Questlove, the drummer for the Roots who has a side career as a D.J. specializing in Prince tracks, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Originals, a collection of 15 demos "the Purple One" made for songs that he gave away to other artists -- fascinating rough drafts of genius for a supremely polished musician.
But he admitted to having mixed feelings. He's pleased that there's more material in Prince's vaults than he realized, but sad that one day it'll be depleted. He's delighted that people will appreciate the genius of Prince anew, but disappointed that it reduces the impact of his own collection of bootlegs. (Prince died at 57 from an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016.)
"I fall really deep in the Prince collector pool, maybe abyss level," Questlove said. "I'm elated to see what's under the hood."
Susannah Melvoin, a singer for the Family, the group that first released "Nothing Compares 2 U," said Prince's songs numbered in the thousands and he was consumed with finding the right homes for them. "These songs are like his children -- he would say that very often," she said.
Originals includes songs recorded by the Bangles, Kenny Rogers and Martika. Its arrival via Tidal was on Friday -- two weeks before its wider release June 21 -- and is the result of a 2016 lawsuit filed by Prince's estate against the streaming service (owned in part by Jay-Z). The artist's heirs objected to Tidal's exclusive deal to stream Prince's closely guarded music and contended that the service was streaming 15 albums without permission. The settlement gave Tidal an exclusive 14-day window to stream an album of unreleased material before its physical release.
The theme of Originals was sparked by the discovery of Prince's demo for "Nothing Compares 2 U," released last year. Because Prince had "such a vast archive," said Troy Carter, entertainment adviser for the Prince estate, they emphasized tracks that were completed between 1981 and 1985. That was an era when Prince was masterminding spinoff groups like Apollonia 6 ("Sex Shooter"), Vanity 6 ("Make-Up") and the Time ("Jungle Love").
"It's a moment in time when all the records speak to each other," Carter said, "so it doesn't feel like it's all over the place."
There is one outlier, from 1991: the haunting "Love ... Thy Will Be Done," first released by Martika. Jay-Z pushed for it, Carter said: "Jay was listening with our archivist on the treasure hunt and chiming in on specific songs that he would love to hear."
In an email, Jay-Z said, "Prince led the way, for artistic freedom, for ownership. He's one of the bravest people I can think of in the industry."
Prince sometimes gave away songs from his vast backlog that he wasn't using -- that's how the country singer Rogers got "You're My Love." Prince saw the Bangles on MTV and, after making a guest appearance at one of their shows, offered them a song.
"I knew it was an incredible gift," said the Bangles singer-guitarist Susanna Hoffs. "It was like putting on the slipper in a fairy tale." She drove across Los Angeles to Sunset Sound studio, nervous and excited for the charming Prince to hand-deliver the song to her. As it turned out, he was busy recording, so she picked up an audiocassette tape and drove back to the Bangles' studio.
"We all hovered around a cassette machine," Hoffs said. They listened to the tape, which had two songs: "Manic Monday" and "Jealous Girl."
The band unanimously opted for "Manic Monday," which rewrote Prince's hit "1999" with lyrics about a woman's 9-to-5 travails instead of a nuclear apocalypse. ("Jealous Girl" was later sung by Bonnie Raitt but remains unreleased.) They recorded the song, carefully following his blueprint -- except they rearranged the bridge. "His bridge had almost a psychedelic, classical feel," Hoffs said. "Looking back, why didn't we do it that way?"
After they finished the track, Prince visited the band in the studio, and although Hoffs found him "semi-inscrutable," she said he seemed surprised and pleased that the band had Banglesized his composition. "Manic Monday" went all the way to No. 2 -- kept from the top only by Prince's own "Kiss."
Most of the songs on Originals were written with a specific artist in mind, often a woman. Melvoin was a romantic and creative partner for Prince in this era (and the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin, guitarist in the Revolution). "He has a musical clairvoyance, this ability to project himself into you, as if he were another aspect of your artistic self," she said, speaking of him in the present tense.
Jill Jones, also musically and romantically involved with Prince during these years, described that skill as a double-edged sword: "On some level that could be great, and on another level it could be disturbing, a little claustrophobic." As she summarized it: "He thought he could be a better woman than you could."
Originals can also be seen through the lens of Prince's intense productivity and studio culture. "He got pleasure out of his own ability to create in an instant," Melvoin said. "The endorphin came from allowing the spigot to be constantly running." That meant he was supremely focused in the studio.
Collaborators got used to late-night phone calls. "Before cellphones, somehow he found us," Jones said. "You'd go straight to the studio." That was how she ended up singing backing vocals for "1999" in her pajamas.
Jones said that sessions with Prince could last three days without sleep: "Lots of coffee. He drank coffee, too, with a little bit of powdered creamer."
Prince's studio was not a party scene, and not occupied by people who couldn't contribute musically. "If you lacked the talent or the ability, he would shame you out of the studio," Melvoin remembered. Almost every note on Originals was played by Prince himself -- and in some cases, his demo appears to be identical to the released single, except for the vocals.
Even though the original version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" languished in obscurity on the Family's 1985 debut album, the song endured: Five years later, Sinead O'Connor's version topped the charts.
"It was most unusual for him to give you a track that was incredibly personal to him," Melvoin said. Prince had finished writing the song the night before they recorded it at Sunset Sound. It was inspired by problems in his relationship with Melvoin and the absence of his personal assistant, Sandy Scipioni, who was taking time off because of the death of her father.
"I had left, and Sandy had left," Melvoin said. "He was so sensitive to longing and need, if you were his lover and he loved you and you weren't there, it would compel him to go into the studio because that was the only way he could service those emotions.
"He wasn't a guy who would pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, don't go to L.A., I'm going to miss you,'" she said. "He would write 'Nothing Compares 2 U.'"
Style on 06/09/2019
Print Headline: Originals: Prince's presents to others keep on giving