Prince in the early-to-mid Eighties was spitting out hot songs at such a clip, it’s no wonder he shared the wealth. And wealth it was: his “Manic Monday” was the Bangles’ first hit, reaching Top Five in the U.S., while Sinead O’Connor never had a more successful song than “Nothing Compares to U,” a near-global Number One. Prince’s overflow songs also functioned as brand extensions, especially when covered by acts in his creative camp: Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, the Time, Sheila E.
Originals, the latest release from Prince’s vaults (see Piano & A Microphone 1983 and the posthumous Anthology 1995 – 2010), demonstrates that he wasn’t handing off sketches. It collects Prince’s own versions of these songs, all fully-formed. Many, in fact, in their instrumentation and arrangements, are nearly indistinguishable from the gifted versions. The opener, “Sex Shooter,” mirrors the Apollonia 6 performance in Purple Rain and on the group’s debut, with minor lyrical rejigging. “Jungle Love” is a near-Xerox of the Time’s, down to the monkey noises and the “oh-way-oh-way-oh” backing vocals. “The Glamorous Life” begins with apparently the same unhinged sax and funky cello as on Sheila E’s signature, and proceeds similarly, omitting little besides the five-minute drum fireworks coda. The 15 songs range from entertaining throwaways to top-shelf Prince, making this basically a very good golden-era Prince album, with material recorded entirely between 1981-85 but for the ’91 version of “Love… Thy Will Be Done,” a hit that year for Martika.
But what’s most fun about the set is how Prince’s glancingly non-binary persona comes out to play in such a big way — it’s arguably the genderqueer-est set in his catalogue. Sometimes it’s in the lyrics, like when he dreams of “kissin’ Valentino by a crystal-blue Italian stream” on “Manic Monday.” Other times it’s more about the delivery. He delivers “Noon Rendezvous,” another song he passed on to Sheila E, entirely in falsetto. It’s dazzling. Jill Jones laid into her version of “Baby, You’re A Trip” with gospel fire, which Prince matches here and then some, shrieking through a spectacularly horny denouement. Elsewhere, he butches up. He sings Vanity 6’s “Make Up” near the bottom of his register, bringing out the song’s Kraftwerk debt while savoring its wardrobe (“If I wear a dress/He will never call/So I wear much less/I guess I’ll wear my camisole”). And “You’re My Love,” recorded by bear-ish country-pop crooner Kenny Rogers, is almost a drag-king performance here — it sounds like a genuine effort for The Artist to keep his inner queen buttoned up.
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It’s unclear exactly how many songs on Originals were cut with specific singers in mind (an exception is the purple funk-cum-old-school-rap “Holly Rock,” where he sings “Sheila E’s my name…”). Regardless, you can almost always hear the author’s hand in the other artist’s recordings, making these versions feel completely lived in. And if Prince’s takes on “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Manic Monday” — good as they are — won’t replace the more iconic ones, they certainly prove his ownership, and add to a catalogue that only grows more astonishing with each newly-unearthed jam.