This live favourite is a ten minute slow funk jam that fills the oceanic space between the two rap verses with a smorgasboard of background chatter, call and response shouts, an ode to safe sex and even a borrowed chorus from the same album’s A Deuce and a Quarter, all wrapped up in a blanket of receptive crowd noise. If you wade past the first minute of scripted skittage, Johnny begins to feels very organic, an after show vibe preserved in CD amber. the title’s another dick euphemism but one the whole family can sing to. Prince later regretted the “NPG in the motherfuckin’ house” chants though, once retaliating “We ain’t doing nothing to nobody’s moma!”
Debate rages on as to whether the unreleased The Grand Progression would have been a better inclusion on Graffiti Bridge. Personally I don’t see the appeal of the bootleg ballad and keep expecting it to break out into The Monkee’s Early Morning Blues and Greens, although more than one person has told me that it’s their favourite Prince song. Still Would Stand All Time replaced The Grand Progression as the slow ballad in both the film and album, possibly because it made more narrative sense but to these ears it’s clearly the better song. The gospel touches, courtesy of the Steeles, are divine but the real power lies in the atmosphere. It feels like a frozen moment; a death knell beat ringing out. Or at the very least it sounds like the slowed perception of time and prominent heartbeat of an adrenaline rush. The build up to a high dive. The elongated pause before a winner’s announcement. An imminent marriage proposal. I wasn’t always a fan. In my youth I lumped it together with the title track as mawkish gospel schmaltz but the live after-show version (on the infamous Trojan Horse bootleg) won me round – memorable for his admonishment “who’s the fool singing ‘will’? It’s ‘would’!”
The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
It’s hard for me to believe now but there was a time when Pope was one of my favourite tracks off his Hits compilation. It had everything my teenage self craved: catchy chorus; hip-hop beat; sweary samples; rapping that didn’t suck; dick jokes; plus the added allure of being unreleased. The song, originally created for Glam Slam Ulysses, may not have weathered the years as well as most of the others on the 1993 compilation, but when the nineties sound falls en vogue again Pope‘s going to king it like a papal boss. Time is a loop is a loop is a loop is a loop is a loop huh!
For a long time I found the Batman album synonymous with the two songs that shared the title between them: Batdance and Partyman. Initially they were the only tracks that left any lasting impression. After a second listen the thin end of Electric Chair’s wedge entered my skull, helped by the chorus’s cameo on Batdance. And it was a few more plays before the stark beauty of The Future presented itself. Vicky Waiting took longer still. And now as I feel the fruits of Scandalous ripen I sense the first harvest begin to wilt. Partyman has served me well. It performed the same role as Prettyman – keeping my enthusiasm high for an album that I didn’t automatically fawn over. But as I begin to say my farewells believing there’s only a finite number of plays, I come across the Purple Party mix. And the video – how have I never seen this before? And there’s a William Orbit mix? There’s life in the old dog yet. Gentlemen, lets broaden our minds…
Around the World in a Day (1985)
From the initial piano flutterings until the dying timpani heartbeat, Condition of the Heart is a breathtaking composition. The first two minutes are Edenic in their beauty and paint a campestral paradise with frolicking deer and darting butterflies. Béla Bartók dreaming of our animal past. Ninety seconds in and this idyllic scene is disturbed by a laser beam that cuts the atmosphere in two. It’s the bite of the apple. The opening of the box. The stealing of the gods’ fire. Man awakens from his Arcadian slumber and after blinking the sleep out of his eyes falls into a downward spiral of shame, heartbreak and loss. A terminal condition of the heart, without which the history of music would just be nursery rhymes and military tattoos.
The Gold Experience (1995)
The “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” school of thought may have been vandalised by pickup artist shitbags, but it seems to work if you want Prince to write a song about you. Billy Jack Bitch is Prince’s diss track aimed at gossip columnist, Cheryl Johnson, who wrote years worth of disparaging remarks about him in a Minneapolis newspaper and nicknamed him Symbolina. After she gets asked “what if I called U silly names, just like the ones that U call me?” she gets treated to a barrage of “bitch”s, courtesy of a Fishbone sample and a Lenny Kravitz-backed chorus. Of course due to the ingenious way he structures the lyrics Prince could always claim the “CJ” mentioned is only an instruction to “see J” in the dictionary. But you’re fooling no-one Mr Plausible Deniability. The music behind the malice is a George Clinton-esque funk monster – a Knee Deep written to wound – and features horns from the HornHeadz’ New Dell Inn (and their version of Thelonius Monk’s Well You Needn’t on the full length mix). It funks hard for a columnist pile-on but the real CJ admitted it helped her notoriety and later in the song she gets offered to be flown to the moon to “see how love will bloom” so if she was negging him it looks like it worked.
Lock Prince, Sonny T and Michael B in a recording studio with a chalk outline of Jimi scrawled on the floor and they’ll summon this swirling vortex of rock from a forbidden sphere where God’s laws no longer apply. Wall of Berlin has no discernible chorus but switches to double time in between the verses, where the three struggle to control the rampaging daemon and constantly cross streams to quell its fiery rage. “The power of NPG compels you!” This 2006 outtake would have segued seamlessly into 3121 after the “wall of Berlin” shout, and possibly once did, but amongst Lotusflow3r it found kindred spirits to RAWK with. I can’t help wondering what devilry lies beyond the early fade-out.
Inspired by Prince’s tempestuous relationship with girlfriend Susannah Melvoin, Go is a pain-filled heartbreaker that mechanically ratchets along destiny’s click track. The sound of a departure neither person wants but both are powerless to stop. Go desperately wants to break out into vistas of swooping strings amid declarations of love, to grab onto Fortune’s celestial rudder and steer the moment towards reconciliation, but onwards it plods towards the silence that follows the closing seconds. The closing door. The closing chapter. Shall we try to imagine what silence looks like? Can it be the back of a slammed door seen through tear-blurred eyes?
About 20 years ago I read a magazine article where musicians described their favourite Prince albums. I still remember this because the dumb shock of hearing Do U Lie? described as “throwaway” seared that remark into my memory. This was the first opinion I encountered of this Gallic singalong – a breezy mood lightener that wouldn’t sound out of place in a whimsical comedy set on a harbour (or evidently set in a nightclub on the French Riviera) – and I couldn’t understand how anybody could have anything other than unremitting love for it. To be fair the guy interviewed used the modifier “kinda throwaway” and only then as a counterpoint to how Parade was as close to a perfect Prince album you could get. But still the word resurfaces cloaked in disbelief whenever I hear the song. The track may be slight – all 2 minutes and 40 seconds of it – but it has an outsized impact on the atmosphere of Prince’s 8th studio album. It’s the only song fully in the French chanson style and how many times have you heard that genre thrown about when Parade‘s been mentioned? The interviewee did say he still enjoyed Do U Lie? and that it made him laugh, and with Prince’s over-the-top vocals you can see why, but the feeling that to at least one person it’s a distraction preventing Parade from attaining pure pop perfection makes me want to burn down the concept of subjectivity and install in its place a golden accordion. Besides Venus de Milo is much more expendable.
HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
If you’re a Prince fan, chances are you’re used to his quicksilver output, and can roll with the twists and hairpin bends – not always on board but rarely shocked – but who could have predicted Ain’t About To Stop? This may be the bucking bronco that throws you off. If it doesn’t sound like a Prince song that’s because it initially wasn’t. This club banger was slated for Rita Ora’s album with the London singer providing lead vocals, but for whatever reason it got dropped. Luckily Prince salvaged it for his penultimate album, promoting himself to lead vocal and changing the hometown shoutout to North Minne. To West Indian ears the lyrics are dirtier than Rita’s $100 nails, making this a contender for his sweariest release since Larry had a word in the late 90s. Not that Prince may have known as he still censors out the word ‘ass’, but my money’s on him turning a blind eye to Rita’s potty mouth. The lyrics are best ignored anyway – millennial angst in Prince’s hands becomes Grandpa Simpson yelling at a cloud – but the music is pure fire. If this is indicative of the rest of her oeuvre then consider me a Ritabot.
Jill Jones (1987)
Jill Jones was always the most gifted singer in Prince’s harem, and Mia Bocca, sung partly in the language of her father, is her career high point. In this song she tells us she “could never be unfaithful” but for somebody purportedly knocking back an admirer’s advances she does seem to mention her mouth a lot. Does she think because it’s in Italian we won’t notice her evoking the Bill Clinton defence of sexual relations? Call me a Puritan but I think that would still count as cheating. Mia Bocca was initially recorded on the same day as Little Red Corvette and then put into storage for five years before being wrapped in elegance by the Clare Fischer Orchestra. Although the original benefits from having His Royal Purpleness on backing vocals it feels empty without the strings – when you’ve experienced the finer things in life it’s hard to go back – which makes the 1987 album track the one to head for, with the Arthur Baker extended mix a close second. The single never charted (except for in Italy where it reached #4) but I put that down to Joe Public’s general distaste for anything foreign sounding than a commentary on its pure pop appeal. I’m sure Te Amo Corazón will agree.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) / Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic (2001)
A lot of noise has been generated about Prince’s forays into hip-hop and how he was deemed to have lost his way once he started chasing trends instead of setting them. Undisputed is his defiant response and answers accusations that he’s out of touch with the killer line “My dear, I AM the touch”. To underscore this he dusts off his signature Linn drum, unseen since the late 80s, heralding a prodigal return that prompts the line “once again, back is the incredible”, leading to the author of said line being invited to deliver a guest verse. (Fun fact: I used to live with someone who believed the preceding couplet on Bring the Noise was “bass, how low can you go / death row water buffalo” and now I can’t hear otherwise.) This collaboration followed years of mutual backslapping between Prince and Chuck D and the appearance of the Public Enemy frontman is met with a burst of chicken grease guitar that truly gilds the cherry on the pudding. Not so for the Moneyopolis mix, which has the chicken grease in high supply but is like walking in on an argument that doesn’t concern you. On this remix Prince rages at an unknown perceived betrayal and you can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t for your ears. There’s suggestions that D’Angelo is the intended recipient due to comments he had in his Voodoo album’s liner notes. These notes, written by Saul Williams but uncredited, called into question Prince’s quality control and described half of his output as shit because he lacks new inspiration and has to serve as his own. If true then what better retort than his critic smackdown that already mentions D’Angelo. Of course there may be nothing in it and the remix could just be an attempt to replicate Bring the Noise’s unbridled testosterone, but unfortunately either way it descends into petulance. You’re much better sticking with the original where, whether his inspiration is Public Enemy or himself in the past, you can’t dispute that whoever decides to throw in a classical harpsichord solo for kicks is certainly not chasing trends or painting by numbers.
Crystal Ball (1998)
Hide the Bone is p-funk where the P stands for puerile. That’s not a criticism: I miss this side of Prince where the euphemisms are written in pen and the entendres are single. Although surprisingly in this case the lyrics aren’t his. According to the Crystal Ball liner notes, the writers credit is shared with Brenda Lee Eager and Hilliard Wilson, which may explain how at times Hide the Bone sounds like it’s pretending to be a Prince song. An inauthenticity that you struggle to put your finger on – like cats on pet food labels, that have the downturned Vs of their mouths subtly Photoshopped into a smile (an uncanny valley that obviously sells more tins than feline bitchy-resting-faces do). Cartoonish Prince is always good Prince though, even with the guest illustrator, and the music here is peak NPG. This 1993 recording has the Michael B and Sonny T dream team bashing out what could be the third in Prince’s canine trilogy after La, La, La, He, He, Hee and Scarlet Pussy. Canine funk taking sips from the bowl of the alpha Atomic Dog.
Unreleased (1985) / Internet download (2001)
Prince has experimented in reggae on several occasions, ranging from the blatant (Blue Light, Ripopgodazippa) to the subtle (Telepathy, Goldnigga). Splash falls somewhere in between. It has a textbook reggae beat with bass that’s broader than Broadway, but the song’s also drenched with aquatic sound-effects and a melody that’s pure musical theatre. Strange bedfellows that bunk up surprisingly well. Splash sounds like The Revolution having the time of their lives and is more summery than a slip’n’slide through Pimms, although the instrumental last minute could quite easily be the DVD menu-screen music for an animated movie about a mermaid. Here’s hoping future excavations into the vault yield lost classics on a par with this.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
It seems perverse to reach Thunder before we’re done with half of HITnRUN Phase One, as this Diamonds and Pearls opener is one of Prince’s most atmospheric pieces of art and an incredible way to kick off his best selling album of the 90s. But there’s something holding the song back from attaining the soul-soaring heights of Thieves in the Temple or 7. Quite possibly it’s the Funky Drummer loop dating it – a James Brown sample that wasn’t particularly fresh in 1991 and has only gotten staler since. But ’nuff bellyaching, Thunder is still a tour de force. Gothic horror meets Christian rock. We’re back in Nikki’s castle hearing doves cry and watching the devil dance in the pale moonlight to the sound of a sitar. The first 15 seconds alone burn with the intensity of God’s gaze and that’s before the choral elements rush at you like an Omen supercut. Maybe we can’t handle that much raw emotion and need a familiar drum-break thrown in as a life raft. Something mortal to help us on our journey through this realm of pure light, like a coin placed in your mouth to pay the ferryman. As the only solo recording on this album though it does make me wonder what it would sound like if the NPG were unleashed on it.
The Chocolate Invasion (2004) / 3121 (2006)
The Dance first appeared on The Chocolate Invasion as an unmemorable but technically solid wail of unrequited love – the only song on the album that hadn’t previously been available to download. Prince wasn’t done with it yet though and re-recorded a version for 3121, crafting it into a smoother but still fairly forgettable filler track… until… OMG until… the final act. Then wow! Prince turns up the melodrama dial to full foot-stamping tantrum and screams “It’s not fey-eh! It’s not FAY-EHHH!!!” Histrionic fireworks that sear this broken-hearted breakdown into your brain. It has a redemptive twist on a par with The Usual Suspects. A slow-boil jam that’s three parts If I Love You Tonight, and one part The Beautiful Ones.
She would later play down the association but this unreleased song was written about Revolution member and friend Lisa Coleman: a classically trained pianist who could be considered the fountainhead of Prince’s compositional complexity having switched him on to composers such as Cage, Debussy and Stravinsky. There’s no avant-garde boundary pushing on Lisa but what there is is a simple, sleek and hypnotic groove. Prince showing off his keyboard dexterity to his new bandmate by piling seductive synth-lines up like serpents’ coils. I originally was going to feature the NPG song Peace from The Slaughterhouse in this slot but I listened to it repeatedly in readiness and my enthusiasm evaporated away. The beat, so solidly funky at first, seemed to show signs of rigor mortis with every replay. In contrast I could listen to this lithe track until the sun blinks out in the sky and I would still spend my last moments on this untethered Earth groping for the replay button in the cold, eternal night.
Newpower Soul (1998)
The beat may be pedestrian, the live chants overdone, but what better terrain to witness the power of a fully armed and operational brass section? The Hornheadz are on fine form as they break curfew and run riot all over Freaks on This Side like gremlins fed after midnight. Apocalyptic trumpets sound the charge of the undead and inhuman. The lyrics are further dispatches from Prince’s Book of Revelation and repeat Anna Stasia’s ‘God is love, love is God’ refrain but the effect on the vocals is more revolutionary than the content. They sound like a vortex of demons fighting for power and are the reason why I included this song on my Lovespooky Halloween mix. Who else could create a song that sounds like the Ghostbusters’ containment unit getting its funk on? There’s others here with us and they’re freaking their non-corporeal heads to this.
Night Calls (1991) / The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
To the dismay of any musicians who’ve spent their whole career trying to create blues perfection like 5 Women, Prince rustles this song up in an afternoon and throws it over his shoulder for Joe Cocker to catch like it ain’t no thing. And blues isn’t even within his top 10 genres! That’s gotta hurt. Eventually Prince realised the outtake was a keeper (although he’s walked away from better songs than this) and rerecorded and released a version himself to see out his Warner Bros contract. The smooth centre of a smooth album. If this hasn’t in your life soundtracked a late night card game then you’re missing out my friend.
From the crowded composition of Eye No we now turn to the opposite end of the scale. Sticky Like Glue is a slinky funk mover, low on ornamentation and high on economy. Like a cartoonist, Prince sketches with the minimum amount of strokes. The Linn drum pops like space dust while strands of guitar are teased in with surgical precision. The vocals – especially the rap – are befitting of a late-career freebie given away with a tabloid paper, but the lithe funk underneath could hold court on any of his early-80s classic albums. There’s a platinum instrumental inside Sticky Like Glue that is crying out to be let free.
Lovesexy (1988) / Unreleased (1986)
On its own merits Eye No is the perfect Lovesexy opener – a technicolor gateway to a world of futuristic psychedelia. It sets up all the themes of the album and lets you know straight away that this is a record unlike any you’ve heard before. But when compared to earlier incarnation The Ball, you begin to miss the predecessor’s grit and grime. Eye No starts to sound a little too sterilised; the lyrics a little too wholesome. What was a thousand-petaled corona of light crowning the very concept of funk quickly becomes Britney covering (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The opposite is true too: The Ball can sound like a premium export from whichever planet George Clinton comes from or it can lack the direction and nuance of its successor. The fat to Eye No’s tallow. The songs are two out-of-phase waves cancelling each other out. Destructive interference. I believe this is a curse sent by Prince for anyone straying away from officially sanctioned releases. A pharaoh’s revenge for opening the vault. A plague o’ all your bootlegs. But from this point on I’m going to break the hex and phase-shift the waves. The two songs will now compliment instead of compete. Eye No will forever dance with the ghost memory of The Ball’s looser, stankier funk, and The Ball will be superposed with all the gravitas and anticipation of Lovesexy’s opening sequence (where we’re introduced to the concept of the New Power Generation for the first time and are only three songs away from our date with Anna Stasia). The waves now bolster each other. Constructive interference. To misquote Stevie: when you believe in things you don’t understand, you suffer – superposition is the way.
Unreleased (1979/1987) / Contribution (1991) / Child of the Sun (1995)
Gayle Chapman, Mica Paris and Mayte have all fronted this song, yet once again it’s the Prince-sung demo that shines brightest. That’s not a slight on anybody’s performance, but the production on both the released Mica and Mayte recordings has dated poorly, while the Gayle-sung original, as with everything else Prince recorded as part of his new-wave Rebels project, is little more than a quirky curio. His 1987 remake sounds effortless though – a sign of the times of Prince at his peak – and is under-polished to perfection. I’m writing this on Midsummer’s Day, the hottest one in this country for 40 years, and the muggy weather fits this languid song perfectly. A cloud of still emotion is held aloft on gentle gusts of warm bass. The air-con is non-existent, the atmosphere is thick and oppressive, I’m a meat puddle in a heap of clothes, but with this on my headphones all is well with the universe. Never mind staying “’til the morning light” – I’m not leaving this room until the swelling Sun swallows the Earth or until the repeat button breaks. Whichever comes first.
Internet Download (2001) / The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
Without seeing the movie it’s hard to know how much of Judas Smile’s lyrics are influenced by the plot of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and how much are further tiles to be placed in the mosaic of Prince’s personal mythology. And to be honest I like it that way. I remember reading that the line “how dare you call the robot Mecca” refers to the Mecha robots in Spielberg’s AI, and if that’s the level of outrage, the more opaque the better. Instead of the paranoid, scattergun lyrics I’d much rather focus on the jittery music: another funky rollout of the space invaders synths, briefly interspersed with a Carlos Santana interlude. It’s the cold shower during an otherwise steamy first half of The Chocolate Invasion; an anxiety dream interrupting a wet one. The beat reminds me of Q-Tip’s Breathe and Stop. But angrier. A Diatribe Called Quest presents The Low End Conspiracy Theory. I don’t know where the vitriol is being directed but seeing it thrash and coil like a high-pressure hose makes Judas Smile a livewire highlight of the NPGMC years.
This Gangsta-gospel soul song veers on the right side of pastiche, as Sonny T coaxes and cusses, lulls and let loose, like a coked-up Bill Withers losing himself in the music and momentarily forgetting he’s pre-watershed. It’s hard to read the expletive-laden lyrics as anything other than Prince clockwatching on his contract with Warner Bros (and in 1995 what else would generate this level of anger in him but his record label?) but the song otherwise is calm and graceful – a sweet and fluffy pancake mix with the right amount of F-bomb currants mixed in for flavour. With different lyrics you could walk down the aisle to it, but Count The Days will always be a coarse but lovable Cockney flower girl at heart.
HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
Shut This Down is a Battle Royale between album-mate Ain’t About to Stop, Public Enemy’s Shut ’em Down and a roided-out My Name is Prince. It’s a klaxon soundtracking the destruction of city infrastructure as 100ft robots clash with the super-hero protagonist. Decepticons’ entrance music. Mothra’s Eye of the Tiger. Kaiju hip-hop from the Pacific breach. Bridges and roads are gonna get upturned and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.