Music Review: Originals By Prince
Hearing Prince sing these songs that he gave to other performers brings you close to the pulse of his artistry: transgressive, funky, sexy, a testament to his genius even in the form of demos.
It was said that only Prince knew the combination to his legendary, quite literal vault with the spinning wheel doorknob. But sometime after his death on April 21, 2016, the hulking door was drilled open, revealing an astounding archive of unreleased songs—so many thousands of tapes and hard drives that his estate could allegedly release a Prince album every year for the next century. Now, the latest from the vault, comes Prince: Originals,a compilation of 14 previously unreleased songs written for other performers that prove once and for all that a Prince demo was often better than most other musicians’ finished songs. It offers a window onto the playfulness of his improvisations and, in a structure that mimics the range of an actual Prince album, shifts nimbly between up-tempo songs and ballads, sweat and tears, near impossible to stay sitting still while listening.
In the winter after the release of his third album, Dirty Mind, 22-year-old Prince moved into what he’d call Kiowa Trail Home Studio in suburban Chanhassen, Minnesota, not far from what would become Paisley Park. Prince had its cream-colored exterior repainted with his favorite hue; it was nicknamed the Purple House. Outside was the driveway where he’d do motorcycle laps practicing for Purple Rain and the gates he decorated with a sculpted heart and peace sign. Inside, he outfitted his studio with a 16-track recorder and later upgraded to a 24-track Ampex MM1200, with a piano upstairs for any sudden inspiration.
Inside the Purple House, large parts of Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign o’ the Times were recorded, as well as about half the songs on Originals (most of the rest were recorded at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles). In 1985, when he sat with a Rolling Stone reporter on the white plush carpet of the bedroom at Kiowa Trail, he said that he finally came to understand why his musician father was so hard to live with. “When he was working or thinking, he had a private pulse going constantly inside him,” Prince said. “I don’t know, your bloodstream beats differently.” Discovering some of the unscripted moments in Originals feels like taking that pulse.
Written into his Warner Bros. contract was a clause that allowed him to recruit and produce other artists. It essentially assured him access to a congregation of performers who would spread the gospel of his music—the pop-funk he’d canonized in his early records, and a vast and uncharted road ahead, both under his own name and others. Sometimes he adopted an alias—as Joey Coco, for instance, for the power crooner “You’re My Love,” one of the surprises on Originals. It appeared on Kenny Rogers' 1986 album They Don't Make Them Like They Used To, but Rogers’ version pales next to Prince’s, who uses a deeper, full-throated register that sounds an imitation of what he thought Kenny Rogers should sound like. But the Prince of Dirty Mind and Controversy didn’t exactly mesh with Nashville of the 1980s—what would the world have thought then if he released a country song? Giving that song to another voice freed him to fly elsewhere.
Better known is his alias for “Manic Monday,” which charted at No. 2 for the Bangles, second only to Prince’s own smash “Kiss.” Here, Prince is “Christopher,” a reference to his character from his 1986 film Under the Cherry Moon. The song, triggered by a dream he wrote into the lyrics, is essentially a rewrite of “1999,” and Prince’s rendering of it here centers on a synthesized harpsichord and the psychedelic flourish of the song’s bridge, which sounds as if Alice just dropped in the rabbit hole.
Most of the other tracks on Originals represent even greater gifts. Prince gave songs to Minneapolis’ great performers: Morris Day, Sheila E., Jill Jones, Apollonia, among others. By spreading out the credits, “he was creating the wave, but he made it seem like there was a lot of people doing that thing in Minneapolis, which was brilliant,” engineer David Z once said. To the press, Prince acted nonchalant. “I usually try to give up a groove to somebody if they ask me,” he said.
These grooves are the dance-floor core of Originals. Prince’s version of “Jungle Love” is close to the rendition on the Time’s Ice Cream Castles and the Purple Rain soundtrack, down to the “oh-we-oh-we-oh” chorus, but embedded with his ad-libs (“If you’re hungry, take a bite outta me!”). Prince had showed up in the studio shirtless with one bandana around his neck and another tied on his ripped red pants, but he loosens up in the recording. “Somebody bring me a mirror!” you hear him shout midway through. He gets it in “Make-Up,” a torrid electric number that was fine on Vanity 6’s lone solo album but made surprising and transgressive by Prince, who voices the lyrics in robotic staccato bursts: “Blush. Eyeliner. Hush. See what you made me do.” It has the percussive electricity of Liquid Liquid and maybe a little Kraftwerk too, androgynous Prince at his most diva: “Smoke. A. Cigarette,” he retorts to an impatient lover. “I’m. Not. Ready Yet.”
How wild that a chronicle of a lost era can feel so modern when all over it are musical markers of the ’80s: synths and drum machines and clap tracks and extended breakdowns and of course, sax solos. Nostalgia, even rendered fresh, works on the ear in invisible ways, as does the sequence of these songs. We careen between slow-burning love songs (witness Prince’s glorious falsetto over the heartbeat percussion of “Baby, You’re a Trip,” which Prince wrote for Jill Jones, about the time she snooped in his diary after he read hers) and more quintessential dance hits. “Holly Rock,” which he gave to Sheila E. for the Krush Groove soundtrack, is snappily upbeat, Prince punctuating the chorus with James Brown-esque flourishes (“I’m bad, good god!”) and a snarky taunt at the end: “Now try to dance like that,” he says.
“Nothing Compares 2 U,” the best-known and most-loved of all the songs here, became a massive hit for Sinéad O’Connor, whose rendition was, in fact, a cover, not one of Prince’s gifts. Here, in its original incarnation, Prince turns it into a torch song for himself. He lets a love-worn raggedness occasionally creep into his voice, lets it tremble ever so, powered by the saxophone accompaniment of longtime Family and Revolution member Eric Leeds. The videoshows a collage of Prince and his band running through stage choreography: dressed in a scarf worn as a backless shirt, or suspenders and white high-heeled boots, he delivers perfect splits, kicks, and spins. But the arrangement here is stark and lonely and beautiful, the closest you get to hearing Prince’s own pulse. Arriving at the end of this set of originals, and with the promise of hearing more from that vault, it becomes an affirmation too. Maybe all those flowers you planted in the backyard will bloom again.