in rotation all yelling at you to jump. Boisterous, chanted rap was de riguer as the margins between hip-hop and metal were drifting in a post Judgement Night love-in. Amid this rowdy backdrop Prince wrote Now, a testosterone-filled pogo-fest with a rap more G Love and Special Sauce than House of Pain but goes full fratboy mosh on the chorus. Smells like bro spirit. I once used to flinch at the anorexia-enabling “it’s flyer to be hungry than phat” line, but I’m willing to subscribe to the “it means don’t rest on your laurels” school of thinking in order to bounce to the “big booty heffa” beat guilt-free. Hunt down the Beautiful Experience video for the best lager-soaked rendition.
Planet Earth (2007)
Sitting at the midpoint of one of his worst albums and saddled with an off-putting name, Future Baby Mama’s chances in life weren’t looking good. It’s crowded out of the spotlight by taller slow-jam poppies – the R&B playboy-masterclass Mr Goodnight and the sublime future-ballad Somewhere Here On Earth – and it’s easy to mistake for one of Planet Earth’s many low-key fillers. But once you get past the cringeworthy title and allow the Linn-drummed gorgeousness to hammer hosannas into your cynical heart, you surrender fully to the heady Moments In Love aromas. It even won a Grammy which proves Juliet right: that which we call Future Baby Mama by any other name would sound as sweet.
While you sweat over your masterpiece that will secure fame, recognition and respect; your magnum opus funnelling everything you feel about today’s societal decay into a five-part space rock opera to illuminate minds and contribute to the fall of the venal power structures stripping the world for parts; while you pour your heart and soul into this cataclysmic talisman of righteous enlightenment, a previously unheard funk-riff that Prince belched out in his sleep three decades ago will resurface and cause more world joy than any of your high-minded intentions. Don’t Let Him Fool Ya is barely even a song, more a tantric joy in bass-led repetition. Don’t feel bad, the dude’s inhuman.
Unreleased (1982) / Internet download (2011) / HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
During your first listen to the original, unreleased recording of Extraloveable you think you’ve got the pop song sussed. With its cutesy title and “ooh-ooh!”s it’s a skip through a bubblegum meadow of bath-obsessed, lustful desire. Sweetly persistent but not as unhinged as Possessed or Delirious. Then six minutes in, with scant warning, a harsh synth chord poisons the atmosphere and the sexual monomania gets ramped up into sinister rape threats. It’s a truly shocking moment. This isn’t pop’s normal background-hum level of misogyny, it’s a sudden radiation blast and there’s no wonder it wasn’t unleashed on the paying public. Extraloveable was considered for the Vanity 6 project and a refined version committing the slightly more tolerable sin of misandry would certainly have been a better choice than He’s So Dull. Instead Prince sat on the song for three decades until it was pulled from the vault and cleaned in chlorine for it’s debut release in 2011. Rape reference redacted. The dark denouement now replaced by rapped pet-names, suds and giggles – a rose tattoo over an embarrassing scar. A version pumped full of horns and named Xtraloveable Reloaded was also released which eventually found its way onto his final album but if you listen closely to all these re-recordings you can still hear the blackened and bewitching heart of the original beating away.
Internet download (2001)
I can imagine My Medallion, like all good minimal music, was created Jenga-style with the gradual removal of elements from a fleshed-out track until the Minimal Viable Funk remains. Scratches, space invaders and ignition noises are amongst the load-bearing bricks that stay, leaving a sparse and jerky tower in the Kiss mode that gets under your skin like Frank Sinatra’s ticks. It’s a Looney Toons tale of a stolen medallion with a Spill The Wine chorus and verses that are downright hilarious. You often hear Prince’s guitar-playing described as under-rated, yet in my view it’s his lyrical storytelling that never gets enough props. He can spin a yarn as good as a Waits, Brel or Cash but can make you snort milk out your nose in the process. And as a pun fan, I cry bravo and throw roses on the “Dry cleaning: we do fine” line.
For You (1978)
After the rarefied air of the opening track, the next three songs on For You turn aquatic. In Love is a flooded basement of sequins and mirrorballs, squelching along like Soft & Wet with water-wings. Prince sings about drowning in your love and inaugurates the highly suggestive “river” metaphor that gets a lot of purple mileage over the years (often in other ‘love’-titled songs of his: My Love is Forever; When 2 R in Love; Love 2 the 9s). The deep, synthy waters flow smoothly into the aforementioned Soft & Wet and by the time we get to track five, Crazy You, the floods subside and the percussion is left to drip dry in the sun.
Crystal Ball (1998)
It may have a title of timeless, universal need but this Gold Experience and Exodus reject is very much of its era. Help yourself to a thick helping of solid, mid-90s pop in the style of The Good Life or Love Sign, sandwiched between samples lifted from two unreleased songs (a Boni Boyer scream from The Line and the distorted vocal from All My Dreams). It was recorded before the rise of social media but could be dedicated to every selfie posted, status updated and link shared since. The entire Web 2.0 screaming vortex summed up in these two words (“a little bit behind the beat. I mean just enough to turn you on”): Acknowledge Me. In Maslow’s pop pyramid it sits between Gimme Shelter and Baby I Need Your Loving.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
A creation that could have only come out the mind of Prince. Which other performer, in a song about personal motivation, would rap a verse name-checking the album’s tracklist to then conclude with the line “snatching up kiddies like a circus clown”? The Vincent Price laugh that follows this non sequitur is for me the track’s highlight – the sound of Prince weirding himself out – and the song should have ended there, because for all Rosie Gaines’ strengths, rapping isn’t one of them. But there’s plenty here to distract you away from personal bugbears. Push is the answer to the question ‘how would The Family’s High Fashion sound if it was ingested and filtered through a civet cat, then rolled in a shredded Carmen Electra album? It’s a multi-ball melee. In fact there’s so much going on it’s incredibly easy to miss the touches of class that Clare Fischer’s strings provide. A dissonant grace amid the madness that I’ve listened to about a hundred times but only just noticed.
With no other song have I leapt from cringing to bewitched quite so suddenly. Right before my ears what I previously dismissed as hotel-lobby jazz-muzak transformed into an aquatic Sergio Mendez tripping the light fantastic on Neptune. And it gets better with every listen. With the dependable Sonny T and Michael B on bass and drums Love Like Jazz is a solid and earnest pastiche like Cherry Cherry or Te Amo Corozón, and possibly a leftover from the 3121 days. That’s not to say it doesn’t have depth. It may sound breezy but it’s Strollin’ with a jazz masters degree; Do U Lie? advanced syllabus.
Newpower Soul (1998)
On the face of it Shoo-Bed-Ooh is a skippable track – unpleasant lyrics, lazy chorus, generic beat – but what makes it work is the glue. Sparkling synths slip and slide over the percussion, filling all cracks with effervescent elegance. Prince then ties it together with strings and leaves to harden into a Michelin Star melody. If you only listened to Newpower Soul once and discarded it because of the ‘plastic’ sound I urge a relisten. The delight is in the details.
After being persuaded to stop singing about pregnancy in the 70s due to it turning off his teen fanbase, it wasn’t until this declaration of intent was debuted at Prince and Mayte’s wedding reception in 1996 that the baby embargo was broken. No ambiguity here, the message is broadcasted as clear as an elderly aunt’s nudges. Baby please! But what beauty contained within. Intimate and vulnerable, Let’s Have a “Beh-bayyyy” is stripped down more than a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy but Prince can’t resist raiding his sound library for the old faithful ‘ticking clock’ effect, making the intro sound like Countdown’s about to start. When the FX are out of his system, what follows is a sensational piano ballad evoking How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore and the One Night Alone album. Prince tickles the ivories as bass synths flutter like white peacocks and incredible vocals melt all hearts within listening distance. Let’s Have a Baby makes for a hard listen knowing the history but its siren-like power is hard to deny. There’s a strong case for the song to be made illegal lest it causes an overpopulation crisis.
The Truth (1998)
So here we are at The Dawn, the apocalyptic, new beginning Prince has been referencing since Purple Rain, and the title of a feature-film and album that never came to fruition. We’ve been welcomed here before, several times during The Gold Experience, but now it’s more of a spiritual awakening than a call centre helpdesk – birdsong and thunder replace keystrokes and airlocks. The lyrics are a good insight into Prince’s personal book of revelation, prophesying in a similar way to 1998’s Freaks on This Side, and the acoustic version (if an electric mix exists I’ve not heard it) gives the impression of a campfire kumbaya after The Fall. Bring on the four horsemen!
Crystal Ball (1998)
Whether it’s the AOL sample on My Computer or the squealing-modem synths on Emale, referencing technology in the mid-nineties is a sure way to make a track date quickly. On paper, Interactive, a song released in 1994 as a CD-ROM game, always looked likely to age prematurely but luckily the music bears as little relevance to the software as it does to the Cyclops scene in Glam Slam Ulysses, where it also features. Yes, there’s video game bleeps and it birthed the NPG Operator segues found in The Gold Experience but the interacting that Prince wants to do in the lyrics is not exactly point and click. He’s more concerned with It than IT. “Baby, baby, baby, let’s do it” he begs and I don’t think he’s talking about the falling in love that birds, bees and educated fleas do. What really future proofs this rocker though is the guitar-shredding during the last 50 seconds. Prince’s timeless solo makes Interactive sound like Endorphinmachine‘s baby brother and grants immunity from the ravishes of Moore’s Law.
Internet download (2004)
“Hey DJ, hit me with some of that ol’ school Prince! Y’know, back when he was the sexy MF with a dirty mind who wrote jawns about horny ponies and creamy thighs. I’m in the mood to listen to something with bath scenes and penetration metaphors, not glaziers’ tools. I’m sorry, what? This mid-noughties song is a five-minute rock/funk ode to a woman’s pert nipples? Oh, well in that case: play on, player!”
Beneath Goldnigga‘s ostentation and dick-joke veneer there’s an urgent appeal for Afro-American unity – a theme which is helped by the album’s removal of Guess Who’s Knockin’ and apexes with 2gether’s pleas for the ending of “black-on-black genocide”. Sporting sax as smooth as Sade, the song’s serious message is sugared by soothing soft-jazz. It’s Steely Dan In The Hour Of Chaos. Slow, hip-hop Xanax that you can file under ‘Kenny G-funk’.
Gett Off single (1992)
On this Gett Off refix Prince may sing “I’m the one that lives in your heart” but for a ten year period Violet the Organ Grinder lived in my brain. At least once a week the chorus would bubble up out of my subconscious and loop incessantly, choking inner monologue. Forget ear-worms, this refrain is an ear-anaconda and just hearing the word ‘violet’, ‘organ’ or ‘grind’ was enough to put me in its hold for days. The hook is so powerful that it’s served neat for the first eight bars of the song. Twenty seconds of pure, undiluted acapella which, barring the vocal workouts of Solo and An Honest Man, only the anthemic 7 has attempted to replicate and even then with a dash of finger cymbals. Other Prince intros that deploy the acapella ($ from Lotusflower, a handful of songs on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic) usually manage no more than a couple of bars before the backing music clicks in like the dead-air trigger on radio stations. Violet the Organ Grinder stares you down daring you to interrupt. It’s a shame the track is buried on a maxi-single, lost in a sea of Gett Off iterations. The orchestral strings make up for its borrowed beat and it is one flute riff away from usurping the A-side. Maybe it’s too dangerous for mass consumption. Re-listening for the first time in years has resulted in the tourettes-like outbursts of “her name is Violet…” to return. The kraken has re-awoken and now taunting me with its mantra of “I’ll die, but I won’t go away”.
The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
Coated in irony and full of fisticuffs, catcalls, even a Mutley laugh, It’s About That Walk is Peach for the Vegas set. It’s one of the more immediate cuts on the Vault comp and like most fast burners it has a certain number of plays before it loses its charge. Even so, it still has the capacity to surprise, as I found out this morning when my run for a bus coincided with the breakdown two minutes in. I felt like Jack Kerouac’s character in the Dharma Bums running and leaping down the Matterhorn, invincible to gravity. And as it crescendoed into horns my feet left the ground and part of me’s still flying two hours later. Ooooo-wee!
Crystal Ball (1998)
Built from brisk horn stabs, varying vocal registers and a positive message of ‘you can make it if you try’, this is Prince at his most Sly and The Family Stone – an influence that’s confirmed by the liner notes citing the 1973 Fresh album as inspiration. Like the cartoon image of two midgets in a trench coat, Make Your Mama Happy masquerades as being double the size. It’s a two-minute song played twice, once with the vocal track and once without. A 7″ edit and an instrumental spliced together to pass unnoticed as a full length mix. It’s largely worked too as I’ve not seen this cut and shut job referenced anywhere but I’ve overlaid the two halves and, apart from the vocals, they really are identical. Whether this expediency was an artistic choice or a placeholder to be rerecorded later is not clear but as the tight, staccato funk is the highlight of this Crystal Ball track, hearing it unhindered is hardly a chore. It makes Mama, Papa and the whole Family Stone happy.