TLC at the Grammys
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20 Years Of TLC's 'FanMail': A Futurist Prelude To Digital Era Intimacy

A look back at the iconic R&B trio’s third studio album.

TLC owned the year 1999. FanMail released on this day (Feb. 23), 20 years ago, and made the Atlanta R&B trio the best-selling female group in the United States. The flood of popular R&B acts that emerged during the early 1990s under the banner of New Jack Swing, hip hop soul, and silky slow jams, fizzled out.

Meanwhile, TLC seamlessly evolved as newcomers like Britney Spears, *NSYNC and Destiny’s Child emerged on the Billboard charts. On the Grammy-winning Best R&B Album opus, TLC and longtime producer Dallas Austin brought back their radio-friendly hip-hop, R&B and pop anthems empowering women and underdogs, this time with a nod to the digital era.

FanMail, from the sound to the art direction, embodied a timely futuristic aesthetic, as everyone was obsessed with technology’s cultural takeover in the new millennium: remember Y2K hysteria, Napster mp3 file sharing, and the Dot.com boom? On the album's cover, T-Boz, Chilli and Left Eye's faces appear as silver-faced avatars floating above an orbit. A code of numbers are printed across the cover, imagery often associated with The Matrix. (Although FanMail dropped a month before the film hit theaters.)

On the title track, listeners are greeted by Vic-E, the everpresent robotic voice narrating the album: “Just like you, they [TLC] get lonely, too." She reassures listeners that fame doesn't stop them from being human. The digitized voice is reminiscent of the “tour guide” on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders. Yet, unlike Tribe, TLC collaborates with the robot, as it contributes background vocals throughout. Austin also sprinkled FanMail with samples of sounds — check “Communicate (Interlude)” and “LoveSick” for examples — he found on the Internet, movies, and devices like printers, he shared with MixOnline.

It was a smart move to modernize, as it had been five years since TLC released its best-selling 1994 album CrazySexyCool. The sultry mix presented a more mature and stripped back follow-up to the colorful, youthful angst of Ooooooohhh... On The TLC Tip. This five-year gap could have left the group’s fans uninterested, especially if they were releasing in today's fast-paced consumption environment, in which stans demand new releases on social media after only a year or two. But the time away didn’t hinder TLC. Now 10 years in the game, they managed a successful return by dedicating this project to their fanbase.

“Left Eye came up with the title, and we made it come together creatively as a group, along with Dallas Austin,” T-Boz said in their May 1999 VIBE cover story. “It was like, Let’s write and sing one big fan letter. Let’s put fan names on everything – all the singles, the album cover, T-shirts, mugs. Just show our appreciation."

Left Eye also chimed in with a transparent business savvy explanation. “Now we know that the way contracts are set up, it’s not really made for artists to get rich from selling records – that’s the company’s one shot to make money,” she explained. “The artist is supposed to use that as an outlet to do merchandising and other things that we never took advantage of because we were too busy sitting in bankruptcy court trying to get a settlement out of LaFace.”

That part. Although TLC were multi-platinum selling artists up until FanMail, they had faced a public financial battle with their management Pebbitone, Inc. and label, LaFace Records. This caused the delay between their sophomore and third efforts. In 1995, the group, who revealed they were "broke" at the 1996 Grammys, filed for bankruptcy in hopes to break their contract and renegotiate a new deal.

They were $3.5 million dollars in debt and earning an 8 percent royalty rate. In November 1996, they settled with Arista and BMG and LaFace for an 18 percent royalty rate. To add to the drama, there were talks of producer Dallas Austin leaving the project because of back-and-forths with TLC and L.A. Reid over the creative direction of the album, the 1999 VIBE cover story stated. Thankfully, the parties resolved their misunderstandings enough to complete one of the biggest albums of the decade.

On 17 tracks, TLC took on sexuality, insecurities, self-reliance, and vulnerability with resistant messaging, their tried and true winning formula. This energy paved the way for Destiny’s Child’s reign in the 2000s, and the transparency R&B singers like SZA, H.E.R. and Summer Walker carry on today. TLC's defiance gave women of the ‘90s permission to be vocal about the spectrum of their emotions, from their sex drives on “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” to revenge cheating on “Creep.” FanMail brought more of those goods.

The most notable “No Scrubs,” also considered pop canon, is a scathing critique on men at bottom of the dating pool. “A scrub is a guy, who thinks he’s fly and is also known as a busta/ always talking about what he wants and just sits on his broke a**,” Chilli belts in opening lines. The no. 1 track became such a phenomenon that it inspired the petty male response, “No Pigeons” from Sporty Thievz, their biggest claim to fame. Former Xscape members Kandi Burruss and Tameka Dianne "Tiny" Harris penned it and Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, also behind Destiny’s Child’s no. 1 song “Bills, Bills, Bills,” produced it.

TLC tapped the legendary Hype Williams for the "No Scrubs" visual. Instead of setting the video in a club where scrubs are likely inhabitants, the visual features the trio in outer-space suits floating through a futuristic setting no scrub could ever reach. Most notably Lopes, who in the video does martial arts while a drone films her, manages to keep the digital theme, even when dissing the guys. “Can't forget the focus on the picture in front of me/You as clear as DVD on digital TV screens,” Lopes raps.

The wonky bop “Silly Ho” is another anti-playa anthem, in which TLC proclaim they aren't the kind of women who are scheming for men's pockets. “I can run a scam before he can/ I am better than a man/ I always keep my game all day,” they chant. TLC keeps demanding respect on the choppy “My Life,” their Janet Jackson Control moment, appropriate given their music industry woes.

TLC breaks from jittery beats and Vic-E assisted numbers for alternative pop, on the album’s second no. 1 hit single "Unpretty," which tackles insecurities caused by a toxic partner’s body-shaming. T-Boz deads him by summoning self-love: “Maybe get rid of you/ And then I'll get back to me, yeah.” The track was inspired by a poem T-Boz wrote, Dallas Austin told CNN in 2000. He also spoke on the songs’ folky essence. "I like a lot of alternative music, and when I saw the title, “Unpretty” reminded me of a song somebody like (alternative singer) Ani DiFranco would have (written). I just went at it,” he explained. The crew also gave us sensual beckoning on the mid-tempo groove “Come On Down,” penned by legendary pop songwriter Diane Warren.

The album ends with soulful bop “Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet,” but it’s “Communication (Interlude)” that feels like the proper conclusion. “There's over a thousand ways/ To communicate in our world today/ And it's a shame/ That we don't connect,” they say in a spoken word that offers a foreshadowing to our present human condition. Loneliness is on the rise, and more screen time and less human interaction are being linked to growing depression among American adolescents. "So if you also feel the need/ For us to come together/ Will you communicate with me?” As technological advancements create the feeling of being in closer proximity to more people's thoughts and happenings, it reminds us that these interactions can be fleeting and one-on-one intimacy with your chosen tribe could never become obsolete.

Although its 1999 original drop date has come and gone, in 2019, FanMail is still a fitting soundtrack for dating in the digital age. Whether they're making their contact through the passenger sides of cars or down in the DMs, the personalities pointed out on the poignant album, are still walking amongst us, messing with our hearts one way or another. FanMail proved that TLC was more in tune with the future than their pop peers, and will more than likely continue to be.

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Mac Miller's 'Circles' Mirrors What Many Millennials Are Facing

Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which  Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.

Circles embarks where Swimming ends with more exploration of self-discovery, seeking understanding, and working towards becoming a better person. Both records mirror what many millennials are currently facing when it comes to their mental health. Mac Miller was gripping with his desolation, battling his vices and dark thoughts, but pursuing peace and refusing to apologize for his mistakes. Despite knowing how his personal story ends, his honesty and vulnerability prompt you to root for him to make it to the other side. His confusion and frustration, like many millennials, are reflective of feeling defeated by waves of emotions with the understanding of the world as well as ourselves. According to a report released in 2019 by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline faster than Generation X as they age. The report showed that depression found in American millennials increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017. However, unlike previous generations, adults between the ages of 23 to 38 have become open about their struggles with mental health. Mac Miller died at age 26, and Circles showcases his willingness to share his battles.

In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money –  but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.

The somber tone of Circles blends the jazz-hop of Divine Feminine (“Hand Me Down,” “Good News”), the lo-fi of Swimming (“Woods,” “Once a Day”) and indie rock vibes (“Everybody,” “That’s On Me”), similar to his Tiny Desk performance. “Blue World” and “Surf” are the only songs where you’ll hear Mac rapping, whereas the rest of the album shows his vocal range that sets the mood of his emotions. While the musicality certainly deserves some attribution to producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who also worked on Swimming, it’s also a testament to Mac’s own artistic progression over the last ten years. He learned to use a variety of tools by the time of his death, and that was on display here.

The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.

Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.

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Kevin Mazur

Eminem Reignites His Rage With 'Music to Be Murdered By'

It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.

What better backdrop for Eminem’s refocused angst than that which is invoked by the shoveled-dirt sounds and an eerie drop—announcing the album’s macabre title—by a Hitchcockian narrator on the intro? From jump, it’s a way of keeping things fresh and thematically consistent for a potentially daunting 20-song stretch. Suddenly those lazy strays by far too many on Rap Twitter at his supposedly lame “skippity be bop de boo” rhyme patterns seem moot when the 8 Mile representative comes off newly enlivened in his grown-man vent, with one of the best openers since Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Over woofer-caving bass and a dramatic organ, he spits, “They said that they hated the awake me/I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” It’s thrilling to hear him sounding this focused—no funny voices or childish slurs—while defending the humorous and reflective aspects of his legacy and persona.

The former aspect is on display on “Unaccommodating,” his link-up with Young M.A, the first of several well-placed features here. Em’s lighthearted lines—in all their hacked-algorithm complexity—about “getting head like a Pillow Pet” blend unusually well with the Brooklynite’s loose, languid flow. And far from the workmanlike thud of past Slim Shady beats, the song’s hypnotic, bells-driven melody adds some much-needed verve and bounce, helping modernize and stabilize a beloved MC whose verbiage tends toward rigid and caffeinated.

“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a

— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020

But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.

But what about those well-crafted bars? Not only does Music to Be Murdered By possess them in spades, it also astoundingly manages to bring the ever-illusive third verse back to the forefront. Its inclusion on “Yah Yah” is obvious, if not expected alongside such heavyweight spitters as Black Thought and, again, Royce da 5’9,” though Em makes it indelible: “And I'm like a spider crawlin' up your spinal column/I'm climbin' all up the sides of the asylum wall/And dive in a pile of Tylenol, you're like a vagina problem/To a diabolical gynecologist tryna ball a fist.” More surprising, however, is “Lock It Up,” a hit waiting to happen, which features Anderson .Paak and a third verse whose heading-spinning quatrain (“Get a whiff of the doctor's medicine/Like sedatives you'll get popped, Excedrin/'Cause you can get it like over the counter/Like I just left the damn concession stand”) seems all the more outstanding amid Dr. Dre’s lucid and infectious guitar stabs.

Less a radio-ready earworm than a morbid monologue, “Darkness” is a tragic narrative in the tradition of “Stan.” In under six minutes, Eminem embodies a deranged shooter, self-medicating backstage with Valium and alcohol before opening fire on his audience then killing himself. The song ends, significantly, with Eminem highlighting gun debate loopholes and playing news clips from the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas as well as the 2019 shooting in Daytona, Ohio among others. This is social commentary with the subtle implication that white male privilege in this country far too often hides an unchecked anxiety, along with the observation that these mass shooters aren't as far from us as we may think. It may fall flat with some listeners since just several songs earlier he makes a punchline out of the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, but for an artist who has previously likened himself to the Columbine shooters, the song is growth.

A more suitable conduit is the punk-rock-like Stepdad,” where Marshall blows up on his guardian for abusing him and and his mom to the point where “I’m startin’ to think I’m psychotic.” What would otherwise serve as a welcome reprieve, “Those Kinda Nights,” a saccharine ode to hitting up the strip club, with Ed Sheeran on the hook, falls flat. It’s not that we don’t want to hear Shady at his ease; it’s just that with such a formulaic setup (not to mention a clunky line about D12 member Bizarre and a lap dance—something no one really ever needs to visualize, no disrespect), it dissipates some of the album’s bullet-point intensity.

That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”

But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Prince’s Unstoppable Creative Process On Display In '1999' Reissue

Upstart Minneapolis musician Prince Rogers Nelson released an album per year after his 1978 debut, For You, each more sophisticated than the last. But 1999 made Prince a star and solidified his place in music history. After its release in October 1982, the album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and became the fifth-best-selling album of the following year. Singles “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” peaked in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, and their videos were some of the first by a Black artist to be shown on MTV. Prince’s classic has now been reissued by Warner Bros., with a remaster of the original album and hours of previously unreleased material.

The good news is that the record still sounds as fantastic as it did the first time you heard it. The title track’s synth fanfare heralds your entrance into a new world of grinding machinery and pulsing libido. It’s like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, but everything’s gone from black and white to shades of purple. Across 11 tracks and 70 minutes, Prince uses dance beats, slow jams, ballads, call and response funk, rock guitar solos, all toward one spiritual purpose: sex. It’s not all crude either. He will pretend to be married if you prefer the illusion of propriety, and he uses “Free” to give thanks for a society that allows him to pump out albums worth of filth and funk.

Like the narrator making dedications in bed on “Lady Cab Driver,” each moment on the album points toward a predecessor in pop and funk: James Brown’s yelp, Larry Graham’s slap, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar heroics. Prince threw in the now-iconic sounds he wrung out of a manipulated Linn Drum Computer and pushed American popular music into the future. The warped drum programming was deeply influential on the emerging sounds of Detroit techno and Chicago house, and it’s stayed relevant into the present where the likes of Billie Eilish and FKA twigs top charts and critics’ polls singing over brittle beats.

In line with the other best updates to classic works, the new remaster is hard to notice. In general, the 2019 version of the album is a little clearer and a lot fuller. It’s the equivalent of watching a favorite movie in HD for the first time. The opening notes of “D.M.S.R.” flit across the sides of the song, rather than sitting in the middle of the stereo mix. Rather than blending together, the layers of bass guitar on “International Lover” now curl in on each other like puffs of smoke. Prince’s vocals, like the coos that become shrieks on “Little Red Corvette”’s bridge, are still kept at a remove through reverb, but the effect doesn’t lessen their power.

The reissue’s second part includes B-sides and alternate edits of album cuts. The majority of these tracks would be inessential even if this was their first time available digitally. A mono single edit of “1999” is an interesting relic of another era in major label promotion, but why opt for the watered-down version? The keepers are the B-sides, including one-take studio wonder “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” and the eight-minute Special Dance Mix of “Little Red Corvette,” which is a dancefloor filler in addition to a historical artifact; Questlove contends it was one of the first times an artist ever remixed their own track.

For casual fans and completists alike, the heart of the 1999 reissue is the nearly two dozen previously unreleased tracks, recorded between November 1981 and January 1983. Prince was in the middle of an incredibly fertile hot streak, writing and recording songs for himself as well as satellite groups The Time and Vanity 6. As his engineer Peggy McCreary pointed out in a recent interview, without the need for a producer or supplementary musicians, the artist was free to spend his recording budget on studio time. “I think he loved being in that environment, because I know, wherever he was, on tour, if they had a day off he would find a studio in that city,” she said. “That's what he loved to do.”

Listeners can now hear some of Prince’s process at work through these unreleased songs. “Feel U Up” is close to a demo, a groove that runs a few minutes too long and a vocal that’s too sheepish to sound coy. The next track, “Irresistible Bitch” from 1981, builds a new song over the same beat with nimble bass, unfurling synths, and new lyrics. Prince goes all out on his vocals, his voice ragged and hoarse like he’s been driven mad with lust. Those vocals give the earlier version the edge over Prince’s more subdued take of the song, recorded and released in 1983 as the B-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” It’s compelling to see what Prince found ready to release at any given time, to hear a seed of an idea grow from a rasp to backing vocals from Wendy & Lisa. The artist would regularly repurpose old tunes, none here more obvious than the would-be generational anthem “Bold Generation” morphing into “New Power Generation” eight years after its initial recording.

Prince lays out his own personal manifesto on “Purple Music” over a spare drum loop. “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules / I just let the purple music tell my body what to do / And I’m high,” he sings, his voice mixed like he’s found an undiscovered altered state. It’s mesmerizing. The song has been widely bootlegged, but the ancestral hiss of copies of copies of cassettes can’t compare to hearing all 11 minutes in high-quality. 1999 was the first time Prince laid claim to the royal color, including reference to his “purple rock” on “D.M.S.R.” and purple stars on “Automatic.” “Purple Music” makes it clear the color was more than an aesthetic affectation, it was ideal to pursue.

Playing with sexual and gender norms was a cornerstone of Prince’s work, and “Vagina” shows that his most transgressive material went unreleased. Prince sings about the titular person teaching him how to dance in a gay bar over gritty guitars. (No drums, but his beatboxing and other vocal rhythmic cues sound a lot like his peer and rival Michael Jackson.) She’s “half boy, half girl, the best of both worlds,” as he sings on the chorus. It’s a simple love story, complicated by a fluidity that still feels novel today.

All the unreleased material sounds fresh, impressive nearly four decades removed from its recording. (“You’re All I Want” is clearly a recycled “Delirious,” but it gets a pass since it was recorded as a birthday gift to longtime engineer McCreary.) “Money Don’t Grow On Trees” is a slice of driving pop-rock with a charmingly anachronistic Fred Astaire reference. On “If It’ll Make U Happy,” hear the artist dabbling in reggae rhythms with a new wave sheen. Released as a single earlier this fall, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” sounds like Prince in his funky prime because that’s basically what it is.

Posthumous releases always occupy a moral gray area, but Prince kept a literal vault anticipating that some of his material would see the light of day. Michael Howe, archivist for Prince’s vault, recently stated his goal is to “shine a light on the entirety of Prince’s creative legacy”, and the 1999 reissue succeeds. The remaster preserves the album’s sound for future generations to draw from. Prince’s unreleased material illuminates the creative process of one of the most important pop musicians in American history. Parties weren’t meant to last, but the deluxe 1999 should keep it going a few hours longer.

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