Last year I tried to listen to every recorded Prince song.
Obviously that's not literally possible: Hours of his music are notoriously locked in the "vault" at his Paisley Park studios. But I rounded up every available album, plus anything I could find in the usual sub rosa ways: the newspaper-insert record; the old fan club subscription-only releases; a 600-song collection of unreleased tunes, alternate versions, and other miscellany labeled the "iVault." I gathered some 1,300 songs, or about 100 hours of continuous, chronological listening.
I consider myself a fairly serious Prince fan. But in the post-Emancipation years, it had been hard to keep up with the multi-disc sets and the various alternative-distribution releases, and before I knew it, 20 years of Prince songs had gone by without my engaging with them. I wasn't alone: Many latter-day Prince records were greeted tepidly if at all, and the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that, like many an aging pop culture icon, Prince had spent the last few years enjoying a comfortable schedule of guest appearances, walk-ons, and victory-lap touring.
In early 2015, I decided I owed Prince, and myself, a reassessment. Here, I thought, is a musical visionary with a legendary work ethic, and unlimited time and resources to engage his every whim. While the culture at large came away from the aftermath of his fight with Warner Brothers with a sense of anticlimax — perhaps some editorial control might not have been such an imposition after all? — I felt he deserved consideration for the work he'd fought so tenaciously to control and to release.
It was the details I respected in his recordings as much as the grand pathos and huge hooks: the quirky, nearly atonal breakdowns and bridges; the tiny motifs that build into interlocking "funk cogs" (as a friend calls them); the wiggling and diving synth lines; the tweaked and pinched vocal effects. Artists like that don't lose their touch. I wanted to go panning for those nuggets.
And they're there. At the ends of little-loved records like 1998's New Power Soul and 2001's The Rainbow Children hide minor gems like the rueful "Wasted Kisses" and the majestic "Last December." Amid the turgid Guitar Center rock of PLECTRUMELECTRUM sits the insistent, melancholic resolve of "Stop This Train," which should be on any list of Prince's best songs. In MPLSound's "Valentina," Prince remembers a former party girl, now a tired mother "worn out from those late-night feedings," with fondness: "Tell your mama she should give me a call."
Prince hadn't yet reached what is sometimes called a "late style" — the "unresolved contradictions" of the last works of Beethoven, as Edward Said phrased it, or the chilly ironies of recent Bob Dylan (another musician from Minnesota whose long-maligned middle period is now receiving a critical reappraisal). Prince had only recently, it seemed, stopped trying to stay current with R&B trends in favor of consolidating his "classic" sound, prioritizing a kind of dignified agelessness in his personal style. But if you listened closely, you could hear a hint of an aging party boy's retrospective regret: "I used to throw the party every New Year's Eve/First one intoxicated, last one to leave/Waking up in places that you would never believe/Give me back the time, you can keep the memories" (from "Breakdown," off 2014's worthwhile ART OFFICIAL AGE).
If you want to add some non-canonical Prince to your rotation alongside Dirty Mind and 1999, you could do worse than 2005's 3121 (apparently named for the address of the L.A. mansion Prince rented from Chicago Bull Carlos Boozer). 3121 is hardly obscure — it debuted at No. 1 — but you still don't hear much about it in assessments of Prince's career. The batting average is pretty high, though, and it's as successful as Prince got at assimilating contemporary R&B in the years after he stopped defining it: the claustrophobic funk of the title track and "Love," the riffy synth-pop of "Lolita," the cozy slow jam "Satisfied," the tight-lipped "Fury," the MIDI-sax earworm "The Word." "Incense & Candles" manages to successfully integrate two ingredients — Prince's rapping and tasteful AutoTune — that are, on paper, fatal. And "Black Sweat" is a textbook example of the kind of trebly, minimalist machine funk that is synonymous with Prince at his best.
We form our most enduring emotional connections with pop stars at the peak of their universality, when they're resonating with us collectively and individually at the same time. Those peaks necessarily overshadow anything that comes after. When we think of our beloved and prolific musicians, we focus on the "beloved," not the "prolific."
In the house style of online mourning, the easiest vessels for collective gratitude, nostalgia, and catharsis are the handful of songs that invoke those feelings in the maximum number of people. So, yes, put on "Purple Rain" and "When Doves Cry" and "When You Were Mine" — but spare a thought for the foundlings of a prolix pop polymath compelled, through generosity or restlessness or hubris, to release wave after wave of music. And trust that eventually, listeners will wade through them and catch up.