Prince: Anthology 1995-2010
When most people think of Prince, they naturally first think of songs like “Raspberry Beret”, “1999”, “Little Red Corvette” or any of the monster singles from Purple Rain. And that’s understandable: Those songs are part of the musical vocabulary of our culture. A few folks may even think of some of his early-90s hits, like “7” or “Thieves in the Temple”. Those are equally great songs. But not many will recall with the same passion any of his later works — mostly because they’ve probably never heard them. But while his Top 40 success may have waned, Prince never stopped producing music. On August 17, a new collection of Prince songs was released. It’s sort of like a greatest hits package, except all of these songs come from his less-commercial period between 1995 and 2010. It’s a truly excellent collection that draws songs from lesser-known albums like 3121, Emancipation, Musicology. and others. For fans familiar with his later releases, it’s a chance to enjoy those songs in a new way. For other fans, though, it can serve as a solid introduction to a more exploratory and musically diverse era that they may not be familiar with. For eager listeners, there are many treasures to discover here. Were I the one put in charge of selecting the 37 tracks for this collection, I would have made many of the same choices. However, as great as this set is, I do think there are some true gems that got overlooked. Plus, since it only covers up through 2010, it doesn’t cover his last four albums, the unusual Plectrumelectrum, the spacey and club-y Art Official Age, and the two-part finale, HITnRUN Phase One and the superb HITnRUN Phase Two. Below is a selection of ten great songs from the second half of Prince’s career that you won’t find on Anthology 1995-2010.
“Same December” (1996)
The Chaos and Disorder album went largely unnoticed when it was first released, predominantly because Prince refused to promote it. He was still in a very public fight with Warner Bros. and threw this album together simply to fulfill a contract that he wanted out of. However, considering the negative atmosphere in which it was created, it’s an incredibly strong album. Played by a very small, tight band that on most songs was little more than bass, drums and keys accompanying him, Prince created a fiery rock album unparalleled in his catalog. It’s represented on Anthology 1995-2010 by the excellent title track and its one single, “Dinner With Delores” (in which Prince unexpectedly and playfully rhymes the titular name with “brontosaurus”), but the whole album is fantastic. The best example: “Same December,” an energetic rocker that goes through four different style/tempo/time signature changes in its short three-and-a-half minutes, including a textbook example of a rhythmic modulation.
“Baby Knows” (1999)
Featuring assist on harmonica and vocals by Sheryl Crow, “Baby Knows” is from Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, released on Prince’s NPG label and distributed by Arista. The only single commercially released from the album, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” tanked at radio, only hitting #63 on the US pop charts. Not surprising: it’s a dreary song that seems to go on longer than it actually does, and not something that serves well to announce a new album. Rave performed fairly well, peaking at #18 in the US, based almost solely on pre-release press and the televised New Year’s Eve concert Rave Un2 the Year 2000. Had it been led by the supremely catchy and far more infectious “Baby Knows,” featuring the hot-ticket-of-the-moment Crow, things might have played out a bit differently. With Rave, Arista impresario Clive Davis had hoped to work the same magic with Prince that had made Santana’s Supernatural such a phenomenal success –namely, using high-profile guest stars to bolster the album’s profile – so it’s absolutely bizarre that a similar approach wasn’t taken to the release of singles. “Baby Knows” was given a promotional release later on, but had it lead the album with a big PR push, more might have been made of this album.
“Everlasting Now” (2001)
Let’s be clear: Rainbow Children is a difficult album to listen to. However, if you can machete your way through the thick hedges of basso profundo narration and saccharine religious platitudes, what you find is one of Prince’s most complex and musically challenging works. But it’s not a pop album. There are pop elements, certainly, but they’re layered under smooth jazz, free-form jams and the occasional abstract soundscape. What I’m saying is that this album is a tough listen, but It’s definitely worth the effort and a great deal of patience. If you invest some time into it, you will be rewarded with an 8-minute, straight-ahead, traditional Prince funk jam. He performed a shorter version of the song live on The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno accompanied by a band that includes Sheila E. on percussion.
“Cinnamon Girl” (2004)
2004’s Musicology had all the makings of a great Prince comeback album. It had many of the hallmarks that one thinks of when they think of Prince’s heyday. But it was missing something — a spark of life, maybe? It sounded so close but just barely missed the mark. In spite of that, the album performed quite well in the charts, though, reaching #5 in the US, but that is due mostly to copies being “sold” with every concert ticket fans bought to the Musicology tour. The title track was the first single, and it’s an obvious pick to lead off the album, but it only reached #120 on the American chart. “Cinnamon Girl” was the second single and unsurprisingly didn’t chart at all in the US — but did peak at #43 in the UK, showing that it did have some commerciality to it and with better promotion could have scored Prince a needed hit in his home country. It’s one of the few singles from this period to not be included on Anthology 1995-2010 (though other songs from Musicology are represented, including the excellent title track).
On the same day that Columbia Records released Musicology, Prince released two other MP3 albums directly to his digital platform, the NPG Music Club: The Chocolate Invasion and The Slaughterhouse. Both albums were collections of previously released individual songs, some of them with new mixes, edits, or arrangements. The material, especially that found on The Slaughterhouse, is grittier, funkier, and much less radio-friendly (ie less record label-friendly) than anything released on Musicology. Maybe Prince’s creative heart was in these albums instead.
3121 was a huge success for Prince, being his first album to debut on the US charts at #1, making it his first #1 album since his Batman soundtrack in 1989. Like Musicology, 3121 achieved its success without assistance from any significant radio airplay. Its three singles — “Te Amo Corazon,” “Black Sweat” and “Fury” — failed to ignite any fires in the US (though all three did chart in the lower regions of the UK singles Top 100). What’s particularly baffling is that “Lolita” — one of the catchiest, grooviest, most infectious songs he’d recorded in many years — was not marketed to radio at all.
“Dance 4 Me” (2009)
MPLSound was a weird album. First of all, it was packaged together with two other albums — Lotusflow3r and a Prince-produced debut album by Bria Valente called Elixir. Second, it was available in the states only at Target stores, who served the role of distributor in a step to remove traditional record labels from the artist-to-audience equation. It’s not surprising, then, that the album didn’t have any reach beyond the Prince fans who went to stores to seek it out. A full six months after the album’s release, “Dance 4 Me” was released as the album’s only single, and only released digitally at that. With Prince addressing the “funky congregation” against a very strong, danceable beat, this could have (and should have) been all over radio had it been released and marketed the right way.
Another download-only release, “Screwdriver” was originally a standalone single (but was later included on Prince’s final album, the excellent HITnRUN Phase Two). It’s a very pop-y, guitar-driven song, sort of in the same vein as “Baby Knows” above, built around the it-sounds-dirty-but-isn’t-really phrase “I’m your driver, you’re my screw.” Prince had become a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001 and had strayed away from the filthy language and overt sexuality that he’d been known for for most of his career, so songs like “Screwdriver” subscribed more to playful innuendos than lascivious proclamations. The song is actually him as performer addressing us as audience (“Everywhere that we go now, there’s a show now / people pay money for the rock ‘n’ roll”), but that playful double entendre gives the song an extra level of fun.
A song that at first was available only to stream on Spotify and for purchase on Tidal, “Stare” is a funk workout that was later included on Prince’s HITnRUN Phase Two album. Driven by the down and dirty bass lick that opens the track, “Stare” is a guitar and horn jam that proves he’d lost none of his musical prowess even though he didn’t command as much of his commercial audience as he had in the 80s. This pays a bit of homage to the changing times and Prince’s changing attitudes (“First things first – we like you to stare / We used to go on stage in our underwear”). As if to make that point clear, there’s clever little references to earlier Prince ditties “Sexy Dancer” and “Kiss.”
If HITnRUN Phase Two was the way Prince had to go out, at least he left on a superb collection, loaded with solid, catchy jams, some of his best material in years. Songs like “Black Muse,” “Groovy Potential,” “Xtralovable,” and “Big City” remind listeners of everything they loved about Prince in his heyday without sounding like a retread of past glories. “Baltimore” is the opening track on HITnRUN Phase Two and it gives Prince’s final album a confident kick-off. It’s a protest song of sorts. On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore, MD for alleged possession of a knife. Eyewitnesses reported that the arresting officers used excessive violence in detaining Gray. During the altercation, Gray sustained a spinal cord injury, was transported to hospital, and died a week later. Public outcry over the situation escalated and resulted in riots and further arrests. Disturbed by the incident, Prince responded in his usual way: in song. While the lyric is rather dark and punctuated with a chanted refrain of “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace,” the music has a sunny, breezy quality to it, as if to say “Yes, things are bad, but there’s hope for the future.”