One of the catchiest songs about scrambled eggs, second only to the theme tune from Frasier, Life Can Be So Nice is a humanist anthem. Like What a Wonderful World, but with a message that’s hard not to take as an AM equivalent to Afternoon Delight. It comes crashing into this world with squealing flutes, makes a lot of reverbed noise, then abruptly finishes mid-sentence. If that’s not a tribute to the brevity and wonder of life then I’m Louis Armstrong.
The Gold Experience (1995)
The footsteps that sync with the first minute of Shy lead us into a tale of revenge killing and gang initiation. It’s all over the top and even the singer believes he’s being spun a yarn, but we’re suckered in like a surprisingly good TV movie. It certainly sounds like one. You can almost see the red street lights reflecting in puddles as the opening credits roll. A lone figure walking with their back to us, soundtracked by city noise and a lone tambourine. And then we’re taken on a rain-drenched journey while Prince’s guitar gently weeps… and shouts and laughs and teases. The use of slide is reminiscent of Vicki Waiting – another song about an attractive girl amid urban decay – and adds to the early 90s movie vibe. If it were a film, it would be one of those where you’re left feeling exhilarated at the end, despite not being able to recall a single plot detail.
Prince stalks the Earth dealing out thunderbolts from his guitar like an Old Testament god. Cosmic rock? BOOM! Psychedelic Lyrics with backward messages? BOOM! Interstellar riffs threatening to take out the sun and turn all dark matter to light? BOOM! Lotusflow3r’s languid opening track was like bathing in the primordial oceans and Boom is the Cambrian explosion. Later it would mate with Billy Cobham’s Stratus and give birth to a new galaxy called rock and roll.
Unreleased (1981) / Partyman single (1989)
Ahh Camile. Feel U Up was a below-par outtake and if you hadn’t revived it with your patented brand of sleaze it would have remained a Controversy-era footnote, notable only for providing the horns for (I Like) Funky Music. Camille vocals improve any song. Fact. It’s no coincidence all but one song recorded for the Camille album found a home elsewhere when the project was abandoned. And the one that got away was Rebirth of the Flesh, his greatest unreleased track IMHO. Feel U Up has Irresistible Bitch drums (back in the day it was part of the same sequence) and it’s almost as perversely persuasive. But use responsibly. I’ve just listened to the long stroke version three times in a row – turned up extra loud to drown out a group of singing Santas on my train – and I think I may have irrevocably damaged a part of my brain. The human body isn’t designed to withstand hearing that amount of diseased desire.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
It’s a welcome change to turn the spotlight onto one of Prince’s more jubilant songs after writing about three of his bleakest. Willing and Able bursts in like a playful puppy and instantly lights up any room and any mood. It cares not a jot for your hang ups and blues. The chorus, whether Prince consciously knew it or not, comes from a line in Bob Marley’s Is This Love and you can detect a faint reggae rhythm beneath the layers of jazz, funk, hip-hop and gospel. With so many influences at play it’s a small miracle the song is so lithe. It deftly takes the feelgood jazz baton from Strollin’ and dances and sings and does its thing with even more winsome bonhomie. I discovered the video version recently and it was like unexpectedly bumping into my best friend on vacation.
The Truth (1998)
There’s two back-to-back songs on The Truth concerning souls returning from the dead, but the motivation behind them couldn’t be further apart. Comeback, written around the time Prince lost his son, features the heart-wrenching line “never say the words they’re gone, they’ll come back”. Nature abhors a vacuum and belief that death isn’t final is welcome solace. Yet the album’s preceding track One of Your Tears is more concerned with inflicting pain than relieving it. The music may be as light as air, but unpack the lyrics and a hydrogen cloud of hurt, revenge and suicidal nihilism blooms out. The singer is tormented by mental images of his lover’s infidelity and wishes to “disappear; cease 2 exist; cease 2 be here” after she sends him a used condom in the post. Both Nietzsche and Freud believed aggression and cruelty were fundamental parts of human nature and when unable to satisfy our violent urges we turn on ourselves. The act of willing nothingness is our death drive (Freud) or will to power (Nietzsche) taking the short route to escape life’s suffering, but it’s also a stifled form of aggression. The singer wants to respond to the cruelty inflicted on him and retaliates the only way he can: he wishes he was dead but still wants to be around to see the upset it would cause. I want to die and come back as one of your tears. Reincarnation as revenge. And yet this line still reveals a desire to be close and intimate with his tormentor too. What amazes me in both these songs is how much Prince paints with so little. They’re barely more than a verse and a chorus each but the grief is three dimensional. In One of Your Tears especially, the line I just quoted contains a world of conflicting emotions in just twelve words, and I consider it one of the greatest lines of poetry he ever wrote.
The story of one of Prince’s most hauntingly beautiful creations starts with him seeing the play M. Butterfly. The Broadway show must have left an impression because five years later, when planning a musical, he asked the play’s writer David Henry Hwang to provide a script and to also compose a poem about loss. The musical never happened but a few days after receiving the poem, Solo was born. A version exists with the dream duo of Sonny T and Michael B on bass and drums, but why overegg the lily on the cake? Solo’s power lies in its minimal simplicity. Harps and thunderclaps – summoned by the words ‘angels’ and ‘rain’ respectively – help augment the vocals, but the track’s an acapella through and through. And having dismissed the band and outsourced the lyrics, Prince diverts all his creative energies into letting his voice craft a monument to melancholy. He glides over the vocal registers like they’re black ice. In an alternate universe countless reality tv contestants are murdering this song instead of the gymnastic melisma of I Will Always Love You.
One of his more catchy outtakes. In a Large Room With No Light is so hummable you can be on your seventh listen before snippets of the bleak lyrics bleed through: “a child with no eyes… babies blown to kingdom come…” He isn’t joking when he sings about the lack of light. This is dark. And once you’re aware, the chorus turns from cute allegory into something more dystopian. Like a Hanson video directed by Marylyn Manson. Luckily, The Revolution and Sheila E’s band are on fire here and the backing vocals bubble up like pink champagne. I just wish I can go back to a more innocent time when I sang along with the sha-la-las in blissful ignorance.
Seneca, the Roman Stoic, once described the pursuit of riches as “empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colours, with nothing inside to match their appearance”. Almost two thousand years later, the American philosopher Method Man counterpointed with “get the money, dollar dollar bill, y’all!” This track off Lotusflow3r says both at the same time. It skips along with nary a care in the world and the singer (in the breezy manner of someone who’s never had to choose ‘show balance’ on an ATM) tells us that money doesn’t buy happiness. But he sure loves the attention and lifestyle it affords him, and wants us all to know it. The hollowness of fame and money is a common theme in Prince’s music. In both Don’t Play Me and My Name is Prince we’re told at the top of the mountain there’s nothing there. Normally the message is God will fill that void, but here dancing and the female gaze is the antidote. And also – in a tragically candid moment – popping pills. It’s such a light-footed, beguiling song that it seems perverse to bring attention to that foreshadowing line, so I’ll end by saying $ is Movie Star without the farce; Life o’ the Party without the spit and nettles. It’s ostentatious in a charming way and just because it glitters doesn’t mean it ain’t gold.
The Black Album (1994)
Well here he goes again, falling in love with the face in a magazine, but this is no normal love letter – what elevates Cindy C is the extremes it’s pushed to. Enough eyebrows would have been raised if Prince had left this as a three-verse indecent proposal to Cindy Crawford. But as usual he goes further and the randy devil is in the details. First Prince plies her with booze: elderberry wine and whatever concoction his mixologist Sheila E serves up (listen to her making a percussion cocktail ninety seconds in). Then in the third verse Wendy tears into the supermodel in the right-channel “…she can’t even walk in those shoes… she can’t even dance…” So far, so restrained, and if Prince had plumped for the conventional fade-out at four minutes Ms Crawford could sleep easier. But there’s a fourth verse where a discordant guitar darkens the mood and Prince launches into a spoken verse about her “furry melting thing” awaiting him. This is immediately followed up by him going full-deranged, yelling “what’s the matter with meeeee” while the right-channel voice becomes a justly horrified Cindy. After that plunge into psychosis, the bubblegum chaser of Cat’s verse seems incongruous. Prince was unaware she had lifted the rap from JM Silk’s house tune Music is the Key, and only found out when he initially reused it for Positivity. It was probably best left where Cat found it but at least it lightens the mood. Cindy C is the only Black Album song Prince never played live, suggesting it may hold a particular embarrassment. Or maybe he was sparing the subject’s blushes. Either way, the only times he used the word savoir-faire again on record, was on the spiritually cleansing I No and 7.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Behold an epic, rousing closer to make Andrew Lloyd Webber disown Jesus Christ Superstar as tawdry junk. Last December starts off like Gold or Purple Rain minus the fireworks or frisson. A tame but pleasing, spiritual send-off to finish the record on an gospel high. A happy ending. Closure. And on a lesser album, that would be your lot and you would be thankful. But on The Rainbow Children Prince goes that extra mile and here he gives a turbo injection of guitar just before the three minute mark. A blistering solo, thrown in like a smoke bomb to disrupt the wholesomeness and tear holes in the Earth. And when the mist clears we hear glimpses of Santana and whispering, fiery-eyed djinns. The four horseman of the apocalypse perform dressage while the entire cast of human civilisation, living and dead, rejoin the stage for the final curtain call. Prince told us in The Same December that in the end that’s where we’ll go, and now that time has come. The choir returns to hold our hand once more, while we leap into the ravine, Thelma & Louise style, and leave the parting word ‘one’ reverberating in the air for an unnaturally long time, like the last note in A Day in the Life or the final word ever spoken on Earth.
What Time Is It? (1982)
Despite Prince writing The Time’s first three albums, the band are such their own entity that it takes a lot for their output to make it onto these pages. 777-9311 forces its way in by brute funk force alone. The bassline is a beaut and the Linn drum pristine, but it’s the final three minutes that truly make this a Prince classic. His Stratocaster guitar solo crashes against the synths as if Shiva has started clapping along; the flame of destruction in his left hand colliding with the drum of creation in his right. The story goes that the title was Dez Dickerson’s home phone number and used without his knowledge. Predictably, the unwanted attention later forced the Revolution guitarist to change his number, but I hear nowadays if you ring those seven digits at midnight you’ll get through to the Hindu Lord of the Dance himself.
Unreleased (1985) / Crystal Ball (1998)
A non-fiction book of the same name was written by George Gilder in the 1970s. Gilder’s main premise is sex before marriage and polygamy are destroying civilisation, and will eventually lead to its collapse. Not a theory you expect Prince to have subscribed to so it’s unlikely to be referenced here, but what is the meaning of this song? I’ve found two common interpretations and they hinge on how the chorus is transcribed. Folk who read the lyrics as “people gonna talk sexual suicide” think it’s Prince’s brag that leaving him is akin to killing your sexlife. While those who believe it’s “I’m gonna take a sexual suicide” reckon he’s vowing celibacy if dumped. I hear “talk” so I’m happy with the first bragging interpretation, but if the countless online lyric sites are right, and the sexual suicide is his, then surely masturbation is being referenced rather than celibacy? Not in a literal Michael Hutchence way, but in a petite mort by his own hand way? Remember, this is mid-80s Prince and onanism euphemisms were his stock in trade. Whatever the meaning, this Parade outtake is a perfectly formed peach. A four-in-a-bed romp between Eric Leeds’ sax, a filthy dose of bass, the synths from Girls & Boys and a drumbeat that Prince learnt from Sheila E. Horny in all senses of the word. George Gilder would hate it.
Unreleased (1986) / The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)
Originally a Wendy & Lisa composition called Carousel, Prince changed the lyrics and recorded Power Fantastic in one take, intending it to be used on the ill-fated Dream Factory album. Eric Leeds said the session gave him goosebumps and revealed the band all felt they had taken part in something special. You can see why. Even in recorded form, hidden on the end of a three disc compilation, the song has a mystical quality. Sublime and fragile as the fire of life itself, its qualities are difficult to pin down. I’m sure many would feature this in their top 20 Prince songs. It certainly has the potential to get there for me, but at the moment I can only enjoy it on a cerebral level. I sense it has restorative properties beyond my ken, and – like a court reprieve or the handhold of a bystander while the paramedics arrive – it needs to be lived to be fully appreciated. But until the time comes to pull this particular bottle of tonic down from the shelf, it’s good to know it’s there waiting – its essence in reserve like a tree in winter.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Written ten months after the release of Scandalous Sex Suite it’s perhaps not surprising Insatiable has a similar sound. The drumbeats on both ballads are reverb-heavy, suggesting a cold, cavernous room with a bed as its alter. Seduction as sermon. Only this time there’s a camcorder involved. But Insatiable also contains elements of every Prince slow jam that’s come before. It has Do Me, Baby’s vulnerability, International Lover’s cockiness, Adore’s reverence and humour. Prince is the Hokusai of soul ballads and the late-night seduction is his Mount Fuji; explored via different moods, landscapes and perspectives. Speaking of Japanese artists, there’s a tradition for calligraphers there to spend hours grinding inks, and only putting brush to paper at the end of the day in a single, short flourish. You can imagine Prince doing the same; spending daylight hours preparing the studio and then as soon as the sun sets, committing the track to tape in a steamy, one-take sitting. Another ode penned to the higher power that is Unbridled Lust.
Supercute single (2001) / The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
Supercute was released as a concert-only single and earmarked for the shelved High album. It has a showtune vibe – a red light West Side Story or Grease – where the protagonist Prince sings about his summer nights lover and an entourage of Other Princes join in on the chorus. But things get x-rated fast. The tale begins with the jet sound effect from the late-nineties tracks White Mansion and Come On. It’s his love interest arriving on a 747, but it’s not the only noise we’ll hear that’s a low, humming drone. Later on the story focuses on toys. And not ones Pixar would write an animated film about, although they may well be called Buzz and Woody. This is the part where Tony/Danny pleasures Maria/Sandy with a vibrator whilst trying to get her to confess her private joy technique. And on a post-2000 Prince single too? Egads! Contrary to popular belief the smut didn’t stop when the cussing did.
Prince gets high on his own supply as he writes a ten minute dissertation on The Funk and the narcotic qualities of his music. It’s the base ingredient from any rumpshaker in his repertoire, distilled and served uncut. Naked, other than a smattering of Controversy-style rhythm guitar, tantric bass and an intriguing sketch at 8:20 where Prince’s unheard answer to the question “what would you like to bathe in this morning?” disturbs his computer valet to the point of malfunction. It’s a section that only lasts 20 seconds but in just a few words he paints a thousand pictures. All of them NSFW.
I Wonder U is barely even a song. The pint-sized Parade piece lasts for 100 seconds, and 15 of those sound like New Position hasn’t finished yet. But the atmosphere in its brief timeframe is electrifying. It’s astounding how much work has gone into something so diminutive. At an early stage the track included a full orchestra before Prince decided to keep only the flutes. He also removed his vocals to leave only Wendy’s, making it the first song on a Prince studio album sung solely by somebody else (or the only one if you discount the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack and the 3rdeyegirl collaboration). Its short duration makes the track almost subliminal, leaving you no time to dwell on the moods it stirs within – eddies of virgin snow and forgotten dreams swirl but we’re onto the next track before they settle – however like eyebrows or a pinch of salt, it’s absence would leave an oversized void.
I imagine after creating the psychedelic and intricately programmed Lovesexy, Prince unwound by churning out something much more blunt and single-minded: like this six-minute industrial funk beat with an array of horns fighting for breathing space. It’s sledgehammer stuff but it does the job. In the words of Le Grind, it shows you what your hips are made for, whilst simultaneously pounding you in the face with unrelenting ardour. The track was recorded for use on Tony LeMans’ album and the story goes that Prince pulled it after returning from the Lovesexy Tour to find Tony having an affair with Ingrid Chavez. If true, the line about fuchsia light being a ”symbol of monogamy and trust” suddenly got a lot more relevant.
Art Official Age (2014) / HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
Prince often retweeted memes he featured in, but the viral “THIS COULD BE US BUT YOU PLAYIN” jpeg of himself and Apollonia inspired an album track. Twice. Out of the two versions of This Could Be Us, the remix is punchier and puts some meat on the space-ballad’s delicate bones. The original starts off with a Close Encounters melody, twinkles like a malfunctioning holodeck and slows to a close HAL-style. But HITnRUN’s revisit takes the sci fi effects and ramps it up into warp-drive. The second half is now basically an instrumental and all the better for it, although the song’s lyrics aren’t as corny as they first sound. “You want me like a new pair of shoes” and “you’re the cage to my dove” may seem like clumsy and misguided pick-up lines, but in the context of Art Official Age’s narrative Mr Nelson has yet to receive his first affirmation on how to interact with the opposite sex. The recently awoken time-traveller is still concerned with words like “me” and “mine” and is currently reliving past relationships where he wants to possess and be shown off as a possession. It’s this restricting mindset that’s caging his dove of inner peace. Or hey, Prince may have just grasped for a word rhyming with ‘love’ without thinking too hard about it but where’s the magic in believing that?
Newpower Soul (1998)
If you’re looking for a Newpower Soul slow jam that has teeth, something that is rich but not cloying, Until U’re in my Arms Again ain’t the one. And if you’re looking for class and sophistication, a track that delights without leaving an icky taste in your mouth, then Shoo-Bed-Ooh: that ain’t the one. But if you’re looking for a dancefloor respite with a beat that “sweeps you off your tired, weary feet”, with a gentle array of string instruments that lap at the frayed edges of your existence; if your looking for a soulful pot pourri that doesn’t turn to compost after repeat listens, then look no further, The One is the one.
A Parade outtake where Prince wrings every last ounce of blood-curdling horror from his Fairlight synthesiser. Howls, screams, sobs and Psycho string-stabs accompany creepy Sixth Sense lyrics. There’s very few Prince tunes you could describe as genuinely chilling but Others Here With Us cuts through to the bone. In the right frame of mind it’s more unsettling than a Victorian doll’s head outside your window on a stormy night. But the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman: this was kept in the vault with every other song of his that delved too far into scary waters. An alternate version exists with added orchestration but that just distracts from the acid-washed terror and like Mavis Staples once said: “the devil ain’t got no music” – just a backing-track made up of the screaming souls of the innocent. If you’ve never heard the original then do yourself a favour and listen to it once. Alone. With the lights off. And then never ever sleep again.
In the beginning was The Word and The Word was good. Not great – the beat seemed basic and the acoustic riff forgettable – but the melody was a hummer. Above-average filler. Not the first name on the teamsheet but a dependable squad player. Then The Word was heard through headphones and hordes of musical elements came scuttling from the shadows, like woodland sprites out of the presence of humans. The elves brought their turntable tricks while the faeries cast spells of ethereal ambience. Dryads provided Latin percussion, the goblins wreaked havoc on the panning and a leprechaun upturned a whole Pro Tools folder labelled Numinal Shenanigans. In any other song Prince’s Santana-style solo would have been the highlight, but here it turns in circles like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, overawed by the entire field of sound it walks through. Or maybe the wee folk were always there and I just need to get better speakers.
Unreleased (1982 / 1986)
Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, for your delectation and delight the dashing damsels Wendy and Lisa will perform inimitable feats of derring do on a harpsichord-powered carousel spinning at 78rpm. Watch the Purple Maestro join them atop his fabulous array of galloping horses for a three minute ride through pop perfection. Gawp at the gumption. Hyperventilate at the hypnotising harmonies. Marvel at the magnificent monkeys – the only primate solo in town! A cyclone of fun for old and young. You’ll leave filled with mirth and merriment or your money back.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Emancipation and The Rainbow Children have a lot in common. Both are deeply personal yet wildly experimental and see Prince flying with unclipped wings, high over mainstream tastes. But a lack of constraint means both have their indulgent lulls. Emancipation has listless soundscapes, added solely to pad out each disc to 60 minutes, while The Rainbow Children has a computer delivering a lengthy, impenetrable sermon at the beginning of Family Name. If Prince had ditched this intro along with the preceding three tracks – the atmospheric but disposable Deconstruction, a jarring show tune The Wedding Feast and the sweet but energy-sapping She Loves Me 4 Me – I honestly believe The Rainbow Children could stand shoulder to shoulder with his early classics. Eight minutes is all it would need to lose, but this desire of fans to meddle is probably why early releases of The Rainbow Children came as one single long track. Regardless, I’ll now do what Prince should have done and skip straight to part two of Family Name, which starts two and a half minutes in with a short skit about the slave trade. This sets up the central premise that African-Americans have had their ancestral names taken from them and when the vocals finally begin you realise the song’s worth the long wait. The lyrics, with its stereotypical Jewish surnames, may be responsible for the “controversial new album” sticker slapped on some copies, but what tends to be lost amid shouts of anti-semitism is that the lustre of the words “Gold-“, “Pearl-“ and “Rose-” highlight how slaves were given names, like Clay and Brown, that were deliberately demeaning. Controversy aside, Family Name grooves like a Burmese python. Then at 5:27 Prince spits on the floor and dark clouds of Maya Angelou’s rising dust start to block out the sun. The track soon gets obliterated by a ferocious guitar sandstorm, which hits us with the power of the moral arc of the universe finally colliding with justice. Car alarms go off. A broken-winged blackbird sings like it’s the dead of night. Thomas Jefferson appears through a wormhole to tell his fellow Americans “we’re going to pay for this”. A hurting world confronts its past. Then suddenly we find ourselves on the other side, amid a wondrously clear daybreak. Martin Luther King recites his dream as we stand on the verge of The Everlasting Now. Moments like these eclipse the entirety of Emancipation. And possibly everything since. You just have to wade through a lot of album overgrowth to get there.