A new compilation shows that even with his biggest hits behind him, Prince could still stun you with his genius
Prince’s literal bank vault of unissued recordings will be excavated for who-knows-how-many collections in the coming years. That’s great news. But Anthology: 1995 – 2010 shows the booty that’s been hiding in plain sight. It’s culled from the 19 studio albums, including three triple LPs, released after he changed his name to a non-binary rune – when the hits slowed to a trickle, despite (or thanks to) market glut, and when lay-fans, whatever they claim in retrospect, stopped paying much attention. It was their loss, as this set proves.
These 37 tracks cover an amazing range: pop gems, piano ballads, radical electro-funk, fire-spitting jazz-fusion instrumentals. Prince was always Prince, and didn’t chase trends per se. Like many musos, he had little taste for hip-hop — one of his few blind spots. On the title track of his 2004 Musicology, he shouts out James Brown, Sly Stone and Earth, Wind a& Fire, already playing the grumpy old man. “Don’t you miss the feeling/Music gave you/Back in the day?” he asks, before basically dissing any hip-hop that isn’t “Chuck D or Jam Master Jay” — this on a record that dropped just months after Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and Kanye’s The College Dropout. Still, the song is quite the jam, as is “Ol’ Skool Company,” which doubled down on the same idea five years later, quoting Funkadelic and (with a wink) Beck over futuristic synth-funk-rock sprawl, shouting out his own bad self, calling for black power and denouncing bank bailouts.
Plenty of high points here are tributes to his forebears, and why not? “The Work Pt. 1” bows to the Godfather of Soul with a monster groove and a paradoxically chilled-out vibe, “Northside” is a Sly homage with dazzling horn charts, “Dream” is a wicked tribute to Jimi Hendrix guitar pyrotechnics. “U’re Gonna C Me” is all falsetto, floral piano with synth washes, an evident bouquet to latter-day Joni Mitchell, an amuse-bouche for the forthcoming Piano & a Microphone 1983 archival set.
Yet Prince was such a master musician, he could engage any new style on his own terms when he felt like it. If his occasional rapping, like his funk, leaned old-school, the man had flow, and it became one more tool in his belt. “P. Control” — a.k.a. “Pussy Control” — still sounds as dazzlingly sick as when it was issued on 1995’s The Gold Experience, Prince dropping f-bombs between gorgeously batshit falsetto squeals over a purpled Kraftwerk groove. “Endorphine Machine,” from the same set, lives up to its title preposterously, Prince conjuring Digital Underground’s Shock G over a raga-rock stormer studded with enough vintage hooks, come-shot screams and over-the-top guitar salvos to distinguish a merely good band’s entire career.
The set also shows the shadow Prince cast over musicians who followed him. “Shh” anticipated D’Angelo’s bedroom lures, and Blood Orange’s swooning falsetto synth-pop is foreshadowed in both “Eye Hate U” — bonkers guitar solo notwithstanding — and “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold.” Of course, it went both ways: “Call My Name” and “Muse 2 the Pharaoh” seem to be part of a creative dialog with Baduizm, Voodoo and other neo-soul landmarks that owed plenty to Prince in the first place. Kamasi Washington has doubtlessly noted “West,” a 14-minute epic from N.E.W.S., Prince’s 2003 set of instrumental jazz journeys featuring Eric Leeds’ soulful tenor and baritone sax. “Chelsea Rodgers,” a disco-funk hard-on with handclaps and relentless brass stabs from 2007’s Planet Earth, is a secret weapon among certain cratedigging club DJs.
Did the compilers miss any key cuts? Sure. Most glaring is the absence of any covers. Prince started releasing versions of other people’s songs right after his Nineties indie move gave him that freedom, and the heady falsetto-soul double-header from Emancipation (the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly Wow” and The Delfonics’ “La La (Means I Love You)”) are among his greatest latter-day moments. So is his unlikely 1999 transformation of Sheryl Crow’s “Every Day Is a Winding Road” into a house-funk anthem. One of the greatest finds in the archive thus far, in fact, is the cover of “Mary Don’t You Weep” that Spike Lee used for BlacKkKlansman‘s closing credits, a version of which is featured on Piano & a Microphone 1983. As for originals, there’s the Kate Bush collaboration “My Computer,” also from Emancipation, a prescient paean to digital loneliness and companion piece to her 1989 “Deeper Understanding.” Also missing is his 1999 “Little Red Corvette” throwback duet with Gwen Stefani, “So Far, So Pleased,” a total gem.
I could go on. It’s all testimony to the quality of the man’s output, and the richness of his ideas, even when he was exhausting us with his genius. The LPs were spotty, yes, but we didn’t know how good we had it. All said, Anthology: 1995 – 2010 is a solid and necessary primer on 15 years in the life of a guy who deserved more. We’re lucky he left enough work for us to play catch-up with for years.
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