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.
Pomp and circumstance: a phrase coined by Shakespeare to mean celebratory ceremony and fuss, but there’s little of that on show here. The very opposite in fact. The music underpinning Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance is mean and sparse – a thin braid made up of hip-hop drums, the lead synth-line from Sex, and the funkiest guitar-licks this side of the Black album. And space. A whole lot of space. This bare bones beat focuses your attention on the storyline – reminiscent of Under the Cherry Moon – of a rich cougar and a young gigolo using each other for their own shallow ends. A stiletto-sharp tale of two characters “making”, to borrow another phrase from Othello, “the beast with two backs” as a loveless transaction. Murky with the mud of materialism, there’s no glory here, save for that found in Prince’s delivery. His exquisitely acerbic vocals show that in his hands even the grimiest canvas can sparkle with invisible fire.
The dreaded autotune: refuge of the mediocre and the merely mortal. Music’s much-maligned MSG and the soulless jackboot stomp of capitalism’s expediency. 90% of pop now has this vocal-corrective software, papering over the cracks in singers’ shortcomings but Prince surely has no need for such a crutch? So when he debuted it on Incense and Candles fans cried foul like it was Dylan going electric. This was no patch-up fix or homogenising youth-appeal gloss though. Prince took a leaf out of the Cher playbook and wields the tool like a wizard, warbling in and out of key to stretch the algorithms to their outermost limits. At times imperceptible; at times full T-Pain. The sound of pop eating itself. Incense and Candles may don the standard-issue armour of the war for commercial exposure, but it’s worn in a style that is pure art.
Unreleased (1984) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
Recorded in 1984, Roadhouse Garden attended an Around the World in a Day finishing school and graduated in finger cymbals and childlike wonder. In the lyrics Prince gives us a tour of his memory palace on a Toyland train, crashing through a model village and ad-libbing new verses of Here’s the Church (the nursery rhyme later sung on Count the Days). Until 2016 the only circulating version was its sole live performance, recorded on Prince’s birthday that year, and was conjoined with Our Destiny – a half-formed thing thankful for an ending. But Roadhouse Garden had higher aspirations than this soundboard coupling and at one point in the late nineties the song was set to be the title track of a compilation of unreleased Revolution songs. The project was sadly shelved due to a disagreement between Prince and Wendy and Lisa, so we had to wait until a few months after his death before a newly-single and studio-recorded Roadhouse Garden was seen out and about. The separation from Our Destiny didn’t last long though: in 2017 the Purple Rain Deluxe remaster reunited the two divorcees – grafting them into one track again. Two childhood lovers now forever entwined, in mass consumption as they were in bootleg obscurity.
Unreleased (1991) / Allegiance (1992)
Firstly, let’s ignore Howard Hewett’s version. In the annals of pop history Allegiance will be remembered as a bland soul track by the former Shalamar singer; an album title-track that wasn’t good enough to become a single. But as ever with these purple-penned gifts, it’s all about the original hiding in the Paisley Park vault – a demo that even with poor fidelity is leagues ahead of the recipient’s re-recording. Prince’s vocals on this unreleased gem start mid-wail like we’re jumping on a train that’s already left the station. After our hasty boarding we take a tour through the sacred realm of Sex and Salvation, and witness Prince pledge allegiance to his lover’s body which moves him in mysterious ways. It’s a popular route but the air is fresh, and Prince even fits in some on-brand gender-blurring (unless you accept the “junk” reference as solely a drug metaphor). Allegiance, as the lyrics say, is a deep blue funk but I like it. The final 30 seconds alone is anthemic enough to rally hearts and nations behind. May Howard’s version be stricken from the records and let us never speak of it again.
In a time before online escapism became opium for the masses, Prince surfs the web for a better life… a better life… a better life… and as this era precedes the Internet pollution of YouTube comments and social media echo-chambers, it’s possible that he finds it. My Computer is a warm screen-glow of techno-optimism – the yang to Emale‘s dark, sinister yin – and allegedly features vocals from Kate Bush, although you wouldn’t know from listening. Her contribution is buried and distorted beyond recognition. I’m reminded of South Park’s TV debut where George Clooney voiceovers a dog’s “woof”. Or the Brian Wilson song where Paul McCartney is recorded chewing celery. In those instances an A-lister punching below their weight is done for comic effect. The fact that Gwen Stefani and Sheryl Crow also get under-used on Prince’s later “collaborations” album suggests that with him we’re seeing an aversion to sharing the limelight with anybody who’s not a rapper, part of his band, or a protégé in his own image. Or maybe two centres of the universe can’t exist in one recording studio. Wasted opportunity aside, My Computer is Emancipation’s third-disc highlight and despite sampling and serenading cold technology, the vinyl-crackles and sitar-kisses exude a warmth seldom found elsewhere on this album. It’s a sunny travel commercial for an electronic utopia. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to search for a thing called Second Life.
Internet download (2004)
The criminally-overlooked Magnificent – a ‘virtual’ b-side to Musicology – is a beautiful, balanced affair, with plucked strings and electronic debris floating in elegant equipoise. Deep listening and headphones are mandatory. A closed mind is not. Come fly with me to 200 miles above the Earth, where we tap out a primitive rhythm on the door of the International Space Station. Our secret knock is immediately returned, granting us access inside to witness a zero-gravity wrestle between Jacob and an angel. An Old Testament ballet in the orbit of Gaia. The fight has been going on for millennia but is now accompanied by a carefully-orchestrated disarray of sound. Leaked coolant has gotten into the synth keyboards, causing them to splutter out digital handclaps and tom toms, and a low bassline begins to squelch in time with the emergency warning lights. The spacecraft may be about to implode but we’re ringside at the eternal dance of the earthly and the divine, and feeling enraptured we’re not giving up our seats yet.*
*Serving suggestion only.
Written for Nashville singer Deborah Allen after she wrote to Prince requesting a song for her upcoming album. They had briefly previously met in the courtyard of a studio-complex they were both recording in and Prince’s sole contribution to the conversation was to answer “likewise” when Ms Allen complimented him on his outfit. But apparently that was enough for him to agree and to pop in the post this synth-skanker, sprinkled with peak-power fairydust. It deserves better treatment than a country starlet swimming in unfamiliar waters (and at one point was going to be resurrected for Mayte’s album) but luckily three minutes of the raw Prince-sung demo exists, so if you know where to look you can receive your purple fix uncut.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
A cool, coastal breeze runs through The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, ruffling white-linen shirts and summer loins; the frisson of passion under a Mediterranean night-sky. It was written in Marbella while Prince was on vacation with Mayte, and the atmosphere, like Aphrodite, feels like it could have been created out of sea-foam. Under a veranda of Clare Fischer-composed strings, Prince – tipsy on rosé – goes the route of several hip-hop artists of the era and delivers a ragga-style rap of fake patois. I’m sure this verse will rile many but find me a person who doesn’t melt at his elongated “Montreaaaaaaaal” and I’ll show you a person who’s dead inside. Manuela Testolini excluded of course. The Toronto-born, soon-to-be second wife tried to convince Prince to remove this song from the album. Maybe she didn’t appreciate the cold winters of her birth-country being used as a counterpoint to warm declarations of eternal love. Maybe because it’s one of the album’s few non-breakup songs about his former-wife. Maybe she thought the rap was wack. Maybe all three. There’s several tracks in the Rave constellation that could have been sacrificed for the greater cause, but the removal of The Sun, the Moon and the Stars would be like Orion without his belt, the Costa Del Sol without the sun, or like a 90s hip-hop album without the obligatory faux-Jamaican rapper.
Internet download (2001) / The Slaughterhouse (2004)
With a tinny beat and vocals that sound literally phoned in, it’s disconcerting just how quickly you’re pulled into S&M Groove‘s tractor beam. Where does that power come from? It’s geodesic in its simplicity. I know you don’t want to succumb: it’s a Newpower Soul cast-off that sounds like something your little brother made his bedroom. Lo-fi and hi-ego. Prince even finds time to rap about faint praise he read about himself in the newspaper. But the lyrics don’t lie: “freaks gonna bob 2 this”. And by the time the wahwah pedal comes out you’re a slave to all of this sadomasochistic groove’s demands.
Apollonia 6 (1984)
When Prince stripped the Apollonia 6 album for parts he left two jewels remaining: Sex Shooter and this six-minute helping of dreamy pop, featuring Brenda waiting for her promiscuous date who’s currently 90-minutes late and counting. Each verse furthers the story on one minute (7:30, 7:31, 7:32…) and I could quite happily clockwatch to the early hours with these Purple Rain-era synths for company. Add in Brenda and Susannah’s vocals merging into a hot updraft of Amazonian rapture and you have a lost classic on your hands. Being stood up never sounded so good. Don’t listen whilst driving though; those car-horn samples can make the road-rage rise within.
Chaos and Disorder (1996)
The vaguely cryptic lyrics powering this dark horse are battery-acid thrown in the face of Warner Bros, with a pH level that varies with your interpretation. The death in question could refer to the singer’s killing-off of his birth-name in 1993, or an accusation that his actual demise would be celebrated as a boon by the label, sadly topical in this posthumous era of remasters and anthologies. People have claimed that the first verse refers to negotiations leading up to Prince’s independent release of Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Possibly. Although being “a long time ago” I think we’re instead hearing about his first contract in the 70s, with the subsequent “experiment” being WB’s initial gamble on his career. Who knows. What isn’t in question is Prince is pissed! Whereas Face Down handles the subject with humour, Dig U Better Dead literally yells an incredulous “WTF!?” at those who hold his masters. In life there may always be “peaks and valleys” but this brickbat breakbeat is a steady, unrepenting javelin of righteous anger hurled at an insulting offer of “a toke or 2” from the fat profits cigar.
Internet download (2013) / HITnRun Phase Two (2015)
The title may be Austin Powersy but the music is a rich, elegant duvet of sound from Prince’s final album. If you like horns, Groovy Potential is bursting at the seams with them. In various flavours and sizes. Wave after wave of luscious brass and woodwind flood the track, turning all they touch into sonic gold. They’re not the only element to give you shivers – the vocals have a Fallinlove2nite vibe and the bass teases like an expert lover – but when you walk away, your only memory will be of a thousand horns singing the cosmic language of Unconditional Love.
The first record I ever bought was Jive Bunny’s Swing the Mood, a child-friendly medley of jitterbug-era hits. This oft-ridiculed chart-topper imprinted in me a deep love of cut-and-paste culture and became the cartoon rabbit-hole that eventually led me into the underground world of Double Dee & Steinski, Coldcut and Cut Chemist. A world where eclectic sound-collages battled over a hip-hop beat. For a while I started to create my own cut-ups and one even made it onto national radio. They were my thing. Chicken soup for my restless soul. Batdance was released in the same month as Swing the Mood but until now I never considered it to be part of the cut-and-paste genre. In essence though that’s exactly what it is, only the samples are sourced a lot closer to home. Prince’s 1995 release Purple Medley follows all the rules of a standard megamix – a weaving together of the hits à la Jive Bunny – but Batdance is a cut-up masterpiece in the mould of Steinski; a shredded hodge-podge of film dialogue, previous songs and soundboard off-cuts. We Got The Power, The Future, Electric Chair, 200 Balloons and Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic get thrown into the potpourri of Gotham funk and for the only time on the album the guitars are let loose with impunity. Despite being left off compilations due to licensing issues, this three-part sampler symphony is one of Prince’s most well-known songs and possibly his most atypical; an impressive claim considering the diversity of his output. If Batman was fully soundtracked with this cinematic experimentation in place of recycled songs joking about the size of his “organ”, then the resulting album could have been a Burton-esque Lovesexy, instead of becoming a Shaun of the Dead punchline.
Unreleased (1991) / The Voice (1993)
The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the mouth can be a gateway to other realms. Whether it’s Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues, Brahmin Hindus exhaling the cosmic Om or Pythagorean Mystics hearing musica universalis in sung harmonies, people have always sought the divine in the human voice. Mavis Staples’s gospel training may make her 1993 version of The Voice a spiritual experience for some folk. For me it does nothing. Yet Prince’s guide track recorded in 1991 and sung with little emotion or theatrics pulls me in like a tractor beam.He may be on cruise-control, singing about hearing the voice of God, but when it goes acapella he could be singing about his breakfast and still I’d hear a thousand Vedic mantras beat-matched to a Gregorian chant.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Live 4 Love – or to give the song it’s full title: Live 4 Love (Last Words From the Cockpit) – is the big album closer, sung from the perspective of a fighter pilot on a bombing mission. It’s the millennia-long war between Eros and Thanatos, played out a mile above the Earth. This ambitious concept was toned down for mainstream consumption as an earlier recording included lines about the demise of the American Dream and bombs being dropped on “the families, the babies and the moms”. There’s also less FX in this starker draft, generating an atmosphere more in tune with the weighty subject matter; a less crowded battlefield for the Gods to clash on. Both versions feature a debutant Tony M, as the Angel of Death, and Sonny T who kills on the bass, but it’s Prince’s axe-work crowning the final minute that truly steals the show. His guitar solo is the screaming, unbearable tension of existence, as two primary drives wrestle for control of the cockpit in an aircraft spiralling towards the unforgiving ground.
Face Down – a joker card that pricks the Emancipation bubble of pomposity – is possibly the funniest song to come out of Paisley Park. An aborted plan to release it as a single caused an equally-funny music video to be made and if a gif doesn’t exist of the shot where a bandy legged Prince plays the violin then the Internet has failed. The genesis of the song lies in NPG member, Mr Hayes. According to him, a critic’s scathing review of The Gold Experience provoked the keyboardist to go on a expletive-laden rant which Prince found hilarious. Two days later this inspired gangsta-rap spoof was born, with the roastee updated to Warner Bros and their contract negotiations. The singer unleashes both barrels at his former label with the uncensored abandonment of somebody no longer needing to please suits, but what makes the tirade a comedic tour de force is the call-and-response section that deliberately blows the wind out of his sails. Insipid synths greet each shout of “horns!” and “orchestra!”, tripping up the ego and snarkily satirising the limitations of the genre. They slay me every time (although the shouts of “bass!” prompt a funky solo you could club seals with). Face Down is Prince, the trickster god, at his most ribald but it also became the catalyst for this particular persona’s destruction. Due to the coarse lyrics Larry Graham would leave the stage whenever this song was played – a response that started a dialogue between the two musicians and became the ground zero of Prince’s eventual conversion. The self-described “skinny motherfucker with the high voice” would no longer cuss for kicks and a song born out of four-letter words (seldom heard with such dignity and bite) would later be the cause of their disappearance.
“And now,” cried The Max “let the wild rumpus start!” And the wild things pounded their dancefloor drums and scratched their hip-hop garnish and ground their Arabian axes. Tony M went full Yogi Bear, Mayte hammed up her princess role and Prince bashed the hell out of the ol’ Joanna (“are you gonna play on that piano or just bang on it?”). “Now stop” The Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper.
Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Slow Love was originally written by Carole Davis and if her version had dropped first then this song would be a cover and therefore ineligible for this list. However, debuting on Sign o’ the Times with new music and lyrics undoubtedly makes Slow Love a product of Prince at his peak. Sadly it’s a ballad that never gets the attention it deserves, being the Luigi to Adore‘s Mario, but when it steps out of its brother’s shadow you notice something that Adore, or even anything else on the album, lacks: a Clare Fischer-composed string section. They’re the subtle star of the show here and fill the sparse arrangement with the music of the spheres – vibrations from a universal choir which stops the cosmos from disintegrating into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. My love for Adore is immediate, fiery and passionate, yet my love for Slow Love is slow, eternal and written in the night sky.
The Arms of Orion single (1990) / The Hits/The B Sides (1993)
After civilisation collapses and we regress to feuding tribes in a post-fallout wasteland, the only music available to hear will be found in clockwork musicboxes. Revered fossils from the time when the benevolent demon of electricity could still be harnessed. These last pockets of captured sound will only be played at sacred consummation ceremonies; rituals where couples bless the scorched earth with coitus after reciting solemn vows of desire. In this Rite of Nuclear Spring I Love U in Me will be hymn number 7.
Newpower Soul (1998)
The Exodus songs New Power Soul and Big Fun hit it off so well on tour that they got together and three years later had a baby. Newpower Soul may have her daddy’s name and her pyschedelic momma’s “head bob” but she’s forging her own path as the title track of an often overlooked album – an lp that’s a Prince solo release in all but name. Her horns are divine and she scats through the tracklisting with the clout of Ella introducing the band. Newpower Soul may not be the deepest groove on the record but in her words “keeping the crowd moving” is her “one and only duty” and in that role she’s a five-star general.