Love 2 the 9s is an inverse of The Continental. It starts with light and airy Caribbean vibes but midway it switches into something The Bomb Squad would be proud of. We receive a pummelling of record scratches and a siren-like bassline, somebody arrives toting a glockenspiel and Tony M “machine gun[s]” Mayte, here on her Prince debut, with a rapid fire questionnaire which she interrupts by breaking out her Streetfighter special move, the “Booty Boom”. We don’t hear all 37 questions on this questionnaire (maybe the other half were on Love Machine) but what starts out as Tony M jotting down her name, age and interests, ends with Prince firing off challenges which range from public displays of affection to lying on a bed of thorns while he drinks your ocean dry. As we’ve already seen in Love Machine and If I Was Your Girlfriend, the longer any interview progresses on a Prince record the probability of him asking to drink you approaches 1. It’s like some kind of cunnilingus Godwin’s law.
Crystal Ball (1998)
Concert recordings always sound diminished, neutered of their live power. Even with iconic instances such as the final third of the Purple Rain album, you know it’s a cerebral pleasure compared with the visceral thrill of being there. You may get chills listening back to a gig you were at (the only track guaranteed to give me literal goosebumps is a recording of a White Stripes gig I once saw) but an aide-mémoire is a poor substitute for the real thing. You can never truly bottle the moment. What live recordings can do however is add another dimension to an otherwise flat composition. There’s a reason why the studio version of anti-gangsta anthem Days of Wild hasn’t been released while several live renditions have. It’s a song that demands the symbiotic feedback loop of the crowd. I wanna hear it played at the type of gig where you stash your key and bar money in your shoe, then sacrifice full control to the Brownian motion of the mob. A crowd so packed that you can lurch huge distances in one direction, then another, without your feet ever touching the floor. Elbows kept by your side because if you throw them in the air you lose the space to retrieve them and end up dancing like one of those inflatable tube men. If Days of Wild sounds as good as it does on Crystal Ball with a reserved Paisley Park audience struggling to get on board with the free the slave chants, imagine how much better it could be performed in front of a pullulating mosh pit of party freaks. Dizzy Gillespie’s Caravan riff surfing a primal scream of Dionysian frenzy. That recording would need to sound diminished otherwise it would chew you up and spit you out before you could shout “hold on to your wig”.
In 1982 air travel was still considered glamorous. It was before the days of budget airlines and shoe-bombers, before flying became the carrot at the end of a fraught gauntlet run through a trainee authoritarian state. So it’s not surprising International Lover has lost its sexiness a little over time. The lyrics have always been funny but now have an aura of an improv group receiving the audience suggestions of ‘Austin Powers’ and ‘airline safety announcement’. Luckily it’s Prince’s second ballad in the Do Me, Baby mould and he could croon knock knock jokes over the top and it would still make your knees week. International Lover was set to be a Time song before Prince realised it needed screams that Morris couldn’t provide so upgraded its seat to became the light relief at the end of an album of apocalyptic robo-funk. There may be a Cold War outside but inside there’s sex, laughter and Prince going full cosplay with the captain’s hat he wore in the Automatic video.
Unreleased (1995) / Come 2 My House (1998)
When Sandra St Victor gave Prince a tape of her songs for a possible collaboration she wasn’t expecting him to rework, rename and release them without her consent. That’s how her I’ll Never Open My Legs Again was laundered into Chaka Khan’s Eye’ll Never B Another Fool. Other than sharing certain lyrics the two releases bear little relation to each other but the gold is found in the space between. The version left abandoned on the alchemist’s workbench. Prince’s unreleased demo is a simpler version of the one Khan put out, yet is harder, faster, better, stronger and possibly the wrong speed (such are the pitfalls of the bootleg market) but sounding more energetic for it if so. It has a purity unconcerned by market demands. If Prince giving it the big diva vocals over a sampled Sonny T and Michael B loop is your kind of thing (and why wouldn’t it be?) then you need this leaked track in your life. Any moral doubts can easily be sidestepped by changing its title. Hey Presto it’s your track now. And it’s better than the alternative of speeding up Khan’s version and squinting your ears a bit.
Girl 6 (1996) / The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
The first half of this 1991 recording debuted on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Girl 6, but faded out as it approached the epic jazz breakdown. We had to wait until Warner Bros finally released The Vault in 1999 before we were hit with the full eight minutes. And they were worth the wait. Prince is “stuck in some groovy wet dream” and while the edit could be called dreamlike, the extended version with its white-water rapids ride down freewheeling jazz more closely resembles the rapid-eye movement of deep sleep. Images and moods cascade as a bassline walks on air and Morpheus dances to a circadian rhythm. Dive down and fill your canteens. A reserve of high imagination is needed for the return to the surface struggle of waking life.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Cream was released two weeks before the Diamonds and Pearls album and given the song’s evocative title, raunchy video and the fact Gett Off was still high in the charts it’s not hard to see why it gained a reputation as another sex song. It starts with an orgasmic moan that last for 16 bars. What else are you to think? Listened to in the context of the album though Cream becomes a pep talk like Push and Willing & Able. Prince telling himself he’s still the cream of the crop, the crème de la crème. In the liner notes to The Hits 2 compilation and in concerts over the years he is keen for us to know he wrote Cream while looking in the mirror. This wasn’t Narcissus’s transfixed gaze, it was a fighter psyching himself up to get back into the arena after a bruising loss – in this case the commercial flop of the Graffiti Bridge film. It’s Eye of the Tiger for the reinvented Daddy Pop. Having said that it does drip with sensuality. Like its dairy equivalent Cream is low on nutrition but rich in extravagance. You may want to limit your intake because you can have too much of a good thing but for smooth bluesy pop, baby there ain’t nobody better.
Unreleased (1987) / Private Waters in the Great Divide (1990)
I’ve not listened to my Kid Creole 7″ of The Sex of It since the day it came home from a charity shop in 2003. My narrow expectation of a Stool Pigeon part 2 wasn’t met so the record was relegated to the back of the cupboard where all my vinyl rejectamenta end up. Only recently, when researching this list, I discover the song is a Prince composition and regret not paying closer attention but what need is there for official versions when the Prince-sung original exists? His demos tend to get diluted the further they wander from the purple source. This may be one of his strongest outtakes he gave away – Eric Leeds horn riff is fire, the bass addictive and the hook catchy, but its most interesting element was the one that got replaced. The vocals. Prince starts off normally enough, singing lyrics that accuse his lover of only being interested in sex. It’s a premise that could easily furnish a three verse rebuke but after the second verse things get weird. His voice fractures into a deranged simultaneous low and high pitch, as an alter-ego climbs through a window he begged you not to open. Is this Camille or another member of his internal cast? Was he singing to a succubus within and has now let the demon out? Later a warning about a cage is similarly ignored, causing the track to end amid a raw torrent of unleashed guitar. Like Data Bank and Cindy C before it there’s an excitement about the track’s careening loss of control. You feel anything could happen. Musically, the best version of this song is probably heard in a Sign O’ the Times rehearsal where for 30 minutes you can hear its funk muscle strengthen in real time. But you begin to lose the element which Prince refers to in that rehearsal as “stupid storytelling stuff”. An abundance of songs have a tight horn section but how many paint a frighteningly vivid picture of the creator’s fragmented mind?
On the Lovesexy album I Wish U Heaven is quiet and understated. It lasts for only two minutes and 43 seconds, mindful you may already be balladed out after the preceding When 2 R in Love. Not wanting to draw attention to itself it’s quite happy to do its thing as a gentle hymn to the god in you. Given its own 12″ though it turns into a three-part, ten-minute epic. No way was this going to be his shortest single. It had ambitions. Part 1 is the album version with swagger. There’s a cheeky lip smack after the word ‘kiss’ and if the video’s anything to go by Sheila E has been given snare duty, but it’s now buried lower in the mix. Otherwise it’s business as usual until part 2 when we’re hit by an aftershock of Housequake. As makeovers go this one’s pretty extreme. The Elysian harps are replaced with hard funk stabs and a blast of his Blue Angel guitar is introduced with an impression of Scarface. Part 3 continues the beat but ups the aggro and is now a completely new song. The I Wish U Heaven chorus occasionally appears towards the end – a twitch of a phantom limb – but we’re now listening to Take This Beat, an early iteration of What’s My Name? Here all thoughts of heaven and bliss have vanished and Prince has turned into Jamie Starr dissing your sister and threatening to “slap yo ass”. The phrase “I Wish U Heaven” suddenly sounds sinister. A title that’s turned from lullaby prayer to death threat in ten minutes. What. A. Ride. They do say it’s always the quiet ones you have to watch.
Deep within the the cold, slow-beating heart of 1999 lurks a song so hypnotic that four minutes in, just after its natural finishing point, it mesmerises Prince himself. This causes him to start muttering barely-coherent, semi-conscious desires about pleasure and pain. With the composer now incapacitated there’s nobody around to draw the groove to a close. It continues. Six minutes in and its tentacles are embedded so deep they’re able to extract Prince’s innermost, darkest fantasies. We get a touch of International Lover pilot roleplay, a mention of torture, then a chorus of moans and screams from Marquis de Sade’s jail cell. You can see this S&M fantasy play out in the accompanying video where Lisa and Jill tie a submissive Prince to a golden bed and whip him under a harsh blue light. Sated by these extracted visions Automatic withdraws before the ten minute mark and falls into a deep slumber. It will be 12 months before it feels the need to feast again.
Crystal Ball (1998)
Prince songs often have a long comet tail of demos, tweaks and revisions trailing behind them. In some cases this spans decades. Extraloveable was released 29 years after it was first written but the song’s journey didn’t end there. Two years later Extraloveable Reloaded was released, and two years after that it was renamed Xtraloveable and included on an album for the first time… a third of a century after its conception. By contrast, 1995’s Da Bang had a much shorter gestation. Created out of boredom and mixed and recorded in a day I doubt Prince ever gave the track a second thought other than dusting it off for a couple of compilations. It has never been performed live but Crystal Ball‘s liner notes tell us after he recorded the song Prince rode around in a limo replaying it 32 times. This wasn’t made for posterity, it was made for the moment and got discarded after it served its transient purpose. It sounds far from disposable though. Da Bang has a raw, unpolished energy. The choruses are a landslide of hard rock with traces of metal in its ore, falling into a lagoon of aquatic blues. It’s here for a good time, not a long time, and what’s better: to go out with a bang bang bang or a multi-decade whimper?
Nostalgia is a poisonous drug but I find something vitalising about remembering the awkward fumbles of my salad days. Maybe the pH levels of embarrassment need to be just right: too little and you fall into a toxic, rose-tinted slump; too much and the recollections become unbearable. Several songs on Prince’s first two albums inhabit that puppy-love world, none more so than I Feel For You. With its falsetto and pre-Dirty Mind lyrics it’s a song powered by the fluttering butterflies of youth and reminds me of a time I look back fondly on but would never want to relive. In 1984 Chaka Khan brought I Feel For You to the masses, selling millions and winning a Grammy in the process. I have no need for it in my life. Her cover has music industry fingerprints all over it and like a mother bird I reject it. Gone are the butterflies – the adolescent nerves of an undeveloped persona and sexual inexperience – and in are Mellie Mel, Stevie Wonder and some board-room approved breakdancers. Chart appeal over heart appeal. Give me an oxygenising hit of the OG every time, where I can tap into a reservoir of magic from a time where the air fizzed with a million frightening possibilities.
Newpower Soul (1998)
Come On comes on strong. In the first verse Prince asks for keys to your room and in the second he’s asking for your hand in marriage. By verse three he’s talking about babies. This forwardness evidently fails as he ends the song alone, taking out his sexual frustrations on his guitar. But he needn’t have spoken at all. Underneath his gung-ho seduction sits a slab of a beat. A hard funky groove as relentless and impatient as the song title and infinitely more seductive than promises of perfumed baths and champagne dinners. If your hips can resist the lure of that then you may need to see your GP about replacing them.
The Continental houses a lot of Prince’s excesses during this early 90s period – busy production, record scratches, Carmen Electra – but the Minnesotan maestro fashions these worn parts into pop perfection. The track never wanted to be cool, that’s why it sports the name of a caravan or a breakfast option. Instead it only wants to do you like you want be done and if it has guessed correctly you’re craving a hip-pop-rock-dance powerhouse with more hooks than a cloakroom and a lurch towards reggae in the second half. Was it close? The composition is really two songs bolted together: The Continental where Prince directs a film of how he first met Mayte; and Tell Me How U Wanna B Done where he engages in phone sex with Carmen. Build and release. Shot and chaser. The latter half was remixed and appeared on Crystal Ball but it feels wrong to hear it on its own. Like skipping main and going straight to dessert. It did however earn the remixer the producer role on Emancipation but please don’t hold that against it.
Dirty Mind (1980)
Has any artist had a swifter, more extreme makeover between two albums? Twelve months ago Prince was riding a white Pegasus through a soft-focus meadow and now he’s posing in a flasher mac and bikini briefs amid monochrome urban squalor. Pop pin-up to punk pervert in the blink of an eye. The music on Dirty Mind has evolved less abruptly and sits snugly as a transition between Prince and Controversy, but the lyrics on one track tell us 80s Prince is not like 70s Prince. Sister sees the shock value get ramped up from its previous vanilla “ooh, a lesbian, nudge, nudge” setting to “holy shit, that’s horrific, dude why would anyone sing that?!” A one-inch punch of a song that in its 90 seconds has more twists and turns than a four hour opera. Flash fiction set to power chords. Head may also raise the outrage stakes but has sounded tame ever since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax infiltrated the charts. Sister is as taboo-breaking and as genuinely shocking today as it was almost 40 years ago. Prince at his most punk.
Crystal Ball (1998)
Sometimes the throwaway tracks are the most endearing. Poom Poom wasn’t intended for any particular album or for any particular reason other than it was in Prince’s head and had to get out. With its cartoonish chorus and lollipop-sucking vocals it sounds more like a Saturday Night Live sketch than a serious song but that’s not a sleight. Prince can do funny. Someone that insanely talented shouldn’t have a sense of humour too – it should be against physics or something – but his was renowned. Poom Poom cracked me up when I heard it and still makes me smile today. As the title suggests it’s one of Prince’s horny songs – a more excitable and brattier cousin to Big Fun, the track it samples. It’s designed to be played loud in car systems. Poomin’ in your jeep. If the windows aren’t rattling, you’ve failed.
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. The Persuaders’ thin line is one of the main themes of both Othello and Romeo & Juliet. I read the latter play 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 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 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 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.