Originals, the latest posthumous release of material from Prince’s vault, is practically infotainment. It works as well as a straight album of skeletal ’80s funk and balladry as it does a history lesson. On this collection of demos of songs eventually recorded by other artists (some hits, some deep cuts, almost all from the ’80s), we learn or are reminded of the vastness of Prince’s creativity at his peak, when the music was pouring out of him and he was grasping for any available container.
Some of those containers he crafted himself. Prince-conceived projects like Apollonia 6 (the second coming of Vanity 6 after Denise “Vanity” Matthews departed the trio) and the Time functioned essentially as puppet bands for not only his writing, but also his playing—listen to the demo versions of the Time’s “Jungle Love” and “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” and you’ll hear virtually the same songs with Prince’s vocals where Morris Day’s eventually landed. Almost all of the instrumentation on those finished recordings by the Time was still performed by Prince (even when he wasn’t credited). This is true for many of the songs on Originals—the additions of an insistent cowbell and a ferocious approach to the drum kit by Sheila E., are mere adornments to the track that Prince laid out ahead of time with “The Glamorous Life.” That these songs in their demo forms sound so fully executed is evidence of stunning perfectionism, of the rough edges and icy sheen that ’80s pop accommodated. Prince happened at precisely the right moment.
When you spin Originals, sometimes it feels like you’re listening to someone playing with dolls, especially given Prince’s tendency to paint his women narrators as oversexed objects. “I need you to get me off/Be your slave, do anything I’m told,” go the lyrics to Apollonia 6's “Sex Shooter,” a song that never quite made much sense to me metaphorically speaking because of the phallic nature of guns. When Prince sings on the demo, “I’m a sex shooter/Shooting love in your direction,” well, that’s finally some tangible imagery right there. The relentlessly arpeggiated, slapstick-with-squelches “Make-Up,” which was eventually recorded by Vanity 6, features a deadpan litany of cosmetics (“Blush... eyeliner...”), with an even drier explanation of what’s going on: “I wanna look good for you.” If mannequins spontaneously started talking, this is what they’d chatter. The song’s humor, regardless of who’s singing it, is in its sterility—this is no woke treatise on self-care. In fact, “The Glamorous Life” is the very opposite of that—Prince has never sounded more mansplain-y than when examining a woman character who prefers luxury to love and by the end of the song learns a valuable lesson about her folly. The song’s theme may have had more to do with an indictment of rampant ’80s capitalism than degrading women’s choices, but in Sheila E.’s hands, it sounded merely catty, not toxic.
But it’s funky, and it sounds great. Most of the songs are of high sound quality, meaning that even for Prince enthusiasts who already had some of this material, much of what’s included here qualifies as an upgrade. Prince’s estate has finally delivered a wholly satisfying package. The sheer musical craft at hand goes a long way to gloss over the retrograde politics (beamed in from a time where the mainstream discourse was far less humanistic), as did Prince’s willingness to explore the bimbo-ness of his male characters (like his musical rendering of Morris Day’s vain, libidinous persona, or even himself on his own recordings). His views of id may have been gendered or at least complicated by gender divides, but he was equal-opportunity in the sense of giving broad-strokes portrayals of all types.
And sex, of course, is just one subject Prince was interested in exploring. “Love...Thy Will Be Done,” a collaboration with Martika, intertwines emotion and spirituality to paint a picture of destiny (its steady synth exhalation, a sound design that maintains the same level of intensity for the song’s running time, creates a brilliant contrast of serenity with the lyrics’ effusive revelations). Similar in its stillness and fundamentalism is “You’re My Love,” which has a light disco swirl reminiscent of the Bee Gees’ MOR-leaning ballads—the version that Kenny Rogers eventually recorded and released was stripped of any funk.
That Prince wrote a number of songs for other artists was never a secret, even when he attempted to obscure himself with pseudonyms (the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” was initially credited to “Christopher”). But Originals, on which Prince’s demo of “Manic Monday” is included, is the first official long-form exploration of how crucial this specific type of identity-play was to his sense of expression. He engaged in a self-conscious donning of personas, and with apparent comfort he had in doing so (listen to him coo about kissing Valentino on “Monday”). This is a person who reveled in ambiguity, who pitch-shifted his voice and recorded an entire album’s worth of material as his (female? devilish?) Camille character (an album that I would argue is his best), whose interpretation of the Batman mythos was a half-Batman, half-Joker character called Gemini. He was all of the things he said he was and dressed as, or none of them and just playing around—I don’t know if there’s a difference in the blatantly synthesized world of pop.
How imperialist the effects of such play were, though, are debatable. To the New York Times, frequent collaborator Jill Jones said, “He thought he could be a better woman than you could.” In another recent interview, Jones, who eventually recorded Originals’ “Baby, You’re a Trip” on her her self-titled 1987 album, which is largely considered by fans to be the best full-length from a Prince protégé, described finally getting fed up with Prince’s control over her life and career. She said:
After a while I couldn’t wait to get away. It got annoying to have a man telling me how to dress, and I have a thing about men giving women lyrics — like, what girl would say this? I got tired of being told what to do, especially as a woman, and he got very angry. A couple of labels tried to get me and he turned them down, he wouldn’t take their money [and let her out of her contract with his Paisley Park label]. I basically sat the contract out for three years—I got married and had a baby. He would call periodically and I’d have to sing on something because I had a contract, but it was definitely not that friendly.
Her reaction makes as much sense to me as Prince’s bursting, freewheeling creativity leading him to the expressive paths that it did, and the ego that ensued. His flaws are part of his story, and while they may not be as evident as his songwriting vigor and his ingenious harnessing of technology to create music that simultaneously sounded alien and familiar, they’re part of Prince’s vast trove, waiting to be discovered on Originals.