From the Vault: Prince’s “Black Sweat”

Editor’s Note: I have been writing about music off and on (mostly off) for almost ten years now. A lot of the stuff I’ve written has been lost because I was dumb about preserving my work offline. A lot of it is scattered around now-defunct blogs that I’d just as soon not draw any attention to, because they’re terrible. But some of it I still think is worth reading, so every once in a while I will throw it onto Dystopian Dance Party with minor revisions. I will do this on Thursdays, because the Internet has officially deemed Thursday the day to share old stuff nobody else cares about. This week, to tie in to all the Prince coverage we’ve been doing, I’m sharing a review of another Prince single from way back in 2006. – Z.H.

In the summer of 2004, I saw Prince on two of his stops at the Palace of Auburn Hills (now DTE Energy Music Theatre) in metro Detroit. He was touring in support of his much-vaunted “comeback” album, Musicology, and the setlist was tooled to match that record’s mood: heavy on hits, often in medley form, with few idiosyncrasies and a “family-friendly” veneer on even the notorious ’80s material. Hence when performing “I Feel For You,” Prince changed the words “it’s mainly a physical thing” to “it’s mainly a spiritual thing,” while “D.M.S.R.”‘s 1982 instruction to “work your body like a whore” was replaced with the more modest “work it like you want some more.” And it was good, for what it was; the man is pushing 50, after all, and after all those rumors about door-to-door Witnessing, it’s a wonder we got to hear nuggets like “Automatic” and “Let’s Work” in the first place. I mean, what were you expecting? Assless pants?

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Prince: “The Breakdown” and the Problem of Expectations

The problem with being an artist like Prince–an artist who built his career on a body of work that was epochal, genre-shattering, indeed genre-defining–is that it’s impossible to simply grow old gracefully. For the last three decades (this year of course marking the thirtieth anniversary of his most beloved album, 1984’s Purple Rain), Prince has strained increasingly under the weight of expectation created by his own genius. Back in 1994, when disputes with parent label Warner Bros. over the release of The Gold Experience infamously prompted him to brand himself a “slave” and wage war on his own public image, the artist then “Formerly Known as” Prince tried to manage expectations by defying them. By 2004, with the release of “comeback” album Musicology and a massive stadium tour with a setlist slanted toward his past hits, his strategy had reversed entirely: he would meet those expectations head-on, exceeding them in the process.

The story of the last ten years has ultimately been the story of the impossibility of that task. Sure, Prince in the 21st century has risen on the strength of Gen-X nostalgia and a series of spectacular live engagements to the highest cultural profile he’s had since the beginning of the ’90s; but during the exact same period, his new music has sunk further and further into irrelevancy. The wave of excitement that greeted Musicology had, by 2009’s obnoxiously-titled LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSoUND, diminished to a mildly enthusiastic and mostly obligatory trickle. His next and most recent album, 20Ten, didn’t even see an official release in the United States.

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4 His Royal Badness’s Consideration: 14 Rarities That Need to Be on the 30th Anniversary Purple Rain Reissue

Let me begin by doing away with any pretense of critical distance or objectivity. I am an unapologetic, frothing-at-the-mouth, dyed-in-the-pink-cashmere Prince fan. My little two-bedroom apartment has no fewer than four pieces of framed Prince-related art–including the fold-out shower poster from the original 1981 Controversy LP, which I have hanging in the bathroom across from my actual shower. So when I heard late last week that Prince was burying the hatchet with Warner Bros., the label under which he released all of his best work, and planning a series of expanded reissues beginning with 1984’s Purple Rain, I reacted pretty much the way you might expect: with sheer, unbridled, childlike glee.

But I’m also a realist. There’s a reason why I am this damn excited about a reissue project: a record-industry practice that has become so habitual for virtually every other catalogue artist of note that it’s now officially tedious. Because Prince isn’t a normal catalogue artist. This, after all, is the guy who stuffed his long-promised 1998 outtakes collection Crystal Ball with a bunch of patently inessential remixes of ’90s-era album cuts like “The Continental.” This is the guy who, as recently as 2006, made Warner revise the track list of the hits/rarities collection Ultimate Prince to remove the 12″ version of “Erotic City” because, presumably, it had naughty words. So as thrilled as I am to see his catalogue maybe finally getting the, ahem, royal treatment it deserves, I still feel the need to accompany my initial reaction of fist-pumping ecstasy with that second of totally natural fan responses: a list of demands.

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Thoughts on Recent Mashups

I love mashups–really, any kind of aural collage or remix–more than a reasonable person probably should. During my preteen years, I wasted hours on my Pioneer double cassette deck, mixing everything from Badfinger songs to The Hobbit on audio book into bastard combinations of Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy and YouTube Poop. To this day, there are mashups I prefer to any of their constituent parts: a 2005 version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” mixed with Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” and ingeniously titled “Janet Jackson is Playing at My House,” has been stuck in my head for almost a decade now, despite the song itself having seemingly succumbed to the twin Internet plagues of time and DMCA notices. And yeah, I’m one of those assholes who gets legitimately excited whenever a new Girl Talk album is announced.

So it should probably come as no surprise that I instantly fell in love when I heard New York DJ Scott Melker‘s series of mashup EPs combining recent mainstream hip-hop hits with ’70s-’90s pop. My younger sister, who I don’t even think would be embarrassed to be publicly described as a Hall and Oates fan, introduced me to last year’s Ballin’ Oates, the collection that finally gave us the combination of the blue-eyed soul duo’s “Rich Girl” and Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” we never knew we needed. There’s also the wonderfully-titled Trill Collins, which left me surprised and frankly dismayed by the amount of latent affection I have for the solo music of Phil Collins, and the even-more-wonderfully-titled Skeetwood Mac, which mixes 2 Chainz’ “Yuck!” with the Rumours cut “The Chain“…’nuff said. Most recently at the time of this writing, Melker released Red Hot Trilli Peppers: my least favorite of the bunch, but only because the Chili Peppers have a less interesting body of work than any of the other artists; whatever your feelings on the original songs, pairing B.o.B.’s “Headband” with “Give It Away” is still an inspired move.

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