The finest release to yet come from the Prince estate.
By 1981, Prince Rogers Nelson had already racked up a list of accomplishments worthy of admiration. Having signed a generous record deal with one of the largest labels in the business while still in his teens, the artist released four albums in as many years that found him expanding his style from straightforward disco-funk to an increasingly complex hybrid of genres. But nothing is ever simple with Prince, and one could just as easily say that his story as a pop icon truly begins with the pair of L.A. shows he played opening for the Rolling Stones on their Tattoo You tour. In performances that would go down in infamy, Prince, flamboyantly dressed in bikini briefs, was booed off the stage by racist and homophobic Stones fans. Rattled by the disrespect he received, Prince headed straight back home and into the studio, triggering a flurry of songwriting prompted by the artist’s resolution to never be just an opening act subject to the whims of other people’s fans. When he emerged a year later with a double-album, Prince would never again be viewed as anything less than one of pop’s all-time vanguard artists.
1999 was not Prince’s first great album, but it is the first great “Prince” album, the first of his LPs to be not merely the work of a gifted, idiosyncratic artist but rather the statement of a genius operating well outside the parameters of his peers. Dividing 11 songs across two discs of vinyl, 1999 is the first realization of Prince’s aims to fuse disparate genres across stylistic and even racial barriers into something almost unclassifiable. The opening title track is the clearest airing of Prince’s often inscrutable politics, opening with the sound of an evil A.I. unconvincingly reassuring us “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you” and ends with a pitch-shifted Prince shrieking “Mommy, why does everybody have the bomb?” The track dances in the face of nuclear annihilation with brassy synths, funk-wah guitar and a bassline elastic enough to use for a jump rope. Prince, naturally, performs everything himself, and you can hear enough of the separation between each instrument that the propulsive funk takes on a slightly dissonant, subliminally off-putting vibe that lets unease tacitly swirl beneath the gleeful nihilism.
The rest of the album only compounds this dizzying mash-up of moods and styles. “Delirious” chirps with jubilance at the feeling of love while “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is all grinding synths and clanging percussion to make a thriller soundtrack to accompany the artist’s base, pleading lust. “D.M.S.R.” sounds like P-Funk trapped in a computer trying to dance their way out, its brittle electro-funk shaken loose by the organic snap of the bassline. The album’s third side must rank among the weirdest sides of vinyl ever sequenced for a record firmly aimed for the Billboard charts, traversing from the stiff-legged new wave of “Automatic” and its distended ode to bondage to the paranoid thriller of bad romance in the jittery, cyberpunk “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” and then the plaintive, lighters-in-the-air ballad “Free” and its earnest call to be grateful for what one has rather than pine for what’s absent. Each of these songs fits nominally with generic frameworks, but the lyrical points of view and compositional quirks shove them outside of normalcy. Even the purest funk numbers, like “Lady Cab Driver” and “International Lover,” spiral into unexpected directions.
Of course, the album’s definitive hit, the breakthrough “Little Red Corvette,” is strangest of all, riding an oscillating LinnDrum beat and tone pulses of synthesizer to underpin a jagged tale of second-guessing one’s lust to make for a track as repressed as it is openly libidinous. It was this song that truly pointed at where Prince was going, not so much in stylistic terms (the artist would blaze through a dizzying array of genres over the next decade) as ambitious ones. To hear this track, as well as the rest of the album, freshly remastered is to hear all the nuances that went into this moonshot of a chart smash. 1999 marked the moment that Prince began to foreground the crossover elements of his sound at the expense of some of the disco and funk that were core to his early work, but the rich, full bass on this new remaster makes it clear that the funk infused even the stiffest and most rocky of tracks.
As with Warner’s prior reissue of Purple Rain, a full disc of Warner’s new reissue is given over to the various single mixes used to promote the album. As could be expected, the extended dance mixes or truncated and cleaned-up radio edits are of historical interest more than compulsive re-listenability, though the real prizes here are the non-album b-sides. Anyone who has never heard the giddy, toss-off stomp of “Horny Toad” is missing out on just how fun and casual Prince could be despite his fastidious, cerebral artistry, and “Irresistible Bitch” is one of those bangers that makes you wonder how it could ever be relegated to the second side of a single rather than the kind of song you plan a whole album around. And that’s not even getting to “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” a plaintive ballad that has become as much a part of the Prince canon as anything on the actual album to which it is linked. Warner’s remastering benefits this microphone-and-piano number as much as the deepest funk of the album, making each chord hit like a sock to the gut as Prince’s too-close wails into the mic roar with agony.
The real draw, of course, is a massive airing of the Prince vault, with two full discs of material that Prince wrote, composed, recorded, mastered and promptly shelved. There are songs here that have long been celebrated among bootlegging fans: the neo-psychedelic soul of “Moonbeam Levels” (previously released on the 4Eva compilation rubs shoulders with the robo-twang of “Turn It Up” and the skeletal, almost Italo disco-like first version of unreleased funk masterpiece “Possessed.” Then, of course, there’s “Purple Music,” an 11-minute jam that rides nervy guitars, duck-and-cover bass, skittering drums and hissing synths into the logical sequel of the paranoid funk that Sly Stone cut on There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Even for those who have been trading this material for years, hearing it freed of tape hiss wrought from bootleggers making copies of copies of copies is revelatory.
But even those who have long had illicit access to some vault classics will find tracks here to discover. “Yah, You Know” is pure new wave bliss, all buzzing electronics over a mid-tempo punk stomp. “If It’ll Make You Happy” mixes cod-reggae riddims with multitracked soul, while “Bold Generation” remarkably anticipates Prince’s later, radical shift from the Revolution to the New Power Generation and the latter’s foregrounding of current black musical culture and political angst. “Vagina,” planned for the Vanity 6 project, is one of Prince’s most delightfully vulgar tunes, a genderfluid ode to pure lust that makes the provocations of “Sister” look like an Eagles tune in comparison. Listening back to 1999, what is remarkable about it is how enduringly weird it remains, but the wealth of extras here show the careful editing that went into assembling that album. Still, that’s not to say that what was omitted wasn’t up to snuff. Prince would mine his 1982 writing frenzy for years, reworking and re-recording things as his methods changed (check out the robotic version of “Feel U Up” here and compare it to the vocally pitch-shifted but instrumentally warmer iteration that saw release on the “Partyman” single in 1989). In practice, this reissues feels closer in spirit and function to the kinds of box sets put together by the likes of Sony for jazz sessions than it does a rock remaster. It places both the magnitude of Prince’s creative achievement as a writer and the shrewd process of selection and refinement that went into displaying that genius into sharper relief, making it even easier to appreciate what he accomplished with his breakthrough.
The set is rounded out with a CD of Prince’s 1982 show in Detroit, one of the most frequently bootlegged of Prince shows, and a DVD containing multi-cam footage of a subsequent show in Houston. Both are ferocious shows, full of the energy that made Prince a live legend, and one can only hope that they mark the first of a coming flood of official releases of Prince’s well-recorded live prowess. If any fault can be found with this extraordinary set, it lies in the fact that the full portrait of what Prince accomplished in his flurry of inspiration in 1982 must necessarily include the material he wrote for The Time and Vanity 6. Both outlets for Prince’s boundless writing at this time, the bands became conduits for the artist to keep writing funky, filthy material while freeing up his solo work to express his growing sophistication. That Prince effectively concocted his own opening bands is as much a demonstration of his growing refusal to share space with others as the flurry of songs he wrote after the Stones gigs, and to have remastered versions of What Time Is It? and Vanity 6 along with attendant bonuses would give a more complete portrait of where Prince was that year. But that is the selfish wish of a devoted fan. The reissue of 1999 is, by far, the finest release to yet come from the Prince estate, and one can only hope an indication of the kind of lavish and exhaustive attention demanded of the artist’s other canonical albums and his staggering flashes of inspiration.