The Gold Experience (1995)
This venom-sweet song was Prince’s first single after the independently-released The Most Beautiful Girl in the World and the contrast between the two ballads couldn’t be more stark. If the earlier release is a totem of his love for Mayte, then it’s hard not to view I Hate U as his outstretched middle finger to Warner Bros after he returned to the fold – a reading not helped by SLAVE being written on his face in the accompanying video. I Hate U was not the soundtrack to my first broken heart (Massive Attack fulfilled that role) but I do remember the lyrics helping my flailing attempt to pick up the pieces. The concept that you could love and hate somebody at the same time was new to me and discovering this song was like finding my symptoms in a medical journal. Maybe I was a particularly sheltered late-teen but realising love and hate weren’t polar emotions and could feed each other much more than nothingness could was universe-realigning. Obviously the idea wasn’t new. It’s one of the main themes of Romeo and Juliet, a play I read around the same time I first heard I Hate U. But Romeo’s brawling love and loving hate or Juliet bemoaning why her only love sprang from her only hate didn’t speak to me as directly as I hate you because I love you but I can’t love you because I hate you… ’cause you’re all that’s ever on my mind. Boom! Doc, you nailed it! What’s the prognosis? In I like it There Prince worried what he could say that Shakespeare hadn’t said before (which probably explains why the next line contains a dubious abortion simile and the phrase “emotional ejaculate”) but in I Hate U he worded it better than the bard and his arsenal of oxymorons ever could.
Crystal Ball (1998)
Very little happens during the verses to What’s My Name. A softly spoken Prince. A maraca. A low boiler-room hum. In the background Sonny T paces back and forth like a caged panther, occasionally emitting bass snarls. Michael B sits at his kit like it’s a purring Harley, his fingers primed above the throttle. At Prince’s signal both fly at each other, A tussle between machine and beast. Sparks. Blood. Mayhem. Then calm. A lull before the next attack. If I’m not imagining a feline/motorcycle deathmatch then I picture the fight scene in The Phantom Menace – the bass player as Darth Maul, restlessly prowling the boundary like a trapped beast; the drummer as Qui-Gon Jinn, meditative, conserving his energy. The gates open and it’s a flurry of violent, virtuosic combat. Keyboardist Mr Hayes is Obi-Wan, locked out of the battle and desperate to get stuck in. He contributes from afar but today this isn’t about him. And who is Prince in this scene? What’s his name? He is the force. The energy field that binds and destroys. He’s beyond good and evil. Jedi and Sith. Fire and dove. Call him Shiva. Call him Samsara. Call him The Endless Karmic Cycle of Death And Rebirth Formerly Known As Prince.
The Family (1985) / Girl 6 (1996)
The 1996 soundtrack album Girl 6 doesn’t receive much love and it’s not hard to see why. You already own over half of it if Parade, Sign o’ the Times and The Hits/The B-sides are in your collection, and out of its trio of previously-unreleased songs there’s only one stand-out: She Spoke 2 Me, a track soon eclipsed by an unedited release on The Vault three years later. To me though this album was a gateway portal into a new dimension of the Prince universe. At the time I thought Sheila E and Sheena Easton were the same person and that Vanity 6 and The Family was probably something to do with the film. Little did I know that Nasty Girl and The Screams of Passion would become my white rabbit ride into the realm of the Prince protégé. Along with A Love Bizarre they remain my favourite tracks from that world (I either imprinted on them or Spike Lee cherry-picked the best) and the albums they’re from are still regularly on my turntable. The Family’s debut (and only lp under that band name) may be better known for housing the first released version of Nothing Compares 2 U but Sinéad, Prince and Rosie all do it better. The Screams of Passion is their high water mark. A demo exists with Prince on vocals, but for once the released version is superior. A dizzying, headboard-rocking strings-and-screams-fest that was too raunchy for the album’s printed lyrics which primly replace the word vulva with velvet. It’s one of those songs that’s best heard horizontal. And alone. Nowadays, the Girl 6 album has outlived its purpose – I don’t think I’ve listened to it in almost twenty years – but bringing The Screams of Passion into my life is a kindness I’ll never forget.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
In Matt Thorne’s Prince biography there’s an interview with Hans-Martin Buff, the engineer on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, where he claims responsibility for Strange But True making it onto the album. Prince didn’t want its inclusion but Buff begged and pleaded him. Sir, I salute you. It’s the best track on there by a country mile and my disappointment at it not being on the Rave In2 remix album is only tempered by the knowledge it was replaced with something even better – the ethereal and equally experimental Beautiful Strange. This ditching at the second attempt backs up Buff’s claim that Prince wasn’t feeling Strange But True but quality control was never Prince’s forte. In his engineer’s words this track is “awesome”. On the final year of the millennium Prince has the Lin Drum popping like’s it’s 1999. The turntablism (the one element Buff didn’t like) adds a nervous energy and the explosion of keys three minutes in sounds like a birth of a planet. My personal highlight is Prince’s spoken delivery which is as close as he gets to sounding like hip hop’s poet laureate Saul Williams. It marks the perigee of my two biggest idols and sometimes I like to pretend this is a collaboration between them. Strange. But true.
The Breakfast Experience (2013) / Art Official Age (2014)
A Chapelle’s Show sketch aired in 2004 which had Charlie Murphy recounting the true story of how Prince thrashed him and his brother Eddie in a game of basketball while wearing heels. The punchline was they were served pancakes afterwards. Prince took Chappelle’s impression of this scene and used it as the cover artwork for the release of Breakfast Can Wait nine years later – a retort that Chappelle called a judo move. A checkmate. And the song is just as mischievous as its cover. A sultry R&B jam that breaks out into chipmunk vocals for no reason other than teh lulz? It should sound irritating but it’s as funky as hell, like Camille on helium. Camillium. A year later Prince referenced the Chappelle sketch again when he served the same breakfast to Zooey Deschanel in a post-Super Bowl episode of New Girl. Having the greatest Super Bowl half-time show in history under your belt and then returning to serve pancakes afterwards. Now that’s checkmate.
The Truth single (1997) / The Truth (1998)
The Truth’s title track has music that sounds intimate and revealing but the lyrics read like a catechism. A song with a stronger, more personal claim to the truth follows it on both the album and single. Don’t Play Me continues the acoustic rawness but this time the lyrics back up the confessional vibe. Instead of a religious questionnaire Prince drops truth bomb after truth bomb with no protective shield of metaphors to absorb the blast. It’s one of his most candid tracks. In Controversy he fed his mystique by asking “am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”. Here he bluntly answers both questions like he’s filling in a personal ad. As well as giving us his dating profile, he also manages to rattle through all his favourite topics, despite it being a short track. God, race, and the concept of time all get a look in, as well as the emptiness at the top of fame’s mountaintop as he revealed like a pimped up Zarathustra in My Name is Prince. My favourite line is the one about his only competition being himself in the past. That’s not arrogance, it’s Prince succinctly summing up his biggest nemesis. It’s funny to me now but when I first heard Don’t Play Me I found the bravest lyric of them all to be Prince admitting he’s over thirty. To my young ears that made him sound ancient. Like my parents. Of course now, being a similar age, I realise he was acting coy. The more accurate “almost forty” still would have scanned.
Around the World in a Day (1985)
The United States of America. Everything is bigger there. The houses. The cars. The waistlines. Her geography encourages you to stretch your legs in the pursuit of happiness; to go forth and multiply from sea to shining sea. Not like here in cramped, post-imperial Little England where we can only build on top of ghosts and history. It stands to reason then that the extended mix of America is huge. 22 minutes huge. It should have been even longer but the tape ran out. Wendy revealed the song came about during a jam session where they were locked in a groove for five hours while Prince sung America the Beautiful over the top and you can see why they didn’t want to wrap it up. The extended mix (technically the original mix as the album version’s the edit) doesn’t wander far from base camp during it’s supersized duration but it’s impossible to tire of its spacious skies and purple mountain majesty. Out of all his releases only The War has a longer runtime. This NPG song from 1998 also mentions pledging allegiance and paints a similar picture of government but here there’s no patriotic veneer to sugar the pill. The War is America shorn of it’s manifest destiny mythology and is a much darker mountain to climb.
Dirty Mind (1980)
Prince places a disco-funk flower into the rifle barrel of a Cold War-gripped country still reeling from Vietnam and the result is a bassline more devastating than any bomb. This one’s going out to the dancers, not the fighters – a rallying call for those who’d rather throw shapes than missiles. Morris Day wrote the music (or at least the groove) for Partyup and relinquished the dancefloor detonator in return for the gift of The Time. Which begs the question, if Morris had fire like this in his arsenal why did Prince write the first three Time albums? Maybe lightning doesn’t strike twice. Or maybe it does but it takes Prince to bottle it.
I Wish U Heaven single (1988) / The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
With a name like a Bond girl and a tale like a La, La, La, He, He, Hee sequel, Scarlet Pussy has its tongue firmly planted in its whiskered cheek. It is the only track officially attributed to Camille (elsewhere it’s just a vocal credit) but while the character’s trademark high-pitched voice is in the mix, it takes a back seat to a pitched-down bow-wow-wow baritone. Scarlet Pussy was released four years after Erotic City, another George Clinton inspired b-side co-sung with Sheila E. This one doesn’t transcend the source material like the 1984 classic but if you ever needed a feline version of Atomic Dog this is it! Don’t however make the same assumption with Atomic Kitten. That sounds very, very different.
Crystal Ball (1998)
Where is this exotic Shangri-la where people don’t care what freaky clothes and hair you wear as you walk through coloured veils? In the eighties we were told of another love-filled place where your clothes and hair didn’t matter: could Calhoun Square be the utopian Uptown? There was a time where my entire knowledge of Minneapolis was gleaned from Prince songs and to be honest I preferred it that way. The magic gets lost a little when you find out Uptown is a commercial district and Calhoun Square is a shopping mall opposite the NPG store. It’s like somebody from West Yorkshire writing about a mysterious place called The Merrion Centre (take me thur, if you dur…). But such prosaic concerns about real world settings fade when the music starts. It has the quiet quiet LOUD LOUD dynamics that Whats My Name? repeats a track later. Verses quietly smoulder, then the furnace gates blast open for the incendiary, mainly-instrumental chorus. Words aren’t needed. With this backing he could be singing about an industrial estate in Chernobyl and I’d still want to move there.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
The Last December may be the last song on the album but it soundtracks the already rolling end-credits. The Rainbow Children’s true final-act wrap up is The Everlasting Now. It’s where the Vader-voiced narrator (unintelligibly) concludes his story and where Prince reveals the secret unlock codes for paradise (spoiler: it’s “accurate knowledge of Christ and the Father”). The lyrics are possibly about Prince – that’s certainly the impression he wants to give on the Live at the Aladdin DVD – but the Sly Stone references in the second verse are inescapable. Sing a Simple Song, Everybody is a Star and Everyday People get referenced, as does the controversy over the altered star-spangled banner on the cover of There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It may be about mentor Larry Graham instead of Sly, but knowing there’s a Family Stoner in there makes you want to crack the other verses. People have suggested the first is about Little Richard but there’s not enough to go on. Even less for the third. I give up at this point and concentrate on the music but that’s an even bigger rabbit hole of references. There’s the Santana section… the bassline is close to Banbarra’s Shack Up… the “We Want Prince” chants were the basis of a song by Sexual Harassment… Maybe I’m distracting myself from Prince’s proselytising because I don’t want the shine taken off this epic offering of five alarm chilli funk. Yeah yeah, preach the good news but I’ll share the truth: you know the only line people remember from this is the one about plastic boobs, right?
The Black Album (1987/1994)
This house of ill-repute is dripping with sleaze and erection metaphors so in your face you wouldn’t dare linger if it wasn’t for the saxophone enticing you like a red-light beacon. Eric Leeds’ horn-line was taken from a song he wrote for his previous band and later used in live performances of I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man and It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night, but it’s in Rockhard in a Funky Place where, along with Atlanta Bliss’s trumpet, it found its spiritual home as Ariadne’s red thread guiding you around the sticky walls and away from Camille’s randy, diseased Minotaur. The memorable line in this Black (and Camille) Album closer is the one about being “soaked in banana cologne”. Undoubtedly as much a double entendre as the song title but even taken literally it works as delightfully repugnant poetry. L’eau de dépravation. At the end of the track you’re told to tune in next week like this is an X rated Batman serial – same bat-time, same bat-brothel – but no matter what time you switch on the telly it’s still the same programme. Camille’s going nowhere. It’s like the Hotel California. You can turn off but you can never leave.
The Gold Experience (1995)
Prince first gave Shhh to 18-year-old Tevin Campbell for his I’m Ready album, but later reclaimed the ballad because why ask a boy to do a man’s job? Now the only trace of its previous teenage owner is the line “do you after school like some homework” – a phrase a late 30-something could never pull off. Prince’s Shhh starts with an energetic intro that sounds like a news theme – coming up tonight: candlelight accused of mood killing – but soon settles into the type of slow jam he’s been perfecting since Do Me, Baby. Steel threads of guitar are delicately interwoven with orgasmic gasps and a hint of a scream that never arrives, all to keep you on the edge of satisfaction. Two thirds of the way in we get another dramatic news fanfare – sex on kitchen tables: passionate spontaneity or unhygienic degeneracy? – and then a guitar solo swoops in to chaperone us to the song’s sweet and gentle conclusion. The delicate touch of an experienced hand. In comparison Tevin’s Shhh is a fumbled dry hump behind the bike sheds.
Little comes up when I dredge my memory for a childhood awareness of Prince. He was just a flamboyant figure in my periphery that didn’t occupy my thoughts. His first song I paid attention to was Batdance, followed by Gett Off. These were taped off the radio top 40 chart countdown and played to death but the artist behind them didn’t really register. The first Prince video I saw however stopped me in my tracks. It was on Top of the Pops and featured a man with gold chains obscuring his face, screaming his name was Prince. That look didn’t square with the few images I associated with the Minneapolis Prince – the Purple Rain frilly shirts or the Lovesexy cover – this was hard as nails. And frightening. Like a blinged up Predator. It must be a different guy with the same name, after all why would the well-known Prince introduce himself so adamantly at this stage in his career. This is somebody coming for his crown. It was a statement of intent. A yelled calling card. I need to keep an eye on this upstart, he’s got my attention. He makes Michael Jackson’s Bad video look like The Sound of Music. The song would soon lose its power, due to a combination of familiarity, Bart Simpson and the realisation that yes it was that Prince. But for at least a week an awestruck 13-year-old thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen or heard.
Around the World in a Day (1985)
Bob Dylan’s Mr Tamborine Man has people arguing to this day over what the tambourine represents. Is it drugs? Inspiration? Distraction from existential loneliness? His poetry is beautifully ambiguous enough that people can relate on many levels. With Prince’s tambourine I think almost everybody’s in agreement as to what he’s singing about. Let’s just say Dylan’s line “my hands can’t feel to grip” does not apply. But who needs nth dimensional lyrical dexterity when Prince runs the gamut of emotion from yelled frustration (“too bad we’re not allowed to scream”) to comically condescending (“yeah, yeah, too bad”) all in the same line. Tamborine is laugh out loud funny and yet the claustrophobic arrangement of drums, bass, triangle and, yes, a tambourine makes for an unsettling experience. The weird mix of joy and self loathing that comes with playing your own tambourine. Boomers can keep their jingle jangle morning.
Once upon a time poodle-haired lizards with loud guitars roamed the charts. Then God said “let there be rave” and the immaculately-coiffed dinosaurs were hit by an MDMA meteor of electro energy. Those least able to adapt were wiped out by the yellow smiley-faced fireball but the resilient absorbed the blast and mutated into something bigger, faster, stronger than they were before. Loose! was once a heavy rock number soundtracking Hades in Prince’s dance production of The Odyssey. It wasn’t terrible but probably best left in the Land of the Dead. A year later Prince reworked it into a pandemonium of hoover synths, industrial guitar and rave abandon – music for the jilted generation – and outlines of its impact can still be found scorched onto walls in Pompeii. A choir-sampling dub version called Get Loose turned up on Crystal Ball five years later – a leftover from a Loose! single that never happened (So Dark also comes from this non-release). Despite its screamed obscenities and Prodigy-style “let’s go!” samples it had its day-glo battery acid drained. Come’s version still sounds as devastating as the day it hit Earth.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
I couldn’t get into The Rainbow Children when first released, although I now struggle to think how. I gave the album several goes but my younger self must have carried too many naive expectations to meet it on its own terms. It was too experimental and had no obvious singles. Nowadays I rate the lp his second best since reverting back to Prince (behind the equally experimental Art Official Age) and how the hell did I miss The Work pt. 1 which has killer single written all over it? With this album Prince said he wanted to retreat from pop and make music he was happy making, which in this track’s case was classic funk born from a childhood spent idolising James Brown. Will a part 2 ever surface or was the second part of The Work the door-to-door evangelism he practiced with Larry Graham and other Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or is he handing over the baton: “I’m willing 2 do the work; tell me now, what about u?” What’s likely is the title was aiming for an air of funk A-side authenticity. One half of a dusty rare-groove 7″ slipping through a wormhole and landing in the wide expansive fields of wherever the Rainbow Children live. The Digital Garden? MendaCity? I admit my grasp of the plot is sketchy – it’s just as baffling as it was in 2001.
Unreleased (1984) / The Family (1985)
Prince often used his satellite projects to experiment with new ideas and directions before incorporating them into his own work. Saxophonist Eric Leeds and composer Clare Fischer made sizeable contributions to the purple catalogue over the years but both debuted on The Family album where they (Fischer especially) are played with like a new toy. A year later with Parade Prince would practise more restraint, leaving the majority of the orchestral overdubs on the cutting room floor – a ruthless fate that should have befell The Family’s Desire. Their album closer is a beautiful, jazzy, late night seduction of a soldier’s wife. Dreamlike and highly polished but lacks the fire and rough-cut robustness of the unreleased demo. Prince’s early take is less a song and more a container for Leeds’ saxophone that squeals and claws at the walls like caged desire. There’s a fight in there which gets refined away into coloured sand when later subdued by strings and good taste. It’s raw and messy but so’s life. The fact Prince provides the vocals only helps to enshrine it in my eyes as the definitive version.
The Black Album (1987)
The Hammer horror funk of Superfunkycalifragisexy starts with synthy Psycho stabs and a Thriller laugh by Prince. Then we get some of the weirdest and most intriguing lyrics in his whole canon. They’re often interpreted to be about ecstasy (a reading which ties in a bit too neatly with the rumours surrounding the album’s non-release) and it may well be, but not in my head. I don’t want my “bucket of squirrel meat” to be metaphorical. The imagery is pure b-movie along with its Vincent Price laughs and Wilhelm screams. The song is like a cross between the Gett Off video and a schlock horror production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or a porno Rosemary’s Baby. Camp and nightmarish in equal measures. It runs out of ideas halfway through but that’s probably for the best. Where do you go after singing about the aphrodisiac effects of drinking squirrel blood?
I don’t care it’s only 140 seconds long. Time is relative. A minute on one side of the bathroom door is longer than a minute on the other. That’s science. And an interlude packed full of ideas can create more sparks than a symphony going through the motions. It’s not the length that matters, it’s what you do with it. New Position, a song about spicing things up in the bedroom, is just as experimental with its sound. The percussion is some avant garde fonky ish and the whole vibe stimulates parts the scientific community have yet to invent names for. Although having said I don’t care about the running length, I’d happily swap your ten-minute Mountains and eight-minute Anotherloverholenyohead (good as they are but what do they say that the originals don’t?) for one extended version of New Position. I’d trade my bloodline for a five-minute mix where the steel drums roam free as Prince spells out more dirty words in a bid to land his lover.
The Gold Experience (1995)
Two studio versions of Endorphinmachine exist. One recorded in 1993 which out-Aerosmiths Aerosmith with a raw slab of screaming RAWK. And the other released on 1995’s The Gold Experience where Prince beefs up his earlier track with overdubs and makes you smoke the whole pack of cowbell. Your preference may depend on which you heard first (the original was never released but regularly performed in concerts and on TV before the album dropped) or it may depend on your tolerance for cowbell. Either way you’re treated to some primo Prince screams and for once they’re not all kept in his pocket until the song’s crescendo. Straight out the gate we’re hit with banshee wails as he grabs the horns of the devil’s music and rides it like a rodeo bronco. Another two orgasmic, neuron-popping screams grace the climax, one so powerful it blows the music out. This is what the Endorphinmachine does to you. It’s clearly based on The Excessive Machine – the contraption in The film Barbarella which pleasures you to death. Is this how he killed off his Prince persona? The “Prince esta muerto” sign-off makes painful listening today but its placement here suggests his first incarnation was bumped off with a turned-up-to-eleven endorphin overdose.
Bright Lights, Big City (1998) / Crystal Ball (1998)
With every Camille song there’s something delightfully maladjusted in Prince’s delivery. Whether it’s the spiralling neediness of If I was Your Girlfriend or the dive-barfly sleaze of Rock Hard in a Funky Place, his alter ego does not sound a well bunny. Good Love starts off differently. The first three verses are pure of heart and playfully childlike. Lennon-esque in its wordplay. But then Camille’s manic streak comes out in an over-enthusiastic outro which sounds more coked up than Michael J Fox in the film it soundtracks. The bubblegum psychedelia turns dark as its peacock-feathered sun sets to become something more like Superfunkycalifagisexy‘s frightening neon night. Good Love gone bad. The track makes several references to Gustav Mahler, a composer whom Alex Ross describes in The Rest is Noise as “a kaleidoscope of moods – childlike, heaven storming, despotic, despairing” and you could say the same about Camille. Good Love shows the character’s childlike side, while “heaven storming, despotic, despairing” in turn sum up the unreleased album’s opening three tracks: Rebirth of the Flesh, Housequake, and Strange Relationship. Camille may just be Prince with his vocals pitched up but underneath rages a dazzling symphony of neuroses.
This posthumous leak showed us the vault’s gold hadn’t all been mined and whets the appetite for what further delights lie within. Come Elektra Tuesday is prime perv pop in the Shockadelica mould and if recorded a year later would almost certainly have been sung by Camille. I’m not sure whether Tuesday is Electra’s surname (Ruby’s sister perhaps?) or whether that’s solely the day on offer to hook up. When my mom started dating my dad they only met on Tuesdays before he promoted her to his Saturday Girl. That’s when she knew things were serious. Maybe things with Elektra hadn’t got to that stage yet and she was behind Darling Nicki, Bambi, Scarlet Pussy and Dorothy Parker in Prince’s weekly rota. He probably ditched Elektra for the next girl that put him in a trance, the aforementioned Shockadelica, but as Tara Leigh Patrick will tell you he never forgot her name.
At an NPG reunion party Michael B and Sonny T chill with Prince in a lava lamp lounge. Enwombed in beanbags they put the world to rights with 4am epiphanies that fade with the morning sun. Luckily for us the tape was rolling. That may not be how Colonized Mind came about but the song inhabits the same late night / early morning world. A time that’s neither day or night, nor today or tomorrow. A hazy calendarless cusp that allows the mind to float into less temporal climes. You need to be in the right headspace for Colonized Mind. In the cold light of day it’s all smoke and guitar pedal mirrors. But if heard as the sun hugs the horizon you become Odysseus entering The Land of the Dead on a quest to find out the answer to the riddle of Prince’s will.
It’s easy to see why Lust U Always never got released. Its hydraulic synth-funk more than justifies an album call-up but the lyrics go darkside quick. It feels like an exorcism. Or a fun ouija game gone wrong. Prince taps into his libido’s vast reservoir but dark forces pull him under, causing what should be a low-status character rendered helpless by desire to become something much more threatening. The first line warns “touch me at your own risk, I’m not responsible for anything I do” and the helter skelter ride into psychopathy begins. Surprisingly it was offered to Robert Palmer to record in the late 80s but was obviously too monomaniacal for Mr Addicted To Love to consider. Instead it’s doomed to linger in the darker recesses of the vault. An exorcised demon shocking newcomers with its poisonous, lascivious tongue.