The Popdose Guide to Prince, Part Three

Written by Music, Popdose Guides

Dave Steed’s jaw-droppingly comprehensive look at Prince’s discography reaches its bittersweet conclusion this week, with a trip back through the last decade of the Purple One’s career.

Phew! Two posts, 30-some records in, and hundreds of songs later, we’re still only at the year 1999 in the career of Prince, but the nice part about this section is that there’s probably a lot here that most people have either never heard or never even knew existed due to Internet-only releases or simply poor sales. This period is worth a shot, though, as there’s still some great material in the man’s blood.

The Vault … Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
The Vault is probably Prince’s weakest record, but it’s hard to blame him completely for this one. Part of the deal to get out of his Warner Bros. contract was that they could release an album of vault material when they wanted, and they chose to do this only a few months before Arista was planning on releasing his new record. Ten songs and only 40 minutes, with 25 of those minutes totally boring, leads to a complete throwaway. There’s a note on the record that says “intended 4 private use only,” which says a lot about these tracks. These weren’t the gems that supposedly exist in the vault, these were extras that Warner Brothers decided to throw out there in what seemed to simply be a move to steal his thunder before the new music came out — a “screw with us and we’ll screw with you” type of deal. The only nice part about the record was that most of the songs were not the tracks that had been bootlegged up to this point, so at least the majority of it was music that die-hards hadn’t yet heard.

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic marks an interesting point in Prince’s career as this almost certainly would be considered his lowest point. Prince had signed a one album deal with Arista and Clive Davis was billing this as a “comeback” album (it’s a stretch to even think he had something to come back from), but it was released to mostly negative reviews and barely went gold. This isn’t a winner any way you look at it, but it’s not as bad as it seems to have the reputation on being. (Hell, the blue body suit was scarier than any of the tracks.)

Clive was big on this collaboration thing in 1999 as a few months earlier he struck gold with Carlos Santana’s Supernatural album. Rave had its own share of collabo’s with Gwen Stefani, Eve, Ani DiFranco, Chuck D and Sheryl Crow appearing on the album. Unfortunately for all involved there was no “Smooth” on this record. The Sheryl Crow duet “Baby Knows” is actually one of the few things she’s ever done that I like but conversely Prince’s cover of her “Everyday Is A Winding Road” never should have seen the light of day. Both Eve and Chuck D’s raps were awkward and sounded forced. The hidden track, the funny and completely vain “Prettyman,” is excellent, and overall most of the  tracks are decent enough to enjoy, but nothing from the record has stuck with me over the years.

Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic (2000)
On the other hand, Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic is an excellent record (but an even creepier album cover now that he’s looking at me). Released in April of 2000 via e-mail to members of the NPG Music Club this is considered a remix record. However, seven tracks are either simply extended versions or actually the exact same version from Un2 that this feels more like a “do-over” in my book. This theory is also helped by the sound of Prince smashing a CD at the end of the album, which I’ve read is supposed to be him smashing the original album.

The thing is, the songs that are actually remixed are great. “Undisputed” is the track featuring Chuck D, and while his rap remains the same on the track, the song was reworked to sound almost like a different tune, and the new music flows much better with his rap. The only single from the original record “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” was extended to include both a good Eve rap and a Prince verse over the beat used by Craig Mack on “Flava in Ya Ear.” The two big differences that make the album shine are the remix of “Hot Wit U” which went from a freaky dance track to dark and sexual and the inclusion of a song not appearing on the original called “Beautiful Strange.” The latter replaces the two worst songs on the original disc, including the Sheryl Crow cover.  Not many people even realize this exists due to its limited distribution but of those that do, I’ve never had one person tell me they like the Un2 version better.

The Rainbow Children (2001)
You might be wondering why I don’t consider this the low point, as The Rainbow Children was Prince’s first album of new material to not at least go gold since his debut way back in ’78. As poor as the album is, however, it marked a transition point for Prince, who was back to using his regular name again, and it seems like the disappointment of Rave caused a complete shift in what he was doing. To me, that shift marks the low point.

The Rainbow Children is a concept album full of religious themes and based around a movement to create a utopian society. Prince had recently converted to a Jehovah’s Witness and his new found religion is certainly present in most of these tracks. The biggest disappointment about his transition is that he started saying that he was going to stop with the cursing and sexual nature of his songs which means his live concerts changed drastically at this point, although there’s still some subtle naughty moments in the album. This is pretty much a jazz album with deviations from the formula here and there. “The Work, Pt. 1” sounds very similar to “Musicology” released three years later and “1 + 1 + 1 is 3” is a pretty funky number. The only real highlight of the disc for me though is “The Everlasting Now” which has a totally different vibe than the rest of the album. The Rainbow Children received more negative reviews than positive and did nothing to enhance his career but did mark and important point in the evolution of Prince.

One Nite Alone … (2002)
Given the fact that over the last few albums Prince has released, his ballads have put me to sleep, you might be under the impression that it’s only his funk material that I enjoy and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, I do gravitate towards ass-shakers but when his slower material has some focus and creativity behind it, like One Night Alone, then me and him are tight again. Not to be confused with the higher-profile One Night Alone … Live! box set that we’ll talk about shortly, the studio records consists of “piano and voice” and well, he’s not completely “alone” as there are some drums on the record as well, but for the most it’s just Prince and his keys with mellow 3-4 minute ballads. He sounds very much in the zone here with creativity levels peaking again. It’s a very relaxing album — I certainly have to be in the right mood for it — and overall it’s quite good. The highlight is one that features both guitar and drums “Pearls B4 the Swine” and this marks the first time I’d heard his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You.”

One Nite Alone … Live! (2002)
A three-CD live set (unbelievably his first-ever commercially released live album), this shows Prince in his new mindset: still funky as hell, but with a different agenda. If you’re looking for the major hits, you’re in the wrong place as the three discs here don’t feature “Purple Rain” or “When Doves Cry” instead focusing on a lot of material from The Rainbow Children (which translates better in concert than it did in the studio), minor hits and album tracks.

The discs are put together to sound like one concert, when it reality each song was recorded separately and spliced together later, but disc one contains what’s considered the main act with the band in full swing and funky as ever. “1+1+1 Is 3” sounds crazy live and Sign O’ the Times cut “Strange Relationship” is pretty sweet.

Disc 2 is considered the second part of the main act and features more piano driven material as you progress through the tracks. As a general rule, I’m not a big fan of live records and one of the reasons is because of what happens on “Raspberry Beret” where the audience ends up singing half the song and if you’re listening to it softly or in the car, you barely know any singing is happening. However, that’s getting a little picky on what ends up being a nice blend of material over all phases of his career. As is the case for the majority of his shows, it’s hard to argue with the mighty power of “Adore.”

Disc 3 was the disc I listened to first after purchasing the box. This is the aftershow disc. Prince is notorious for putting on absolutely crazy aftershows into the wee hours of the morning and trotting out special guests, cover songs, and songs he normally doesn’t play in concert, not to mention tremendous epic-length jams. This was the first time I had even heard an aftershow on disc and I was blown away from the start. I have never heard a better version of “Joy in Repetition.” It’s a sprawling epic 11-minute track with guitar solos that blow your damn mind and one of the finest things Prince has ever put to disc in my opinion. After that he proceeds to bring out George Clinton, pulls out Black Album cut “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” and a jazzy version of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

If you’re looking for a concert of hits, you’re better off digging up a bootleg from the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, but this package ends up being a fine (albeit expensive) look into his later period live shows.

Xpectation (2003)
Xpectation is the first all-instrumental album actually credited to Prince. It was a surprise release on New Years Day, 2003 to members of the NPG Music Club as a free download. It never saw an actual retail release. It’s a little jazzy, a little bluesy and sounds very much like an instrumental version of The Rainbow Children. All tracks begin with the letter X, as in “Xoctica” “Xogenous” and “Xpand.”

N.E.W.S (2003)
North. East. West. South. (all in the same house?) N.E.W.S is the second instrumental release in a row from Prince, this time including members of the NPG like Renato Neto and John Blackwell as well as Eric Leeds, which made people believe this was sort of a new incarnation of Madhouse that Leeds led. A 2003 piece in Jazz Times describes this perfectly:

All four pieces are exactly 14 minutes long. “North” includes rubbery funk grooves, pensive sax, edgy rock guitar and soundscapes featuring wind and sea effects. “East” features a serene Eastern-inflected motif countered by a dark electric-bass pattern, fiery guitar and a fusiony jam. “West” includes a funk-fusion workout enhanced by a jazzy piano solo that transforms into an anthemic, guitar-driven workout. “South” opens with a deep groove and then morphs into a moody, atmospheric sax-driven soundscape that gives way to lush strings and delicate piano, closing with a swirl of effects. Exploratory and evocative, N.E.W.S is an intriguing departure for this enigmatic and unpredictable artist.

That sums it up almost perfectly and in the right mood is a quite enjoyable album.

Musicology (2004)
Raise your hands if you were expecting this from Prince. I call bullshit on everyone with their hands raised right now. We know the guy is extremely talented and that all the good shit hadn’t been sucked out of him already, but there was no way I thought Prince would ever come out with something this good again. Musicology is truly the “comeback” that Rave was supposed to be. At this point in his career it certainly felt like he was going to continue to release albums on his own with little regard to sticking to a hit-making formula. But this is both funky and smooth and plenty radio ready.

At this point Prince must have decided that he clearly needed a major label to push his more mainstream music so he started signing one album deals with majors to distribute his albums. Columbia took a chance on Musicology and it paid off big time going to #5 on the album chart. Some of the chart success however came because of an interesting marketing technique. Those that attended the Musicology tour paid a little extra for their ticket and received a copy of the album at the door. Which means probably 75% of the people at the concerts now own two copies of the album. I was one of those people, as I purchased the album the day it came out and then bought tickets for my wife and I to see our very first Prince show (to this day, still the best show I’ve ever been to). That actually means we have three copies in our house now…which is seriously two too many. However, that counted as a sale of the record as well forcing SoundScan to rethink how they calculate their data.

“Musicology” is a respect track, reminiscent of “The Work, Pt. 1” off The Rainbow Children but much more radio friendly. My wife is completely addicted to the sultry “Call My Name” and I love the Sign O’ the Times-ish “What Do U Want Me 2 Do?” The album hasn’t maintained its appeal for me over the years but it was so refreshing when it came out that it’s hard to not appreciate it for putting Prince back on the map.

The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
All but one of the tracks on The Chocolate Invasion were put up individually on the NPG Music Club website in 2001 but in 2004, Prince added “The Dance” to it (later rerecorded for 3121) tweaked some of the cuts and put it up in album form. The album is bookended by ballads but the tracks in between are filled with slick pop and guitar/keyboard driven funk tunes. Most of the tracks were reportedly supposed to get released in 2000 as an album called High but got shelved in favor of The Rainbow Children which is understandable after his religious conversion as tracks like “Sex Me? Sex Me Not” with lines like “leave your sister and your underwear at home” aren’t exactly hymns. “Supercute” makes pretty much every Prince mix-disc that I put together. I’ve heard a lot of people say the album is kind of cheesy, but I got back to this disc more than any other disc in the 2000s …

The Slaughterhouse (2004)
… Okay, except for The Slaughterhouse.  As a major fan of Prince’s funk music this is an album that makes me jizz in my pants. As funky as the Black Album was supposed to be, is what you get on the Slaughterhouse. Released pretty much in the same fashion as The Chocolate Invasion, the album is non-stop blistering funk and hip-hop delivered better than anything similar he’d done in ages. I read many people say this record is even cheesier than its Chocolate companion but I disagree. I dare you not to bob your head to “S&M Groove.”

C-Note (2004)
Another NPG only release, this consists of five tracks, the first four being instrumental jazz pieces and the fifth being a live version of a track written for Susannah Melvoin. The first letter of all the tracks make the title C-Note and the first four represent where they were recorded (during sound checks on the One Night Alone tour). “Copenhagen,” “Nagoya,” “Osaka,” “Tokyo,” and “Empty Room.”

3121 (2006)
You can act hard if you want to
This groove will make you sweat
You’ll be screaming like a white lady
When I count to three
1-2-3

Those are lyrics from “Black Sweat,” of course, which ranked as the 13th best track of the 2000s, according to Popdose staff members.

3121 is an excellent album filled with dance numbers, funk tracks and beautiful ballads and flows wonderfully from start to finish. “Black Sweat” is certainly the centerpiece of the record, but the gorgeous ballads “Te Amo Corazon” and “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed” (featuring another failed protégé, Tamar, who was actually one of the original members of Destiny’s Child when they started out as Girl’s Tyme — you kickin’ yourself now, Tamar?) are some of his most inspired mellow tunes in a while. And I love both the pop funk of “Love” and yet another attempt at an epic album closer, “Get on the Boat.”

The album name is even interesting, as it could refer to two things, the first being Psalms 31:21 which starts off “Blessed be Jehovah” or the mansion he was renting which he referred to as 3121. The funny part about that is that people assumed 3121 was part of the address, which it was not. The mansion was rented from NBA player Carlos Boozer who eventually sued Prince for putting purple everywhere and painting “3121” along with his symbol on the outside of the house though the lease said he couldn’t change anything. Now c’mon, Carlos — you didn’t think he was going to Prince-ify it up a bit?

Planet Earth (2007)
I don’t get Planet Earth. I think it’s as simple as that. I hope it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I was pissed off that he gave this album away for free in the U.K. and yet I had to pay for it. That definitely annoyed me and a lot of U.S. fans at first but I can’t believe that’s clouding my vision here.

Planet Earth is a very guitar driven album as evidenced by the first single, appropriately titled “Guitar” which is pretty much the only track on the album that I really didn’t like upon first listen but has actually grown on me. The rest I’ve either never liked or always liked. It’s a relatively mellow record with some smoothed out pop songs like the album ender, “Reflection.” The second single — the catchy funk number “Chelsea Rodgers” — along with the ballad “Future Baby Mama” are really the only two excellent songs on the album with the third single, “The One U Wanna C” kind of processed and cheesy. “Future Baby Mama” actually won him a Grammy. Prince gets mad love from the old farts at the Grammys these days.

Indigo Nights (2008)
If Planet Earth bothered me because I didn’t get it for free, imagine how much I was fuming when I had to pay close to $50 on a picture book to get this album. This is a live disc culled from his 21-show run at the O2 arena in London in 2007. It was released inside the book 21 Nights which is a coffee-table book consisting of pictures of him and the shows. The book showed up in stores at close to $50 in my area and me being the obsessive collector that I am had to pick it up at the time of release. Now you can find it for half of that and I probably could have just waited to download it from some blog, but that ain’t me. You hear me, Princey-boy? I bought your $50 book that took a minute and a half to get through just for the music. Next time give me some value for my buck. You’re rich, I’m not. Somehow I feel better now, as if I’ve been waiting to get that off my chest for two years. (I still love U, though, pal.)

I would have loved to have attended one of these shows as from what I’ve heard and read about they were both intimate and exhilarating at the same time. Both those aspects can be heard on the disc: the intimate moments coming from the two new songs, “Beggin’ Woman Blues” and “Indigo Nights,” and the exhilaration from the triple shot of “Rock Steady” (Aretha Franklin), “Whole Lotta Love” (Zeppelin), and “Alphabet St.”

LotusFlow3r (2009)
And so we reach the “end” of the Popdose Guide to Prince and unfortunately LotusFlow3r is one of the entries to finish it off. The album was released in March of 2009 as an exclusive Target release meaning foreign countries were now pissed off they didn’t get the release. You could however join his new fan site for $77 and get a digital download of it. It was a three-disc set consisting of the guitar-driven LotusFlow3r, the funky keyboard-driven MPLSound and Elixer, a new album by his latest protégé, Bria Valente. Good move by Prince to put Elixer in there as everyone that bought the package has probably heard the disc at least once as opposed to the one person that would have bought it had it not been included.

I couldn’t wait to get my sweatly little hands on this. At the time of release I was starving for new music and I just felt this was going to be amazing. I bought this when my local target opened at 7 am and popped this disc in my car on the way to work. At track 8, I took it out, disappointed to all hell. I went back to listen to the whole thing later and that’s been the only time I’ve pulled it out except for right this very moment as I’m typing these words. I can’t stand this disc. It’s another Prince record that has almost no flow at all and nothing exciting save for “Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful” which I heard in one form or another back in 2006. At least it’s not lack of inspiration here but it feels like he’s trying too hard. And what does it say about the song choices when his cover of “Crimson and Clover” is released as a single, but gets replaced with another track on the digital download?

MPLSound (2009)
But wait, there’s more…I got to work that day disappointed but decided to put on the second disc, MPLSound and give that one a shot and was sprung from the start. This is more of what I was hoping for I suppose. This is a super fun record. Funky, smooth and among his best of the later period. “Chocolate Box” was the song that hit me right away. Complete with a rap from Q-Tip, it’s so catchy with its unique digitized rhythm and usual Prince quirkiness. Along with “Black Sweat” it’s the track that I go back to the most from the last decade and ranks as one of my top 10 all-time prince tunes. This album actually holds together pretty well thanks to the sixth track, “Valentina” and the seven-and-a-half minute “Ol’ Skool Company” which he performed on the Tonight Show four days before the album release.

So now I’ve said how much I hate the first disc and how much I love the second. I have no idea if I like the Bria Valente disc or not as I’ve only listened to it once. Based on that it’s hard to be too disappointed as a whole, as the list price for the three disc set was the same if not less than the cost of one disc and I got one disc I dig, so it’s all good in the end.

Now that I’ve spent two months writing the three parts to this and listening to 48 entire Prince records, I think I’ve had enough for a bit. That is until he releases some unannounced 6-disc free-form jazz set. Instead maybe I’ll get to work on my English to Prince translator (capitalizes random letters, changes words such as “you” to “U” and “see” to “C” and replaces every “I” with the picture of an eyeball).  My idea folks, no stealing. I know you want to.

Finally, I couldn’t pass up leaving you with this — you know, just in case you haven’t heard it yet or had a good laugh today.