You have to wade deep into the generous, overwhelming, embarrassment-of-riches expanded reissue of 1999 before you stumble across “Purple Music,” finally available for public consumption after circulating in bootleg form for a solid portion of its 37 years of existence.
At nearly 11 minutes long, “Purple Music” is one of the most claustrophobic, repetitive songs Prince ever made, which also means it’s one of the funkiest songs in his prodigiously funky catalog. The star programs a churning, never-ending stream of percussion, squashing together whooshing electronic splats and ticks and clatters. Then he burrows his guitar and bass into the tiny, surely uninhabitable crevices between these beats, and somehow creates life — itchy, urgent, compulsively danceable riffs.
Prince had taken on this type of challenge before: See the Time’s “777-9311,” where the programmed hi-hats coat the entire track. But there is more room to maneuver in the “777-9311” beat, more space between the claps, longer passages where the pitter-patter of the beat falls away to let Prince carve and pirouette with guitar and voice (though Morris Day sang Prince’s lyrics on the final version of the track).
“Purple Music” is far more unrelenting, with a galloping beat that never lets up. At first, Prince plays restrained bass riffs — the type of stolid three-note runs that serve as the engine for “Erotic City,” another one of his funkiest workouts. But around the 26-second mark, Prince signals he has different intentions with “Purple City”: He squeezes a rash, even foolhardy number of notes into a quick downward squiggle on the bass. Soon he takes a similar approach with the guitar, which starts whining and biting like a swarm of mosquitos, gaining detail and intensity after a few cautious forays.
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As “Purple Music” progresses, the melodic interjections get even crazier. Around 2:40, a spindly, skronky guitar line slides sideways into the track and ends with a dissonant flourish, like a drunk falling slowly off a couch. Around 3:20, the bass gets frisky again, playing buoyant melodic parts to match the main vocal theme. After the 6:20 mark, Prince briefly deploys a haunted-house synth much like the one that surfaced a few years later in Purple Rain‘s “Computer Blue.”
Prince makes room for silliness as well as unchecked virtuosity here. There’s a goofy digression in the background — “It’s time for your morning bath, sir. What would you like to bathe in this morning?” — and random commands: “Drive, you idiot!” These moments of levity provide temporary relief from all the ankle-breaking intensity, if that’s what you require.
While trying to decipher Prince’s decision-making process seems foolish, at least one selfish listener finds it nearly impossible to understand why he wouldn’t have released “Purple Music” in the Eighties. Even if he didn’t want to include it on 1999, it seems like an obvious candidate for a B-side. That was the fate of another fierce track from this period, “Irresistible Bitch,” which came out as part of the “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” single. “Erotic City,” which was cut a couple years later, remains one of the only Prince songs to rival the headlong, intoxicating qualities of “Purple Music;” the singer put it out as the B-side to “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Sadly “Purple Music” did not receive the same treatment. But now that it is finally, officially here, listeners should make up for lost time.