Prince once said that with all the unreleased material in his mythical musical and visual ‘vault’ he could make an album a year for a century. If it weren’t that maybe not all of the material he left was not release quality, he was probably not exaggerating.
As one of the most prolific musicians in recent decades and despite the fact that his production was truncated by his unexpected death, Prince’s estate has more than enough material to put out previously unreleased work for as long as they want.
Since his death in 2016 some albums which can no longer be found have been re-released, but in terms of new material only part of the triple disc Purple Rain De Luxe (2017), and the much more intimate Piano & a Microphone 1984 (2018) have been put out. And now is the turn of Originals, a collection of songs that Prince “gifted” to other artists but which here are in their very first versions, some of them true demos, sung by the man himself. Some of these songs enjoyed great success later on, like Nothing Compares To You, for The Family, but which gained massive popularity in 1990 in the splendid version by Sinead O’Connor; Manic Monday for The Bangles; and The Glamorous Life for Sheila E, but others much less well-known, especially to audiences from outside America. They all belong to the period of Prince’s greatest torrent of creativity in the 1908s, with the exception of Love… Thy will be done, the majestic spiritual which Prince composed with Martika at the beginning of the 1990s, and which is made even more impressive in this version by Prince’s emotional voice.
Until recently nobody had seriously started to put the Paisley Park vault in order. Now, for the first time, it has a head archiver, Michael Howe, who was actually the negotiator between Prince and Warner records during the last few years of his life. With the agreement of the heirs, Howe made the selection of the 15 songs that make up Originals – a choice which could easily have been completely different given the number of songs that Prince wrote for other artists.
Discovering that the Manic Monday sung by its writer is almost exactly the same as The Bangles’ version is one of the delights of the album but it is also interesting to hear the first version of Nothing Compares To You, which is the only track to have been previously released as a single last year.
But apart from the greatest hits, Originals also offers moments of absolute musical splendour, such as the six-minute long Holly Rock, written for Sheila E. And even the film soundtrack for Krush Groove, which was largely ignored at the time but now, strategically placed half way through the album, stands up as one of the best discoveries of the selection. It is the essence of Prince at his most funky, with a sensual rap delivery, a changing beat and a powerful band in the middle of what sounds like an explosive jam session under the order of a conductor who, once the last note has sounded, will hurl us an ironic “Try dancing to that!”.
Another of the gems from Originals is Make Up, written for the girl group Vanity 6, with its trashy lyrics and yet a minimalist music in the purest and most grassroots electroclash style that clearly shows the experimentalist side of Prince.
Prince effortlessly travels across very different genres and he does so using his voice with its broad and chameleonic range which adapts easily to become the crooner in the short ballad You Are My Love, performed by the king of country at the time, Kenny Rogers. More typical of the lovely soul ballads that Prince composed during his life is Baby, You Are a Trip, for Jill Jones.
Another musically risky track is Dear Michelangelo, for Sheila E., which includes nod to the famous Lara’s Theme from the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago by Maurice Jarre. But here, what is really incredible are the lyrics which show Prince at his most narrative: set in Renaissance Florence it is the story of a country girl who is madly in love with Michelangelo, and aware of the fact that he is gay, prefers to live out a platonic love which is only real in her dreams rather than accept proposals from other men.
In short, Originals is a demonstration of the musical and performing versatility of Prince and of his perfection even when he is just turning out tunes to be performed by others. It is also a heterogeneous album in terms of genres and beats as is always the case with Prince’s music – for me he is the most representative artist of musical postmodernity – and it moves between being a documentary curiosity but also a collection of songs which could perfectly well end up drawing in new listeners.