When watching Prince in concert, I was always struck by how seemingly perfect his execution of the vocal characters and characteristics of his songs were. He would travel up in the highest part of his register with embellishments but always centred, and then on the one he might let out a blood curdling shriek or rhapsodic squeal to another number in which he might swoop down low and seamlessly into a full bodied baritone. He morphed spectacularly and with ease through difficult terrain for the mortal larynx and diaphragm. More than most performers, Prince understood the theatre of the human voice. And more unusually, the female voice. Many of the songs on this posthumous release were writen for or with women in mind, and on his originals he displayed an innate and learned knowledge of the nuances of timbre. The tonal wisdom is a characteristic of his body of work which has yet to receive the telescopic attention to detail it deserves. Prince, from his earliest adventures in sound, had a keen interest in vocal harmony and an unerring ear for the framing of the voice. His first two albums ‘For You’ and the self-titled follow up, released in the late 70s, attest to this fact. His singing was often ambiguous by default if not by intention, and that was part of its appeal. It was distinctively his. Having absorbed the great tradition of R&B vocal groups, he turned down the production assist of Earth, Wind & Fire’s founder and front man, Maurice White, and opted to travel through alley ways where Smokey Robinson’s soft crooning falsetto and poetry wouldn’t dare to venture. The risks Prince took was the risqué we were unaccustomed to. He wrote and sung for women as if he knew them intimately like the voice inside their collective head. As if he was the ear to their concerns, fears and desires. He pulled from Gospel as much as folk traditions. From Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell. And much more. Every genre was within his grasp and assimilated like a Chameleon stuck in a jukebox that ease dropped on the heart and mind of an even more complex species.
It’s wasn’t all on the surface. Prince had more layers than an Onion. Imperceptibly he just seemed to know women better than most who have ever written songs and sung about them from different points of view. He learnt all the tricks of the trade whilst inventing some of his own. His Camille voice, circa 1987, is neither male or female but something entirely of its own Frankenstein curiosity. Bob George was at the other end of the gender and personality spectrum. A marriage of black humour and pitch changing technology during the infancy of an emerging Rap music scene with affliations to the street life, when it was still a dangerous notion that served notice of a threat to the established order and social norms. The voice of Prince the seductress shared living space with the voice of Prince the antagonist and a legion of others. Let’s not forget that he had a side gig on record with his conception and production of early albums by the Minneapolis New Wave Funk band, The Time, who were an alpha male, chauvinistic caricature of himself, fronted by his friend and Grand Central bandmate, Morris Day. But the list of women who were presented with songs from within the mysterious walls of his intuition, is long and wide in variety.
Is there a Prince type on record? Perhaps there is multiple. One type is Ingrid Chavez, who inspired some of the more overtly devoutional and esoteric songs. Martika would fit into that type by the inference of the songs he gave her. She was given the honour of introducing the world to his poignant and tender composition, ‘Love Thy Will Be Done’. This song is not gender specific but its vulnerability is best rendered by a woman, if not by Prince because it yearns in a way that is not commonly expressed by men in a public platform like a major label album release. It also defies a lazy stereotype about Prince’s cartoonish, two dimensional depiction of women during phases of his career, which do not stand up to three dimensional scrutiny when examined. But there was that side of him in his work, which may have been one of the characters on the grand stage of his imagination. In a lot of his songs, Prince is the victim of the wiley ways of women. Ensnared, betrayed and left broken hearted. It’s a fascinating pathology. Sinead O’Conner made a successful meal of a song he gave to The Family for their debut album, but neither she nor her celebrated rendition of ‘Nothing Compares To You’ received his official seal of performative approval. He took it back not long after her version became a chart smash and spiced it up with another Prince type of woman in the guise of the mighty voiced NPG Queen, Rosie Gaines. But it’s his original solo recording that is the most revealing for how naked he is in his vocal delivery. The song is a masterpiece of the songwriting craft. Great artistry sown in the soil of substance.
The songs on Originals are ones that hardcore fans like myself are familiar with thanks to the infamous bootlegging of his recordings in the 80s, long before the Internet was in our vocabulary of common words. This is only the feintist scratch on the surface of the several lifetime’s worth of studio, rehearsals, and live performance recordings and footage he left behind but we now have some sonic clarity in place of tape hiss, and suprisingly some of the mixes are different from the ones that have circulated in the purple underground for many frustrating and simultaneously exciting years of hunting for material which lay dormant in his fabled Paisley Park vault.
There’s quite a few fan favorites gathered for this fellowship of orphaned songs. Its nice to have the gorgeous ‘Noon Rendezvous’ in good sound quality. It is sheer beauty. Prince’s original recording of ‘Jungle Love’ is also great to have on this album because as I’ve alluded to, it’s long been established that Morris Day and The Time were at the very least an extension of Prince. One of several shape shifts of his enigmatic persona. Vanity/Apollonia 6 was another and is represented here in the opening track, Sex Shooter, which is a song that was featured in a transitional scene from Purple Rain. Just like the many sides in the room of our identity, Prince always had a voice and a suave style to match.
This collection of songs is playful and less cynical than one might expect for a project not helmed by its creator. It pays tribute to his range as a writer, composer, producer, musician in the strictist of definitions. And it celebrates the virility of his ideas and concepts across genres in a period when as popular as he was, he openly embraced the avant gard and pushed the cutting edge beyond the frontiers of the mainstream. There were no limits to his creativity. At the beginning of the 70s Miles Davis didn’t get to work with Hendrix as he had planned to before tragedy struck, but in the mid to late 80s he put the voice of his muted Trumpet to the service of Prince the composer, and recorded for posterity, tunes which will inevitably see the light of day in due time. Miles went beyond the border of expectations and left a lot of purists behind him, who couldn’the escape the 50s. He likened Prince to Hendrix, James Brown, Charlie Chaplin and Marvin Gaye and even the successor to Duke Ellington. I won’t dispute the opinion of Miles but even after all the years of listening to and watching Prince, I find no equal. Nobody past or present comes even remotely close to the totality of Prince the Artist on stage or on record.