Unlocking Prince's Vault
Assessing his unfinished memoir The Beautiful Ones and the super deluxe edition of 1999.
|Stephen Thomas Erlewine||Dec 3, 2019|| 4|
Death turned out to be the key that unlocked Prince's Vault. During his lifetime, Prince teased out selections from his closely-guarded safe, sneaking them out as B-sides and going so far as titling his 1999 kiss-off to Warner Bros. The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale, but the full extent of its riches was the stuff of legend. Whether it was an outtake, a reworked composition or a reappropriated title, anything that managed to escape into the public wound up reaffirming the notion that The Vault contained treasures that would buttress Prince's reputation as the preeminent pop musician of his time.
There also was the assumption that one day, likely sometime far in the future, Prince would actually launch an archival project along the lines of Bob Dylan, offering unreleased gems on a regular basis. At this stage, it's hard to picture that belief as anything other than wishful thinking. Prince may have squirreled away thousands of hours of music, along with a staggering amount of film footage, but he never made a move to present this material to the public. A smattering of tracks appeared on compilations, Crystal Ball served as a clearinghouse of some material and he allowed for an official release of The Black Album but that record unlike, say, an album devoted to his high-pitched alter ego Camille, was actually finished—it was pressed for the stores then pulled from stores at the last minutes. Unlike David Bowie, Prince didn't create detailed plans for the release of his work in the event of his passing. He simply amassed thousands of hours of tapes, leaving the task of cataloging the music for another day—a day that never came for him.
The Vault isn't the only unfinished project Prince left behind. Weeks before his April 21, 2016 death, he announced Random House would publish his memoir. The book appeared to be a continuation of his reflective Piano & A Microphone shows, a series of concerts where he sat alone at a keyboard, connecting his old tunes with bittersweet stories. He didn't complete much before his passing—a total of seven hand-written chapters which provide the foundation of The Beautiful Ones, a volume edited by Prince's collaborator Dan Piepenbring that splits the difference between autobiography and scrapbook.
The Beautiful Ones may amount to something of a salvage job but, in that respect, it has something in common with the reissues and archival releases now appearing at a rapid clip from the Prince estate. Whether it's the book, last year's rehearsal tape Piano And A Microphone 1983, the Originals compilation from earlier this year, or the new doorstop deluxe edition of 1999, it's exceedingly likely that none of these projects would exist if Prince was still alive. Back in 2014, he buried the hatchet with his former label Warner Bros. and announced plans for a reissue campaign beginning with a 30th Anniversary edition of Purple Rain which never materialized—proof that Prince would rather follow his whims than a plan. An expanded version of Purple Rain didn't hit the stores until 2017, when several legal hurdles had been cleared and the estate was ready to start mining his archives.
With the exception of Originals, which was a collection of demos masquerading as completed Prince tracks, the release of The Beautiful Ones and the deluxe 1999 differ from their companion posthumous releases in that they do not bear any resemblance to a project Prince would've endorsed, particularly during the last two decades of his life. They're too messy, too comprehensive, too dirty—too revealing of aspects he otherwise left behind once he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001. Piepenbring's lengthy introduction to The Beautiful Ones draws a nice portrait of Prince at middle age: mercurial without meanness, his eccentricities grounded by his midwestern home, intensely focused on racial injustices and the capriciousness of corporations, still a fervent believer in the power of music. Some of these subjects are touched upon within Prince's finished chapters but not at length. He's more concerned with chronicling his initial infatuations with music, romance, sex, and God, spending a fair amount of time analyzing what characteristics he inherited from his parents. The conflict between his earthy, mischevious mother and his rigid, disciplinarian (and occasionally violent) father also fueled Purple Rain, whose veil of semi-autobiography is removed in the original treatment is presented here, revealing that his big-screen character The Kid was initially named after Prince himself.
Prince's own chronology peters out in his adolescence, so Piepenbring relies on photos, memorabilia and old quotations to flesh out the period between his childhood and Purple Rain, leaving much of the years that followed unexamined. Some of this material is insightful, a lot of it helps preserve the myth Prince cultivated in the 1980s, but none of it explains the rapid artistic evolution between his 1978 debut For You and Purple Rain. The weighty new edition of 1999—a hefty five CDs, plus a DVD—also doesn't offer an explanation but the additional music manages to deepen appreciation of his achievement while also placing it in historical context. Occasionally, the archival aspect is a bit dry—listening to all the single edits and dance mixes on the second disc in succession veer toward monotonous—but given how much of this material has never been reissued, it's welcome. As exciting as it is, the concert, recorded in Detroit's Masonic Hall on the Controversy tour in 1982, serves a similar function as the collection of singles: it's accepted that the nascent Revolution was one the legendary live bands of their time, so this dynamite set just serves as evidence of that thesis.
The revelations lay in the two discs of tracks pulled from The Vault. Some of these tunes are familiar in expected ways: there are extended versions and alternate takes of songs from 1999, while the eventual B-side "Feel U Up" has a different vocal take, one that isn't run through the Camille vocal filter. The surprise is how so much of this unreleased material contains the seeds of songs that flowered later in the decade. "Bold Generation" is the early draft of "New Power Generation," the anthem he created for his post-Revolution outfit of the same name. "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got," which later kicked of 1990's Graffiti Bridge, is present in a barebones version that emphasizes its nervy power pop. That super-charged, hooky sound—itself a close cousin of Dirty Mind's "When U Were Mine"—runs rampant on these bonus tracks, surfacing on the proudly pansexual "Vagina," the bubblegum snap of "Yah, You Know," the neon dazzle of "Turn It Up," the swinging carnival "No Call U" and "Do Yourself A Favor," which later slides into a long funk vamp that houses the dry run of Prince's Bob George character. There's a fair amount of funk scattered amongst the pop, including the eleven-minute workout "Purple Music," and the epic sweep of "Moonbeam Levels" feels like a dry run for "Purple Rain."
When heard in conjunction with the proper album, this extra music strengthens the notion that 1999 is where Prince developed his mature voice. While the bonus tracks confirm the suspicion among his diehard fans that there are gems lying to be discovered within The Vault, it's also hard not to shake the notion that this music, along with The Beautiful Ones, is essentially material that Prince never sculpted into finished work for public consumption. In the case of the deluxe 1999, that rawness is welcome and invigorating, but The Beautiful Ones is a melancholy experience, its empty spaces suggesting how much Prince still had not communicated to an audience. That sadness lingers long after the cover of The Beautiful Ones closes but it's a testament to the rejuvenating powers of his music that the 1999 deluxe edition can wipe that sorrow away.