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I Met Prince (and Judith Hill) at Paisley Park

This man welcomed me into his Chanhassen palace.

This man welcomed me into his Chanhassen palace.

Is my time as valuable as Prince's? Certainly not, said a journalist to himself as he drove 35 miles an hour on an ice-and-slush mixture that had already claimed several victims along Highway 212. Any of the ditch-nestled cars could've been heading to Paisley Park too.

In all seriousness, a semi-exclusive invitation to Prince's Chanhassen lair was a bit of a purple prize. Cloaked in just enough vagueness, the invite arrived early on Sunday, and instructions trickled in throughout the day. Was this a rehearsal session for his pop-up tour, or a definitive unveiling of the storied vault? Or a wild, suburban gray duck chase? And yet another writer succumbed to a self-referential story about entering this pop star's inner sanctum.

The snow collected on a medium-sized grouping of cars inside the Paisley lot, which sits next to the massive compound bathed in orchid light. "Wait in your cars," they said. "We're just about ready."

Once the Paisley folks were indeed ready, a collection of a half dozen Twin Cities music critics and another 50 or so fans trickled into the entry, past the Purple Rain motorcycle, and into the smaller performance space. Prince hits mixed with Kendrick Lamar and old funky soul played through the speakers, the stage had instruments on the stands, and multiple large screens showed James Franco grinning madly through Oz the Great and Powerful. No sign of the Purple Wizard just yet, though.

After a couple of hours, an exuberant member of Prince's team named Trevor corralled the music press corps and walked them down a hallway away from the low-key dancing and standing around. Along the way, we passed a large room with two men inside who might've been off-duty cops staring at computer screens. The hall was bathed in memorabilia from the Prince experience.

We reached a studio, and found the members of 3rdEyeGirl -- Donna Grantis, Hannah Welton, and Ida Kristine Nielsen -- waiting to greet us with warmth. Hannah's husband, Joshua Welton, who has worked in the Paisley Park studios of late, was behind the massive mixing board. Light conversation followed, and I eyed wall speakers that were as big as my Toyota's snow-covered tires. The male/female logo was everywhere.

Judith Hill

Judith Hill

Suddenly, the door opened.

"This is Judith Hill," a familiar voice said. She walked in wearing a colorful kimono-like gown and ornate wedges enhancing her height by a half foot or so. Her curls were styled up in a massive pomp-afro above her head. Then the man said, "I'm Prince."

The usual comments about him smelling nice were on point.

Prince strolled into the room wearing a long-sleeved shirt with his face on it and sat down. We soon learned that Prince produced Hill's latest album during a two- to three-week period at Paisley Park. The 31-year-old L.A. vocalist with Alabama roots was a contender on The Voice in 2013, and held the poise of an industry vet.

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We sat for almost an hour listening to selections from her possibly imminent album, Back in Time, at high volume. Hill's chops ranged from vintage soul a la the belting of Etta James to a smoother but still-powerful delivery like that of Alicia Keys. She nodded and monitored the room as they responded to the razor-sharp horn lines, piano flourishes, and an accompaniment that sounded far less analog (how Prince described her voice) than the rest.

Still, the room belonged to Prince. He directed the conversation and peppered it with his thoughts about how the music business has evolved. He mentioned meeting with Apple to discuss iTunes about a decade ago, and being unimpressed with how few albums they sold at that time. When Spotify was mentioned, he asked for an explanation of what it was. Also, he talked about the speed at which material is put out. After referring to Aretha Franklin's prolific creative period in the '60s, he joked that Lil Wayne might have as many albums out as he does.

He urged the room to ask questions of Hill and give feedback. We obliged, gradually. He wanted to know how to get Hill's album out to the world. After heeding a few suggestions, it seemed that he was already doing some of the work by getting City Pages, the Current, Star Tribune, and Fox 9 all in the room to listen.

Eventually Hill showed us the album cover for Back in Time. It's a photo of her as a child taken by her mother. She sits behind a toy piano, and her confident eyes already seem to have her trajectory as a musician figured out.

More proof came after we exited the studio and returned to the crowd. Her album cover was projected on the walls, and her band eventually cut into a lengthy groove with a bassline that refused to roll over. "Cry Cry Cry" -- not the Johnny Cash song -- was the set's centerpiece.

A fearless singer, she bruised her notes one moment and scalded them the next. The moment felt personal, and it almost proved engrossing enough to keep the crowd from rubbernecking while 3rdEyeGirl and Prince shuffled around near the back of the room.

Further advice for Judith Hill: Even if our host did pull together some incredible arrangements and light an artistic fire under you, make sure that Prince doesn't bogart the whole story. It just happened on Sunday. That's a pretty big purple gorilla in every room, and it has left a lot of his past proteges with short, unremarkable careers.

Hill is no longer a backup singer for Michael Jackson, a TV contestant, or an opener for Josh Groban. But it's still up to her to decide what she is. If she does that convincingly, her time might be just as valuable as Prince's someday.

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