After the shock of Prince’s death in April 2016—as well as the surprise that he didn’t have a will, and the future of his estate was in question—speculation turned to what might be in his legendary vault. It’s a literal vault, in the basement of his studio/residence/entertainment complex Paisley Park, filled with more than 8,000 tapes of music made by the notorious workaholic over the span of 35 years.
Two-and-a-half years later, the first release from the vault is this intimate tape which is exactly as advertised: Prince, alone at a piano, in a studio in a basement “family room” (according to engineer Don Batts) for 34 minutes, working out new songs, reinterpreting a song from his last album (“International Lover,” from “1999”), and covering Joni Mitchell and an old gospel song. There’s nothing polished about occasionally hissy demo tape: this is just Prince playing around, for his own pleasure.
And yet: my God. We already know a lot about his genius as a guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, a producer and arranger. Here we see his piano skills to be pretty much the equal of his other skills (okay, maybe not guitar), and hearing his voice in all its multi-octave, expressive glory against such a stark backdrop is also revelatory.
There are only a few complete songs here, including an incredible Nina Simone-style sketch of “17 Days,” a song that would be the B-side for “When Doves Cry” the following year. We hear “Strange Relationship” four years before he recorded a full-band funk version for “Sign O the Times.” There’s a snippet of “Purple Rain” that bleeds into an equally brief turn on Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” where his jazzy chord voicings are just as interesting but different from Mitchell’s originals. He beatboxes on “International Lover.” And there are three songs that have never surfaced on any official release.
When he died, Prince had returned to this format, on an acclaimed tour also called Piano and a Microphone. No doubt there are great tapes from that as well. But to hear him in 1983, right before Purple Rain made him one of the biggest stars in the world, is an astonishing document that even the most casual Prince fan will find thrilling. All those deluxe reissues of music we’ve already heard can wait, as long as the vault is full of stuff like this. (Sept. 23)
Stream: “17 Days,” “Wednesday,” “Mary Don’t You Weep”
When Prince died in 2016, no one wanted to hear this music. The Prince we want to remember is the hitmaker and innovator that ruled the 1980s, from roughly 1980 to 1992. The way his narrative is understood, Prince then lost his way in battles with record companies and changing musical trends, fighting back by releasing as much music as possible—sometimes four albums in a single year. Even diehard fans had trouble keeping up and wading through his output.
Which is a shame. Prince being the indisputable musical genius he is—as a singer, a guitarist, songwriter, producer, arranger, bandleader—of course there are dozens of tracks from that time that rival his greatest work. Prince being Prince, though, means that the casual fan would have to wade through a lot—and we’re talking about *a lot*—of material to find the golden needles in the haystack. Most didn’t bother. (I'm guilty as charged.)
For the first 15 years of his career, Prince recorded for Warner Brothers, the execs at which gave the prolific artist a very long leash—but not long enough for the man who, after his death, left a literal vault of unreleased music that it will likely take decades for musicologists to wade through. Being on Warner meant that the public was only tasting the cream. In the early ’90s, as Prince became more disenchanted with his label, the albums started to get more bloated: the one named after his unpronounceable androgynous symbol had some of his finest hits (“7,” “My Name is Prince”) along with some of his worst dreck. It was a pattern that plagued the rest of his career.
When Prince started declaring himself a “slave” and demanding “emancipation,” all bets were off. His music from 1995 onward flowed directly from his id, for better or worse. He wasn’t going to make it easy for us. We had to accept the whole package deal if we were still on board.
Full disclosure: I’m a massive fan of Prince’s first 10 albums, which are almost flawless (let’s not talk about Batman). I remained faithful through all the ’90s, including the Emancipation period, and then fell off completely in the 2000s. He released 11 records that decade, with varying degrees of distribution, some of which I don’t ever remember even hearing about (2004’s Slaughterhouse? 2009’s MPLSound? Anyone?). Ideally, this kind of compilation should be a godsend.
It’s not. It’s just as messy as any Prince album of the period in question.
Yes, there are unquestionable, underappreciated classics like the 2006 single “Black Sweat,” which deserves to be on any list of Prince’s greatest tracks. It gathers up fun throwaways like the 2007 rock song where he declares that, “I love you, baby, but not like I love my guitar.” It collects some stunning R&B ballads like “Crucial,” which was bumped from 1987’s Sign O the Times for “Adore,” or 2007’s “Somewhere Here on Earth.” It rescues two tracks from 1996’s Chaos and Disorder, Prince’s last proper record released under his Warner contract; the title track is perhaps his most underrated rock song. There are some fine funk tracks from later years, including “Northside” (2004), “Chelsea Rodgers” (2007) and “Ol’ Skool Company” (2009).
But—even for me, someone who didn’t pay a lot of attention to this material at the time—it’s obvious there are some questionable calls. There are six songs from 1995’s The Gold Experience, a single-disc album that spawned one hit single—and that song, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” is not even on here, due to ongoing licensing issues (it was his first post-Warner hit, licensed to various labels at the time). Two of those Gold Experience songs include Prince at his most self-parodic (“P. Control”) and an unusually vindictive and uncharacteristic dip into misogyny (“Eye Hate U”). Who wants to hear those again? Compare that to the three-disc 1996 album Emancipation, which only gets two songs on this compilation. Emancipation was a bloated mess, yes (let’s leave “Www.Emale.Com” in the dustbin of time), but it’s exactly the kind of album that needs to be redeemed by some selective editing—six more great songs from that album could easily replace some of the space-filler found here. Anthology would benefit from "Face Down," for starters:
There are some helpful reminders sprinkled throughout, however, of brilliance that was relegated to fan-only releases. Most people have never heard the all-acoustic album The Truth, which was packaged with 1998’s mail-order-only Crystal Ball. Because—well, why would you, unless you’re a complete Prince fanatic? Likewise, excerpts from the One Night Alone album (and the follow-up triple live album, which is stunning), featuring mostly just Prince at the piano, deserve a much wider audience than they had. There’s even one of the four 14-minute jazz suites that comprised 2003’s N.E.W.S., which is much better than you think it’s going to be, as is the track from the similar jazz instrumental album Xpectation, from the same year (and both are better than anything on 2001’s The Rainbow Children, which is also represented here thrice).
If the point of Anthology was to whittle out the excess, it fails dramatically. Fans are left to wade through the original albums yet again—although at least that’s easier to do, now that they’re all available for streaming. The best that can be said about Anthology is that it points fans in various directions, but it is by no means a destination. (Aug. 24)
Stream: “Black Sweat,” “Chelsea Rodgers,” “Guitar”