Recorded with the latest incarnation of his touring band New Power Generation, N.E.W.S. consists of four instrumentals, all exactly 14:00 minutes each, called “North,” “East,” “West,” and “South.” It’s another exploration of Prince’s version of a jazz/funk hybrid, and while there are some rather nice passages and occasionally a section of great guitar by Prince, ultimately N.E.W.S. is a 56-minute exercise in tedium (although it is a clear step up from Xpectation.) Somehow N.E.W.S. earned Prince a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, alongside such auspicious nominees as Kenny G’s Wishes: A Holiday Album, and Peace, a holiday album by new age pianist Jim Brickman. The fact that N.E.W.S. fits comfortably alongside these recordings tells ya all you really need to know. (They all lost to Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban’s Mambo Sinuendo.) Had Prince used these long pieces as starting points for ideas and developed the best portions a bit further, then this might have turned into something nice, as there are some good sections scattered throughout. Unfortunately you have to wade through long minutes of aimless boredom to hear them.
Far superior to Prince’s later excursions into jazzy instrumentals are the two Madhouse albums (8 and 16) released in 1987 (8 in January and 16 in September, with Sign o’ The Times, his main album from 1987, in March). Generally considered a protégé band or a side project, these are Prince albums in all but name and should be recognized as such. He produced both, wrote nearly all of the material and plays nearly all of the instruments. In a typically Princely gimmick, all of the track titles are numbers (8 consists of “One” through “Eight,” and 16 contains “Nine” through “Sixteen”). They are similar stylistically but each has a distinct vibe. 16 has a bit of a harder edge to it, and includes snippets of dialogue from old mobster movies and other sound samples scattered about the jazzy funk hybrid tracks. “Ten,” with its hard backbeat, poppin’ bass and heavy sax riff is a standout groove, as is the energetic “Thirteen.” An original CD copy of 16 is hard to find and expensive, although bootlegs abound on eBay for cheap and vinyl copies are widely available as well.
The first Madhouse release, 8, is easily Prince’s finest instrumental album. It came out a couple months prior to Sign o’ The Times, and made a nice companion piece. “Six,” a slinky slice of funk that was released as the album’s single, is good enough to have been included on one of Prince’s major albums, or at minimum as a B-side. “Three” is an elegant slow-burner with terrific sax by Eric Leeds. The manic “Seven” builds a sense of excitement with some great drum-work and spirited sax and piano. Clocking in at over 10 minutes, “Eight” is a beautiful piece adorned with gentle flutes playing over softly humming synthesizers. 8 is an enjoyable listen, and was an intriguing item for fans when it was first released with almost no publicity and under a veil of anonymity. Like 16, original CD copies are expensive (and bootlegs are plentiful) but original vinyl copies are easy to find. The Madhouse albums are just one little side-tangent of Prince’s mountain of recorded work, but they are worthy inclusions in his catalog.
An all-acoustic album released as a bonus disc as part of the Crystal Ball rarities package, The Truth is a mixed bag that ultimately doesn’t live up to its potential. The idea of Prince doing an “unplugged” album was an exciting prospect that fans had been craving for years, but much of the material is just average by Prince’s usual standards. There are a couple real gems, though, like the bluesy title track which features a Princely freak-out during the climax, and especially the heartbreaking and gently exquisite “Comeback,” widely interpreted to be about the death of his infant son. Also of note is the hypnotically rhythmic “Fascination” and the sleek ballad “Other Side of the Pillow,” but a few tracks — “Animal Kingdom” and “Man in a Uniform,” in particular — are throwaways. The Truth has its moments, but as a whole it’s not in the same ballpark as his best work.
Released solely through his NPG Music club, The Slaughterhouse is a compilation of songs that had been released on the website or as CD singles sold at his shows. It’s a shame this album didn’t get a wider release because, like its companion The Chocolate Invasion, there are some great moments. “The Daisy Chain,” one of the singles sold only at his shows, is a classic Prince rocker. “Peace” and “Northside” are first-rate slabs of funk, and the swirling keyboards and vocals on the ethereal dance track “Hypnoparadise” are particularly nice. Unfortunately there are a couple songs that should never have seen the outside of The Vault — particularly “Props ‘n’ Pounds” and “Golden Parachute.” That said, overall The Slaughterhouse has enough strong material that it’s worthwhile to track it down and give it a listen.