176: Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife

Emancipation (1996)
The cream of Emancipation can be found on its second disc, and the crème de la crème is Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife, Prince’s wedding gift to Mayte. Like most weddings, the previous hour or two have been a love-in of sweet sentiment, tired tropes, and readings that range from the rote to the ridiculous – but it’s all been leading to this moment: the vows. And as soon as they start, the album-standard plastic drums get lost under a tsunami of swelling strings, backing vocals and bridal balladry. Out of all the weddings I’ve been to, only my own surpasses this listening experience. And even that may be too close to call.

284: My Computer

Emancipation (1996)
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 Emales 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.

295: Face Down

Emancipation (1996)
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 an 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.

303: Joint 2 Joint

Emancipation (1996)
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.

315: Dreamin’ About U

Emancipation (1996)
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.

327: One Kiss at a Time

Emancipation (1996)
In my youth I had one wish request kept in reserve, ready for any benevolent genie visitation. It was for time to freeze and the oceans to be devoid of water. And then in a helicopter I’d go on a marine safari, exploring the depths on my own mouth-breathing terms. I know technically that’s more than one request, but as wishes in triplicate are the coin of the genie’s realm I figured I’d be fine as long as an unfrozen pilot was thrown in with the chopper. I’m reminded of this expedition fantasy whilst listening to One Kiss at a Time as it sounds full of Ruskin’s “endless perspicuity”; Proust’s “echo of great spaces traversed”. You don’t so much listen to One Kiss at a Time but glide through, admiring the sound constellations blinking around you, hanging in midair like suspended aquatic fauna. Calm brilliance. My earlier fantasies about this wish fulfilment would always collapse under the weight of petty details, such as the exact wording of the request so I don’t go over my quota. Or questions over whether the helicopter can pass through these suspended beings and if not will it harm sealife or get shot down by a volley of unyielding minnow bullets. But listening to this ballad puts me back in the Mariana Trench, my consciousness shrinking under the immense majesty instead of occupying itself with semantic minutiae.

341: Let’s Have a Baby

Emancipation (1996)
After being persuaded to stop singing about pregnancy in the 70s due to it turning off his teen fanbase, it wasn’t until this declaration of intent was debuted at Prince and Mayte’s wedding reception in 1996 that the baby embargo was broken. No ambiguity here, the message is broadcasted as clear as an elderly aunt’s nudges. Baby please! But what beauty contained within. Intimate and vulnerable, Let’s Have a “Beh-bayyyy” is stripped down more than a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy but Prince can’t resist raiding his sound library for the old faithful ‘ticking clock’ effect, making the intro sound like Countdown’s about to start. When the FX are out of his system, what follows is a sensational piano ballad evoking How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore and the One Night Alone album. Prince tickles the ivories as bass synths flutter like white peacocks and incredible vocals melt all hearts within listening distance. Let’s Have a Baby makes for a hard listen knowing the history but its siren-like power is hard to deny. There’s a strong case for the song to be made illegal lest it causes an overpopulation crisis.

359: Da, Da, Da

Emancipation (1996)
In my youth, in order to feed an unquenchable thirst for mid 90s hip-hop I would spend weekends raiding Our Price bargain bins and buying up anything sporting a Parental Advisory sticker (the very one that was outraged into existence by Darling Nikki a decade earlier). The results were mixed. Stone cold classics got unearthed alongside cynical cash-ins and I acquired enough unchallenging g-funk and gangsta rap to fill a bath. And bathe in it I did, constantly. If you could take a median average of this collection the resulting song would sound something like a Scarface b-side with a competent yet easily forgettable rapper. Or, in other words, the first half of Da, Da, Da. Even Scrap D’s verses sound like a hip-hop word cloud. But two and a half minutes in, Prince steps out of the catchy (yet lyrically lazy) chorus to deliver a brief verse of positivity and then at the point where most producers would be on repeat-to-fade mode, he unleashes the guitars which sends the beat into spasms and elevates this track from hip-hop plaything into one of the album’s standout songs. The meaningless title becomes a nation of Russians chanting ‘yes, yes, yes’ as Kali, goddess of the boom bap, sits on a bed of jewel cases, rattling her gold rope of human skulls and scratched CD singles in time to a Funkmaster Flex mixtape.

398: Curious Child

Emancipation (1996)
If there was ever a Prince song that highlighted the disparity between being heard on headphones or not it would be Curious Child. Played through speakers it begins to grate, the harpsichord-sounding melody, quirky at first, soon becomes a steel comb raking my skin. Catherine of Aragon’s hold music. However, being beamed directly into my skull transforms it into an intricate musicbox of nuances, night air and bottom-lip-biting groans. The deflowering of Carroll’s Alice. Capulet capitulation. Ley lines of ancient, hallowed desire colliding between your ears. The old woman in the picture becomes the beautiful girl wearing a hat and turning sideways. Many people wonder who the song was written about. My only question was how can you justifiably rank such a chameleonic entity?

402: Soul Sanctuary

Emancipation (1996)
This gentle track on the second and best disc of Emancipation sounds refreshingly stonewashed and sun-bleached, offering a respite from the album’s more busy and brittle moments. It was adapted from a song written by Sandra St Victor and forms part of a triptych of meditative quietude in the middle of the CD, along with Curious Child and Dreamin’ About U, interrupted only by Emales intrusion. Spike Lee in an interview with Prince told him that his love for Soul Sanctuary was so strong that he played it for two hours straight, annoying his wife in the process. This story awakened old memories of my own personal repeat button abuse, when my youthful enthusiasm for certain songs became so intense that a single track looping for hours couldn’t sate the thirst. It was a monomania that didn’t start with the arrival of the CD player either and I can’t have been the only one to have filled a cassette tape full of a single song repeated again and again. A D90 that had De La Soul’s Magic Number filling one side and 45 mins of Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance on the other got particularly worn out I recall. Happy days.  Soul Sanctuary wouldn’t be my first choice for this kind of endless repetition but having just sat through five rotations in writing this I’ve become an oasis of tender calm. A seventh dan master in equanimity “unbothered by the chaos swirling around outside”. Maybe Spike’s onto something.

427: Right Back Here in my Arms

Emancipation (1996)
The first song written for Emancipation, setting the mood for much that follows. It’s not the volcanic emission of creativity we were led to expect but it has a titanium synth-line which gallantly does most of the heavy lifting on the (non)chorus, leaving Prince space to dispatch the title to the heavens with varying levels of compulsion. Right Back Here in my Arms has its flaws – namely that triangle sound which also plagues Dreamin’ About U and In This Bed I Scream – but it’s solidly constructed with enough minor-key grit to make it onto my single-disc album edit. The boyband-esque rap and Poet99 samples from the Prince-produced (obvs) Three Shots are par for the course, but what really knocks it out of the regular New Jack Swing orbit is the stellar pull of those synths. Slingshotting the brooding message into the laps of the Moirae, goddesses of fate.

436: Courtin’ Time

Emancipation (1996)
Prince chalked up many musical genres in his lifetime, filling albums with more styles than he’s had hot pancakes, but this big band swing number in the middle of Emancipation’s plastic sea was particularly unexpected. Brisk, high-kicking and joyful, it deftly coerces a dance from you with a planetary pull on your hips. But you haven’t got long – just time for Count Basie to hula-hoop the rings of Saturn while his orchestra’s at the bar getting the Mint Juleps in. Live performances stretched it out to twenty minutes, dispelling notions of being a throwaway novelty and it’s a shame a band-orientated version wasn’t released instead of one marked by the great drum machine blight of ’96. A more organic recording of Courtin’ Time would have sat comfortably on The Vault… along with more kindred jazz brethren. The lyrics of lost friendship being a more affirmative take on the luscious, wallowing Old Friends 4 Sale. Mind you, if there was ever a Prince album in need of jarring elements it’s Emancipation. Sanding down the album’s sharper corners wouldn’t have helped the harsh accusations of homogeneity it often received. And the apogee line “a thousand times the victor I am” does give us Prince at his most sky-high emancipatory.

449: In This Bed Eye Scream

Emancipation (1996)
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 Eye 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.

456: Emancipation

Emancipation (1996)
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.

461: Mr Happy

Emancipation (1996)
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’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.

468: Slave

Emancipation (1996)
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.

480: The Love We Make

Emancipation (1996)
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.

486: Emale

Emancipation (1996)
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.

491: Sleep Around

Emancipation (1996)
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.