What if you had a chance to assemble a brand new Prince album from his unreleased ‘80s recordings?
That’s essentially what Warner Bros. and NPG Records have done. Today, Prince's former label and his own boutique imprint released a newly (and much belatedly) remastered version of Purple Rain. There's also a Deluxe Edition, as there always is with such items, but this one is special: It includes a bonus disc of 11 tracks culled from recordings Prince made from 1983-84, at the peak of his fame, several exhumed from that vault we've heard so much about.
Some of these songs have floated around as bootlegs, others have emerged over the years in alternate versions, a few have been unheard in any form. Still, all sound recognizable in a way that'll trigger a nostalgic twinge, because they're constructed from the components of the Minneapolis Sound that Prince perfected on Purple Rain: the electronic slap of the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, the woozy symphonics of the Oberheim synthesizer, the gauzy harmonies of Wendy and Lisa, that guitar.
The first official posthumous collection of Prince rarities (and surely not the last) is a thing worth sifting through track by track.
“The Dance Electric”
This doomy funk track may sound familiar -- Prince handed it off to André Cymone for his pal's 1985 album. The apocalyptic message with which it opens -- “Love your enemies/ There isn’t much time” -- is familiar too: It's like the lyric to a chaster “1999” or a saner “Let’s Go Crazy.” Prince got the Linn drum in the way Hendrix got the electric guitar, and for 10 unyielding minutes here the electrobeats slap each other around in ways that not only brilliantly demonstrate that machine's percussive potential but also use its limitations to create new sounds.
“Love and Sex”
“Uh huh huh huh huh!” Prince grunts flamboyantly over a clamorous opening drum fill, followed by a dare of “Come on baby, hurt me.” Then, a whiplash groove established, he gets metaphysical -- he's in favor of both love and sex (like you had to ask) and his primary concern about the afterlife is, sensibly enough, what the nookie's like there. Listen close and you can also hear a soft “verse two” vocal cue left in the mix.
“Computer Blue (Hallway Speech Version)”
About midway through the much-coveted 12-minute alternate version of the Purple Rain track, the robotized voices of Wendy and Lisa re-emerge to pity the “poor lonely computer” that needs to learn the difference between love and lust. Then, as the band cooks and the guitar overheats, Prince narrates his dreamlike wanderings through the titular hallway. It's the kind of crazy epic he could only pull off at his peak, sexily undercutting its pretension with a lewd wink. But the Deluxe Expanded Edition of Purple Rain also includes a disc of radio edits, dance mixes, and b-sides, and wouldn't this feel more at home there?
“Electric Intercourse (Studio Version)”
The first appetizer released in advance of this project, surfacing back in April, might be the best thing here. Bumped from Purple Rain after Prince dreamed up “The Beautiful Ones,” it's a more playful ballad than the showstopper that replaced it. A piano drizzles like raindrops, orchestral synthesizers wrap around the production like heavy velvet curtains, and electronic drums bound from channel to channel with ping-ponging finesse. The chorus follows up “I'll shock you with my lips” with “Darling, don't you know / Your Technicolor climax is at my fingertips?” and the vocal gets so impatiently worked up by the climax it's like Prince started fucking without you.
“Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden”
In the first half of this odd suite, Lisa Coleman quavers flirtatiously over subtle electronic percolation and a light bass-drum tap broken by periodic eruptions of a multicolored bloom of synthesized strings. “I don't wanna have your baby,” she tells her lust object. “But you gotta be the finest specimen I've ever seen.” Prince then emerges on “Roadhouse Garden,” using a deeper, more soulful voice than customary for him at the time, for a strolling bit of pastoral electrofunk.
This ingeniously layered synthesizer fantasia would have fit right in on 1999. Throughout, an eerie new-wave keyboard riff wends over a jerky funk beat as Prince hyperventilates with irresistible abandon, moaning “Someone's in my body.” If you think you've heard it before, an instrumental snippet plays briefly during one scene in Purple Rain, and the track surfaced on the Prince And The Revolution: Live VHS released in the summer of 1985.
Written for (and somehow rejected as too risqué by) the Violent Femmes, this pro-butt strut is buoyant and debonair rather than lowdown and leering. And such fancy lyrics! One verse rhymes three-syllable words that end in “-ate,” just like on INXS' “Mediate,” and if there's a Nobel Prize for non sequiturs, Prince should win for this quatrain alone: “You do not understand my quirky ways / My crazy logic leaves you in a daze / Think my neurosis is just a phase / You've got a wonderful ass.”
“Velvet Kitty Cat”
Here's the kind of charming minor recording you always hope projects like this will dredge up, a cut so slight Prince would never slot it on an LP himself, just a suave, slurry vocal slinking across a purposely dinky lite-funk beat.
“Katrina's Paper Dolls”
Quiet, empathetic, and graceful, this tale of a woman who sits at home snipping paper dolls (“one doll for every day her old man's been gone”) anticipates the investigations into the female experience Prince would later conduct on Sign o' the Times. And yes, Katrina is Vanity's middle name.
“We Can Fuck”
Don't let that title get you too worked up. You may have already heard this track as the generically named George Clinton duet on Graffiti Bridge: “We Can Funk.” You'll probably prefer the x-rated version, though it's a bit disappointing that the climactic funk jam here is a retread.
Written by Prince's father John, this lovely instrumental, which recurs throughout Purple Rain and plays a role in the movie's plot, works well as a coda in its full five-minute version.
In short, good stuff, and though this collection won't profoundly change the way you hear or think about Prince's classic music, it does allow us to indulge a curious hypothetical -- this is what a terrific Prince album that had no hit singles would have sounded like in 1984. Nothing here would have edged past Michael or Bruce or Madonna -- or Huey or Lionel or Phil, for that matter -- to top the charts in its day. And whatever treasures emerge from the Paisley deep in the future, I doubt we'll ever hear a woulda-been-a-hit. After all, Prince was many things -- prolific, mercurial, brilliant, fussy, a wonderful ass in more ways than one. But he sure wasn't dumb.