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There’s a reason why Prince didn’t release his archive – most of it isn’t very good

6 May 2016

4:38 PM

6 May 2016

4:38 PM

Prince’s vast archive of unreleased music is legendary. The ‘vault’ in Paisley Park, the late musician’s home-cum-studio complex in suburban Minneapolis, contains thousands of hours of recordings that have never seen the inside of a tape deck.

The unpublished music tells a story. Material was shelved when band members left, after the tragic death of his newborn son, and at the end of his first marriage. Some projects were cancelled for more prosaic (commercial and legal) reasons. The Black Album, which was abandoned in mysterious circumstances a week before it was due to be released, became one of the most bootlegged records of all time.

Because so much of the vault’s contents have leaked over the years, fans with realistic expectations know roughly what will be available posthumously. They also know that most of the tracks that were banished were simply not good enough, and Prince’s untimely death doesn’t change that. The vault is worth very much more as a concept – a myth – than the sum of the recordings inside it, the very best of which would nicely fill a double disc set.

Between 1982 and 1989 Prince created an unparalleled amount of work. He developed and perfected a distinct and instantly recognisable style which influences the sound of popular music to this day. Everything he released in this period was a critical and commercial success, and some of the outtakes are as good, if not better, than what was published.

Unfortunately, Prince had no idea what to do with the gold mine he created. ‘Extraloveable’ is an illustrative case. Originally recorded (but not released) in 1982, it is one of the finest examples of his signature sound, in which old school funk meets new-wave pop. The lyrics – rape threats and all – are spat at the microphone in an urgent, breathy falsetto.

A sanitised, easy-listening version was included on his most recent album last year. It wouldn’t sound out of place in the repertoire of a hotel jazz band. The raw energy of the original is entirely lost. This is nothing short of vandalism, and it’s awful to imagine what, in his dotage, he might have done to other gems in the vault. How could he have ruined ‘Electric Intercourse,’ the bittersweet piano ballad that was almost included on Purple Rain? What horrors could he inflict on ‘All My Dreams’, the surreal synth opera that should have been the final track on Sign o’ the Times?

As a live performer and bandleader Prince was unparalleled, but his recent studio efforts have been hit-and-miss, to put it diplomatically. He peaked creatively 30 years ago, which explains the vault’s mythical appeal to his army of devoted fans. He was still capable of creating interesting music (several of the tracks on 2014’s Art Official Age are reminiscent of his best work from the nineties) but he was no longer innovative.

His legacy is best preserved by someone else, someone who isn’t embarrassed by his past. Someone who doesn’t shy away from lyrics about incest, masturbation and ‘rivers’ of menstrual blood. Someone who understands the importance of the Minneapolis sound, and the effect that it had on a generation of musicians. Anyone other than Prince.

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