Few creative projects in pop-culture history succeeded on more levels than Prince’s 1984 masterwork, “Purple Rain.” In one elaborate, calculated stroke, it spawned a hit album, a hit movie and a 100-date concert tour, not to mention global superstardom, a sound, a look, a scene and a new meaning for the color purple.
The album is remarkably diverse, compact and loaded with hits: 44 minutes of rockers, ballads, grinding funk and joyous pop songs about love and sex and hope and family and ambition and dreams; five of its nine songs were released as singles, of which four went Top 10 and two hit No. 1, including “When Doves Cry,” one of the most imaginative, unorthodox (no bass!) and undeniable chart-toppers in history. Commercially it remains one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, certified 13 times platinum in the U.S. alone and winning two Grammys; the film grossed more than $70 million domestically and scored an Oscar. Perhaps above all, it may be the most successful self-fulfilling blueprint for superstardom in history. Prince was just 25 when he made it, but he’d spent virtually his entire life preparing for it — and the rest of his life refusing to make another album like it.
Prince’s untimely death inadvertently allows for the release of music from his storied vault, which contains thousands of unreleased recordings. This peerlessly prolific artist was such a control freak — and so fiercely determined to obtain the optimal value for his music — that even as his contemporaries cashed in on their work by issuing boxed sets containing virtually every stray note they’d ever recorded, he locked most of his creations away, earning nothing and leaving them unheard by few except him, until he could release them on his own terms. In 2014, he signed a much-ballyhooed new deal with Warner Bros. (the label that nurtured his career and that he later accused of making him a “slave”) granting him the rights to much of his 19-year catalog with the company. Yet this 30th anniversary deluxe edition — due on June 23, available in single, double and four-disc incarnations, and which he oversaw before his death — is only now seeing the light of day.
And what treasures lie within this gloriously overstuffed collection, which contains the first substantial dollop of material from the vault — a full 11-track disc of contemporaneous unreleased songs — along with rarities, remixes and a DVD of a long-out-of-print complete concert from March 1985? Plenty, but first some perspective: Few albums measure up to “Purple Rain,” and fans should not expect the new material here to compare. Not much does.
The remastering of the original album has brightened up the sound and put tighter definition on a few previously obscured elements, but otherwise Prince was smart enough not to mess with a good thing. Similarly, the rarities/remixes disc collects all of the album’s singles, including two B-sides that are as good as virtually anything on the album: the pulsing psychedelic lilt “17 Days” and especially the seven-minute version of the funk masterpiece “Erotic City,” a duet with Sheila E. that was a radio hit even though it wasn’t on an album at the time. Other highlights include the “extended dance remix” of “Let’s Go Crazy” (which is essentially the 7-minute version of the song that opens the film, complete with the piano solo played by Prince with his foot), and a 10-minute version of “I Would Die 4 U,” recorded during a rehearsal for the “Purple Rain” tour in November 1984, with lots of vamping and a guest spot from Sheila E. and members of her band.
The previously unreleased material — which dates from 1983 and ’84 — is a mixed but satisfying bag. Just two songs were actually in the running for the original album: “Electric Intercourse” and “Father’s Song.” The former is an aching synth-driven falsetto ballad similar but inferior to “The Beautiful Ones” (which reportedly bumped it from the album) that is weighed down here by a cluttered arrangement; the live version circulating on bootleg is better. The latter is a lovely piano-driven instrumental that will be instantly familiar to fans: Co-written by Prince with his father, John L. Nelson, its melody is featured in the middle section of “Computer Blue,” and it’s the song Prince plays in the film after he discovers his cinema father’s hidden trove of sheet music.
Another highlight is “Possessed,” purportedly written by Prince after he attended a James Brown concert, which is more psychedelic than the funked-up version on the live DVD here. Another long-circulating item is the musical-esque medley “Our Destiny / Roadhouse Garden,” the first half of which is sung by Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman and dates from the sessions for “Around the World in a Day,” the flawed and intentionally polarizing 1985 album that followed “Purple Rain.” Elsewhere are 10-minute-plus workouts on songs like “We Can F—” (drastically different from the version released on 1990’s “Graffiti Bridge”),“The Dance Electric,” “Love and Sex,” and the unedited “Computer Blue,” and three relatively lightweight songs that sound like demos: “Velvet Kitty Cat” and “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” both come and go quickly, and “Wonderful Ass” is a catchy, bouncy duet with Wendy and Lisa that’s about as deep as its title suggests. (For more details, see Variety‘s original report on the deluxe edition, and for even more, hit the definitive fan site, PrinceVault.)
But who’s complaining? There’s much more music where this came from, and here’s hoping that despite the ongoing messy squabbles over Prince’s estate, this is the first of many thorough and loving excavations.