Friday, June 7, 2019

Black Music Month: Prince, the Index (Part Two)

For this next phase of favorites, I wanted to frame the nature of my fandom during this era of Prince's career. Until the 90s, I was just a casual Prince fan because I only had 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign O' the Times on tape at the time. Hip hop had captured my attention, so while I still liked Prince's music, it was in college when I evolved into a more significant fan--beyond the casual appreciation of his hit songs that got radio play. I credit that renewed interest to being exposed to other Prince fans (some of whom were really dedicated to the cause) and what I would call an early version of music sharing known as borrowing. If I look right now, I probably have someone else's Prince tape/CD in my collection.

Graffiti Bridge (1990) - The Question of U
I had not listened to this album in years, so revisiting it while compiling this playlist has been like a reunion with someone I remember as a friend from a special moment in time, but hadn't kept up with through the years.  But as soon as we re-connect, it's as if nothing changed. For some reason, I recall this album as an echo of music that had been previously released, so Question is the echo of Under the Cherry Moon...

On the Facebook playlist, I highlighted the fact that Prince introduced us to Tevin Campbell on this album, one of the most underrated talents of the 90s R&B music scene. Prince wrote the song Shh (for I'm Ready which was released in 1993), and though it was not a great hit for Campbell, it was memorable because it was a Prince song that that we might have appreciated more if Prince had released it himself (which he did on The Gold Experience in 1995 as the Artist).

Diamonds and Pearls (1991) - Cream
I enjoyed this album a lot in college, even though I was not the biggest fan of the New Power Generation. This was an era when many established artists were trying to remain relevant, so as others were collaborating with hip hop or incorporating new jack swing, Prince's effort was to bring in a different backup band. Yet this album was still characteristically Prince, with this song as a stand out in live performance.

Love Symbol (1992) - Blue Light
As much as I loved this album and played it to death, it has become problematic for me. My discomfort with it has everything to do with the uneasiness I always felt about the origin of Prince's relationship with ex-wife Mayte Garcia. I just learned that she and I are exactly the same age, and Lord knows I had my fantasies about Prince but their backstory has R. Kellyish vibes to it and that ain't cool. Just listen to the words of The Morning Papers and then read any interview about her memoir and yeah...

So how do I confront the possibility probability that Prince was a very controlling man in all areas of his life, including his intimate relationships? I don't, which is a conscious choice that seems like a contradiction, and maybe someday I will come to different conclusions about him as a man that will impact my love for his music. Today isn't that day.

In the space between my last years of college and my first year of law school, I was content to enjoy and re-discover the Prince music that was already in the atmosphere instead of venturing forward with new material. So I didn't buy The Black Album (1994) or Come (1994) because The Hits/B-Sides (1993) had been released and that 3-disc set kept me occupied until the release of Emancipation in 1996. That means I also missed The Gold Experience (1995) and Chaos and Disorder (1996) which were released during the contract dispute with Warner Brothers.

The Hits/B-Sides (1993) - Nothing Compares 2 U
The great thing about this release is that it led me to engage with a lot of the earlier music that I had missed. I was six years old when Prince released his first album, thus my access to anything prior to Controversy was restricted by the risque content and limited radio airplay. It was via The Hits that I first heard Prince's version of this song featuring Rosie Gaines, because I had only known of Sinead O'Connor's version released in 1990. I had completely missed that it had also been recorded by The Family because I only remembered Screams of Passion (which Prince wrote and recorded as well). Oh, and now there is an even earlier recording of this song with the Revolution that was recently released from 1983.

How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore
I gave this song an Honorable Mention as it stands out as one of those Prince songs that was a hit for someone else...until he covered it. This song was initially recorded by Stephanie Mills in 1983, later to be remade by Alicia Keyes on her debut album. But I'm betting that just like me, you forgot about Mills' earlier version and refer to Keyes' version as a Prince remake.

17 Days - This was the B-side to When Doves Cry. Here is an earlier version with just piano, which explains why I used to think that the title of the song was really 'Let the Rain Come Down'. This was also the song that kept replaying in my head in the aftermath of Prince's death, when it rained for three straight weeks.

Erotic City - This was the B-side to Let's Go Crazy. Today, I clearly hear them sing We can fuck until the dawn, but I swear in 1984 I heard funk and I guess the rest of the world heard what I heard as well because this song got regular radio play. You should also hear the familiar voice of Sheila Escovedo (Sheila E.) on this track. On the Facebook playlist, I took a moment to formally acknowledge her contribution to Prince as his longtime musical collaborator and director by highlighting her hit Glamorous Life. And of course, she was also one of his muses.

One of my friends took issue with my declaration that Sheila E. was the only woman who collaborated and toured with Prince (other than Wendy and Lisa from the Revolution), to deserve special recognition. He asserted that Rosie Gaines and the late Boni Beyer deserved props, and I am always open to receiving correction. However, we shall NOT give anything other than a brief mention to any of those other bishes--not even his ex-wife or Vanity or Apollonia or Sheena Easton or Jill Jones or Susannah Melvoin (from The Family) or Cat Glover and definitely not Carmen Electra (who doesn't even merit a live link).

She's Always in My Hair - The B-side to Raspberry Beret, the piano on this makes me think of The Beautiful Ones (so again, that echo effect). As Prince is one of the few artists whose live performances are just as (if not more) enjoyable as what is released on his albums, here is one of his live performances of this song on the Arsenio Hall Show.

The Gold Experience (1995) - Eye Hate U
I almost made the mistake of declaring that Prince didn't offer much for neo-soul fans during the 90s, but that was clearly my folly in pretending to be a music critic (which I am clearly not), because after listening to this song again I stand corrected.

Emancipation (1996) - Let's Have A Baby
This deeply personal love song offers another echo of The Beautiful Ones and is absolutely heart-wrenching given the tragic fate of Prince and Mayte's son. However, what I remember most about this album was how eagerly anticipated it was, and how my Prince-obsessed BFF from law school and I went to downtown to Tower Records the day it was released. Of course he loved it, but I was lukewarm. Unfortunately, my disappointment resulted in another cooling off phase with Prince music that never rekindled with the same intensity.

My complaint then was that instead of three CDs of music where I didn't love each track, I would have preferred one CD. The major standouts for me were the the covers of other artists: One of Us (which had been a hit that same year for Joan Osborne); Eye Can't Make U Love Me (previously recorded by Bonnie Raitt and George Michael); La, La, La I Love You (classic hit by The Delfonics that was also covered by The Jackson 5); and Betcha By Golly Wow (first recorded by Connie Stevens, then The Stylistics, and later by Phyllis Hyman). Honestly, he could have done an entire album of covers and I would have been more than satisfied.

Honorable Mentions, Artist Collaborations, and Other Notable Work
And I believe it was exactly at this point when, in the midst of putting together the Facebook playlist, I asked myself who has time for this? Who has hours upon hours to devote to putting together a playlist of Prince music only to realize the futility of an abbreviated, superficial effort? There can be no half-stepping, which is why it was necessary to provide an index in the first place; yet, there is no definitive playlist, only snapshots that attempt to highlight his brilliance and genius. Prince was prolific.

Now that's not a direct quote, but that same sentiment was so memorably expressed in a scene from one of my favorite movies of that mid-90s era, Love Jones. But Prince wasn't on that soundtrack because he was working with Spike Lee on Girl 6 in 1996, (which I overlooked based on this theory). I liked Don't Talk to Strangers, which was also released by Chaka Khan (on the aforementioned album that Prince produced for her, and also for the Down In the Delta soundtrack.)

Upon the mention of Chaka Khan again, it is important to highlight a few of other veteran artists with whom Prince collaborated during this era. There was Larry Graham, a former member of Sly and The Family Stone, George Clinton, Patti LaBelle (here is his unreleased version of the same song), Maceo Parker, and Stevie Wonder <== yeah, I know...and he remains unforgiven for this as well.

Prince also collaborated with his contemporaries, such as The Bangles, for whom he wrote Manic Monday (which he recorded, but did not release as a duet with Apollonia). Here is a live performance with them, where Prince seemed content to play guitar and sing backup as necessary as he did with Lenny Kravitz, Sheryl Crow, and Tom Petty (and others at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction for George Harrison). And though this was a primarily performance of his music, he did grant Beyonce about 20 seconds to shine (beginning at 3:19).

And then, one last artist who must be acknowledged for her obvious impact is Joni Mitchell, whom Prince often cited as one of his muses. Here is a live version of A Case of You and a recorded version, which are simply beautiful.

Here the list jumps from 1996 to 2004. So while I always found time to enjoy whatever he put into the universe, my next great encounter with Prince music was the happy accident known as the anecdote about how I got to see the Musicology tour. I've shared this story before--my brother and his then-girlfriend (now wife) were given tickets to the show on the street but they were not interested in going. So they called me, and of course I made it down to the Verizon Center post haste to enjoy the second half of the show.

Musicology (2004) Call My Name
This would be the only time I got to see Prince live in concert. On an otherwise solid CD, this is the stand-out song for me. It is actually one of my favorite songs on this list just because it is familiar and for lack of a better way to describe it, feels very mature. It sounds every bit like a man who has settled into his second marriage after years of being a risque playboy...

Alas, this is where my playlist comes to an abrupt halt because after Musicology, my interest trailed off again. Like all geniuses, his greatest asset (a prodigious output of new music) would eventually become a liability--too much of a good thing. I took him for granted and never considered that there would come a day when the music would stop.

If you visit the official Prince Estate homepage, you will note that there were twelve (12) more years of creative output and material. There were more collaborations. There were a ton of concerts and live performances. There were talk show appearances (including this unforgettable performance on Lopez Tonight where he introduced the world to future prima ballerina Misty Copeland). There were award show appearances. There was the Superbowl. There was the infamous Dave Chappelle Show skit. There was even this very odd cameo that still has me shaking my head because I haven't met anyone who was a fan of this show...

While this was never intended as a definitive list, nor was it intended to stray so far from my original objective, as I said at the outset, nothing about Prince ever goes according to a plan. In this process of revisiting and remembering, I am also discovering yet another range of colors from this musical chameleon. Thus, as I close with Revelation, from HitnRun Phase Two (2015), I look forward to what else I might encounter for the next playlist. In the meantime, Happy Heavenly Birthday!

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