REVIEW: Prince, Originals (Warner Bros.)

Posted June 28th, 2019 by eric

Prince’s estate has been a bit of a PR shambles since the star’s sudden death in April of 2016. The lack of any discernible will has led to a never-ending legal battle between Prince’s family and the banks appointed to care for the business dealings of the musician’s vast estate. Despite the financial squabbles, the estate has managed to eke out a few posthumous releases that one would assume even hardcore fans have to admire. Sadly, this is unlikely since Prince’s elite hardcore fans are an admittedly miserable and impossible lot to please, complaining endlessly about any and everything to do with the man. These releases speak more to spreading the legacy to potential fans as well as to those who already identify as “fams”- the term Prince applied to his followers as he found “fan” (short for a fanatic) to be derisive.

The deluxe edition of Prince’s star-making Purple Rain soundtrack, released in June of 2017, pried open the door to the man’s storied vault with a bonus disc of mostly pristine versions of tracks that some had only read about – much less heard – and had long become the stuff of legend (presumably, elite collectors collectively rolled their eyes and laughed). Exactly one year later a long-bootlegged session of Prince alone at the piano (pre-Purple Rain) working out material in an impromptu session received a deluxe package, Piano & Microphone 1983. With Prince’s birthday as the release pattern launch date, the estate has returned in 2019 with Originals– a collection of songs Prince wrote for other artists.

Fulfilling a contractual obligation with Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service, with whom Prince had entrusted his catalog for streaming purposes toward the end of his life, the estate and Jay Z have compiled a swath of tunes Prince wrote primarily for his female protegees. Despite a few outliers, the bulk of the material stems from the start of Prince’s imperial period (1981-1985), where he was writing and recording in an almost constant state of motion. It was such a frantic period of creative inertia that Prince’s idea of a birthday gift to his beleaguered engineer, Peggy McCreary, was to spend the day in the studio and record a song for her. I’m pretty sure she just wanted to go to sleep, but she now owns a one-of-a-kind, unreleased Prince song. Not everyone can say that.

Hearing Prince’s voice instead of Morris Day’s on “Jungle Love” is jarring at first. A lot of these songs were intended as guide vocals, so a full-on radio-ready Prince is not always represented. And a song like “Jungle Love” by The Time is so inextricably bound to the cultural fabric of its time that hearing someone else sing it – even Prince – is hard to wrap your head around. These issues don’t exist on lesser-known songs like Sheila E.’s “Noon Rendevous,” which features a stunning, goose-bump-inducing vocal from Prince. Or on the mind-blowing harmonic explosion of “Love… Thy Will Be Done,” originally given to one-hit-wonder Martika. The demo version of “Manic Monday,” which The Bangles turned into a smash hit in early 1986, is stripped to its core and shows what a quality writer Prince was. It could have easily been included on his psychedelic Around The World In A Day LP in 1985. Prince’s recording schedule was so erratic during this period that his staff had to be on call just to keep up with his muse. The music just flowed out of him.

Anyone well-versed in the deeper ends of Prince’s catalog shouldn’t be too surprised that he wrote a song for country icon Kenny Rogers. “You’re My Love” is a simple love song with a straightforward vocal melody as its centerpiece. The way in which Prince sings it suggests that he was laying down a blueprint for Rogers to follow exactly, which was typical of Prince’s method. This is not how Prince would’ve sung it if he were to have meant it for himself, however. Knowing how to meld your art to fit someone else’s aesthetic requires a deep level of empathy and understanding. It’s a charming demo albeit slightly rougher than some of the other songs on this collection.

Creating Sheila E.’s empowering persona was one of Prince’s most successful side projects. Despite being a huge hit, the version of “Glamorous Life” here is easier to digest with Prince’s voice because it’s more in line with his androgynous vision at that time. Sheila E. even looked and dressed like Prince during this era. With 10 of the 15 tracks written specifically for women and engineered (mostly) by a woman, the overarching theme of this compilation is female empowerment- or at least Prince’s version of it, which leaned more towards sexual empowerment- a daring construct even in the 1980s. There’s a mix of sexual bravado (“Sex Shooter”), sexual weirdness (“Makeup”), elevating love over the material (“Glamorous Life”), and love itself (“Love… Thy Will B Done”). And even though it was written and originally given to Prince’s girlfriend’s band, The Family, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is pure gut-wrenching heartbreak made internationally famous by another musically pioneering woman, Sinead O’Connor.

Few artists have ever possessed the songwriting prowess and depth that Prince demonstrated during this manic run in the 80s, and this collection barely scratches the surface of the songs he gave away, much less wrote for himself. Prince wanted to take over the world, and he wanted to do it in lockstep with women leading the charge. 

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