‘Originals’ Is a Colorful Collection of Songs Penned by Prince

Posthumous albums are an ethically murky issue, but when they involve a figure as monumental as Prince, only the most principled ideologues can resist the temptation. Warner Bros. acquired the rights to the late artist’s vault of innumerable unreleased recordings, and has been carefully sifting through the reservoir to curate releases. “Originals” collects songs Prince wrote for other artists, here performed in demo form as he originally envisioned. Despite all his infamous record label problems, Prince did enjoy some benefits from his contracts that enabled him to channel his prodigious creativity into as many outlets as he desired. Warners Bros. gave him the freedom to recruit and develop new artists, and he took up on the offer, creating an empire of talent to distribute his endless supply of sound. The vast majority of the songs on “Originals” were written for artists on Prince’s own Paisley Park records, and a few venture in other surprising directions. While they run the gamut stylistically, every song screams of Prince’s distinctive songcraft and flair.  

There’s a slew of funky synth-pop songs that all come fully formed in terms of songwriting, performance and arrangement; calling these “demos” is a stretch. “Sex Shooter” written for Apollonia 6, brings the album to a high-octane start. It’s remarkable that Prince was able to write so convincingly for a quintessential ‘80s girl group whose music seems like the very example of femininity. Although not exactly surprising, as this is Prince after all, one has to marvel at his ability to write for different voices, and still make the songs his own. Apollonia 6 was an offshoot of an earlier envisioning, Vanity 6, for whom Prince wrote “Make-up.” One of the most sonically exciting cuts on the record, it finds him diving into industrial music stylings. The laconic vocals are something different entirely, with Prince donning a coy voice part ultra-hip vixen and part robot, and narrating a make-up routine, step-by-step. While Vanity’s rendition was faithful to the original, it normalized the vocals, shaping them into a more accessible mode. Prince’s demo has a dark edge far ahead of its time.  

“100 Mph” was written for Mazarati, a group founded by Prince’s former bassist Brownmark. It’s no surprise the band’s one hit was penned by Prince himself. It bears all his trademarks, from sweeping, stadium rock guitars to a funky stomp with cascading, panting vocals. Mazarati mimicked Prince in both their song and accompanying video an act that paid off.  Among their ranks is the egregiously overlooked Jill Jones, Prince’s girlfriend at the time, for whom he wrote “Baby, You’re a Trip.” It’s an easy, swooshing track, full of soul instincts run rampant. Jones’ impressive envisioning transforms falsetto paroxysms into open shrieking, but with all her histrionics, she still doesn’t quite match Prince’s outpourings. The demo has a certain casualness to its recording that belies the over-the-top, theatrical performance, and demonstrates how intense an everyday session with Prince could be. Such sessions yielded songs sometimes pitched to the biggest names, who occasionally, believe it or not, declined. One such song is “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me,” originally offered to Michael Jackson for his “Bad” album. Eventually given to Paisley artist Taja Seville, it’s a condensation of all Prince’s trademark, funky dance machinery and gleeful romantic gestures.

Two tracks were written for Prince protégés The Time. “Jungle Love” is insistent dancefloor indulgence with blaring synths of the most delightfully garish variety. The rather hilariously titled “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” is a smooth cut of R&B and funk on the mellower side string-laden, with subtle nods to ‘70s soul stylings in addition to the expected barrage of ‘80s sounds. The Time’s final cuts dutifully emulate Prince’s recordings, down to the detail of the singers’ idiosyncrasies, showing how much faith artists had in the mastermind’s instincts. The Paisley Park act to whom the most demos are devoted is singer and “Queen of Percussion” Sheila E. Prince’s songs for her make up nearly a third of the record, which should rightfully send many a Prince fan digging into her back catalogue. The first song is “Noon Rendezvous,” which appears here in a stripped-down version. While Sheila’s cut flows to rickety percussion, Prince’s demo is largely ambient, with airy, expressive singing in sustained falsetto, so that his dips in and out make for especially thrilling moments. Prince’s voice doesn’t sound too different than Sheila’s, demonstrating his ability to shift shapes and cater to a singer’s particular voice.  

“Holly Rock” is the funkiest number, a riot of busy, clankering percussion, synth tomfoolery, and festive chants. “The Glamorous Life,” Sheila’s highly acclaimed, career-defining hit shows up in recognizable form   abounding with celebratory glissando and saxophone flourishes. The striking difference in both of Prince’s cuts is that he doesn’t attempt to match Sheila’s voice. In a rare move for a singer who spends a fair share of his crooning in helium timbres, he stays mainly in the lower register, adding a new sensibility. On “Dear Michelangelo,” he drifts into whimsical, ecstatic passages, and a thrilling trancelike midsection with a whirlwind of soloing and hushed, echoing vocals. Sheila’s song, by comparison, sounds slightly toned down and decluttered which is understandable, as few artists can spin so much into a track.

Alongside are a few outliers that emerge here in starkly different form. The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” appears slightly slower, less streamlined and punchy, with Prince singing in a more understated voice than usual. Altogether, it’s more adventurous, with more emotional range, and flamboyant backing vocals. Near the end there’s a bit of discordant instrumentation, showcasing the outre jazz aesthetic that often seeped into even Prince’s most readymade pop songs. “Manic Monday” wouldn’t normally strike as a Prince song, but upon hearing the original, it’s hard to believe it were written by anyone else. 

Another surprise is Kenny Rogers’ “You’re My Love.” Rogers, like everyone, yielded to the trends of the eighties, which makes this pairing more understandable, but hardly. Rogers’ song retains most of the instruments teased here sonics much more in Prince’s sphere than Rogers’. The major difference is that Rogers’ voice is flat and banal, compared to Prince’s soulful, fluttering vocals that soar and morph fluidly. Of course, Rogers had to keep it country, but if he could have seen the freely R&B-influenced vocal theatrics that have made their way into mainstream country today, he might have been well-advised to follow Prince’s lead more closely. Martika’s 1991 single “Love… Thy Will Be Done” strikes as a bit out of place in Prince’s catalogue in its straightforwardness, free of his characteristic theatrics, until gospel outbursts take over near the end. He sings in a mellow voice that sounds slightly awkward, but makes sense considering it was demoed for Martika, who cowrote the song. In her voice, the template takes shape gracefully. 

Finally, there’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” which most will recognize from Sinéad O’Connor’s brilliantly emotive rendition. The song was actually written for Paisley band The Family, whose version is closer to the demo, retaining its soulful, melismatic singing. The song finds Prince in sweeping balladry mode, with soaring vocals, triumphant distorted guitars, and bold declarations of love. The songs that find their original drafts on this record while all masterful works in their own right are nearly all essentially works of cut-and paste. “Nothing Compares 2 U” stands out in how freely its most well-known version departs from the original, trading in Prince’s horns and filigree for an uncluttered, stirring outpouring. It’s awe-inspiring to hear how O’Connor’s rendition, while worlds away, took inspiration from the genius of Prince. 

“Originals” captures Prince’s prolific, restless creativity by lifting the veil on the templates behind a multitude of artists’ songs. The album dives headlong into the eighties, when Prince was at his peak, evoking all the flash and decadence of the period with a set of songs that couldn’t better encapsulate the spirit. The included demos showcase Prince’s ability to write for varied voices with such a realized vision that the various artists’ final cuts usually came out hardly altered. Typically, Prince wrote and played the songs, and the artists simply followed suit. The record functions as a primer for the Paisley Park roster, demonstrating the free flow of a single virtuoso’s instincts into numerous colorful outlets. And then, there are samples of Prince venturing outside his already broad parameters, sketching out works that would take strikingly different paths, but still bear his signature stamp. It’s a glimpse into the creative process of an effortless songwriter whose consummate performance makes a mere set of demos a captivating, proper album. 

Originals” is available June 7 exclusively on Tidal, releasing June 21 everywhere.