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.