The latest Prince vault excavation, “Originals” (NPG/Warner Brothers), brings together 15 demos that he wrote for other artists, many of them hits, a further testament to how thoroughly this singular artist came to dominate a decade of music.
It works as a companion of sorts to last year’s “Piano & a Microphone 1983,” a home recording that provided a glimpse of Prince at work while at the height of his powers. The demos on “Originals” mostly come from this period of extreme creativity, 1981-85. While releasing four acclaimed albums in a row (“Controversy,” “1999,” “Purple Rain,” “Around the World in a Day”), Prince also was writing hits for the Time, the Bangles and Sheila E., among others.
Whereas “Piano & a Microphone 1983” was bare-bones, “Originals” contains elaborately arranged tracks with Prince playing most of the instruments and singing most of the vocal parts. So accomplished were these demos that some artists simply used them as their own master recording and then added their own vocals.
The Prince virtuosity is in full effect: the elastic bass line on “Sex Shooter,” later a hit for Apollonia; the piano melody that provides the backbone for “Manic Monday,” which the Bangles rode to No. 2 on the singles chart; the electronic severity of “Make-Up,” which would’ve fit right in on Chicago’s Wax Trax label in its early industrial phase, but was instead handed to Vanity for a 1982 album.
Prince’s writing for and with percussionist Sheila E. was particularly inspired, including the propulsive Latin-funk of “Holly Rock,” the guitar-stoked Renaissance fantasia “Dear Michaelangelo,” and the strutting “The Glamorous Life,” with its chamber-jazz intro blending cello and saxophone before the glorious synth riff takes over.
There are a couple of less-inspired contributions, notably the glossy country-pop “You’re My Love,” which Kenny Rogers recorded in 1986. But the overriding impression is wonderment: Prince was on such a roll that he was giving away tracks that could’ve provided the backbone for at least another terrific album of his own during this era, music that ranges from the funk mischief of “Jungle Love” to the falsetto tenderness of “Baby, You’re a Trip.”
Most famously, there is “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Prince’s demo is densely arranged, which suggests that he thought it could be a hit for someone. He was right, though not initially. He gift-wrapped the song for the Family, a short-lived spin-off project for his friends in the Time. But it was never released as a single and the band and its self-titled debut album quietly vanished. Then Sinead O’Connor revived the song by re-framing it as a stark hymn. She rolled it out in January 1990, capping a decade in which nothing could compare to Prince.
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