More Prince, More Pleasure: The Joys of the Expanded ‘1999’

Prince’s fifth album, rereleased on its 37th anniversary with a wealth of material from his vault, captures the moment he broke down barriers and became a rock star.

Prince’s 1982 album, “1999,” was a feat of songwriting and recording: Prince Rogers Nelson handled nearly every instrument and vocal.
Prince’s 1982 album, “1999,” was a feat of songwriting and recording: Prince Rogers Nelson handled nearly every instrument and vocal.Credit...Ron Wolfson/WireImage, via Getty Images
Jon Pareles

Is this the first time an album has been lavishly rereleased on the round-number anniversary of its title? I can’t say. But here’s the math: Prince’s “1999,” the album that made him a rock star before “Purple Rain” made him a mass pop star, came out in 1982. That’s 37 years ago, though the music still sounds contemporary and alive.

Prince’s fifth album, “1999” was apocalyptic, sexy, funky, funny, innovative, earthy, electronic, sly, righteous, euphoric and almost entirely — give or take a few vocals and a guitar solo — a one-man show by Prince Rogers Nelson on every instrument and vocal. Every song exults in the architectural savvy of a musician who, from the drumbeat up, seemed to know exactly how he’d be jamming with himself as he built the song.

In 1982, few people were thinking much about the change of the millennium. For the title song of “1999,” Prince envisioned something worse than the Y2K bug: nuclear annihilation as the calendar flipped, because “Everybody’s got a bomb/We could all die any day.” But Prince had other plans. He was going to “dance my life away” and “party like it’s 1999.” As always, Prince chose pleasure over fear.

The “super deluxe” version of the “1999” reissue — five CDs or 10 LPs plus a grainy DVD video of a 1982 concert in Houston — reaches into Prince’s vault of unreleased recordings, unveiling a dozen songs that haven’t appeared officially in any form, although Prince performed some of them live. A handful — including the absolute standout, “Purple Music” — are gems; none is a dud. Other vault material includes alternate takes of previously released songs, usually quite different from what appeared during Prince’s lifetime. (Other configurations of the reissue don’t include the vault material, but the songs will be streaming online.) The big package also includes a 1982 live recording from Detroit; side by side with the concert DVD from Houston, it reveals both the band’s tight cues and how improvisational Prince could be.

The newly released vault material doesn’t challenge the choices Prince made about “1999” (though I’d have been tempted to swap in “Moonbeam Levels,” a stately plea for humanity, for “Free” on “1999”). The alternate takes of the album’s songs were less adventurous than the versions Prince chose for the album. But Prince on his most ordinary day was better than countless musicians at their best, and now that he’s gone, being able to hear more Prince equals more pleasure.

Prince worked relentlessly from the release of his debut album, “For You,” in 1978. He had built momentum before “1999” with hits like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” in 1979, and with the notoriety of his decisively raunchy 1980 album, “Dirty Mind.” His concerts spawned loyal fans, among them the Rolling Stones, who booked Prince to open their 1981 tour.

Yet the American pop universe of the early 1980s was de facto segregated. Rock radio had declared war on disco, while the revelations of black culture were broadcast largely to African-American radio listeners. Prince’s fusion of funk, rock, disco, new wave, synth-pop, gospel, jazz, soul, lust, community and joy faced barriers that shouldn’t have stopped it, and soon could not. With “1999” those barriers fell; the album sold in the millions.

MTV, which arrived in 1981, was part of the change. Prince was born for music video; he was not just a consummate musician but also a dancer and dresser who knew exactly how to play to a camera. MTV started with its own race problem, trying at first to present itself as the visual equivalent of an FM rock radio station, with an overwhelmingly white playlist. That was foolish or worse, and on the “1999” album, Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” called the bluff of MTV’s format; after all, it was a song about classic rock topics, a car and a girl, complete with electric guitar. The video — with Prince’s bedroom eyes, glittery purple trench coat and a sudden burst of dancing — made clear that he could not be contained.

But commercial triumph wasn’t the sole measure of “1999.” Prince was expanding his musical ambitions, writing odd-angled melodies (like “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”) and toying with ambiguous harmonies, as in “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Even as he was establishing himself as a sex symbol, he was placing his come-ons alongside confessions of insecurity, like “Irresistible Bitch” (the B side of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”) and “Little Red Corvette” itself. He presented himself as the seducer or the seduced, not a conqueror; “Teacher, Teacher,” another newly released vault song, has him fending off a lonely teacher’s unwanted advances.

Prince was also finding new sounds: pushing his voice into multiple personalities, from sweet falsetto to punk snarl to preacherly exhortation, and deploying sounds from the latest synthesizers. He had one of the first drum machines, the Linn LM-1, which made it possible to program realistic sampled sounds quickly. (One reason “1999” sounds current is that many pop songs are still driven by brittle, metronomic drum-machine beats.) Prince’s production brought his inventiveness to acoustic instruments as well, like the way the quasi-fanfare that introduces the song “1999” shimmers expectantly with a flurry of cymbals.

ImageThe “1999” reissue comes in a host of configurations; the super deluxe version includes previously unreleased music from his vault.
The “1999” reissue comes in a host of configurations; the super deluxe version includes previously unreleased music from his vault.

The vault material reflects Prince’s remarkable early 1980s multitasking, pouring out material not only for his own albums but also for groups he was producing: the Time and Vanity 6. He often wrote and recorded a song in a day. Crisp funk workouts like “Feel U Up” and “Rearrange,” from the vault, could have easily ended up on a Time album, though Prince didn’t treat them like demos. He finished the tracks with a flourish; “Rearrange” turns into a feedback-slinging lead guitar freakout.

Other songs put Prince’s stamp on all sorts of idioms: romping through synthesizer equivalents of garage-rock (“Yah You Know”) and rockabilly (“No Call U”) and infusing synth-pop with lascivious glee in “Turn It Up,” which urges someone to “Work me like a radio” and “Come and play with my controls.” (For Prince, every machine was a sex machine.) “Vagina” celebrates a character he meets who is “Half-boy, half-girl — the best of both worlds,” while Prince makes two guitars and a bass — recorded one by one — sound like the Rolling Stones jamming in a dressing room.

Productive as he was, Prince didn’t waste a promising idea. “Bold Generation,” which scoffs at “your old-fashioned music, your old ideas,” surfaced in 1990 — in a new arrangement and new key, with tweaked lyrics — as “New Power Generation.” Prince and his band made multiple passes at recording “Possessed”; the 1982 version on the “1999” reissue sounds too close to “1999” itself, while a vault version from 1984, released in 2017 on the expanded “Purple Rain,” is far more radical, driven and abstract.

Prince wrote himself a manifesto in a 1982 session. “Purple Music” claims his favorite color and insists that finding “a style of my own” is all he needs to get high: “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules/I just let the purple music tell my body what to do.” The track is 10 minutes of motoric, minimalistic funk with a drum-machine beat, subtly scrubbing rhythm guitar, a bass part that goes from a few notes to busy little runs, and an ever-changing overlay of keyboards — chords, syncopated vamps, scurrying lines — that goes polytonal and nearly atonal.

Prince sings through the lyrics a few times; we’ll never know, but perhaps at the time he thought he’d edit down the 10 minutes to the best takes. Apparently the song didn’t strike him as right for “1999”; it went into the vault. In 2016, on what would be his last tour, he revived it, performing it solo. Out of his deep past, “Purple Music” still spoke to him. By then, he had more than found a style of his own.

(Warner Bros.)