The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
Prince in Vegas mode. The consummate professional at matinee, walking amongst the audience, dragging his fingertips across the backs of chairs and ruining your expectations for every hotel lounge band you’re ever likely to experience henceforth. Extraordinary was originally earmarked for a Rosie Gaines album but recalled to be the closer on Prince’s The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale collection, an overlooked track on an overlooked album and the requiem for his Warner Brothers contract. Later it was given a new lease of life on his live disc One Night Alone at double the length and incorporating a sax solo by Candy Dulfer. Happy, Shiny brilliance that never loses its sheen. I’ve had it on repeat in order to write this and it gets better every time. Never been a fan of the word ‘extraordinary’ though – that silent middle ‘a’ is an abomination. Pronounce it or ditch it!
Prince takes a Bomb Squad-style beat and rolls it into a scampish ball with his signature synths and the hoover sound from Human Resource’s Dominator. Ahhh that hoover sound – very much the sound of my teenage rave years and The P was written for the similarly adolescent Tevin Campell but not included on his album, presumably because the longform title is The Penis and is about somebody hitting on girls in a club asking them how many ways can they work his phallus. Admittedly that’s the context of a large percentage of R&B but generally handled with a soupçon more innuendo than “I waste no time when I take her 2 the booth, I say ‘oh, u wanna be with me, how many ways can u work the P?” Yeah, the lyrics don’t bear close scrutiny but the overall result is the uncontrollable id of a 15 year-old scallywag, grabbing it’s crotch and firing off single entendres in a bid to appear worldly – similar to Kendrick Lamar’s Backseat Freestyle. It sounds like the teenage offspring of Daddy Pop and I just want to ruffle its hair.
The Slaughterhouse (2004)
A dizzying ensemble of piano and synths that swirl around like hyper-real confetti in a technicolor dream sequence. Fade in. Eddies of cherry blossom get thrown up by a car speeding down an empty Parisian boulevard. Dissolve to love interest. Heart wipe. Scenes of whirlpool attraction. Cloud time-lapse. Rose petals raining down on a bridal bed. Fade to white. Fin. It’s tooth-achingly rich and I couldn’t eat a whole bag but listening to this track on headphones makes me feel like Karen in Goodfellas on her wedding day, meeting an endless parade of Maries, Peters and Pauls before passing out due to a heady cocktail of pink icing and vertigo.
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Rattling along like a steampunk George Clinton, Morris Day rides this daft Time number all the way to Cheesetown. Shake! is one of the weaker tracks on Graffiti Bridge but anybody doubting the song’s credentials should check out Prince’s Rock in Rio performance of the song. The sound quality of this extended live version does nothing to rescue the cheesy 60’s organ which still retains a faint cologne of cruise-ship, but the track is unwound as a looser Delirious-style shakedown which gets even Christ the Redeemer clapping double time and Day’s original vocal limitations are shown up as Rosie Gaines casts the lyrics in bronze. That’s not to say the studio version is without its charm – the hydraulic beat is rock solid and the pretension-free straight-up party vibe acts as a counterbalance to the album’s more cerebral fare such as the alluring mystique of Joy In Repetition or the soaring cry for help of Thieves in The Temple. It’ll never make anybody’s desert island discs but it rarely fails to raise a smile and a toe tap.
Snaking its way through the NPG album of the same name this three-part groove was originally one full song but got carved up into intro, interval and outro. It acts in a way similar to the ginga in capoeira in that it’s a fluid state of movement, readying for an attack that bursts forth from the album’s more energetic tracks. Or at least that would be the case if the album wasn’t bogged down with those useless skits (or segues) that litter the genre (thanks for that De La Soul!) resulting in a stuttered flow. They even bleed into parts 2 and 3 of this triptych too but ignore the vocals it’s all about the languid but poised undercurrent. Sax and DJ scratches drift by as welcome flotsam and jetsam while Tony M swaggers about as if he owned the sea. Tony, it’s not about you.
Doubling down on the play euphemism familiar in songs like Controversy and Play in the Sunshine, this track from the vault is a deceptive beast – summery pop with an atavistic darkness lurking within. A wolf in sheep’s beachwear. You can feel the beat physically panting as it projects an X-rated screening of The Warriors, with Prince prowling the streets, beer bottles on fingertips, howling into the night. A lupine boogie monster picking off the village’s daughters. In the second verse when the jaunty guitars and handclaps melt away leaving only an a cappella “I wanna kiss you, more or less” refrain, the raw, white-hot desire that courses through Play’s veins is exposed and a volley of “I wanna”s light up a monomaniacal internal dialogue before exploding in a snarling, skyward scream to Ishtar. Play in the Sunshine it’s not.
Internet single (2015)
Prince reportedly shelved his Black album because he felt it was too dark and didn’t want it to be left representing him if he suddenly died. Appreciate then the beautiful poetry that the last single he ever did release was the most positive song out of his entire canon. This bubbly ball of pop bounces buoyantly with an unstoppable force like the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark if it was made of pink marshmallow and really, really wanted a hug. And just when you think there’s nowhere else for it to go the vocals side step into gospel and you want it to last forever. Instead it cuts out way too soon in the middle of an uplifting peak. Much like the man himself. Rest in purple peace Prince.
A sleeper cell of existential skullfuckery. Hidden towards the end of the third disc on Emancipation, this rock ballad is easily overlooked and at first acquaintance you can feel it weakly dancing up and down graphic equalisers of Ford Mondeos across the country. Wearing the skin of Chris Rea and taking vague lyrical inspiration from Abbey Road closer The End, it invites dismissal as being baby boomer AOR. But on the seventh listen the high fidelity varnish cracks and numb horror leaks out. The tide of the lyrics tug you towards a single blinding light, as the beat echoes across the primal void and guitar rains down like heavenly fire. Written for the brother of Wendy (and tambourine player on Around the World in a Day) Jonathan Melvoin after he died of a heroin overdose, the more you listen to The Love we Make the more it morphs from bland sermonising, through painful poignancy, into the eventual heat death of the universe sandwiched between the album’s upbeat title track and Joan bloody Osbourne. Beware ye – if you gaze long into album orientated rock, album orientated rock also gazes into you.
By all accounts 3rdeyegirl are a fierce live act, holding their own against Prince’s more venerated backing groups. But in the studio, the raw energy is tamed and can show up a lack of experimentation. Growing out of this dusty, rocky ground, however, are occasional flowerings of R&B pop, like this head-nodding, funk-hop cactus with a guest rap somewhere between Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes and Princess Superstar. Having championed TLC in the 90s and calling them his favourite group at the 1995 MTV music awards, it’s not surprising Prince is a fan of Left Eye’s rap-style and Lizzo delivers with delta force dexterity. Fellow The Chalice group members also provide vocals (including several bars of what sounds like Samuel Beckett’s Not I reciting advertisement disclaimers) but it’s the freedom of 3rdeyegirl throwing off their hard-rock shackles for the first time on the album that really lifts Boytrouble into the troposphere. A brisk monsoon of funky guitar licks and bright-eyed bass that clears the air and makes the second half of Plectrumelectrum a more interesting experience.
The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
Like the bunny of Energiser this wound-up, robotic drum beat stutters along at half tilt, tussling with restless keys while a highly strung Prince sings about his music getting you high (a common boast found in previous songs such as Now and Purple Music). The result is a jittery, cocaine-fuelled jackalope full of nervous energy and braggadocio. When the vocal track is outpaced, the beat runs ever onwards towards an unknown destination and free of supervision the chords get playful, channelling salsa and Thieves in The Temple.
Prince’s political songs (Annie Christian, Sign O’ The Times…) are usually restrained, calculated affairs, coldly spoken more than sung. However Ronnie, Talk to Russia is a rockabilly nursery rhyme with gunfire and dated Cold War lyrics which thankfully explodes in a mushroom cloud before it can take the Controversy album down with it. You have to admire its chutzpah. It flies in through an open window, crashes about, upsetting furniture and decorum and just as suddenly defenestrates itself not two minutes later in a flurry of feathers and feedback. It’s the wild excitement of “There’s a dog in the playground!” There’s a whale in the Thames! A disruption that’s felt long after side two finishes, leaving you with a feeling of “what just happened?” which is an impressive achievement on an album that also features the flippant bustle of Jack U Off.
A Batman-era outtake. Sparse and raw but a fantastic framework with a great chorus. The sample machine overfloweth, creating a cutlery-drawer sound that’s as awkward and disjointed as folding a fitted sheet, but keeping an upbeat, quirky character that could be mistaken for Art of Noise (a group who scored a hit with a cover of Kiss the previous year). Here Prince is once again the spurned lover wanting to know Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad but this time he likes it. The third verse starts in a similar way to Batdance‘s “Hey Ducky…” and certainly this track wouldn’t sound out of place on the Batman soundtrack – in fact I’ll go as far as to say that if it had replaced the woeful Arms of Orion no doubt the album would ascend a few rankings in the general consensus. Instead Your Love Is So hard has to live forever in the vault, regretting it’s dateline tattoo of 1989 and secretly enjoying the neglect.
For You (1978)
An innocent and naive soul-purge hailing from a time before Prince was marketed as a sexual peacock. So Blue is both timid and self assured. It’s the first b-side of Prince’s career, being the flip to Soft & Wet, and the lyrics can basically be summed up with a colon, an open parenthesis and a sun emoji (if he had called it Sad & Sunny and made it an instrumental you would lose nothing of the lyrical meaning). However, the music is a delicate lacewing. A fluttering reminder of the heart wrenching melodrama of gauche self absorption played by a teenage prodigy. The Shangri Las without the dark drama and free of any studio svengali shadow tainting it with their nostalgias and olds. Teen self-pity has never sounded so pure and beautiful.
A hip-hop tempoed tale of a sexual e-predator. Prowling West Coast beats underpin cautionary vocals and a chorus of “www dot emale dot com” (a URL that disappointingly draws a blank). The hook sounds dated now but it was released a full eight years before Fatboy Slim’s hit Slash Dot Slash and 13 years before the Black Eye Peas were still singing that they’re “all about that h-t-t-p”. Remember, the internet was brimming with untapped potential back in the mid 90s, email being a novelty instead of the suffocating, stagnant water that office-workers have to swim in nowadays. The song is cold, full of the detachment of technology, but shivering with frisson. It’s the sound of the space between two strangers. G funk modems dry humping and dreaming of a broadband future.
Chaos and Disorder (1996)
Coming from a contractually obliged album that’s strewn with scorned roses, high on filler and veering close to Ugly Kid Joe on a couple of occasions, this has never been a darling of the critics. However, being one of the first Prince albums I owned, released in the era of my indoctrination, it will always remain close to my heart. The Same December moves fast through shallow-rooted country-rock, not stopping long enough at any idea to ossify into saltpetre. A motion blur over hot coals. Swallows swerving and diving for mosquitos between a verdant swamp and a sky of lapis blue. Its components have an air of the dank but the composition is divine. Like the month itself I guess. People I happen to be born in the same December as: John Legend, Nelly Furtado, Katie Holmes, Jodie Marsh and a fleeting first love who half a lifetime ago was my spirit guide beyond the pomp, possibly permanently pickling purple a wide-eyed, teenage mind.
Some nicely crafted, good ol’ rock n’ roll, swaying with whiskey and vibes. This would be the zenith of many a Hot New Thing’s rocketing career, before the implosion into nostalgia and good times. But this is Prince we’re talking about and he has a mountain of seraphic output that looms over such climes, so Wow gets to live around the foothills, getting teenagers drunk on its worldly bonhomie, handing out moonshine and free hugs.
Planet Earth (2007)
Fragile piano steadily loses ground to terraqueous bass and eco-religious lyrics before the cherry-picker view pans out, revealing Barry Manilow’s Could It be Magic (or Take That depending on your vintage). Well that was unexpected – it’s like watching documentary footage of an arctic tundra and seeing Claire Rayner wander into shot. Meanwhile the view is still panning out (drone camera now) and the track culminates in the kind of stratospheric guitar drench-out that Slash hears in his head whilst miming on a mountaintop for a disinterested helicopter.
The Gold Experience (1995) / The Undertaker (1995)
This closes the more saccharine of the four sides of The Gold Experience lp and probably wouldn’t have made the top 500 if it hadn’t been carried over the line by the low East wind of the Undertaker sessions. The unpolished version included on that rehearsal album dials down the cloy and gives over half the track to the steady, brooding 30 second leadout of the original minus the dolphin clicks. The lyrics are unchanged but world-wearier and the underwater, panning effect of the guitar shimmers with a sleazier intensity.
There are swathes of Prince’s back catalogue that stand beyond time but this infectious house banger off Emancipation is a perfect summer capsule of a care-free 1997. You can imagine it simultaneously blooming amongst a thousand Yates’ Wine Lodges before withering at the hard winter onset of cinnamon vodkas and Jägermeister promotions. The NPG Hornz lift this track out of mere house territory, gilding it with flighted bravado and the breakdown three and a half minutes in sounds like the world has stop spinning as Gaia catches her breath. If this had replaced D:Rream in soundtracking Tony Blair’s electoral victory then the afterglow would be so strong we would still be crowning him with fillets of wool and anointing his head with myrrh. Yes, I’m saying this song is so powerful it can be used to whitewash war crimes. Despots take note.
Unreleased (1991) / Martika’s Kitchen (1991)
A version exists of this track with Prince on vocals. And also a version, renamed Work The Fat, which is a plus-size paean by a gun-toting Bob George-esque alter ego. Despite what I said previously in Ain’t No Place Like U, this time round the released Martika version actually outshines Prince’s take. His heart doesn’t sound in it, although she never can quite reach the right level (who can?) of raw Princeness on the “Baby when we get started we won’t e-e-ever stop.” part. Yet she makes the track her own (if the title didn’t already do that) on the “Boom Box kick kick kickin” line. Prince obviously agreed as he later based a whole track around that sample. But the least said about that the better.
Unreleased (1993) / Mayte: Child of the Sun (1995)
Prince distills 1993 into a beat and loops it relentlessly until 30 seconds from the end when it finally gives way to rave synths. Howling, night-drenched guitars and insanely catchy lyrics of barely restrained lust leave you under no illusion as to who’s behind this unreleased track and the drum pattern turns up again in Emancipation‘s Slave, stripped of the guitars and sounding more funky for it. Ok, ok, it’s not quite unreleased as it was used on a Mayte album in 1995 (and again by Jevetta Steele) but a Prince track without Prince’s vocals can be a pale imitation, lacking glimpses into an internal sun. Ain’t no piece like the original – plus it has rave synths. Mayte – where are the rave synths?
HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
A sturdy, jazz-funk ode to a sight-giving Nefertiti. Flute, sax and keys trace the outline of a late night seduction, played out amongst neon bar-signs rippling in midnight puddles while Prince fills in the outline with lyrical shades of honeyed confidence. Fun fact: The late night phone-in DJ talking over the end doesn’t actually exist – it’s all in your head.
This mid-tempo, robotic, jitter-funk anthem is adorned with dirty synths that has Prince on restrained mode to keep us tantrically charged, teasing us with flashes of When Doves Cry. Either that or he’s held back on turning it up to 11 on a throwaway freebee album that was bundled in with The Mirror newspaper. The lyrics contain some classic Prince pick-up lines, smoothly pirouetting on cosmic contemplation that we’re all “minerals and chemicals of space you carry within your womb” into an invitation to go home with him to “get nice, till serious is gone.” Both celestial and corny, it’s Eros’s seduction of Psyche acted out by replicants with magnetic eyes of tempered steel.
Girl 6 OST (1996)
This Spike Lee tie-in starts with a Paisley Park (or is it Raspberry beret?) lead-in and then we’re led on a pavonine tour through a phone-sex call centre permeated with ringing phones, unmoored sax and breathy samples from the movie of the same name. Prince wrote the lyrics but not the music (credited to Tommy Barbarella) and it’s a soothing, smooth ride with a welcome cameo from a “SHUT UP ALREADY! DAMN!”, although the sample cuts out too late, leaving in a fraction of the first bar of Housequake. But then there’s no true beauty without some slight imperfection. It’s Marilyn’s mole. Brad’s chipped tooth. Catherine Zeta Jone’s tracheotomy scar. It’s the sound of the Great Spirit entering the Navajo rug as Persian weavers and Amish quilt-makers bow down before the infallibility of Allah and God.
Art Official Age (2014)
In 2014 two new Prince albums were simultaneously released, heavily enshrouded with the usual media spiel as a return to form. You’ve been burnt before but the press is all “fo’ realz this time” so you have hope in your careworn heart. A hope that diminishes during the artless rock of Plectrumelectrum and sinks completely when this Art Official Age opener begins. A new plateaux has been reached. Prince has gone full Eurovision. You should never go full Eurovision. And if you switched the album off at that point and unflinchingly walked away, not looking back at the exploding fireball of Prince’s career you would have missed his most creative, interesting and damn right listenable album since 1995’s The Gold Experience. What follows track one is such refined, purple genius that repeated exposure worms this eurodance pastiche into your soul. It’s ridiculously bombastic. I stand corrected – you should never go half-measures Eurovision. Crowd noise. Electronic hand claps. Ricardo Da Force style rap. The whole shebang. And just when you think he has emptied the entire Eurovision toy box, the pyrotechnic operatics kick in, followed by 16 bars of dubstep, Egyptian guitar and a waterboarding sketch??? The song buckles under the weight and shuts down like HAL 9000 singing Daisy Daisy. Istanbul plunges into darkness as the Israeli lightshow trips the city’s power. Douze points!