Chaos and Disorder (1996)
A totemic middle finger to Warner Bros intended as an evil-twin bookend to the angelic debut track For You. The simple message of devotion chewed up and spat out 18 years later as a jaded sign-off. Spoilsports WB disrupted the symmetry by deciding to release it before The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale but that hardly dampens Had U‘s cold, downward-spiralling sentiment, sung in the key of fuck you. It suggests visions of a reminiscing Prince facing a lit brazier with a pile of his WB albums, succinctly giving each one a two word eulogy before dropping it into the purifying flames. For You “missed U” but Dirty Mind “found U” and 1999 “convinced U”. Parade “Kiss-ed U” and the pulled Black album was to “tempt U”. Twenty albums in and black smoke painfully fades out the guitar’s lament. Bitter yes but also hauntingly and macabrely beautiful.
The first three seconds wrong-foot you with a country feint but the song soon settles down into a traditional ballad; his first to be released as a single, sharing the honours with the raucous Bambi on the flip. Bambi also precedes this gentle giant on the lp and I feel that this overshadowing rock presence often causes Still Waiting to be overlooked. There’s a quiet subtlety and solid construction to it, which becomes more apparent if you stand it up against With You, another ballad on the album and a whole different weight class. Still Waiting is breezy and fresh but still has heft with more confidence than the jejune pining-for-a-girlfriend lyrics portray. I’ll admit that if this had been one of Prince’s latter releases, after he had learnt how to pucker and twist the format in more interesting directions, I probably wouldn’t be giving it the same kudos but Still Waiting is an important brick in Prince’s career and an example of him following rules in order to be given more license to later break them.
The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
It stretches the definition of the term ’song’ but like Tom Wait’s What’s He Building? or a Dr. Octagon skit it’s a fantastic, passing glimpse into a fully formed universe. Written for the I’ll Do Anything comedy film but ending up on his Warner Bros contractual sign-off comp instead, My Little Pill is a strange, somewhat frightening concoction. It’s a short tale of a single mother taking a pill to escape her troubles and I’ll skip over the unwelcome poignancy later events would shroud this with. I love all 69 bizarre seconds of this psychotropic amuse-bouche but fear I may be in a minority amongst Prince fans. It’s certainly one of the strangest things he’s recorded and the music twists and warps around the half spoken / half sung lyrics like the unravelling fabric of reality. It sounds like one of Frank Zappa’s stress dreams or (and I’m going esoteric here) the animated cupcake scene in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes (just YouTube it) but I would lap up a whole album of these hallucinogenic oddities.
The Slaughterhouse (2004)
Cut Prince in 2001 and this is the funk that would bleed out. Viscous and effortless sounding, it has a Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head feel about it which is certainly helped by the accompanying video featuring a b-ball playing Prince. DVS’s marooned rap in the middle doesn’t light any fires but he has written about the experience and it’s well worth the read. Please note: he’s not to be confused with the New York rapper of the same name who is genuinely the funniest person on Twitter. Follow.
Concealed within the liner notes of Emancipation is a mirror-written message revealing this song’s dedication “2 Wendy and Lisa and Susannah” and it’s certainly full of Revolution-era imagery, namely beds, screams and rain. Apologising for losing communication, Prince sings about wanting to make amends but Wendy later revealed that he never got back to them after initially sending it to her and Lisa for their input. Maybe he just needed the lyrics to fall on their ears first. In This Bed I Scream is intricately constructed and there’s a lot of crowded jostling until the lights go down to signal the track’s natural ending, leaving a screaming, abandoned guitar and a bullish bass to fight to the death on a lightning-strobed mountain top. A battleground of raw emotion turning the melodic and upbeat song into the cathartic release of a long suppressed war cry.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
There is a lot of conjecture about the lyrical meaning in this biblically themed ballad. My humble guess is it’s a wry, honest reference to his relationship with Mayte being mythologised and mined in an attempt to make a hit single. The line “2gether we make the remix a big seller” on the b-side echoes this aim for commercial success. But the message is cryptic enough to choose your own interpretation. The original version’s lyrics are not as overtly cynical as the title suggests and if it had the expected “told” in the title instead of the ambiguous “sold” (and didn’t feature a pile of money on the single artwork) I imagine it would be viewed in a more sincere, albeit less intriguing, light. I know I would have simply accepted the line “so this is where U end, and U and I begin” as a beautiful evocation of the “one flesh” in Genesis, instead of wondering if it’s Prince’s parallax between his relationship’s actuality and mythology. And is the “real reason that Adam never left Eve” because he was committed to the myth? Leaving aside the deep waters of the lyrics, the music seduces and beguiles, smooth as warm milk, with Arabic scales and turntable punctuation floating alongside the swelling vocals. Subtle, alluring and darkly mysterious – it’s no wonder that it didn’t fare well in the amplified stock-market floor of the charts. Question marks lose out to exclamation points.
I occasionally feel like I’m on a fool’s errand with this list, especially when demo songs are judged alongside fleshed out album tracks. Admittedly all ‘best of’ lists are semi ridiculous – an attempt to carve in stone something that is both subjective and in flux – but additionally there’s something faintly unfair about comparing songs in various states of completion. Like judging oil paintings against preliminary sketches. My initial idea was to consider only official releases but that forced an inclusion of songs that I’m not totally in awe of and how disingenuous would a 500 greatest song list be if it featured, say, Round and Round and not Big Tall Wall? It would be turning a blind eye to some of the higher peaks of his output. One such track that makes it onto this all-encompassing list is Baby Go Go, an unpolished demo with heart-quickening pulses of cascading synths that breathe life into the slow, rigid beat. It’s undercooked but has a lot to love about it. The vocals are what you expect from Prince in his prime and the bassline is a peach in velvet. There exists, and this can only be of interest to the seriously hardcore fan, a Sign o’ the Times rehearsal bootleg that features almost forty minutes of Prince teaching this song to his post-Revolution band and is a fascinating insight into its development, showing glimpses of what a powerful track it could have ended up as if he had kept hold of it. Instead he gave it to Nona Hendryx whose version saw an official release but lost something in the process. Mark Berry’s Superstitious mix however is 80s-tastic, with a bassline more MJ than Stevie and worth an aural gander.
A sweet little bluesy number with a spartan beat consisting solely of a laconic bass and a drum machine setting that doesn’t range far from a factory default. But all the better to hear your luscious, multi-tracked vocals my dear. A room full of Princes harmonising over the girl he lost to a “gust of Southern wind”. It’s insanely catchy and it is incredible to think we never saw a release in any form. I guess he just couldn’t find the right fit. The version that’s doing the rounds was recorded in 1991 but rumoured to have been written eight years earlier. This makes sense as the track’s more Parade than Diamonds and Pearls and not only because it’s a letter shy of the otherwise unrelated I Wonder U. More reminiscent to Parade is the way the music takes a back seat to the simple yet emotive wonderings of whether an absent love thinks about him, making it very close to the chanson stylings of Do U Lie? Listen to I Wonder and try not to whistle it for the rest of the day, I challenge you!
HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you hate this song. It’s too derivative. Too mainstream generic. You’ve grown up with Prince inventing twisted paracosms, whole alternate universes to fall into. An artist sui generis. And this sounds like all the songs on the radio stations you avoid. You’re viewing it from high on top of his teetering back catalogue tower, a pedestalled stack of songs soundtracking both the momentous and the trivia of your life story and this could never escalate to those heights. But it needn’t. To hear the splendour you need to momentarily reset your model of the world. Remember your starry-eyed youth, your first clubbing experience, your first drug du jour. It didn’t sound like this but if you fill your lungs with that air and listen again Fallinlove2nite begins to sound so virginal and pure. The bulletproof vim of youth in a month of Friday nights. Being an integral part of a New Girl episode, and one of his rare TV appearances, this song would have been hundreds of people’s first introduction to Prince. Thousands probably. And they now have a whole 40 year discography to explore and hear for the first time. I envy them.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
One of Prince’s slow jams. A break-up soul ballad with surprisingly blunt, heart-wrenching lyrics written around the time of the collapse of his first marriage (could the gold chain he refers to be one of Mayte’s 3 chains o’ gold maybe?) It’s a cold track. Prince set adrift on an ice floe drifting away from his heart’s torment, alone and out of tune with the cosmos. Unimpeachable guitar mirroring his desolation – a guitar incidentally that his record label wanted him to cut in order to appeal to the urban market, resulting in a castrated guitarless version on the single release. There’s also a remix on the alternate Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic album and if the original is cold than this fidgety reworking is cryogenic, floating through the Oort cloud with a heart shattered into a trillion ice crystals. It’s the kind of song that passes you by during the summer years but tears at the core of your being when your heart’s being wounded by the vicissitudes of love.
In 2009 Prince wrote Valentina about wanting to (and we can only assume this is euphemistically) party with Salma Hayek and haven written well over a thousand songs by that point (including a similar proposition to Ms. Crawford in Cindy C) he was obviously looking for a new lyrical angle. And oh boy did he find it. In a pervy take on Hey Jude the song is addressed to Hayek’s baby daughter, Valentina, asking her to tell her mama to give him a call after “she’s all worn out from those late night feedings”. Ooookay then. Luckily it’s more goofy than creepy (unless of course you’re Salma) and it’s good to see that Prince still has the knack of courting controversy in these more permissible times. There’s a lazy summer haze permeating throughout and the lumbering beat is audibly feeling the effect of one too many pool party margaritas. It’s fun but the real action starts when it leaves Hey Macarena territory and a soaring Santana-style guitar makes its entrance, vivid in red velvet and ermine, lending the track a regal air that it doesn’t deserve. An eagle resting atop a pink inflatable cactus, devouring a pool noodle.
A low slung funk number kept on a steady boil, which unfairly suffers from sharing the album’s name and with it all of the accompanying baggage – the indulgence, the name change confusion, the artwork, the Oprah interview, the “no power generation” slings and arrows. When held on its own merits though, stripped of this surrounding ambience, the song’s qualities shine through. It has an incredibly catchy chorus that will still be going round my head when the earth gets consumed by the sun, and the various musical elements bubble away in elegant equipoise. Stellar bass work holding it together as a faultless binding agent. The one criticism you could level at Emancipation, along with rest of the album in general, is that it’s devoid of peaks and troughs. Three minutes in when Prince’s voice escalates into a demob happy scream, the music tries to match the ascendancy but never really gets out of third gear. If this is Prince at his happiest, then where’s the uncontrollable joy of Delirious or Let’s Go Crazy or the higher reaches of the Lovesexy album that we’re used to? But contentment isn’t the same as the giddy highs of being in love or beatific rapture. This is hard won artistic freedom, not precarious or momentary flights of passion. It’s the sound of a well upholstered life, devoid of drama and instability. The song ends with a gong, an implosion and the sound of Prince’s demons being expelled into the ether. You’re happy for him but damn those were some nasty, funky demons.
Vanity 6 (1982) / Unreleased (1983)
Let’s include Wet Dream Cousin in here too as the unfinished instrumental sounds way too similar for me to separate them. Prince’s early-eighties side-project was Vanity 6, a female trio originally daubed The Hookers, and the ensuing album still remains my favourite Prince protégé release. Wet Dream is an electro-pop study in the delirium of teen deification. Vanity (Prince wanted to call her Vagina but she refused) sings “If he combs his hair, all my girlfriends start 2 scream”, bottling up Beatlemania and Bieber fever and fire-hosing it onto the school crush. Half way through the heavens open and purple rain descends, drenching the song in Proust’s “musical, innumerable, universal” rhythm but doing nothing to quench puppy love’s desire. Wet Dream Cousin was written for the abandoned Vanity 6 follow-up album and takes the action far away from life’s tumult and foam, to an astral plane where unrequited love seems more like a heightened state of consciousness. The dance of tremulous youth played out against a backdrop of shooting stars.
Unrelated to the track of the same name on Plectrumelectrum, Wow was written by Prince along with ten others for a film called I’ll Do Anything. It was intended as a big production opener and before they all ended up on the cutting room floor there were five further versions of the same song sprinkled throughout the film, ranging from porno light-funk, to incidental muzak soundtracking a childbirth scene where the lyrics change to “ow!” These were re-recorded by the cast though and had no Prince input. His original version, recorded with the NPG in Australia whilst on his Diamonds and Pearls tour, is a cane-twirling, staircase-skipping, show tune extravaganza. Astaire way to heaven. Ginger Rogers Nelson bringing the glitz.
Crystal Ball (1998)
A rock opera in the style of 3 Chains of Gold, sounding like a bootleg of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and a christmas carol. It’s the opening (and also penultimate) song on his 1993 musical production Glam Slam Ulysses and soundtracks Odysseus’s ship returning from Troy and later its eventual Ithaca homecoming. Dolphins (foreshadowing the performance’s next song) echolocate playfully in the background and as it fades out after reaching its natural climax a sustained guitar North Star appears over the horizon, The Chain riff starts up again and suddenly without warning the song goes double time, madly escalating to the edge of infinity. The actual end arrives in a glittery explosion; the word ‘COME’ left behind in aqua-gold chemtrails. Wow. Just. Wow. It was allegedly written for his Come Broadway production and it’s a shame that that show never got off the ground, although if you check out the YouTube footage of the Ulysses performance you can perhaps get an idea why. Strays of the World is overblown and bombastic but admit it, that is one of the many reasons you love Prince.
Bathing in the waters of Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush, this off-cut from Emancipation is an ethereal breath of poetry. It chronologically nestles nicely between 1999 and 2045: Radical Man and describes a club called Love4OneAnother (the name of Prince’s charity and late 90s website) where “the walls between us will soon disappear”. Everyone in the club has synaesthesia and can “taste the colour” and “smell the fun”, which sound like Skittles slogans but describe a not wholly uncommon condition that affects one in a hundred people in some way. I have a mild form myself and wonder how anyone can visualise Thursday as anything else but a deep luscious green (as an aside, if you can point to where days of the week or months of the year sit in space then you have spatial sequence synesthesia and it may blow your mind, as it did mine recently, to find out that THAT AIN’T NORMAL). So once again Prince visualises a futuristic nightclub but despite it having a 3000-strong dancefloor dancing to a heartbeat drum, it’s not the psychedelic Saturnalia of the Crystal Ball or the apocalyptic blowout of 1999. The barely-there music is more suited to the ghostly and deserted clubs in Graffiti Bridge. Soothing and mediative but frail and susceptible to a vagrant wind. At the time of writing we are only four years away from this peaceful utopia where fear doesn’t exist. We are not on track people!
Trampling all over Roger Hargreaves’ copyright with a lascivious smile, Mr Happy is Prince’s playboy pseudonym long before he wanted you to call him Mr Goodnight. Funk synths bump chests behind a falsetto Prince going alpha male and Scrap D (the rapper who appears on Da, Da, Da and Chaos and Disorder’s I Rock, Therefore I am) delivers an on brand but dated rap about VCRs and pagers. The rapping is probably the reason why Mr Happy is a regular high-ranker on lists of tracks fans would remove from the overblown Emancipation album. Editing down the mid-90s’ opus is a popular and divisive pastime amongst those who feel the 3CD set would benefit from being shorn of a disc or two but consensus is rarely reached on what the slimmer tracklist would be. Despite the hate (even the track’s engineer called it a waste of time) Mr Happy has plenty of character to survive my personal double-disc reworking and is a song that could only have been made by Prince, unlike for example the same CD’s cosmetically pleasing but ultimately sapless Get Yo Groove On. I think it falls between two stools – too hip-hop for the rockers and too inauthentic for the hip-hop crowd. The solipsistic samples don’t help it appeal to the latter who are used to deeper crate digging – the rote “microphone check” sample is from a remix of his own NPG’s The Good Life and buried deep in the mix there’s an Ice Cube sample, included solely because it name-checks Prince. But as a pop song it’s a fun chest puff that doesn’t take itself too seriously. After the fade out there’s a short soundscape where Prince’s sound library gets consumed by guitar feedback and although this was probably added to ensure the CD was an exact 60 minutes rather than having anything to do with this particular track, it’s the closest Prince gets to emulating A Day in the Life and is an interesting interlude.
Prince’s contribution to America’s evergreen tradition of train songs. Unsurprisingly it’s a tradition that does’t exist across the pond because instead of romantically symbolising freedom and new horizons, a train in the UK’s post-privatised wasteland symbolises decaying infrastructure soundtracked with broken promises. Sure The KLF and Rolling Stones had a couple of train-related hits but they love to wear that damask cloak of Americana. The Kinks take on the genre was Last of the Steam Powered Trains which is all about a steam train in a museum. Boxcar Willie it ain’t. But I digress – Train was initially set to appear on Prince’s abandoned Dream Factory project but a watered down version eventually got released on Mavis Staples’ Time Waits For No One. Skip that and concentrate on the Dream Factory version if you can find it. A chugging beat. Whistles. “Woo woo”s (more Midnight Train to Georgia than Sympathy For The Devil). No musical trick is considered too literal to portray a departing train taking the singer’s lover away from their failing relationship and the effect is a powerful blues-tinged funk locomotive. It’s not the greatest song of the genre (Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues takes that mantle) but it’s certainly one of the most well-built.
“Heaven will be here on earth” Prince sings on the opening line of this unreleased track and as the drum machine trudges along, gazing downwards, you don’t expect it to arrive any day soon. It’s curiously non-celestial sounding even if the whole message of the song is of a telluric paradise – Belinda Carlisle’s heaven was on earth and it didn’t shy away from an uplifting key change. Prince’s monosyllabic vocal delivery spirals downward and if it were to soundtrack any afterlife it would be the Inuit’s perpetual summer of Adlivun, deep in the bowels of the earth, caribou boiling on a permanent flame, sanctuary from the ravens and endless void of the sky. That’s not to say Heaven isn’t a great track though and the instrumental second half does justice to the subject matter with synths gamboling and darting over the temporal beat, playing at being harps and organs. Without the sobering vocals weighing the song down cherubs are free to jay-walk through towns and crash through cornfields, creating crop circles with choreographed games of kiss chase. Whippets set loose in a pastoral happy hunting ground.
For You (1978)
The song that made (he would say enslaved) Prince as it was one of the two demo tracks that secured his first Warner Bros record deal. He was very precious about this track, refusing to sell the rights to it to Tiffany Entertainment while still unsigned and he carried it around for so long that it became an impenetrable polished pebble. A sheer glass cliff-face that is difficult to get a toehold into. The lyrics offer a way in and are surprisingly sophisticated for a For You track, describing how, despite being careful, Prince has gotten his lover pregnant and is worrying about how he can financially support his family but will stand by them regardless. Not your average teen R&B fare then. In fact Prince was advised to stop singing about pregnancy if he wanted to appeal to his core market of young girls and the next time he was to explore this subject (Sign O’ the Times’ proposed baby Nate notwithstanding) was two decades later when he actually was an expectant father.
NPG Ahdio Show #9 (2001)
Showing Prince at his most caustic, this gripe against radio programmers was written in response to the lack of airplay Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic received. The lines “why you giving people what they want when you oughta give them what they need ” are repeatedly spat out with white-knuckled frustration as Prince rails against the rigged game that charges for exposure. Of course this game served him well when he was an unknown teenager armed only with a bag of demoes, a deluxe press kit and an advertising exec behind him, but to point that out would be churlish. Ultimately Jukebox With a Heartbeat incapsulates one of the motivations behind Prince at the turn of the century turning to the internet to explore new models of promotion and distribution, appropriately enough only being released on one of his internet-only NPG Ahdio Show compilations. The beat is gnarled, highly strung and twists in complex directions as the song unfolds. Muscular but tense and full of knots crying out for a good massage.
Sharing only the name and vocal hook from the Lovesexy track, this unreleased gem is more of a cross between a Love Machine remix and an embryonic Gett Off. Falsetto vocals, squealing horns and a bassline that walks up and down the scales of happy hour abandonment makes this track beam with the power of a thousand sugar moons. Prince takes the beats and sax left over from the aforementioned Love Machine, turns the chorus from Glam Slam into a jingle for his Minneapolis nightclub and then lays down a vocal template for what will become the gargantuan Gett Off. It makes his nightclub sound like a 1930s neon rap palace. Duke Ellington doing windmills on day-glo linoleum. Baseball-capped flappers battle-rapping with élan. Four floors of jazz and party rap. Actually on second thoughts that sounds like a terrible place but this five minute audio-flyer is a halcyonic toe-tapper.
The Black Album (1987)
A problematic song for Prince and one often thrown back at him when he later embraced hip-hop. It’s a diss track. Not on any particular rapper, but on ALL of them. He derided their lack of musical ability which is best summed up in the lines “the rapper’s problem usually stem from being tone deaf” and “what does that have to do with the funk?”. Deep down I don’t think he ever changed his position on this – understandable from such a musical polymath – but he later excused the track saying it was only ever aimed at rappers of that period having nothing to say, with Public Enemy and NWA since changing the landscape. It’s true that he went on to work with Chuck D and Ice Cube but he also went on to release the lyrically vacuous Jughead so that argument has thin legs. Where Dead On It fails as a diss track is that Prince’s own rap suffers from the kind of cadence that blighted a lot of 80s hip-hop (and certainly on pastiches of it). It should make my critical ear cringe but, like Blondie’s Rapture or even Alphabet Street, it has an outsider charm. And as for the music – the beats are hewn from the finest Schoolly D stone and Prince’s guitar-licks funk with the power of a hundred James Brown samples. It’s just unfortunate that by the time The Black Album was officially released seven years later hip-hop had its first golden age under its belt and Prince and the NPG were playing catch-up, making the message an embarrassing albatross for him.
Slave 2 the System, an Emancipation outtake, was also going to share this slot but I would probably have had to update the name of this blog. They’re essentially two different songs but draw from the same gene pool, riding the drums from Ain’t No Place Like U and both sounding like demos of one another. Slave is the more starker of the two and edges it onto this list, however I do miss the the gentle caresses of Clare Fischer’s strings on Slave 2 the System and wonder what Slave would sound like draped in that finery. The charge of a skeletal war-horse cloaked in gossamer? Lillies of the Nile sprouting from a geodesic iron dome? As it stands though Slave is still a powerful track, raw and with superior lyrics to its contender. It’ll still be standing when nuclear winds rip through Emancipation, its more ephemeral brethren stripped away like tears in the rain.
Sounding more at home at a Jools Holland Hootenanny than a Glam Slam nightclub, this boogie-woogie piano ditty swings along at a rockabilly pace. A young Prince showing off his chops and rock’n’roll smarts. The lyrics are typical of his early career – he’s alone and heartbroken – but unlike, say, Gotta Broken Heart Again or So Blue they’re so at odds with the underlying, uptempo music that the effect is an enjoyable cognitive dissonance, much like Nina Simone’s Go To Hell. It reminds me of when your mind wanders whilst reading a book. Your thoughts and the story travel to different destinations on the same tracks. Later that year he wrote Jack U Off in a similar style which consigned the less subversive Broken to the back of the vault.