Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Slow Love was originally written by Carole Davis and if her version had been released first then this song would class as a cover and be therefore ineligible for this list. But 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, yet 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 preventing the cosmos from disintegrating into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. My love for Adore is immediate, firey and passionate, yet my love for Slow Love is slow, eternal and written in the stars.
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.
For You (1978)
Just As Long As We’re Together is the Bayeux tapestry of early Prince history. An illuminating trip through his initial studio excursions. The song started life in 1976 as an instrumental called Jelly Jam and ended up as his second single and (running time-wise) a sixth of his debut album. For two years it was constantly rerecorded, increasing in size and complexity with each iteration, and was used as a showreel of the youngster’s virtuoso chaos magick to secure a record deal. He even rerecorded it live in front of record executives to prove his one-teen-band status. As his foot-in-the-door it may be the most important song in his entire canon and although it was soon eclipsed by more natural and mature displays of his talent Prince greedily piles his plate with enough disco chops and funky licks to feed Earth, Wind and Fire for a lifetime.
Prince rages against The Machine over bluesy, smoky back-room funk. Although the tone is more despair than anger. A What’s Going On for the Dubya years. With Maceo, Sheila, Candy, Renata and Rhonda in tow, and armed with a bible and a copy of the constitution, Prince dictates a letter to politicians unnamed, listing depressing signs of the times and signing off with the three words “we tired U’all!”. In his late 40s he’s witnessed enough corporate and political rapacity that there’s no outrage left in the tank, just world-weariness. Ripe conditions for the languid kind of funk Marvin used to make.
Romance 1600 (1985)
Sheila E gets the official writer’s credit but they’re fooling no-one, this is a Prince composition from root to branch. Created on the road during the Purple Rain tour, Dear Michaelangelo (sic) is a masterpiece marred only by the abrupt ending (which was possibly lost in a land-grab by the gargantuan A Love Bizarre). I always feel sad when the sax solo finishes as I know the plug is about to be pulled. Maybe it was the only way they knew how to stop this snowballing behemoth of dreamy pop, penned by a 20th Century Renaissance man but crafted by Sheila into one of her finest moments. It’s questionable why it was the B-side on the album’s second single, instead of the A-side though. It’s like if a Vatican City tourist brochure decided to lead with photos of the Sistine Chapel floor.
This is epic. It sounds like Prince played a game of exquisite corpse with his engineer, or gave him a transcribed dream which was then translated into Polish and back. However it was created, Joint 2 Joint is certainly the album’s most experimental track but you wouldn’t guess from the first two minutes as it starts off as standard Emancipation-by-numbers fare; a nightclub churning out pleasing but predictable RnB. Then, just as your eyes glaze over you’re invited up to the first floor where the live acts are. Poet99 gets upgraded from her usual two-word vocal sample to a full spoken word performance (albeit one used previously for The Dream Warriors) and she shares the bill with rockers and tapdancers in the true spirit of 90s eclecticism. A door in the back wall lures you further into the rabbit hole, and on the second floor the atmosphere takes on a darker tint. Walking past the whips, chains and moans of an S&M party you find Prince in the back room eating his cereal. A displeased kingpin caught off-guard. A hasty retreat follows and the last minute is given over to the early morning taxi ride home where you’re left wondering what the hell just happened.
Unreleased (1984) / Different Light (1986)
The mid-eighties were such a Midas period for Prince that even his cast-offs proved to be worldwide top-10 hits. Manic Monday was pulled from the Apollonia 6 album and only given to The Bangles two years later because, according to Wendy, he thought the lead singer, Susanna Hoffs, looked cute. However, it is possible Prince always sensed the song’s mainstream appeal and jettisoned it from his side-project, along with 17 Days and The Glamorous Life, to be given the chance to germinate on more fertile ground. He didn’t have the utmost confidence in Apollonia Kotero’s singing ability and although he also appears on the original demo, the vocals pale when compared to Susanna’s rendition. It’s like a room lit by tubular lighting-strips suddenly being flooded with daylight. Manic Monday may have been written by somebody to whom rat-race commutes and 9 to 5 drudgery are an exotic novelty but beneath the occasionally hollow-sounding lyrics and 1999 melody run a “crystal blue Italian stream” of sparkling, innocent pop.
Prince may insist that this is his future soul song but it could be a Platonic solid of every one of his previous ballads. The trusty Linn-drum snaps underneath a miasma cloud of all his slow jams sung at once. A gorgeous taste of what his dreamt voice coming “from every mountain top” would sound like. Of course Prince isn’t asking you to file this under Future Soul though. The title refers to the subject matter: souls in the future. It’s another postcard from the Day of Reckoning and the swelling vocals do such a good job of making me wish I was there that I’m ready to sign up to this all-singing oneness right away. The wall-dissolving enlightenment of 2020 isn’t far off.
New Power Generation single (1990)
A glut of Prince tracks from the early nineties fall between being remixes and brand new songs and Loveleft, Loveright is possibly the only one to surpass its source. It’s heard in the final bars of New Power Generation pt II, buried under an avalanche of inferior spin-offs but the full track is a different beast indeed. Admittedly on paper it doesn’t sound much. The barest amount of instrumentation clings to a thumping beat, as Prince enthuses about a ménage à trois. Yet the bass is a foot-thick sidewinder and the chorus is infectious enough you’ll be singing it until the sky turns purple. Also the choppy guitar in the largely instrumental second half is julienned to perfection. Loveleft, Loveright is easily lost amongst the iterative clutter of the maxi-single years but goes to show that even in the darkest bowels of his catalogue there’s ambergris to be found.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
The oft-mocked Jughead is the sacrificial lamb passed around the entire fanbase to reset swords and unify over. A panto villain that’s both punchline and punching bag. Whether the lion’s share of flack is earnest or Pavlovian I can’t work out but I will personally stand up to say I love its “stoopid” little face. How can you not? Okay so it goes heavy on the acquired taste of Tony M (Prince’s vocal involvement totals less than 20 seconds) and I could go without the rant at the end that got Prince sued by his ex-manager for $5m. But the song itself is a frantic spring cleaning of pretensions before the introverted calm of Money Don’t Matter 2 Night. Mellifluous humming from Rosie kicks things off and while you’re safely lulled the traps are lifted and the Jughead dogs are let loose, panting and snarling, trained to attack the body and not the head. This “new dance commercial take 2” (Horny Pony was take 1) will never be fashionable but the most fun things in life never are.
Unreleased (1994) / Internet download (2001)
Surfing in on a loop of Headshock’s Bebop Ta Hip Hop, this Exodus shortlister lays down everything you’d expect from a Prince production in 1994. The bridge and chorus are catchier than a yawn but all the boxes are ticked so methodically there doesn’t seem any room to imprint its own character. For a track named Mad it’s sadly lacking in unpredictability. And that’s when Prince flips the “dirty switch”. Yes! A burst of guitar gushes forth that sounds like all hell’s wasps. There’s witchcraft afoot and for a brief moment the track suddenly turns from mad kooky to mad certifiable, like a realisation the hearts that somebody dotted their ‘i’s with were written in blood. I have a list as long as your arm of other tracks where I wish that guitar switch had been found.
Unreleased (1988) / Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Born in the Lovesexy era, this lumbering, trumpeting celebration of all the Creator’s creations had to wait until the release of the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack before it could be unleashed onto the paying public. And in it crashes like a pachyderm in a florists. The 1988 original features an elephantine bass synth that could feed a sieged city for days but is sadly buried in the mix on the album version. So much for all the talk in the updated lyrics about stripping down. This later version unfortunately also suffers from the same recording glitches heard on Tick, Tick Bang: an accidental ‘fart’ noise seven seconds from the end that somehow fits the adolescent Controversy offcut but is jarring on this scooping of sunny Lovesexy pyschedelia. However, what it loses in bass and dignity it gains in finesse and sheer joy. With new screenplay-appropriate lyrics Elephants & Flowers is an upbeat hymn pumped up on sunshine and steroids. All Creatures Great and Small (Horton Hears a Who mix).
HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
A bass riff so thick and funky it was brought in from the live environment to be tamed into a studio recording. The result sounds several shades of awesome but an animal this wild can’t be made to play by our rules. You can coaxed it into wearing a simple three verse song structure if labelled clearly (“first things first…” etc.) but compromises aren’t a part of its limited vocab. The lead will just unflinchingly do its thing, only pausing briefly at crowd-pleasing commands like Kiss (evidently yet to learn the trick Sexy Dancer). Whatever you do though, don’t fade out early or you’ll be knocked aside as it runs snarling to the mixing desk to get its paws on the fader. Best to leave it to play until it tires. Or better yet release back into its natural habitat on stage. Remember what happened to Siegfried and Roy?
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 asking you 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.