A legendary control freak, Prince’s business instincts were always idiosyncratic, from scrawling “SLAVE” on his face and changing his name to an icon (to protest his Warner Brothers contract) to his New Power Generation pop-up shop in Minneapolis (for the year or so it lasted on Lyndale Avenue, I always remember finding it empty – when it opened at all – save its clerks). In some cases, time proved him prescient: Frank Ocean and others have refined the pop-up, while Prince’s CD giveaways and streaming service holdouts are now standard marketing strategies. As for sitting on decades worth of “vault recordings” of still-unknown quantity and quality, the jury is out, and it’s impossible to know if Prince would have ever green-lighted the release of the early-to-mid-Eighties outtakes included in both the two-disc Deluxe Edition and four-disc Deluxe Expanded Edition of Purple Rain, his megahit soundtrack LP to the film of the same name. Perhaps it’s best to take them as a gift from an artist you will miss even more after hearing them.
Billed as the Prince-supervised “2015 Paisley Park Remaster” of Purple Rain, the reissue of the original album may or may not be the same mix posted in 2015 to Tidal – comparing the latter stream with a new one provided by the label, it’s hard to discern much difference. Nevertheless, it’s a fabulously crisp mix of one of modern pop’s greatest LPs. Details sparkle: the string flourishes on “Take Me With You” and “Purple Rain”; the finger-snap on “When Doves Cry,” just after dude coos about “you and I engaged in a kiss”; the actual kiss around the three-minute mark of “Baby I’m a Star.”
The bonus disc titled From the Vault & Previously Unreleased opens with “The Dance Electric,” an apocalyptic 11-minute party jam with a churning machine-funk groove and Syndrum sequences that mirror West African talking-drum salvos. “Good morning, children” begins the Purple Proctor, echoing the “Dearly beloved” intro of “Let’s Go Crazy.” He instructs his charges to “Listen to the rhythm of your soul,” and that they’d “better love each other,” invoking Babylon and the “light of truth” along the way.
“Love and Sex” – unrelated to the Sheila E song of the same – refracts elements of “Take Me With You” in a galloping mix of Prince tropes, decked out in squishy DX-7 synths, “sh-boom”s and “sha-la-la-la”s. A 12-minute version of “Computer Blue” is exploded from the album version with an eight-minute jazz-funk-rock coda full of over-the top guitar alongside trippy Prince narration and a Siri-like cyborg (likely a mix of Revolution bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) scolding a “poor lonely computer/It’s time you learned ‘love’ and ‘lust’/They both have four letters, but they’re entirely different words.”
“Electric Intercourse” is a falsetto ballad grounded in florid church piano chords, guilded with synths and driven with programmed drums – another digital sex metaphor that maybe hits its target a bit too squarely. More interesting is “Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden,” a cleaned-up medley of two songs recorded in ’84 at his 26th birthday concert. “Our Destiny” features marvelous orchestral framing, with lead vocals by Lisa Coleman; then Prince comes in slinging memories (“This is the house where we used to play”). It’s a taste of what his golden-era music might have sounded like if he’d shared the spotlight more often.
“Possessed,” about being crazy in love, has a melody which snakes through fluttering harp notes towards a breakdown that never quite arrives, peppered by a processed vocal display worthy of The Exorcist. “Have you ever had the feeling that someone was tearing you up into little bitty pieces and contemplating selling you for a jigsaw puzzle?” sings a chorus of demonic Princes. Absolutely, dudes.
Befitting its title, “Wonderful Ass” might be the most purely satisfying of the vault tracks: a chipper, silly funk-strut duet between Prince and Lisa Coleman, who were at the time dating the twin Melvoin sisters (both of whom shared the titular attribute, according to Coleman). The bandmates rap-rhyme “educate,” “negotiate,” “communicate,” “litigate,” “interrogate” and “masturbate” because, well, that’s what they do.
“Velvet Kitty Kat” sounds like a solo Prince demo: lo-fi, slightly muffled, with a basic drum track and simple guitar. Its charm is its brevity and DIY simplicity, a rarity for Prince at this stage. “Katrina’s Paper Dolls,” meanwhile, is something of a mystery, sketching a story of a lonely girl who stays home and makes her own company, literally. It might be about Prince’s protégée Vanity (real name Denise Katrina Matthews) of Vanity 6. Or it might just be an interesting metaphor for a guy who made his own company similarly, by shaping artists like Vanity.
Opening with finger cymbals and what sounds like an oud, the outrageous “We Can Fuck” gets straight to the point, then makes it for 10 minutes, putting a Middle Eastern spin on his sexual revolution over a slow funk jam as X-rated as any official Prince release to date. It’s followed by “Father’s Song,” the piano meditation written, or in any case co-written, by Prince’s dad, John Nelson. A fragment appeared in semi-autobiographical context in the film Purple Rain, and its melody was used as the main motif of “Computer Blue”‘s back end. Here, the piano melody is teased out and ghosted with synth, becoming an easy-listening psychedelic coda to this scrapbook culled from what may stand as Prince’s hottest streak.
The Deluxe Expanded set includes a DVD of a 1985 Syracuse show that’s circulated in bootleg bits on YouTube for a while, as well as the Single Edits & B-Sides disc. The latter gathers worthy flipsides, including the two-cigarettes-and-a-broken-heart anthem “17 Days” (Prince’s second-best lyrical application of the word “rain”); the bizarre steam-kettle space-gospel ballad “God”; the aching, banana daiquiri-soused lover’s requiem “Another Lonely Christmas”; and the mighty seven-minute “Make Love Not War Erotic City Come Alive” mix of “Erotic City” – which reminds us that, as long as we are alive, “We can funk until the dawn,” which is good advice always.