Prince Rogers Nelson’s muse operated on a superhuman level. He didn’t just churn out hits, he was insanely prolific, purportedly writing a song a day, and recording several completed songs a week. By song, it should be pointed out that these were not demos—we’re talking about fully fleshed-out, fully completed numbers that technically were ready for mixing, mastering, and release. So prolific was he that when he went on strike in the mid-90s, he was able to release several full-length albums—including two multi-disc boxed sets—using only material from the vault. With such a wealth of high-quality material, it isn’t surprising that he parsed out some truly classic numbers to his friends, to his protégées, and basically to anyone who asked nicely. His passing in 2016 has led to the natural excursions into his vaults, and Originals offers up sixteen songs he gave to others.
Yet this spelunking trip into his archives results in an oddly mixed bag. Originals’ peculiar weakness comes not from its more obscure material, but from its most familiar. Considering that Prince was at his creative peak when he gave “Jungle Love” to The Time, “Sex Shooter” to Apollonia 6, and “The Glamorous Life” to Sheila E., it doesn’t really come as a surprise that said artists didn’t change up the song in any meaningful way. So close are these songs to the original—especially “Jungle Love”—one might think the only alteration was to switch out the vocals. The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” (which, for all intents and purposes, is merely “1999” with new lyrics and tempo) has a slightly jazzier feel than what the band would release, while “Nothing Compares 2 U” has a woozy calliope feel that would be utilized by The Family for the original release, but totally discarded when Sinead O’Connor would rerecord the song and turn it into an international hit. The true gem of the well-known material here is his demo for Martika’s superb hit, “Love…Thy Will Be Done.” Although it too doesn’t differ very much from the hit single, hearing Prince sing such a seductive and heavenly number is most welcome.
Even though the hit songs might not be that exciting of a listen—not bad, mind you, but the air of familiarity is impossible to escape—it’s on the less familiar numbers where Originals really shines. Chances are you haven’t heard these covers before, much less even know they exist—who knew Prince wrote a song for Kenny Rogers? (Then again, the song was credited to “Joey Coco,” so perhaps its obscurity isn’t surprising.) That song, “You’re My Love,” was recorded in 1982, and is one of Originals’ true gems. Though the light and airy production definitely sounds like 1982, hearing Prince sing in a lower pitch is revelatory, and when he swings from these oddly deep tones to his gorgeous higher range, the results are startling. “100 MPH,” a jaunty number from the obscure Prince-related funk band Mazarati, a band truly in need of rediscovery, while “Noon Rendezvous” (for Sheila E.) and “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” (for The Time) truly feel like ones that got away; their addition to the Prince canon is most welcome. Hearing him go all New Wave on his demo for Vanity 6’s “Make Up,” though, is easily worth the price of admission—it’s absolutely nuts. Originals’ only truly forgettable moment is “Holly Rock” (another Sheila E. track) from 1985; one can hear Prince get bored with the song halfway through, and even though he gives his all, the energy level drops off mid-song. The best part is his parting shot at the end of the song—“Try to dance to that!”(It’s also weird to hear Prince curse; he was notoriously straight-laced in that regard.)
Even though the ubiquity of some of the material on Originals casts a shadow, on the whole this trip into Prince’s vast archive is a rewarding and delightful one. Yes, Prince may be gone, but this release shows that there’s plenty of fine material still to be had in his legendary tape vault.