His Royal Badness turns 55 on Friday, June 7. In celebration, we take a look back at his career and examine some of his lesser-known gems. Everybody knows his long list of classics: “When Doves Cry,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Kiss,” “Purple Rain” to name just a very few, as well as his 2nd tier of hits like “Thieves in the Temple,” “Musicology,” “Alphabet Street”, “Controversy”, etc. His back catalog, stretching from his debut album “For You”, released when he was still a teenager in 1978 (and even then he was playing all the instruments), through is most recent single “FixurLifeup” is massive – and that only includes the officially released albums. Dozens and dozens of bootleg studio recordings of various sound qualities circulate among fans, and there are tales of his legendary Vault where hundreds or possibly thousands of unreleased songs are sitting collecting dust and capturing the imagination and yearning of Prince’s die-hard fans.
His legacy is unmatched, and he’s still going forward, recording, touring, and – as always – following the beat of the berserk little purple drummer in his head. But that’s what makes him Prince. Ordinary is not anywhere in it. We’ve got plenty of ordinary, but there is only one Prince.
Here is a survey of 10 of his lesser-known tracks, spanning much of his career. I’ve avoided singles and his bigger-name albums, as those could hardly be called hidden gems. But if you only know the hits, you are missing the larger part of the Prince story. He’s got a deep catalog of incredible work, and here are some of his best gems well worth discovering.
b-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” single, 1983
This funky piece was recorded around the time of the “1999” album and was used as the b-side of that album’s 4th single, the racy “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” “Irresistible Bitch” proved so popular that it actually was given credit on the Billboard Charts as a Double-A side (peaking at #43 on the pop charts). It’s got a funky drum beat and a half-spoken vocal about how completely in thrall Prince is to this girl, despite objections from friends, because they don’t “know what you do to me when we’re alone”. One can only imagine. Too funky. One of Prince’s many classic b-sides.
b-side to “If I Was Your Girlfriend” single, 1987
Prince was at his most experimental and prolific around 1986/1987. Several projects were percolating. A possible new album with The Revolution called “The Dream Factory”. An album of tracks recorded with his vocals sped and distorted, like on this killer b-side “Shockadelica”, that was to be released under the name of his alter-ego at the time, Camille. Then all this morphed into a proposed 3-LP set to be called “Crystal Ball”, which, by the time of release, was whittled down to 2 discs and called “Sign o’ The Times”. It went on to become perhaps his most critically acclaimed album and spawned several major hits, but fans couldn’t help wonder what might have been – while yearning for all that unreleased material from perhaps his most fertile era. Some of the extra songs showed up as b-sides and one of them was “Shockadelica”. Funky, humorous, wicked – an essential bit of Prince goodness. See if you can track down the extended version that was featured on the “If I Was Your Girlfriend” maxi-single.
“Lovesexy” was an album that was met with a great deal of confusion at the time of its release. Lead single “Alphabet St.” was a colorful, funky little number that bounced its way into the Top 10. But commercial success for the album would be fleeting. Subsequent singles “Glam Slam” and “I Wish U Heaven” failed to chart. But then, Prince did himself no favors in the promotion of this album. From the decision to release the CD all as one long track (you couldn’t skip from song to song), to the controversial cover showing him nude, nestled against a backdrop of day-glo flowers... it’s easy to see why it didn’t set the charts on fire (at least in the US. In the UK, it was a #1 album). Widely adored by fans, “Lovesexy” is a spiritual album, and at the emotional center is “Anna Stesia”, a slow-building epic about doubt, sex, God and love that remains one of the most thrilling studio records Prince ever produced.
The “Come” album was released in the midst of his battle with Warner Brothers, and it had the feel of a half-hearted attempt to fulfill his recording contract. That said, it’s an underrated album. It has an underground feel, with some of his darkest and most intriguing work of the 90s. “Space”, which was actually the 2nd single from the album but made no impact on the charts, is wonderfully produced. The layers of synths, the bass line, and that exquisite vocal arrangement all make for a piece of aural candy that is well worth seeking out.
“The Gold Experience”, 1995
Prince had originally given this song to one-time protégé Tevin Campbell, and he recorded a rather limp version of it. Prince wisely took it back for his own and recorded an absolutely thundering version for his mid-90s’ apex, “The Gold Experience.” Loaded with killer tunes (albeit burdened with an overly glossy and over-the-top production), “The Gold Experience” is Prince’s best album of the 90s by a wide margin. “Shhh” is propelled by thunderous drums and some of Prince’s most unhinged guitar work, and a brilliant vocal about his favorite topic: hot sex. Prince must share fans’ esteem for this song because, although it was never released as a single, it remains a part of his set-list nearly 20 years after its release.
“New Power Soul”, 1998
1998 saw the release of “New Power Soul,” widely regarded as perhaps Prince’s weakest album. It’s a plastic, soulless collection of mostly uninteresting slick pop and R&B songs that sounded dated 5 minutes after it was released. With 3 notable exceptions: the haunting album closer, “Wasted Kisses,” the funky “Come On,” and the first single – “The One.” It’s one of the finest ballads of his career – an extraordinarily beautiful falsetto vocal performance (and that vocal arrangement!!) over a languid bass line and orchestral synths. Sheer perfection; a pure nugget of gold surrounded by mostly throwaways.
“I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore”
“Rave un2 The Joy Fantastic”, 1999
This beautiful and bitter piano ballad (featuring Ani DiFranco on sparse but lovely acoustic guitar) was hidden away on an album that was supposed to be a big commercial return for Prince, but ended up a monumental disappointment. “Rave un2 The Joy Fantastic” was his first release with a major label – Arista – since his acrimonious divorce from Warner Brothers. It got major promotional push, but little in the way of sales or acclaim. But Prince being Prince, even his subpar albums have their moments, and this track is a stunner. There is a vulnerability here that is rarely heard on a Prince record – and a sense that the song is more personal than most. It’s another obscure track that regularly shows up in his set-lists, suggesting that Prince knows he has a lost classic with this one.
“When Eye Lay My Hands On U”
“The Chocolate Invasion”, 2001
In the early 2000s Prince took to the internet to release songs through his NPG Music Club. These were later compiled into 2 internet-only albums: “The Chocolate Invasion” and “The Slaughterhouse”. The songs ranged from throwaways to top-notch, the best of them being “When Eye Lay My Hands on U” – starting with a simple falsetto vocal over piano, and then exploding with intensely layered vocals and guitars. It sizzles live, and it’s a real shame it never had the chance of reaching a wider audience. Prince’s unconventional marketing techniques might be innovative at times, but for the most part they’ve hurt his career in recent years and made it more difficult for fans to discover and connect with his music. “When Eye Lay My Hands on U” – a should-be classic – is a perfect example of this.
Prince returned to the big commercial stage with the 2004 album “Musicology”, and it’s follow-up – “3121” which briefly ascended the top of the album charts, giving Prince his first #1 album since the Batman soundtrack in 1989. It was arguably his best album of the 2000s, although “Lotusflow3r” might also make that claim. It’s loaded with strong, commercial material, and perhaps the best of the bunch is “Love”, a stripped-down, ultra funky dance number that’s built behind a strong beat and a great melody. Should have been a single. Prince has been consistent with each album landing near the top of the album charts over the last decade, on the strength of his die-hard fans, but success with singles has been elusive in recent times. Perhaps it’s a matter of choosing the wrong tracks.
2009 saw the release of 3 albums in one package: the rock-influenced “Lotusflow3r”, the more pop and R&B “MPLSound” and a largely forgettable slick pop album sung by his protégé of the moment Bria Valente. Of the 3, “Lotusflow3r” is by far the best, and is actually on par with some of his best work overall. A return to more straightforward rock, it contains some of his best songwriting of the decade. “Dreamer” in particular is a soaring blues-rock number that gives him a chance once again to show off his brilliance as a guitar player. It’s Hendrix-influenced for sure, but Prince has the chops to pull it off in a way that other imitators can only dream about.
So happy birthday to the prolific, brilliant, troubled genius that is Prince. These are just a bare handful of his lost classics - dozens more could have easily been listed. Over 35 years he’s simply unmatched in popular music in terms being incredibly prolific, and in the sheer number of amazing tunes. Some have turned into massive hits, being at the right place and the right time. Some are known only to die-hard fans. Imagine a song like “Dreamer” released around the time of “Purple Rain” – sure fire instant classic. And yet, these days, most people only look back to his 80s heyday when they think of Prince. There is a reason for this of course – his string from “Dirty Mind” through “Lovesexy” is one of the great sequences of albums in pop/rock history. But there are many great tracks to discover after that, and hopefully in time when fans and critics look over his entire legacy, some of these hidden classics will gain more attention and respect. In the meantime, fans can only pine hopefully for the release of more Vault songs and hope that Prince and Warner Brothers can mend fences enough to allow deluxe reissues of his classic albums, complete with bonus tracks. But Prince being Prince… ya never know what you’re gonna get.