Prince – 1999 (NPG/Warner Brothers)
Oberheim synths. Linn drum machines. Industrial new wave dance beats. A Reagan-era cold war doomsday vibe. You’d think Prince’s fifth album, released in October of 1982, would forever remain a prisoner of its time. Even with a top ten R&B hit and critical admiration for his scandalous Dirty Mind and Controversy releases, in 1982, Prince was hardly a mainstream star. Months off the road from his Controversy tour, he was assembling enough material for a double album – and as it turns out, much more than that. Putting in 19 hour days, playing virtually every part himself, he worked away with only the help of engineer Peggy McCreary, who eventually taught Prince to punch in his own vocal parts so she could get some rest. From the beginning of his career, Prince’s work ethic put almost everyone else to shame. Releasing an album a year since his 1978 debut, he had also recently crafted albums for groups he conceived, the Time and Vanity 6. Yet in a matter of months, Prince would record not only the seventy minutes of 1999 everyone has come to know, but over two hours of ‘vault’ material left off the record. These are not outtakes, virtually any one of these tracks could have taken the place of one on the finished album. Some he sabotaged lyrically (never his strong suit). “Irresistible B***h” and “Vagina” are insanely funky but you can see why they didn’t make the final cut. Some of the vault tracks have been previously released but heard here in total, the effect is astonishing. There’s not a single throwaway. In addition to the remastered original album and the vault material, the 5 CD, 1DVD or 10-LP box is rounded out with a superfluous selection of alternate takes and single edits (none of which top the originals), electric live concert selections from November ‘82, and a full concert DVD from Houston shot in late December. (My first Prince show would be two days later, New Year’s Eve in Dallas). Watching his boundless energy as a performer, you always have the same thought. Where did this guy come from? Prince was obviously a product of his time, he loved the new wave sounds of people like Devo and Gary Numan. He utilized the newest instruments of the time, many of which have become horribly dated. So what makes 1999 still bracingly modern? Prince was also a serious student of James Brown, Sly Stone, Funkadelic, which combined his modernity with his irrepressible funk. It permeated all his work. His choice of instruments didn’t define his music. He did. (Just listen to the recently released acoustic guitar demo of “I Feel For You” if you want more proof.) 1999 is the album that, thanks to MTV and “Little Red Corvette”, made him a star. And his work would continue to thrill us for decades. This collection reinforces what we already knew – Prince was one of the most inspired and creative musicians of our lifetime, and we’re all lucky we got to share some of it with him.
Buy 1999 here.