Perhaps the only silver lining to come from Prince’s utterly unpredictable death in April 2016 was the opportunity for fans to hear the mountain of unreleased music from the artist’s notorious vaults. It’s been said that the seemingly endless amount of recordings stored there by the famously prolific artist is enough to keep his estate cranking out posthumous releases for decades and beyond.
The problem with posthumous albums is that they can often seem like a gratuitous cash-grab with anything and everything seeing the light of day with little to no thought given to quality control. Fortunately, Prince’s estate has established a pretty good track record: Piano & a Microphone 1983 is an intimate, gorgeous demo collection; the deluxe, expanded edition of Purple Rain is a veritable treasure trove; and One Nite Alone, The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over is a welcome, expanded version of a typically fiery 2002 live album. So far, so good.
With Originals, Prince purists can continue to rest easy. As a composer (and producer) of other people’s songs, this posthumous release is kind of a no-brainer. As popular as songs like “Manic Monday”, “The Glamorous Life”, and “Nothing Compares 2 U” were for the artists who were gifted them, they are just as well-known for being written by Prince. With that in mind, the question often arises: what would these songs have sounded like by the original artist? This album – which has been available exclusively on Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service for the past couple of weeks – answers that question by putting 15 songs in their true original context.
Many of the songs sound much like their eventual cover versions, which isn’t surprising when you realize that Prince produced a lot of the artists who covered them. There’s a great deal of songs here that were given to Prince protégés – Apollonia 6, Vanity 6, the Time, Sheila E – mostly during the 1980s, arguably considered Prince’s solid gold, can’t-miss period (“Love Thy Will Be Done”, written for Martika, is the lone outlier, recorded in 1991). It’s important to note that the word “demo”, which usually conjures up the image of an artist sitting at a piano or acoustic guitar with a clunky drum machine recorded into a four-track cassette recorder, is a totally different animal here. As Prince was able to play virtually all the instruments himself, these demos almost all sound fully formed. “Jungle Love” is nearly indistinguishable from the Time’s version, with the exception of Prince’s vocals, which are considerably more nuanced than Morris Day’s. “Manic Monday” – essentially a baroque rewrite of “1999” – has all the full-fledged psychedelic pop charm of the era and will come as no great shock to anyone familiar with the Bangles’ hit version.
The stylistic variations on Originals are typical for the chameleon-like Prince. The dense, techno vibe of “Make Up” (written for Vanity 6) is a fun diversion that allows the artist to immerse himself in a robotic, deadpan Kraftwerk-meets-Devo setting. It’s hard to believe the same artist is responsible for “You’re My Love”, a song written for Kenny Rogers that falls a little flat here, mainly because it contains very little of the edge associated with Prince. This bland-yet-serviceable 1980s pop song sees Prince almost veering into parody with a Vegas-style croon. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a musician covering a wide range of styles, but hearing the Purple One sleepwalk through yacht rock is hardly a career highlight.
Hearing lesser-known songs is one of the great pleasures of Originals. “Holly Rock”, a song Sheila E recorded for the Krush Groove soundtrack, is a roof-raising, party-starting funk workout. Another song written for Sheila, “Noon Rendezvous”, is an exquisite, gorgeously arranged ballad for vocal, piano, and percussion that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Parade (here, the normally sparse nature of demos works to the song’s advantage). “100 MPH”, written for the long-forgotten Minneapolis funk band Mazarati, employs a deep funk groove and plenty of Prince’s notorious guitar work.
But one of the most welcome surprises is “Baby, You’re a Trip”, written for former Prince and Teena Marie backup singer Jill Jones, whose blossoming career hit a snag when her association with Prince fell apart. The song is a typically slow-burning soul ballad with Prince’s seductive falsetto turning to impassioned screaming and back again. It’s Prince at his silk-sheets-bedroom sexiest and could’ve easily been a monster hit single if he bothered to keep it for himself.
Originals ends on a high note, with his version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” – once a ubiquitous smash single for Sinead O’Connor – given a more traditionally soulful run-through in its original form. It’s still a ballad, but the slashing guitar chords and full-band arrangement (complete with a big, messy saxophone solo courtesy of Revolution member Eric Leeds) ratchet up the emotional quotient to produce an epic that sounds not unlike a companion piece to “Purple Rain”. Prince’s version isn’t necessarily better than O’Connor’s; he simply provides an exciting alternative path.
If Prince didn’t give away any of these songs and released this as an album in the early 1990s, it would’ve likely fit comfortably among his discography and may have even been considered one of his most acclaimed releases. That’s the trick he managed to successfully pull throughout his career – making music that covered an enormous amount of stylistic range yet still sounded coherent and instantly enjoyable. We may never see the likes of Prince again, but thanks to the vault, we certainly haven’t heard the last of him.