In 1983, Prince was a budding genius on a historic run that would eventually redefine pop. A year earlier he’d exploded into the Top 10 with his synth-funk double-LP opus, 1999, and he was already hard at work on Purple Rain, the album/film project that would render a version of his life story in Beatles-size proportions.
One day, in the midst of all this, he sat down in his Chanhassen, Minnesota, home studio and knocked out a demo, just him at the piano. Most of what he recorded were works-in-progress, along with a couple of beloved covers and playful improvisations. It’s likely he never would have let this see the light of day; it’s too unguarded and intimate even for an artist as bold as he was. Now, that session has been unearthed as Piano & A Microphone 1983, a fascinating look at a side of his brilliance we didn’t know existed at the time.
“Can you turn the lights down?” Prince asks earnestly as he plays a jazzy chord sequence at the start of the proceedings. Essentially all by himself, he is loose, freewheeling and impressionistic, flitting between sketches — 90 feather-light seconds of “Purple Rain,” a spacious reworking of 1999’s steamy “International Lover” — exercising his fingers as he plays broad chords like a piano man noodling on some Sinatra classics at the Waldorf.
Along those lines, you can see him folding his own artistry into American musical history. In one audacious moment, he performs a soulful interpretation of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a song done by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Bobby Darin, and then throws in a bit of his own, “Strange Relationship,” a funk workout that eventually made 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times.
What emerges is the rare posthumous release that adds a whole new level to our understanding of a great artist. Listening to it now is like a glorious act of voyeurism, spying on a genius at work, watching his ideas unfold in real time, exploring a side of his art he wasn’t quite ready to show the world.
Sometimes he’s playful and funny, going in and out of a gruff James Brown–like voice (exclaiming “Good gawd!” here and there) and stomping his feet as he plays. He opens with “17 Days,” later the B side to “When Doves Cry,” beatboxing the drum part and humming the synth line. On the previously unreleased “Cold Coffee and Cocaine,” a jumpy, Ray Charles–style blues number, he huffs, “This is the last time, baby, I eat over at your place/All I get is a cup of cold coffee and cocaine and your ugly face — look out.” In more restrained moments, he’s vulnerable, as on a spare cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”
As insightful as it is, Piano & A Microphone is also imperfect: You can hear him flub the rhythm and adjust the tone of his voice. But that’s also part of what makes it so moving now. Here is a truly spontaneous moment, something we can share with a departed icon, his 88 keys and anyone kind enough to dim the lights.