I come to Originals, the new album credited to Prince, with mighty mixed emotions. My cumbersome manner in naming the performer associated with the release basically tells the story. I have a hard time believing Prince would have been pleased to see this album out in the world.
This assemblage of Prince’s original demo recordings for songs that he famously gifted to other artists is undeniably illuminating, even occasionally thrilling. Known for his exacting work over endless hours spent in the studio, Prince has hardly crafted rough passes at these songs, intended to give a loose idea of what he’s after. Many of the tracks on Originals would pass for fully finished product from lesser creators, and it’s striking how often the artists take Prince’s recording and perform the equivalent of putting tracing paper atop it. About the only thing the Time added to “Jungle Love” was more cartoonish ape sounds and some dumb dance moves.
Hardly the most well-studied Prince scholar, my primary fascination is for the most familiar songs, those that became major hits for the artists that snared them. Prince’s “Manic Monday” is very close to the Bangles version that just missed the top of the Billboard chart, but somehow more delicate, more vulnerable. And the crazy jazz squalls that open “The Glamorous Life,” entirely excised in the Sheila E. version, provide a whole different tension, as if the track can spin off in any direction at any time. Album closer “Nothing Compares 2 U” is markedly different from Sinéad O’Connor’s take on the same song, a vanishingly rare instance of another artist outdoing the master, but it’s right in line with the first released version, but the tepid soul act the Family, formed by Prince as a side outlet for his prodigious output after the Time dissolved. Prince’s take is revelatory only for those who’ve never heard of the Family, which, to be fair, is most people.
Aside from its archival interest, Originals holds together as an impressive portrait of an artist who approached genius even at his most offhand. Most of the material captured here is from Prince’s nineteen-eighties heyday, when the inspiration evidently flowed like the handle was snapped off the spigot. Even without comparative reference at my quick mental disposal, I can recognize the jaw-dropping accomplishment of piercing ballad “Noon Rendezvous,” funk shimmy “100 MPH,” beautifully soulful “Baby, You’re a Trip,” and stately pop wonder “Love… Thy Will Be Done.” It’s flatly amazing to think of Prince polishing off these numbers were a satisfied shrug and the flat question “Okay, what’s next?”
I still struggle with the very existence of Originals. I have little problem with excavating the material left behind by deceased creators, especially those who could claim to a spot among the greats. Such endeavors are part preservation and part celebration, allowing for a deeper understanding of their contributions to their chosen field. In particular, Columbia Legacy’s decades of posthumous Miles Davis releases are laudable and vital. Even so, there’s something about the structure of this release — eagerly Lego-ing together the most famous Prince songs that Prince never released — that makes it feel, in its very conception, crass to me. More problematically, I can’t shake the feeling that Prince, who was so protective of his art and his legacy, would detest Originals, with its veneer of glory reclaimed from other performers. There’s an opportunistic element that feels contrary to Prince’s common rejections of the easy cash-in. I’m not sure what we owe to artists after they’re gone, but it feels like it might be something different than this.