In fitting with his name, Prince’s penchant for writing songs for other artists often stemmed from a sort of monarchic impulse. As my colleague Chris Molanphy recounted shortly after the Purple One’s death in 2016, Prince shaped and dominated 1980s pop in an astounding variety of ways, from the songs he wrote to the sounds he pioneered to the raft of emissaries and protégés he unleashed onto the music world. In the rock ’n’ roll era, there had surely been other hyperprolific pop geniuses driven to world conquest—Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder both come immediately to mind—but they tended to adopt at least a pretense of collaboration. Prince dispensed with such niceties and was an unabashed control freak; he wanted his music to rule the universe, whether it was being played by him or someone else. If you were that good, wouldn’t you?
The Prince Estate and Warner Brothers’ most recent release from the late genius’s storied “Vault,” Originals, is a compilation of Prince’s own early recordings of songs that he would later bequeath to other artists. (Due to a Byzantine settlement stemming from a lawsuit that Prince’s estate filed against the streaming service Tidal back in 2016, the album is exclusively streaming on that platform until June 21, at which point it will be available everywhere.) Many of these recordings have been floating around in bootlegged form for years, and the collection’s closing track, a stunning 1984 recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was released as a single by his estate more than a year ago.
That said, the title Originals doesn’t really accurately describe what most of these recordings are: They’re demos. There’s a common impression among many music fans that a “demo” recording connotes something like a sketch or rough draft, and often that’s indeed what they are. But there’s also a different kind of demo, with a different kind of purpose, and that’s the kind we find here. These function more like instruction manuals, “demonstrations” in an almost literal sense: recordings that say, effectively, here’s how this song goes, and here’s how it should sound. On most of the tracks on Originals, the artists in question followed Prince’s demonstrations quite faithfully—which isn’t particularly surprising since he was often the one producing their records. Suffice it to say, this means there’s not really as much revelation here as one might fantasize when it comes to a “new” Prince release. It also means that a lot of the recordings have a somewhat clinical quality to them: These weren’t intended to be hits, but rather road maps for other people’s hits.
For instance, to take two better-known examples, it’s not a knock to say that Morris Day and the Time’s hit version of “Jungle Love” is more thrilling than Prince’s demo version that’s included on Originals, or that Sheila E’s “The Glamorous Life” sounds more polished and radio-friendly than Prince’s. Rather, that’s entirely the point. There are some differences that will hold interest to aficionados—Prince’s version of “The Glamorous Life” features an Ornette Coleman–ish saxophone introduction, for instance—but these discrepancies rarely rise above the level of trivia or marginalia. Other recordings are so similar to the versions eventually released—Vanity 6’s “Make-Up,” for instance, or Jill Jones’ “Baby, You’re a Trip”—that the only real difference is that Prince is singing them. In some ways this is welcome—after all, a vaguely bored-sounding Prince is still a far better singer than Jill Jones—but it certainly doesn’t do anything to diminish the long-standing impression that Prince viewed certain of his female protégés as little more than glorified karaoke singers.
And in terms of song quality, there’s not much here that rises above the level of minor Prince, which is also by design: Prince almost always kept his very best material for himself. And yet there are two glaring exceptions to this on Originals, which also happen to be the two most famous compositions included here by a considerable margin: “Manic Monday,” which Prince wrote in 1984 and which became a monster hit for the Bangles in 1986, and the aforementioned “Nothing Compares 2 U,” also from 1984 and first released by the Family in 1985 before being remade by Sinead O’Connor in 1990, whose version topped the charts in the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries.
Prince originally intended “Manic Monday” for Apollonia 6 (there’s actually an even earlier demo than the one included on Originals, on which you can hear Prince dueting with Apollonia herself), then decided to shelve it. In 1986, he dusted it off and bequeathed to the Bangles for their triple-platinum album Different Light. “Manic Monday” is an absolutely exquisite pop song, and for the life of me I have no idea why Prince didn’t release it himself, especially since it would have fit perfectly on 1985’s Around the World in a Day. Maybe he found the lyrics a bit too whimsical, or its workaday themes too mundane (although “Raspberry Beret,” from the same album, traffics in similar imagery). It could also be that he just always imagined a female voice singing it. In any event, the version here is great (it’s a great song!), although Prince’s vocal lacks the heart and radiant nuance of Susanna Hoffs’ performance, who—it cannot be said emphatically enough—sang the absolute shit out of this song.
And then there’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Prince recorded his version on July 15, 1984; for context, “When Doves Cry” was on top of the Hot 100 charts that week, and the film Purple Rain would be released 12 days later. As a composition, “Nothing Compares” ranks high among Prince’s masterpieces, one of the most wrenchingly beautiful articulations of lovesickness in all of popular song. “It’s been seven hours and 13 days/ since you took your love away,” the song begins, an opening line that no one’s ever topped, even though Prince wrote a few others that stand as its equals. (Sinead’s version added two more days.) The heart-racing “went to the doctor/ guess what he told me?” verse is rendered in stop-time here, heightening its thrill: Of course Prince has found a doctor who prescribes him to “have fun no matter what you do.” And then the final lines of the closing verse, so wryly funny and unexpectedly swaggering: “I know that living with me baby is some kind of hard/ but I’m willing to give it another try.”
“Nothing Compares” is something of an outlier among Prince’s music in this period, and there’s nothing really like it on either Purple Rain or Around the World in a Day. It’s a classic soul ballad whose raw and poetic vulnerability hearkens back to “Little Red Corvette,” which had come out nearly two years earlier—a lifetime in Prince years. He ended up giving “Nothing Compares 2 U” to the Family, a group that included Susannah Melvoin, who sings harmony with Prince on this recording. But his vocal here is so focused, so perfectly wrought, that you can’t help but sense that, in this moment, he was singing this one for himself. (Prince did ultimately release a live version of himself performing the song, with Rosie Gaines, in 1993.) It’s a recording that stands out among much else collected here, not just because of how great the song is but for the purpose and feeling behind it: It’s a stunning performance in its own right and on its own terms. In a collection of blueprints, it’s an original.
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