97: Beautiful Strange

Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic (2001)
Shed any memories you may have of Beautiful Strange’s home video namesake. The song exists on a much higher plane than anything containing awkward footage of Prince and Mel B in a child’s playground. Here we plunge into a languid ocean of ethereal rock with vapour clouds of Jimi’s ghost forming overhead. A Lotusflow3r highlight a decade too early and the greatest song of his Rave Un2 era despite not featuring on the original album. We’ve set Charon’s boat adrift and are dragging our fingers through the moonlit Styx without a care in the world. It won’t end well but while we’re wrapped in this guitar fuzz duvet we’re untouchable gods.

119: Strange But True

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
In Matt Thorne’s Prince biography there’s an interview with Hans-Martin Buff, the engineer on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, where he claims responsibility for Strange But True making it onto the album. Prince didn’t want its inclusion but Buff begged and pleaded him. Sir, I salute you. It’s the best track on there by a country mile and my disappointment at it not being on the Rave In2 remix album is only tempered by the knowledge it was replaced with something even better – the ethereal and equally experimental Beautiful Strange. This ditching at the second attempt backs up Buff’s claim that Prince wasn’t feeling Strange But True but quality control was never Prince’s forte. In his engineer’s words, this track is “awesome”. On the final year of the millennium, Prince has the Lin Drum popping like’s it’s 1999. The turntablism (the one element Buff didn’t like) adds a nervous energy and the explosion of keys three minutes in sounds like a birth of a planet. My personal highlight is Prince’s spoken delivery which is as close as he gets to sounding like hip hop’s poet laureate Saul Williams. It marks the perigee of my two biggest idols and sometimes I like to pretend this is a collaboration between them. Strange. But true.

157: Prettyman

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
Like Partyman channeled Prince’s inner Joker (or Gemini), Prettyman is a comic-book exaggeration of his inner Narcissus. Initially written for Morris Day, Prince said: “it was so funky, I kept it”. And he’s not wrong. Buoyed on the wind from Maceo’s horn, Prettyman flies to the heights of The JB’s finest. The lyrics are as funny as Movie Star, another song reclaimed from the pile marked for The Time frontman, and the line “when no-one’s around, I smell myself” is deserving of an Emmy in itself. The extended version may only be a minute longer but includes the missing kicker: the sound of the mirror smashing. A punchline that tells you Prettyman may not be the fairest of them all.

184: I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
One of Prince’s most beautiful and forgotten ballads. As intimate as anything on his One Nite Alone album. Ani DiFranco is used sparingly like a delicate spice, while Prince doesn’t so much tickle the ivories but uses acupuncture pressure points to lull them into deep, melancholic bliss. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote “to be in love is to create a religion whose god is fallible”. I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore is the sound of the ashes from the last remaining temple drifting on a cold, indifferent breeze.

266: Undisputed

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) / Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic (2001)
A lot of noise has been generated about Prince’s forays into hip-hop and how he was deemed to have lost his way once he started chasing trends instead of setting them. Undisputed is his defiant response and answers accusations that he’s out of touch with the killer line “My dear, I AM the touch”. To underscore this he dusts off his signature Linn drum, unseen since the late 80s, heralding a prodigal return that prompts the line “once again, back is the incredible”, leading to the author of said line being invited to deliver a guest verse. (Fun fact: I used to live with someone who believed the preceding couplet on Bring the Noise was “bass, how low can you go / death row water buffalo” and now I can’t hear otherwise.) This collaboration followed years of mutual backslapping between Prince and Chuck D and the appearance of the Public Enemy frontman is met with a burst of chicken grease guitar that truly gilds the cherry on the pudding. Not so for the Moneyopolis mix, which has the chicken grease in high supply but is like walking in on an argument that doesn’t concern you. On this remix, Prince rages at an unknown perceived betrayal and you can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t for your ears. There are suggestions that D’Angelo is the intended recipient due to comments he had in his Voodoo album’s liner notes. These notes, written by Saul Williams but uncredited, called into question Prince’s quality control and described half of his output as shit because he lacks new inspiration and has to serve as his own. If true then what better retort than his critic smackdown that already mentions D’Angelo. Of course there may be nothing in it and the remix could just be an attempt to replicate Bring the Noise’s unbridled testosterone, but unfortunately either way it descends into petulance. You’re much better sticking with the original where, whether his inspiration is Public Enemy or himself in the past, you can’t dispute that whoever decides to throw in a classical harpsichord solo for kicks is certainly not chasing trends or painting by numbers.

287: The Sun, the Moon and the Stars

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
A cool, coastal breeze runs through The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, ruffling white-linen shirts and summer loins; the frisson of passion under a Mediterranean night-sky. It was written in Marbella while Prince was on vacation with Mayte, and the atmosphere, like Aphrodite, feels like it could have been created out of sea-foam. Under a veranda of Clare Fischer-composed strings, Prince – tipsy on rosé – goes the route of several hip-hop artists of the era and delivers a ragga-style rap of fake patois. I’m sure this verse will rile many but find me a person who doesn’t melt at his elongated “Montreaaaaaaaal” and I’ll show you a person who’s dead inside. Manuela Testolini excluded of course. The Toronto-born, soon-to-be second wife tried to convince Prince to remove this song from the album. Maybe she didn’t appreciate the cold winters of her birth-country being used as a counterpoint to warm declarations of eternal love. Maybe because it’s one of the album’s few non-breakup songs about his former wife. Maybe she thought the rap was wack. Maybe all three. There are several tracks in the Rave constellation that could have been sacrificed for the greater cause, but the removal of The Sun, the Moon and the Stars would be like Orion without his belt, the Costa Del Sol without the sun, or like a 90s hip-hop album without the obligatory faux-Jamaican rapper.

311: Hot Wit U

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?

366: Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
Earth-Moon-Earth, an art piece by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, consists of a self-playing piano performing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata after the score was bounced off the moon’s surface as a morse code signal. The effect is a faithful rendition but with gaps. Notes and sometimes whole sections got misplaced in lunar transit. I think of this piece sometimes when I listen to Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic’s celestial, sparse arrangement. It’s as if the only parts captured on record are the ones our earthly receivers are tuned in to catch. Layers of inaudible funk as dark matter, felt by their gravitational effect on their surroundings. Beats separated by the negative space of distant planets passing in front of stars. If the 1988 original hadn’t been leaked (revealing it to be almost identical) I’d entertain theories that it was lost to time and that 1999’s officially released version was an archeological recreation made up from what could be gleaned from its references in other tracks: the mentions in 200 Balloons and Batdance remixes; the borrowed Egyptian horn riff in The Max; the sheet music spotted in the Graffiti Bridge film. A skeletal reconstruction. Incredibly though, the song was always that lean and lost only a few flourishes prior to its release at the turn of the millennium. Even though it’s over a decade old at that point, the opener sets out its stall for the shimmering, futuristic vibes the album is peppered with. Undisputed, Hot Wit U and Strange But True all share a similar aesthetic, unfortunately interrupted by tracks of less inspired and now dated mainstream chart appeals. Prince said he left the song to “marinate” as he thought it was too similar to Kiss but it still sounds ahead of its time now. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it’s an alien art-piece being reflected off our planet’s surface. The missing notes from a Martian sonata absorbed in the mind of a Minnesotan musician.

450: The Greatest Romance Ever Sold

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.

454: Man‘O’War

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.