Just over a week after the untimely death of Prince, music fans around the world are still reeling from the loss of one of the most innovative, exciting and talented pop artists in history. As with the death of any beloved musician, one of the effects of this is that interest in Prince’s vast oeuvre has sky-rocketed, with his music proliferation on YouTube, a place it was banned in his lifetime. Prince released music regularly from 1978 until his death (The Black Wax reviewed his live Little Red Corvette/Dirty mind single only a few weeks ago) and as such, it can be hard for non-hardcore fans to know where to listen, beyond the obvious choices of Purple Rain and Sign o’ The Times. With 39 studio albums to his credit (to say nothing of live albums, side project releases and bootlegs), there are some parts of his career that are less discussed than the classic albums, but still deserve attention. Here is a small selection of those lesser-known albums.
The Gold Experience (1995)
Key tracks: Endorphinmachine, Dolphin, Eye Hate U, Gold
The first album credited to the unpronounceable symbol by which Prince was known as for much of the 1990s, The Gold Experience came out in 1995, after a year or so of Prince declaring that it would never be released. Upon its release, The Gold Experience was overshadowed by Prince’s record label troubles and the runaway success of lead single, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Now out of print, it is worth hunting down a copy, if only for the brilliantly ridiculous opener, P(ussy) Control. The usual concerns of love and sex are dealt with in the usual detail, with Prince’s falsetto on the voyeuristic 319 making the listener feel nasty just by hearing it. The moody Dolphin, concerning reincarnation, takes on a new meaning following Prince’s death, as does the stadium-sized closer, Gold. The latter was envisioned as a ‘Purple Rain for the 90s’ and while it falls short of this lofty goal, it is a suitably anthemic ending to Prince’s best album of that decade.
Key tracks: Jam of the Year, My Computer, The Love We Make, The Holy River, Somebody’s Somebody
Not for the faint hearted, Emancipation’s 36 songs sprawl across three discs of exactly one hour each, a symbolic arrangement apparently connected to the Pyramids. Emancipation finds Prince freed from his recording deal with Warner Brothers, in love with his then-wife (dancer Mayte Garcia) and in celebratory form, as evidenced by upbeat funk such as Jam of the Year and the infectious title track. Off-putting to casual listeners, this vast collection yields a surprising amount of genuinely brilliant tracks, although the format means that some songs are unnecessarily extended (Sleep Around being a prime example). Gems from Emancipation include My Computer, featuring a little-known cameo from Kate Bush and The Love We Make, a ballad dedicated to Jonathan Melvoin, the musician brother of Wendy Melvoin (of The Revolution), who died from an overdose in 1996. Emancipation is notable for being the first Prince album to feature covers of songs by other artists, the best of which is his interpretation of Joan Osborne’s One of Us.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Key tracks: The Work, pt.1, The Everlasting Now, Last December.
Considering how much mainstream news coverage has been given to Prince’s passing and the amount of discussion of his life and work in the last week, it’s hard to fathom that only fifteen years ago, he had slipped into obscurity, releasing music almost exclusively via the internet to his New Power Generation Music Club (NPGMC) subscribers. The Rainbow Children came at a time of great personal change for Prince. In 2000, he reclaimed his birth name following a conversion to the Jehova’s Witnesses, a conversion which amplified the ever present spirituality in his work into out-and-out religiousness. The lyrics are largely gnomic, with references to ‘theocratic order’, ‘the banished ones’ and the ‘digital garden’ made in pitch shifted voices reminiscent of ‘Bob George’ from The Black Album. This may put off those who aren’t hardcore Prince fans and who want to hear variations on his Minneapolis sound and usual lyrical themes, but the album is worth sticking with for its musicality. Eschewing his usual synths and drum machines, Prince instead favours live drums, plenty of horns and an organic jazz-funk sound.
Art Official Age (2014)
Key tracks: Clouds, Breakdown, The Gold Standard, Way Back Home
Following a four year gap in album releases (the longest of his career), Art Official Age was released alongside its sister album, PLECTRUMELECTRUM, the straightforward rock album credited to Prince’s group, 3rdEyeGirl. Whereas PLECTRUMELECTRUM rocked, Art Official Age, a solo Prince release, tended towards futuristic R&B and soul. Art Official Age has a loose storyline about Prince waking up from suspended animation, with interludes featuring Lianne La Havas and London singer Delilah. All the classic Prince ingredients are to be found here: funky party jams (The Gold Standard, FunknRoll), seductive falsetto come ons (Breakfast Can Wait) and glass-shattering vocals (Breakdown). The latter half of the album is more introspective than much of his previous work, a mood exemplified best by the gorgeous Way Back Home. Much more than PLECTRUMELECTRUM, Art Official Age proved that even almost forty years into his career, Prince could still pull a strong, cohesive album out of his flared sleeves.
HitnRun Phase Two (2015)
Key tracks: Stare, RocknRoll Love Affair, Xtraloveable, Big City
The 39th and final studio album to be released in Prince’s lifetime. Released mere months after the failed EDM experiments of Phase One, Phase Two was a surprisingly consistent effort considering that it is comprised of a mixture of new songs, re-recorded singles and updated tracks from the fabled Vault. This made it slightly stale for Prince aficionados upon release, but for those seeking an overview of the last few years of his life, this is more than adequate. Posthumous stories of Prince’s humanitarianism and the ongoing struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement render opener Baltimore (written after the death of Freddie Gray in that city) even more poignant. The mood soon shifts to a more classic Princely tone however, through the tightly-wound funk of Stare and the exuberant pop of Xtraloveable to the Dirty Mind-esque layered vocals of Screwdriver. Phase One featured a co-producer for the first time in Prince’s career, but his last album finds him taking back the reigns. That isn’t to say that Prince was alone however, his NPG Hornz section pepper the album with brass, giving the whole thing a big-band feeling. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the closer, Big City, a charmingly retro love song. The final words on the final Prince album?