News broke the other day about the first wave of posthumous Prince releases: a triple-disc best of and the long-awaited Purple Rain reissue, which will come with a bunch of previously unreleased material. Both are interesting in their own ways and it’s easy to see why they’re leading the way: one is his most famous album, while the other is a collection to replace the dated The Hits set.
Basically, both are intended for the casual fan who is rediscovering Prince after his passing. Which is perfectly okay! But what about the rest of us, hoping for something new? Well, I’ve got a recommendation for you.
In the early 90s, Prince had troubles with his record label, Warner Brothers.
You probably already know about him changing his name to a symbol, writing the word slave on his face and all the drama he caused. But what’s generally overlooked is his music from this period. Between Diamonds and Pearls and The Gold Experience, Prince’s music hit a new peak. His beats were harder, his grooves were deeper and he started working in hip-hop influences. The guy even broke out a microphone shaped like a gun!
Of these records, Love Symbol Album is probably the best. Between stone-cold classics like “7” and “Sexy MF”, not to mention killer slow jams like “The Morning Papers,” the album suggested that after over a decade, he was just hitting his stride. The organ stabs and horn arrangements linked back to his R&B influences, while the guest verses by Tony Mosley and Matye, showed he had an ear to what was current in the music scene.
But after this record, things started to go off the rails.
Prince started work on a new album, plus another featuring then-girlfriend Carmen Electra, a stage show and other projects. Eventually, things would fall into line and become three albums: 1994’s Come, 1995’s The Gold Experience, and 1996’s Chaos and Disorder. All three had pieces of Prince at a peak – The Gold Experience especially – but all feel like they’re been padded out. And, to an extent, it’s true: there was so many things going on at Paisley Park in the early 90s, it’s hard to piece together an accurate picture of what his plans were, or if he even did have any overarching idea for his music.
Thankfully, for once, this is where anonymous bootleggers enter the picture. This was such a fertile period for Prince, there were all kinds of weird odds and ends. Some were promo-only releases (like The Versace Experience) or via his fan club, while others leaked out in tape-trading circles. Eventually, fans began to mix and compile them into their own mixes. Possibly the best of these is a three-disc mix called The Dawn.
Prince’s The Dawn does something the best compilations aim to do: take an artists music and present it in a context showing off it’s highlights and suggesting the albums are of an equal quality.
In other words, The Dawn takes an oft-dismissed period of music and, through well-chosen selections, shows how creative, exciting and funky Prince was between 1992-1995.
The Dawn is sequenced thematically, using the breaks from The Gold Experience. It was something that album attempted to do, but not as successfully. Examples include: “The Wild Experience,” “The Control Experience,” and “The Mad Experience.” Essentially, these showcase different sides of his music: hard-driving rock, hip-hop influenced funk, sultry R&B and slow balladry.
It opens with the title track of this set, the acoustic “Welcome 2 The Dawn.” It was officially released as the closing track of his 1997 record The Truth, but here it functions as a gentle welcoming, inviting the listener into the vault, as it were. From here, the record slides into the sexed up R&B jam “Come,” complete with Prince singing in a hushed voice, slapped bass and horns all over the place, and then into “Endorphinmachine,” where Prince and company push the tempo in a hard-driving rocker and features both Prince rapping and ripping apart his guitar’s fretboard. We’re just four songs in, folks, and the album’s grabbing you by the lapels and demanding attention.
It doesn’t let up at all throughout the first disc. On songs like “Days of Wild,” Prince mixes hard rock and driving funk into a stew all his own, while “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” gives you a moment of respite, and something you and a partner can dance to. Elsewhere, the one-two punch of “Mad” and “Rock & Roll Is Alive (And It Lives In Minneapolis)” shows the raw, funky power Prince was capable of summoning almost at will: it’s like he heard some G-Funk and decided to outdo them at their own game.
On the second disc, things take a sharp veer. On “Pussy Control,” he lays out a funky song about sex and a domme that doesn’t really make sense on paper, but is one of his funkiest tracks. Elsewhere, he continues mixing things up: “Shy” is a slow jam featuring some tasty guitar licks and more late-night ear whispering (“looks like we’re going to take the long way home tonight,” he moans). And on “Billy Jack Bitch” he takes a potshot at a gossip columnist against a sizzling, almost jazzy beat.
But perhaps my favourite is the swaggering “Hide the Bone,” complete with jangling guitar, stomping drums and synth bass. This one was eventually released, buried deep on his triple-CD set Crystal Ball, where all but the hardcore fans were likely to miss it.
And as the set gets into it’s third hour, it just keeps pounding away.
“Interactive” is another driving, hard rock/funk tune with a killer bassline and Prince mixing sex with computer lingo (“Hook me up into your box,” he moans) before sliding into a hot guitar jam. “Acknowledge Me” has a sample-heavy, hip-hop inspired beat, while “What’s My Name” takes the conceit further: as a turntable scratches away in the background, Prince lays down some heavy slap bass and whispers in your ear. By “Face Down,” Prince is rapping against a bass-heavy beat.
By the album’s end, Prince’s broken out in an extended, jazzy, horn-heavy “Come” reprise where he talks dirty to the listener – “you can change your underwear,” he says – and everything comes to a grand finale with an extended version of “Gold,” perhaps the most pop-oriented track here and one pointing all the way back to his Revolution days.
As you can tell, the highlights on The Dawn are many. And, unlike most multi-disc sets, there aren’t many moments where the album feels like it’s dragging. It’s heavy on hard funk, yes, but that’s where he was at during the early 90s; throughout, there aren’t many times where it feels like he’s repeating himself. If anything, the compiler here has done an admirable job, mixing outtakes and rare cuts with familiar album tracks. Hell, with his occasional dip into jazzy elements, it even points forward to albums like Xpectation.
I’d go as far as arguing they did a better job than Prince himself could’ve done.
A notorious perfectionist, Prince was known for adding or removing tracks at the last minute from releases. There are many albums allegedly in the vault, but there’s definitely many songs he plucked from records just waiting for a proper release. The thing is: he wasn’t always the best critic of his own work. His albums often have a general theme uniting them, but compared to The Dawn, they aren’t as consistently fun or only show part of the picture.
At the same time, it should be noted The Dawn is more a fan-created project than anything Prince ever seriously considered.
It doesn’t diminish it’s impact, though. If anything, it deserves to stand next to releases like The Hits, which he left to other people to compile. So: think of The Dawn as an overview of an underrated period. Think of it as the album Prince perhaps thought Gold, Come, Chaos and Disorder, et al, were supposed to be. Think of it as the record you always wanted to hear from Prince, but didn’t know it.
Or just try not to think too hard about it. You won’t have to really worry where everything came from, what their messy origins are. Someone else has done the dirty work; it’s up to you to enjoy and discover how insanely talented Prince was. As he sings, deep into this album’s third hour, “Welcome to the dawn.” Enjoy your visit.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.