Prince’s supposed test tracks paint an alternate universe in which his own takes on the material became chart smashers.
Last year’s Piano and a Microphone 1983, the first standalone release of cuts from Prince’s fabled vault, was a stark affair, a glimpse into the artist’s working method of drafting new material solo before fleshing out melodies with instrumentation and, on the occasions he deigned to collaborate with others, accompaniment. The opportunity to hear future hits at the moment of their conception was thrilling, and the playfulness with which Prince tinkered with ideas in real time showed off his busy mind. But those familiar with Prince’s staggering workrate knew that His Royal Badness could and would compose, arrange, record, master and then shelve more songs than most people ever wrote, and that many ostensible demos were fully finished goods. Originals marks the first dedicated release to address such material, though, in a shrewd act of curational focus to give shape to the mammoth scope of the vault, the album highlights Prince’s recordings of materials he either gave to other artists or re-recorded with his various groups of protégés. It’s a record filled with hits for other people, but what is incredible is how Prince’s supposed test tracks paint an alternate universe in which his own takes on the material became chart smashers.
The album opens with a pair of tracks that would see release under the various bands that Prince created and surreptitiously recorded all instruments for as an outlet for his boundless early creativity. “Sex Shooter,” which cropped up in the Purple Rain as the single of Appolonia 6, is, somehow, even filthier when sung by Prince instead of his crush du jour. The detached fatale eroticism of the girl group version is here replaced by insoucient lasciviousness as Prince hornily coos the chorus of “I’m a sex shooter/Shootin’ love in your direction.” “Jungle Love” appears fully fleshed out but not yet imbued with the live energy captured at First Avenue for the album/film version by The Time. The one-two punch of these tracks opening the album is so energetic that this feels as much like a genuine record as a rarities compilation.
Equally well-placed are the ballads, which are sequenced to bring things down just as things get too hot. “Noon Rendezvous,” one of four Sheila E. tracks included here, comes after a trio of straight bangers and throws cold water on the listener as Prince’s falsetto floats impossibly high from the start. “Generosity” is not a word one tends to throw around about Prince, a notorious diva and egotist, but to hear this wrenchingly brittle song which could have been a major torch song under his name and to know that he casually bequeathed it to one of his many protégées and paramours is a startling reminder of just how much music he was crafting in his prime.
Most of these songs will be familiar to Prince and ‘80s pop fans, but it’s remarkable to listen to these original versions and to hear how the fundamental melodies that would remain even when passed along to others were nonetheless complicated by Prince’s restless, sui generis genius. His bassline on future Jill Jones smolder-funk number “Baby, You’re a Trip,” is far more rubbery on the demo, and “Nothing Compares 2 U?” is almost busy with its burbling keys and stabs of arena-ready guitar that are a far cry from the stripped-bare anguish of The Family’s version, to say nothing of Sinéad O’Connor’s even starker, chiaroscuro rendering. Most dynamically Prince’s own, though, may be “Manic Monday.” The Bangles’ version is pure ‘80s gloss, major-key bliss that still holds up as one of the decade’s finest pop hits. But Prince’s rendition, shimmering and twinkling with modest synths over which an acoustic guitar chimes, feels almost modern. If The Bangles came up with the summer jam of 1986, Prince’s demo sounds perilously close to the indie-pop jam of 2016. Prince was a pioneer of mingling incompatible genres into cohesive pop, and it’s remarkable how well this version fits within the post-streaming era of casual style mash-ups.
The definitive releases from the Prince estate will likely be reissues of his official albums in the vein of the deluxe Purple Rain that the artist himself prepared before his untimely death. But Originals, with its thematic focus and genuinely revelatory insights, is the first posthumous release to hint at the wild possibilities for alternate albums and fresh angles on a deeply scrutinized artist. There are so many surprises here that go beyond the most famous giveaway tracks, and listening to deep cuts like the nervy, dark synthpop of Vanity 6 album track “Make-Up,” or the bouncy, Graffiti Bridge-esque funk embedded within forgotten Martika hit “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” feels like stumbling across true curios. The maddening trickle of material out of Prince’s vault is not likely to speed up as untangling rights issues promise to keep dozens of lawyers current on their boat payments for the foreseeable future, but in the meantime, Originals at least reassures fans that whoever is deciding what to bundle and release knows what they’re doing.