It took seven months and a day from Prince’s shocking death to the release of a new hits compilation, Prince 4Ever. It’s easy to be cynical about a project like this when there’s obvious money to be made. Look at David Bowie, whose death in January 2016 prompted a new hits collection, Legacy, which just hit stores a couple weeks back. The difference is that David Bowie had just released a major career retrospective, Nothing Has Changed, in November 2014. Here we are two years later, and well, a lot has changed. Bowie is no longer with us, but there was only one new album in that intervening period. Legacy is a repackaged, inferior version of Nothing Has Changed with a couple edited versions of two tracks from Bowie’s final album Blackstar tacked onto the end. It adds nothing to fans’ understanding of Bowie’s work, and provides essentially nothing new or surprising. It is a cheap retread.
This is not exactly a new phenomenon. Morrissey describes it in the Smiths’ “Paint a Vulgar Picture” with his usual sardonic wit: “At the record company meeting / on their hands a dead star / and oh, the plans they weave / and oh, the sickening greed… / reissue, repackage, repackage / re-evaluate the songs / double-pack with a photograph / extra track and a tacky badge.” Yeah, the music industry is a business like any other, and after the death of a star there is naturally going to be increased demand for that artist’s catalog. Is it unseemly? Is it opportunistic? Well, as we see with the differences in the new Prince and Bowie compilations, it really depends on the situation.
It’s not as if there haven’t been Prince compilations before, but they have been few and far between. Unlike the two-year gap between Bowie collections, it’s been a full decade since Warner Bros. issued Ultimate Prince, a two-CD set that features one disc of singles and a second disc of 12” remixes. It’s a unique concept quite different from what Warner Bros., acting in association with NPG Records, has delivered in Prince 4Ever. In 2001, Warner Bros. released The Very Best of Prince, a single disc that highlights Prince’s biggest ‘80s hits and a few from the early ‘90s, perfect for casual fans but of little interest to die-hards. Before that it had been eight years since Prince’s first ever hits collection, a three-CD set dubbed The Hits/The B-sides which, as the title suggests, includes two discs of singles and a third that delighted fans by collecting most of Prince’s revered non-album B-sides onto a single CD. That’s the extent of Prince’s previous hits collections. An artist always looking forward, Prince showed little interest in his back catalog, and compilations were very low on his list of priorities.
Prince 4Ever is obviously intended to be the opening salvo in what fans can expect to be many years worth of posthumous Prince releases. Prince, of course, was a compulsive workaholic, recording at an almost impossibly prolific rate for decades. He set aside an untold number of songs, including complete albums, in his famous Vault. After his death, the impossibly daunting process of evaluating the contents of the Vault and planning how to release the music in the most logical and respectful way possible began much like the excavation of a newly found Egyptian tomb of priceless artifacts. A hits collection, with one previously unreleased nugget as a first taste from the Vault, is a logical place to start.
The Vault that Prince fans have been obsessing over for decades has finally creaked open in the form of “Moonbeam Levels”, the one previously unreleased song included on Prince 4Ever. That in itself is a historic moment, a development to celebrate. Prince left the Vault to be dealt with after his death, and although nobody imagined it would happen so soon, Prince’s unreleased material (which by some estimates represents around 70% of his total recorded output), is finally being revealed. It’s a bittersweet moment. Prince is gone, and nothing will ease the pain of that tragedy for fans… but hardly a Prince fan exists that hasn’t dreamed of diving in and spending hours exploring the Vault and discovering its secrets.
Reissues of Prince’s classic albums and future releases from the Vault must obviously be treated with the utmost care and respect, and the team behind the production of Prince 4Ever obviously carefully followed this imperative with his first posthumous release. The two-CD set contains 40 songs, and each disc is jam-packed with as much music as possible. As with any compilation that Warner Bros. and NPG Records could have possibly released, there is much to celebrate but some inevitable quibbles.
The collection covers Prince’s Warner Bros. years from his 1977 debut For You and its debut single “Soft and Wet” to the 1993 hits collection which includes the debut of the single “Peach” and a live duet with Rosie Gaines on “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a song Prince cavalierly tossed aside to one of his protégé groups, the Family, in 1985 only to see Sinéad O’Connor pluck it from obscurity and take it to #1 in 1990. All of the big hits ‘80s hits are here: the #1 singles “When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Kiss” and, for the first time on any Prince compilation, “Batdance”. His final #1, 1991’s “Cream”, is also included along with a handful of other early ‘90s hits.
Apart from the epic “Purple Rain”, single edits are used rather than album versions when available. This is both a positive and a negative, depending on the song. The album version of “When Doves Cry” is every bit as essential as the full recording of “Purple Rain” and should have been included in its full 5:54 of glory. It’s his biggest hit and arguably his artistic pinnacle. The same holds true for “Let’s Go Crazy”, the single version of which is awkward and inexplicably includes bits of the famous opening speech spoken atop each other. On the other hand, many of the single edits presented here have never been issued on CD before, including “Little Red Corvette”, “Alphabet St”, “Let’s Work”, and “Take Me With U”.
Fans could debate endlessly over the tracklisting. After all, how can you pick 40 songs from one of the greatest recording artists of all time to represent his career (or at least half of his career). Whoever curated Prince 4Ever is obviously no record company flunky with only a cursory knowledge of Prince’s output. There are a number of lesser-known singles that make their first ever appearance on a Prince hits collection. It’s a particular delight for the sublime “Mountains” to finally get its due, and the same can be said for “Paisley Park” and “Girls & Boys”, both singles in the UK and other territories but not in the U.S. “Glam Slam”, the follow-up to “Alphabet St.” and second single from 1988’s Lovesexy, also makes its first ever appearance on a Prince hits collection, and the single mix appears on CD for the first time ever.
The sequencing is clever and effective. The collection starts with Prince’s biggest hits from his most commercially successful period: “1999”, “Little Red Corvette”, “When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Raspberry Beret”. From there it goes back to the earlier stuff before he became such a massive star and from there the collection more or less follows a chronological sequence, with some exceptions. It’s a terrific listening experience.
While there is plenty to be overjoyed about on Prince 4Ever, there are also some curious decisions. The track “Head” from 1980’s Dirty Mind is a famous song no doubt, but it was never a single and seems like an arbitrary inclusion, especially since that album’s title track, which was indeed a single, is omitted. Perhaps the strangest inclusion is “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”, an obscure track whose profile has just been raised enormously by being part of this collection. In the U.S. the song was a B-side, and not generally considered one of his best. Yes, it was released as an A-side single in parts of Europe but so were other songs not included here. Perhaps Prince’s most popular B-side, “Erotic City”, would have made much more sense.
Other singles that have yet to be included on a Prince compilation and would have been most welcome here include the gorgeous “I Wish U Heaven” from Lovesexy, “Anotherloverholenyohead” from Parade, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” from 1999, “Partyman” from Batman, “New Power Generation”, the follow-up to “Thieves in the Temple”, from Graffiti Bridge, “The Morning Papers” from Love Symbol, and “America” from Around the World in a Day. Of course it would require a third CD to include all of these and other deserving singles, key album tracks and B-sides (like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, a song Alicia Keys would many years later turn into a hit). That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but one could argue the more focused 40-song set avoids what might be considered overkill. The problem, of course, is that with Prince there is just so much great music from which to choose that whatever decisions are made will inevitably be second-guessed.
By and large, Prince 4Ever is successful, and its inclusion of the lesser-known singles adds greatly to its appeal. Of course, it only tells half the story, as Prince released many albums after the time period this collection covers. A sequel set that begins with his smash “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and includes material from ‘90s albums like Come, The Gold Experience and Emancipation, as well as the often outstanding work he did in the new millennium on albums like The Rainbow Children, Musicology, 3121, Lotusflow3r, Art Official Age and his superb final release HitNRun Phase Two needs to be compiled as well.
Of course, we’ll save the big enchilada for last: “Moonbeam Levels”, the first waft of dust to emerge from the Vault. Longtime Prince fans are doubtless already familiar with the song. Recorded in 1982 during the sessions for 1999, like dozens of other Prince studio recordings the song somehow leaked into the public domain and has been bootlegged and circulated among fans for many years (albeit in generally poor sound quality). The song was reported pegged for 1999 but was ultimately replaced by the ballad “Free”. One can argue that “Free” fits the album better but that “Moonbeam Levels” is the superior song.
A mid-tempo piano-rocker with gorgeous harmonies and lyrics replete with lovely imagery, “Moonbeam Levels” has long been a favorite of Prince fans among his known circulated unreleased tracks. The song was reportedly considered for other projects, including an album Prince was readying in 1989 to be called Rave un2 the Joy Fantastic that was abandoned when he got the call from Tim Burton to record his soundtrack to Batman. Prince would release an album titled Rave un2 the Joy Fantastic a decade later, but it’s an entirely different project and by then “Moonbeam Levels” seems to have been long forgotten. It’s a gorgeous piece, a glorious and tantalizing first taste of what awaits Prince fans as the Vault continues to be slowly revealed. Songs like “In a Large Room With No Light”, “The Grand Progression”, “Empty Room”, “All My Dreams”, “Go” (a masterpiece), “Rebirth of the Flesh”, “Dance with the Devil”, and “Train” are just a few of the equally brilliant songs that have circulated in various states of sound quality that just as easily could have filled the slot given to “Moonbeam Levels”, and who knows what else might be awaiting fans as surely the vast majority of Prince’s unreleased material has never leaked and has never been heard by fans in any form.
“Moonbeam Levels” deserves the prominence thrust upon it with a slot on Prince 4Ever and as the first morsel to be fed to hungry fans eager for more, and its release has been met with tremendous excitement. ABC News broadcast a long and prominent segment on the day of the album’s release in which “Moonbeam Levels” was played in its entirety and discussed extensively on national television. The excitement about Prince’s unreleased material finally seeing the light of day is palpable. According to Warner Bros. and NPG Records, more is on the way sooner rather than later, including a two-CD deluxe reissue of Purple Rain that will reportedly be released early next year and will include an entire CD of unreleased material (including perhaps the 14-minute version of “Computer Blue”? We can only hope).
The booklet to Prince 4Ever, which includes stunning previously unseen photography by Herb Ritts, begins with a quote from President Barack Obama after Prince’s sudden passing: “Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all. Funk. R&B. Rock and Roll. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader, and an electrifying performer.” So true, so true. His death is still shocking, a ghastly and surreal cosmic error, a glitch the universe never should have permitted. The music will always be the only salve to which we can turn. Prince 4Ever is a look back at some of the legend’s most familiar work, and a refresher for fans who want the big hits but might also be exposed to some singles they missed along the way. The remastering sounds terrific (and hopefully a vinyl release will see the light of day at some point). And of course, with the inclusion of “Moonbeam Levels”, it’s the first step in what will likely be a decades-long process of unearthing a musical legacy that is already indisputably great but still remains a mystery. Important archival music projects can be accomplished with deft care and expertise, as the team behind the Beatles’ superb series of reissues have shown. Similar deference must be granted Prince’s catalog. Prince left treasures known and unknown, and as the years go by hopefully Warner Bros. and NPG Records will present this material with the same quality and attention to detail shown on Prince 4Ever.
// Sound Affects
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