This week marks the two year anniversary of the death of Prince, Minnesota’s home-grown rock legend. While those in the music community are paying tribute to and honoring the memory of the late maestro, there are some who would seek to poke his corpse in a selfish effort to keep the show going.
It’s no secret that Prince was a prolific artist. He left behind a giant backlog of unreleased material in the vaults of his ‘Graceland-esque’ home studio, Paisley Park. The question is: What should be done with this material?
The best possible answer may be —— Nothing.
To mark the sad occasion of a Princeless world, his estate and record company decided to release a previously unheard studio version of the ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Immediately, and not surprisingly, his fans have gone apeshit. The song has already been reviewed by major news outlets and, here at home, found airtime on radio stations like The Current.
Meanwhile, we can assume, Prince rolled over in his grave. The song, which was written, performed, and produced almost single-handedly by the late artist is, at best, a throwaway. It’s a B-side. It’s a decent song, but his recorded version is nothing particularly riveting. Engineer Susan Rogers, who recorded the song with Prince, said in an interview with The Guardian that he often worked fast and this session “came out like a sneeze.” After finishing the song, he put it away, lent it out, and occasionally played it live.
Meanwhile, while one of Prince’s ‘sneeze’ songs was good enough to make Sinead O’Connor millions of dollars, Prince decided the track, or, at least, this particular recording, wasn’t right to be included in his own legacy. According to Rogers, he didn’t feel like the discussion of domesticity in his own writing fit in with who he actually was.
This self-aware judgment is what sets someone like Prince apart. It’s what makes him a genius. Everything he touched didn’t turn to gold, but he had a way of presenting himself that made it seem like that was the case. What he did do was maintain a personal standard in order to preserve the quality of his work. He didn’t just puke (or sneeze) songs onto Youtube as soon as the first take was finished. He toiled over his work to make sure it was perfect and met his personal standard. And who are we to overthrow those decisions?
Yes, he recorded a lot. Yes, there are probably half a dozen albums worth of stellar material, music that is better than most of what we, as fans, could hope for. These songs are lying dormant in his vaults. But should they be dug up? Perhaps the release of this one track, something we are already familiar with, isn’t such a singularly big deal, but what precedent is it setting? Should we go rooting around in Prince’s discard pile just because we are hungry for more? Should greedy record execs be able to pad their pockets with a dead man’s rough drafts? Are we so unsatisfied, after only two years worth of his absence, that we would let loose the wolves in the hen house simply to appease our own desires?
And make no mistake— subconsciously that is what we are doing. We want to know him better. We want to humanize him, understand him, to see our own possibilities in his achievements. Basically, we want to give ourselves permission to uncover truths about our hero that, while he was living, he would not have allowed. We would pursue this flawed desire with disregard to the carefully presented persona of excellence that endured Prince to us in the first place, and we will ultimately feast on our own disappointment and waning interest. It could be argued that the same people who would buy a post-mortem Prince album would place it right next to their copy of Go Set a Watchman while watching Peter Cushing’s performance in Rogue One.
It’s not like Prince didn’t have the means to release this material. If there isn’t any instruction from him as to what he wanted to be done with these songs, we should assume he didn’t want the world to hear them and we should leave them alone. If allowed to continue unchecked, this lust for deeper understanding via transparency will drive us to dismantle the mythic persona and dilute the perfection that was Prince’s overarching aim in the first place. His legacy should leave future generations screaming, “PURPLE RAIN! PURPLE RAIN!” rather than saying, “Boy, that guy recorded a LOT of stuff.” Quit being greedy.