The Critical Untimeliness of Ultimate Prince

Ultimate Prince

Casual observers might be confused by the recent ubiquity of Prince. The eccentric musical genius has mostly shunned the spotlight since reverting from the Artist Formerly Known as Prince back to Prince, popping up only occasionally on late-night talk shows or mini tours. And while his popularity enjoyed a spike after the 2004 release of Musicology, it doesn’t compare to the Prince renaissance currently taking shape.

Beginning with the March 2006 release 3121, which was met with mixed reviews, Prince has been nearly everywhere. He promoted 3121 on Good Morning, America; made a guest appearance on last season’s American Idol; did a run of small club dates with onetime protégé Tamar; opened the 3121 club at the Rio in Las Vegas, where he performs on the weekends; contributed the track “Song of the Heart” to the Happy Feet soundtrack and was awarded a Golden Globe for his efforts; debuted two songs, covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” on Howard Stern’s show; is preparing to release a new single, “Guitar,” as a download on his website; and is serving as the entertainment at Super Bowl XLI.

And those are just the major benchmarks of Prince’s past 12 months; there have been other, not-as-big ones as well. For any other artist or musician, the past year Prince has had would define their entire career. But not the Purple One. The Super Bowl appearance could very well be the launching pad for a new album and a new tour, propelling Prince into the future with more momentum than he’s enjoyed in 20 years.

But at the beginning of all this, it appeared that Prince’s eccentricity would overwhelm his genius, as it has so often in the past. Ultimate Prince, a two-disc greatest hits package, was released in August 2006 by Warner Bros., five months later than originally planned. It was rumored that Prince’s notorious enmity for Warner Bros. got in the way. While the set did eventually make it to stores, it became one of those blink-and-you-missed-it releases.

But that was never supposed to be the case. As Prince fans eagerly anticipated the March release of 3121, they were also up in arms about what looked like a crass cash-in on Prince’s latest offering by his old label. Ultimate Prince was scheduled for a March 14 release and was promoted in Best Buy ads and in record stores across the country. Commercials ran on television. Orders were placed on and in stores like Barnes & Noble Booksellers. And when it came time to purchase the set, it was nowhere to be found. Fast-forward to 22 August 2006. Hardly a mention was made that Ultimate Prince was sitting on store shelves, ready for consumption. The media campaign was almost nonexistent. This end-of-summer dump of the hits package left some fans scratching their hands, but two particular Prince devotees were breathing a large sigh of relief.

Geoffrey Dicker and Mathieu Bitton are credited in the liner notes for Ultimate Prince as creative consultants. Dicker selected the track list; Bitton provided art direction and design, as well as his record collection. Both jumped headfirst into helping Warner Bros. and Rhino create the best Prince set for both fans and non-fans, and both were crushed when the original release was cancelled.

“It was really heartbreaking,” Dicker says. “We had the release date for Ultimate long before Prince had the date for 3121. And then it kind of came out looking like Warner was riding on the coattails of that, and in reality it was just a really bad coincidence.”

Originally called Prince Collection, Ultimate Prince is the final contractual obligation left in Prince’s old Warner Bros. deal. It had been five years since the last Prince collection, The Very Best of Prince, was released. For the new collection, Dicker says, Warner Bros. “wanted to make it cool for both die-hard fans and non-die-hard fans. They wanted to appease people who don’t have any albums by Prince by putting the greatest hits on there, as well as the people who have everything already.” Dicker was brought in to help in that regard by crafting a track list that would appeal to the most listeners. He knows what fans want in a Prince compilation because he’s been a Prince fan since he was four years old after discovering the song “Controversy.”

“I always felt like I never fit in in society,” Dicker says, “I always felt like an outcast. And his music was saying if you’re an outcast, better for you. The rest of the world is screwy, don’t let the rest of the world tell you how to live your life. All of his music, if you go back and listen to Dirty Mind and Controversy especially, there are so many songs about being yourself, being free, and that you don’t need societal approval to live your life. And I identified with that so much.”

When it came time to put together a track list, Dicker parlayed his love and knowledge of Prince’s music into a formidable list of 40 tracks. He then shaped it into a solid group of songs in their album versions — “When Doves Cry,” “1999,” “7,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” — combined with funky 12-inch mixes that had never been issued on CD, mixes like “Let’s Go Crazy (Special Dance Mix),” “Kiss (Extended Version),” and “Raspberry Beret (12″ Version).” The executives at Warner Bros. and Rhino loved the idea of including the 12-inch mixes. Emboldened, Dicker got creative with the set’s sequencing, molding it into a tight Prince party mix.

“The way I had sequenced it originally was that it was all mixed up so that every single song was in chronological order, with singles mixed together with 12-inch versions,” Dicker explains. The original track listing for Ultimate Prince began with “Purple Medley”, followed by three album cuts, three 12-inch mixes (including “Erotic City”), three more album cuts, and three more extended or alternate mixes. Disc two originally had a similar breakdown, beginning with the extended version of “Kiss”, leading into a back-and-forth of album cuts and remixes, including the single edit mix of “Sexy M.F.”, “Sexy Mutha”. The last song on Ultimate was to be “My Name Is Prince”. “After you hear this two-hour overview of Prince’s career,” Dicker says, “it just ended with him shouting out ‘My name Is Prince!’ I thought it was really cool, but unfortunately it’s not how it came to pass.”

At the 11th hour, Warner Bros., which had extended the invitation to Prince to approve what was being included on Ultimate and how it was being presented, made some objections. “Erotic City” and “Sexy Mutha” had to go, and the album cuts and 12-inches needed to be on separate discs. (“I don’t know why Prince wanted them split out,” Dicker says, “but he did, and Warner Brothers and Rhino appeased him with that.”) And then there was the issue with the timing of the release.

By this time Bitton had spent a little over a month working on designing the project. He had been working on a Jane’s Addiction collection that was also postponed (Up From the Catacombs: The Best of Jane’s Addiction, eventually released in September) for Warner Bros., a client of his Candy Tangerine design firm, when they asked him to be a part of the Ultimate project. “I was as shocked as could be,” Bitton says. “I didn’t know there was a Prince project in the works.”

Bitton plowed through the Warner Bros. photo archives for the compilation’s liner notes, and he brought along what he estimates to be a tenth of his collection of Prince records. When the executives at Warner Bros. and Rhino saw it, they were floored. They ended up photographing it for the set’s booklet, and one look at that photo gives a staggering view into one serious Prince fan’s archives. Bitton had collected Prince albums for 10 years, between the ages of 10 and 20, and has some truly spectacular items in his collection. One is an authentic, original pressing of The Black Album, which, like Ultimate was cancelled at the very last minute. (Bitton says he paid $1,500 for it when he was 13 years old.) Singles, LPs, and rare items are cluttered across six panels in the set’s booklet, almost as if Bitton’s closet was opened and a horde of Prince treasure spilled out.

“When we did that photo shoot of my collection, it was kind of surreal,” Bitton says. “I was actually going to sell all this stuff at one point. I sold a bunch of stuff about 10 years ago, and I thought maybe I should just sell it all. And some voice in my head said, ‘You know what, just hang on to this stuff a little longer.’ It is something I know I brought to the table that would not have been there.”

After the sudden cancellation of Ultimate Prince, the future of the compilation looked bleak. Other Prince projects had been cancelled in the past (Dream Factory, Crystal Ball), with bootlegs being the only record of their original existence. It seemed Ultimate was destined for the same fate. “I was all excited about it, then all of a sudden it was pulled”, Bitton says. “But the date was moved to honor Prince’s wishes. The music business is a tough business. I think if Warner wanted to put it out, they could’ve said, ‘Hey, we’re putting it out. We don’t care.’ But they really have respect for Prince, and I hope he sees that.”

Ultimately, the package was released in late August to little fanfare. The strong marketing push prepared for the March release was gone, and for those involved with creating the set, seeing it in stores now is bittersweet. Yes, fans new and old can enjoy the fruits of their labor: two CDs with 28 classic Prince tracks, 11 which are remixes, which sound better than ever despite not being remastered. (Rhino declined to comment on the issue of remastering for this story, citing contractual confidentiality.) But if this set hit store five months earlier and been in stores alongside 3121, who knows what sales of Ultimate Prince or 3121 would have been like.

But with the recent ratcheting up of Prince activity, Ultimate Prince may garner increased interest. After all, performing in front of the largest crowd in the world on Super Bowl Sunday can’t do anything but help sales and draw attention to all of Prince’s work. And maybe some people will go looking to Ultimate Prince for more insight into Prince’s Purple Kingdom. That would suit Dicker and Bitton just fine. “This was like, no pun intended, the ultimate project for me,” Bitton says. Dicker adds, “It’s like being a die-hard fan for all these years has paid off.”