Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
From the first match-strike until the final fading note Hot Wit U has a bitter metallic taste that could be considered unpleasant if not adorned with moments of sheer bliss. The horns are on fire and Eve more than justifies the Not Prince billing but, like its spin-off Underneath the Cream, it’s the reflected glory of astral-travelling transcendence that truly rescues the admittedly middle-drawer beat and chorus. In this case it falls to Prince’s dislocated vocals to take you up into that “fourth dimension plane” and when his verses are heard on headphones they sound like transmissions from outside time, or telepathic messages from benevolent beings on Sirius. There are remixes out there. Certainly skip the mix on the alternate Rave In2 album where Prince performs a grotesque coupling with an exhumed Nasty Girl, parading the 80s classic like he’s in a Jacobean revenge tragedy. The unreleased dance mix is one of his better ones to bear that mantle and the hip-hop version I’ve not heard but don’t have high hopes for. But why shop elsewhere when the original can evoke a metaphysical safari through time and space, while simultaneously being asked to dance in front of headlights nude?
Supercute single (2001) /The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
Underneath the Cream… Cream, get on top… As a soy-milk drinker Prince seems strangely concerned about your location in relation to dairy products. Unless he means… oh my! Nobody tell Larry. Underneath the Cream takes its title from a line in Hot Wit U and nestles within a trio of XXX songs on The Chocolate Invasion. The smooth, succulent centre of an early-noughties, naughty hat-trick. Also add the raw intimacy of opening track When Eye Lay My Hands On U and unexpectedly you have Prince’s raunchiest album since Come. The lyrics of Underneath the Cream are certainly graphic but the soft-as-silk seduction slinks along like butter wouldn’t melt. The music even veers towards blandness at times, quietly inoffensive like hotel-room art, but at 1:45 the synth strings swell, the song transcends to another plane and suddenly we’re astral wingsuit-flying with Hypnos and Eros. A “wet dream eternal” you’ll never wish to wake from.
Crystal Ball (1998)
In anybody else’s hands this would be the flash-in-a-pan hit single on an instantly forgettable album. A solid pop song destined to burn brightly for a week. However Last Heart has imbibed the aqua vitae of Prince’s vocals, a luxurious performance increasing the track’s longevity to evergreen immortality. Of course it also helps that this demo was never given the chance to become chart fodder, being intended for the moribund Dream Factory project and resurrected over a decade later to be buried on a low-profile 3CD compilation. A diamond hidden amongst diamonds. The ominous ultimatum delivered in the chorus is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Run For Your Life, another pop song of sweetly sung death threats aimed at an unfaithful lover. This macabre side only further endears Last Heart to me as kids with a dark glint in their eye are always more interesting than those on model behaviour.
A lurching, bluesy ballad where the singer begs his chaste fiancée not to send him to the couch after he ventured beyond the home plate. The lyrics are discreet and I’m not up on my base metaphors to determine which one was reached but we know a dress was unzipped and that may have been enough. In live performances Prince liked to claim it was an anecdotal song about his second wife Manuela. I think that may be a story spun either for entertainment or with one eye on his church elders, but regardless of the inspiration Prince is the Laurence Olivier of dominated nymphomaniacs pleading for sugar and On the Couch is his Hamlet. It’s an Al Green routine we’ll hear again on 3121′s Satisfied and the vocals are more honeydipped than a Rosh Hashanah D’Angelo. As puppy-dog pleas go these could pervert a Puritan.
This ethereal song embodies Schopenhauer’s adage that to read a book’s pages in the correct order is living, while to dip in at random is dreaming.The lyrics evoke a strobing Tarot-animation of wind, roses, Roman ruins and the solar system as Prince flicks through his purple encyclopaedia of symbolism. An empty room and his “lustier twin” Gemini re-emerge from previous albums and even words like “adore” and “call” are weighted with Princely history. Throughout this dreamscape an electronic triangle pings as persistent as an alarm clock. The ringing is only in the left channel so you can remove an earphone and drift into a whispering half-world, interrupted only by the sounds of your immediate environment. The triangle’s presence used to annoy me but I see it now as the wax in Odysseus’s ears, or a bread-crumb trail back to reality. There would be no coming back from a mono version.
A radiant ball of sunny pop that proved too chirpy for The Family, and for lead vocalist Susannah who successfully fought Prince to keep it off their album. You can see why she wasn’t enamoured by the trite Disney lyrics but for catchiness alone it breathes pure bubblegum fire. As a kid I once put a whole pack of skittles in my mouth, naively thinking I’d get an intense flavour overload – the mother of all sugar hits. If I’d only known I could have listened to Miss Understood instead of experiencing the disappointing and disgusting reality. The feeling of having to swallow a mouthful of neat cordial before chewing a huge grey wad of flavourless mulch the size of a golf ball may be closer to Susannah’s experience of this song but for me Miss Understood is the hyper-rainbow cocktail that never was.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
The falling ash of the album’s opener settles into a steady, soft-jazz groove for track 2, where the softest caresses of electric piano, bass and drums dust a spacious landscape for the layered vocals to roam freely in any direction they choose. Muse 2 the Pharaoh has all the ingredients to become the most achingly beautiful slow jam in his whole canon but this is Prince at peak piety and a AAA pass allows him to realm into confusing remarks about the Holocaust, slavery and NATO. The lyrics are cryptic enough to glean your own message, causing some fans to get angry at their personal interpretations, but regardless of the artist’s intent no-one relishes hearing genocide referenced in a soothing ballad. This is Prince though and as The Max informs us, you tell him to walk a straight line and he’ll put on crooked shoes. It’s his party and he’ll sermonise if he wants to. If you prefer your Prince laced with scripture and History Hot Takes instead of naked lust then Muse 2 the Pharaoh could very well be your Insatiable. But for the rest of us it’s not hard to tune out the message while still absorbing the gentle Fender Rhodes ambrosia.
Newpower Soul (1996)
This song itches parts of my soul that I’m scared to probe. Spoonfuls of piano and horns are piled onto a dank and sleazy groove to mask the grime and the result is an off-kilter, back-alley jazz hand-job. The album’s lurch from this dark dishevelment to the syrupy schmaltz of Until U’re In My Arms Again gives the kind of jolt that can cause whiplash. I avoid that clash by skipping past tracks 3 and 4, allowing Mad Sex to flow straight into the equally scab-picking satisfaction of Shoo-Bed-Ooh. Two songs that feel so good by sounding so wrong. Rumours are rife online that Mad Sex is about Mel B. I don’t believe that’s true but that’s now who I involuntarily picture when Prince sing about tongue studs and animal prints. Thanks internet!
Unreleased (1978) / Minneapolis Genius (1986)
In the late seventies, before his solo career skyrocketed, Prince recorded a series of tracks with his cousin’s husband, Pepé Willie. Largely these early studio excursions are best left for the completist but there is one song that demands attention and not just because it’s the only one claiming a co-writing credit from a certain Mr Nelson. Flaunting this attribution, Just Another Sucker spearheaded various repackagings of these sessions over the years (eight reissues with six different album titles and counting) and while it can’t carry a whole album (never mind eight) the song’s an enjoyable, fresh-sounding forerunner of the Minneapolis sound from a soon-to-be Hot New Thing, barely twenty-one. The funk flows thick and fast as the band taps into a gushing vein; an underground stream of talent that will soon flood the chart plains. Despite its high quality I’d wager this historical song doesn’t receive a lot of play from the Prince faithful, not helped by Prince’s annoyance that it ever resurfaced. I know I’ve left the album to languish in the attic with my boxed-up CD collection, never bothering to digitise it, but a 1978 demo of Just Another Sucker lives on in my music library, getting regular playlist love. A candid snapshot of a rising legend before the song was reworked and wrung dry for cash and legacy capital by a snubbed mentor.
Chaos and Disorder (2006)
Prince’s first ‘rock’ album contains two dance tracks that, depending on your tastes, either disrupt the flow or inject a shot of fresh energy. It’s definitely the latter for me and what I love most about the first interloper, I Rock, Therefore I Am, is it’s a brazen attempt to purposefully piss off the purists. How else do you explain that the one song mentioning ‘rock’ in its title turns out to be a rapping, toasting, pop-funk behemoth with the guitars buried way down low in the mix. And how can you ever really know if you’re actually listening to rock or if a fiendish, purple demon is tricking you? Welcome to Mendacity. I can understand the haters to a point though. There are certainly off-putting elements that I can fixate on and enlarge until they sink the whole track – namely Scrap D’s crass rap and the “rock, rock, rock” chants – and I concede that Steppa Rank’s shouted slogans of “to the maximum” and “legendary” are of a 90s vintage that hasn’t aged too well. But as an unashamed pop anthem in a murky album of snark it certainly has chutzpah. Never mind that the lyrics actually contains some of the album’s most pointed digs, with his record label, the bootleg industry and, unless I’m mistaken, the educational system all coming under fire. Yet Prince makes these grumbles sound like a triumphant war-cry of self-determinism, taking the “you gotta be all you can be” baton from Zannalee and amping it up to the maximum. Legendary. All the time. It rocks, therefore it’s rock!
America single (1985) / The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
Once again Prince is singing that he wants “you in the worst way” but unlike the same line in Temptation there’s no love epiphany to follow, just “animal lust” from start to finish. There’s not much to Girl – just a heartbeat, seductive vocals, finger-snaps and astral synths but what’s there is is spellbinding. It’s the twinkling, naked beauty of I Love U in Me wrapped around a throbbing, pulsating drive to procreate. The 12″ version has hidden, reversed messages and lets the seduction play out with confessions and marriage proposals leading up to its inevitable, intimate conclusion. Please avert your ears.
Originally a sweet little acoustic, airy number, Prince decided to armour up the amour for Love’s eventual release, putting his full force behind a loving but scolding message to his fanbase. You’re cordially invited to stop giving him your wishlists and sass and please find enclosed a top-drawer dance beat to show there’s no hard feelings. This series of admonishments is what Michael and Janet’s Scream would sound like if their tabloid-bashing tirade was toned down and interrupted with choruses made up of the kind of inspirational poetry you see overlaying sunsets and waterfalls on Instagram. Shots fired with a loving kiss.
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
In Graffiti Bridge this is the last song the Kid performs before the battle-winning ballad. It’s the step too far; the storm before the dawn; the rock-bottom pivot-point of the spiritual journey and it’s refreshingly brattish. Prince delved into the vault to find the perfect carnal shadow to Still Would Stand All Time and settled on this Devo-esque sketch – an ejaculate conception from his Controversy era. He re-recorded it with abrasive guitar squeals, DJ-scratches and sound-effects which break out like acne over a drum-beat lifted from Hendrix’s Little Miss Lover (allegedly sourced from a cassette-tape as a CD couldn’t be found in time). The result is an untied, released balloon of adolescent libido, spluttering punk-rock all over its bedroom walls and if you play it too much you’ll go blind.
HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
Written in 1992 for Rosie Gaines, A 1000 Hugs and Kisses was plucked out of obscurity fifteen years later for one of Prince’s London shows. It was then a further eight years until it became an official release with the hugs and kisses transposed in the title for some reason. The only earlier recording I’ve heard has Nona Gaye on vocals and is a beautiful declaration of young love, but the stripped-back, updated version has an intriguing atmosphere that worms its way into the core of my being. There’s a coldness and distance introduced as the vagaries of human emotion are now chained to an unwavering beat that’s as still as a birdless dawn. The 1000 hugs and kisses may be waiting but they will never be received as Prince sings his loveletter at the unforgiving void.
On the surface Private Joy isn’t a huge departure from anything found on the previous two albums; a lighthearted synth-pop song full of sunshine, baked in the mould of Uptown or I Feel For You. But if you look closer Prince has a whole new toolkit at his disposal. Firstly there’s the trademarked, anguished scream, a calling card that’s used all over Controversy and kept in the bag ever since. Then there’s the angsty guitar feedback that drenches the final minute; a subterranean howl later lifted wholesale for Orgasm on the Come album. Also introduced is Prince’s first use of the Linn drum, the machine that subsequently went on to power the majority of his 80s’ output. And finally there’s the dual interpretative nature of the lyrics which either see Prince being possessive over a girlfriend or singing a masturbatory ode to his penis. Choose your own adventure. If you take the high road then you get to speculate who Valentino is, the character also referenced in Manic Monday (and possibly inspired by the actor Rudolph Valentino). If you go the low road the only option is to assume it’s the name Prince gives to his Little Prince. I’m inclined to tread the second path and I can only send my sincere apologies to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Due to the way Lotusflow3r’s tracks flow into each other, the start of Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful is awash with the final waves of Colonised Mind, a departing rock tide that soon leaves us beached in pure funk. Part of me wishes the preceding track’s guitar could linger longer (although it briefly reappears when Prince tells us he can part the sea with it) but as the album’s sole party ambassador FGFBFW stands taller by stepping out of Lotusflow3r’s psychedelic waters. A jagged, block-rockin’ outcrop jutting out of the alluring Bitches Brew fog. The groove and lyrics feel better than Prince’s unrelated and unreleased Feel Good, and the frisky horns feel wonderful as they fondle the lean composition with feline tread. All the feels in four minutes of phat funk.
In my youth I had one wish request kept in reserve, ready for any benevolent genie visitation. It was for time to freeze and the oceans to be devoid of water. And then in a helicopter I’d go on a marine safari, exploring the depths on my own mouth-breathing terms. I know technically that’s more than one request, but as wishes in triplicate are the coin of the genie’s realm I figured I’d be fine as long as an unfrozen pilot was thrown in with the chopper. I’m reminded of this expedition fantasy whilst listening to One Kiss at a Time as it sounds full of Ruskin’s “endless perspicuity”; Proust’s “echo of great spaces traversed”. You don’t so much listen to One Kiss at a Time but glide through, admiring the sound constellations blinking around you, hanging in midair like suspended aquatic fauna. Calm brilliance. My earlier fantasies about this wish fulfilment would always collapse under the weight of petty details, such as the exact wording of the request so I don’t go over my quota. Or questions over whether the helicopter can pass through these suspended beings and if not will it harm sealife or get shot down by a volley of unyielding minnow bullets. But listening to this ballad puts me back in the Mariana Trench, my consciousness shrinking under the immense majesty instead of occupying itself with semantic minutiae.
Visions of a loved-up Prince playing with his toy box of mythological figurines in a garden of flowers, taking the Greek God of beauty and the biblical wife of King David and smooshing them together to see what happens. Two symbols of lust’s desire, making out. “Mwah! Mwah! What’s this? No bed? Then we’ll just have to stand”. There’s an innocent playfulness about Adonis & Bathsheba; a vulnerability which didn’t help it survive after getting dashed on the rocks of cynicism late on in its gestation. When Susan Rogers, Prince’s engineer at the time, first heard it she burst into laughter believing it to be “sappy and just plain silly” and this reception is the most likely reason for it being subsequently left to gather dust. An unfortunate fate as it truly gets better with every listen and what sounds saccharine during first impressions sounds divine by the third date. Prince may have quickly abandoned the song but he thought highly of the lyrics, reprinting them as a poem in a one-off magazine seven years later and telling Eric Leeds that they were some of the best he’d ever written. And with sumptuous phrases like “for them there is no morning, only night decisions so grand” or the Manic Monday reminiscent “crystal blue stream of desire and erotic rebellion that parades through their hearts and minds”, you can see he’s got a point. The beanfeast of sugary harp, horns and guitar may be over the top, yes, but so’s catwalk fashion and opera and Christmas! There’s a time and place for moderation and this swirling mass of halcyonic loveliness isn’t one of them.
The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
When Van Morrison wanted to see out his contract he wrote over 30 nonsense songs about ring worm and danishes. Lou Reed churned out an album of nothing but guitar feedback. And Prince submitted a short but damn fine album of leftover jazzy rock and blues that lesser mortals would go full Faust for. It may have been an anti-climax to the hyped up hordes expecting true Vault diamonds but ‘not being Moonbeam Levels‘ is a crime I can excuse. The album’s penultimate track Sarah was the most recent song recorded for the project and is three minutes of good ol’ funky, bluesy rock. Although I will concede that the lyrics are rushed at best. I’ve met at least two girls who were named directly after Bob Dylan’s Sara but I doubt this song has had the same inspiring effect on new parents. Prince’s “girl, you sho’ is looking pretty” poetry can’t compete with the baby boomer bard’s “scorpio sphinx in a calico dress”. However the music more than makes amends, featuring arguably the best line-up of the NPG having fun in the studio, under no pressure to create a platinum classic. If this was recorded as a Warner Bros kiss-off it doesn’t show. Spite can be a creative force – Morrison’s Ring Worm is freaking hilarious and Reed’s Metal Machine Trio was one of my favourite concerts of 2010 – but there seems to be no dark motives powering Sarah. Just masters of their craft kicking back and lettin’ the good times roll.
It starts with a fluttering intro that wouldn’t sound out of place on Purple Rain (but is actually cribbed from the end of the preceding track) and ends with jazz rimshots and a teasing glimpse of a guitar solo. In between is a piano-thumping, fire-breathing piece of solid-oak songwriting where Prince beats his chest and sings that he could sure as hell take the place of your man. The lyrics’ nod to jukebox-perennial Carly Simon only cements If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life’s status as the kind of belter-outer that karaoke was invented for.
The Gold Experience (1995)
Ahhhh the summer of ’93, I remember it well. Onyx’s Slam had just been released and there was a glut of hip hop tracks still in rotation all yelling at you to jump. Boisterous, chanted rap was de riguer as the margins between hip-hop and metal were drifting in a post Judgement Night love-in. Amid this rowdy backdrop Prince wrote Now, a testosterone-filled pogo-fest with a rap more G Love and Special Sauce than House of Pain but goes full fratboy mosh on the chorus. Smells like bro spirit. I once used to flinch at the anorexia-enabling “it’s flyer to be hungry than phat” line, but I’m willing to subscribe to the “it means don’t rest on your laurels” school of thinking in order to bounce to the “big booty heffa” beat guilt-free. Hunt down the Beautiful Experience video for the best lager-soaked rendition.
Planet Earth (2007)
Sitting at the midpoint of one of his worst albums and saddled with an off-putting name, Future Baby Mama’s chances in life weren’t looking good. It’s crowded out of the spotlight by taller slow-jam poppies – the R&B playboy-masterclass Mr Goodnight and the sublime future-ballad Somewhere Here On Earth – and it’s easy to mistake for one of Planet Earth’s many low-key fillers. But once you get past the cringeworthy title and allow the Linn-drummed gorgeousness to hammer hosannas into your cynical heart, you surrender fully to the heady Moments In Love aromas. It even won a Grammy which proves Juliet right: that which we call Future Baby Mama by any other name would sound as sweet.
While you sweat over your masterpiece that will secure fame, recognition and respect; your magnum opus funnelling everything you feel about today’s societal decay into a five-part space rock opera to illuminate minds and contribute to the fall of the venal power structures stripping the world for parts; while you pour your heart and soul into this cataclysmic talisman of righteous enlightenment, a previously unheard funk-riff that Prince belched out in his sleep three decades ago will resurface and cause more world joy than any of your high-minded intentions. Don’t Let Him Fool Ya is barely even a song, more a tantric joy in bass-led repetition. Don’t feel bad, the dude’s inhuman.
Unreleased (1982) / Internet download (2011) / HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
During your first listen to the original, unreleased recording of Extraloveable you think you’ve got the pop song sussed. With its cutesy title and “ooh-ooh!”s it’s a skip through a bubblegum meadow of bath-obsessed, lustful desire. Sweetly persistent but not as unhinged as Possessed or Delirious. Then six minutes in, with scant warning, a harsh synth chord poisons the atmosphere and the sexual monomania gets ramped up into sinister rape threats. It’s a truly shocking moment. This isn’t pop’s normal background-hum level of misogyny, it’s a sudden radiation blast and there’s no wonder it wasn’t unleashed on the paying public. Extraloveable was considered for the Vanity 6 project and a refined version committing the slightly more tolerable sin of misandry would certainly have been a better choice than He’s So Dull. Instead Prince sat on the song for three decades until it was pulled from the vault and cleaned in chlorine for it’s debut release in 2011. Rape reference redacted. The dark denouement now replaced by rapped pet-names, suds and giggles – a rose tattoo over an embarrassing scar. A version pumped full of horns and named Xtraloveable Reloaded was also released which eventually found its way onto his final album but if you listen closely to all these re-recordings you can still hear the blackened and bewitching heart of the original beating away.
Internet download (2001)
I can imagine My Medallion, like all good minimal music, was created Jenga-style with the gradual removal of elements from a fleshed-out track until the Minimal Viable Funk remains. Scratches, space invaders and ignition noises are amongst the load-bearing bricks that stay, leaving a sparse and jerky tower in the Kiss mode that gets under your skin like Frank Sinatra’s ticks. It’s a Looney Toons tale of a stolen medallion with a Spill The Wine chorus and verses that are downright hilarious. You often hear Prince’s guitar-playing described as under-rated, yet in my view it’s his lyrical storytelling that never gets enough props. He can spin a yarn as good as a Waits, Brel or Cash but can make you snort milk out your nose in the process. And as a pun fan, I cry bravo and throw roses on the “Dry cleaning: we do fine” line.