Retrospective: The Music Of Prince In The 90's

By @TrueGodImmortal

It has been two years since the unfortunate passing of the legendary Prince. He was one of the pioneers of music and a pivotal artist in multiple genres, influencing a generation of new artists to come along. As his 60th birthday just passed, I wanted to take a brief look at his impact and influence in the music world after the biggest decade of his career. As one of the most androgynous artists in the history of music, Prince was unapologetic and very much so comfortable in his own skin. He was a legend, with almost 40 years in the music game under his belt, with nearly that many albums in his catalog. It was interesting when we arrived on the scene in the late 70's, showcasing what he does best as an artist, with his creativity beaming through in his work, while also providing the world with a much different outlook on several topics, some of which were taboo. After taking off in the 80's, Prince would enter the 90's as one of the biggest stars in the entire world, and he would face some of his biggest challenges, in the studio and outside of the studio.

The 90's would begin with Prince making yet another film and yet another tour, this one different than before. After Sheila E would depart his band, along with other core pieces, Prince would end up working with a mostly new band and set off what would be known as the tumultuous period of his career. The film he was in the process of making was deemed as a sequel initially to Purple Rain, and it would be released in 1990. That film would be Graffiti Bridge and the opinions on this movie and the album of the same (the soundtrack in so many words) would vary tremendously. Graffiti Bridge would be a successful album, but the movie would not, as Prince never seemed to work as an actor and the writing for the film was ambitious, but also uneven. While a young Tevin Campbell would get his start in this film and on a song from the album, there wasn't much to speak of in terms of this experiment that didn't necessarily work. After the Graffiti Bridge failure, Prince set out on a journey that would bring him newfound life and musical inspiration. With an entire new band in tow and fresh perspective, Prince formed The New Power Generation and entered what I like to call his second prime.

His second prime would begin with the 1991 album Diamonds And Pearls, which is one of his greatest albums ever. It may not be on par with Sign O' The Times or Purple Rain, but it wasn't too far behind. With multiple hits on the album, it seemed as if Prince had found his way back into perfect form after the failure of Graffiti Bridge. For an artist that dominated the 80's with three classic albums, as well as a huge movie soundtrack for Batman, Prince was still determined to outdo his previous work, and he nearly accomplished that feat with Diamonds And Pearls. With singles like the title track, "Money Don't Matter 2 Night", and the largely successful "Cream", Prince was riding a massive wave of success with the album reaching 3 million copies sold in the US, and a total of 5 million copies worldwide. Prince had found success with The New Power Generation and he would attempt to take things higher on the next album, but as a result, he created something even more iconic than a hit album. With an album cover that reflected the combination of both the male and female symbol, Prince would release an album that would become known later as "Love Symbol", with varying content and styles. The "Love Symbol" album would showcase Prince continuing the vibe he created on Diamonds And Pearls to an even higher power and I've always felt like this album was a slept on release in his career. It would also represent a turning point for Prince, as he grew frustrated with Warner Bros and how they executed what they do. While "Love Symbol" would be a successful release, it not reach the expectations and standards that Prince had set for himself. As a result, his disenfranchisement with the label would lead to him taking a stand right around the time they would release a Greatest Hits album. The greatest hits album would be a success, but as Prince attempted to rebel against his label, he would christen himself as a symbol, no longer being called Prince for a small period of time.

Prince would use the symbol as his name and then he would go on an album releasing spree to release the backlog music he had built up over the years in the studio in an attempt to free himself of the Warner Bros. label. Writing "slave" on his face at times and becoming more outspoken about the industry, Prince was trying to settle into the new role he had as an older and veteran artist, he would have an interesting 1994. When he finally convinced the label to do another album of new material, Prince would end up releasing Come, a solid project that would serve as his final new release under the Prince name for Warner Bros. With only one word titles and a minimalist sound, Come is regarded as one of the underrated Prince albums even though it was met with mixed reviews initially by critics. The often delayed Black Album would also be pressed and released by Warner Bros in 1994, though most of those songs had previously been heard (the album was set to actually be released in 1987). 

In a strange turn of events, Prince, who was now going by The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (or the love symbol) would be allowed by Warner Bros. to release his next single via an independent distributor. That single would be "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" and it would become an instant hit. He completed an album titled The Gold Experience, yet Warner Bros. didn't seem too eager to release it. One could see this multiple ways. Though Prince had sold many records for Warner Bros, his musical output was far exceeding what the budgets seemed to have in place and with albums upon albums in his backlog, it could have been challenging to roll out multiple albums per year. Perhaps the artistic vision of Prince was too wide eyed for the corporate process of Warner Bros, or maybe they wanted to keep him under contract for as long as possible that they didn't want to release so much music too soon. Whatever the case may be, Prince would see the light at the end of the tunnel, which was an end to his contract with Warner Bros. if they complied with releasing the rest of the albums he had for them.

The Gold Experience would finally be released in 1995, many months after the hype of "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" died down. Prince and his disputes with his label had become well documented at this point, and Warner Bros. did him nor themselves any favors with how they promoted it, so the album was a commercial failure in many ways, despite being a success with critics. In all honesty, The Gold Experience is actually a top 10 Prince album IMO, and it is on par with Diamonds And Pearls, maybe even better. With songs like "Shhh" (which was originally written and produced by Prince for Tevin Campbell), "P Control", "We March", "319", and more, Prince sounds comfortable again in his music, something that felt like it was missing at times from the previous two projects he released. Despite all the bad blood he experienced with Warner Bros, they would still look to bank off Prince and his older hits by releasing the Girl 6 soundtrack, which featured mostly older Prince songs and three unreleased tracks. The Girl 6 soundtrack would not be hugely successful, but is seen as an important moment for Prince in the 90's, and in some ways, it was the last straw for the Prince and Warner Bros. relationship.

Prince would release his final album on the label in 1996, titled Chaos and Disorder, which perfectly sums up the entire process of this album from release to execution. It was a huge commercial failure, yet another for Prince in the 90's, and he refused to promote it due to his struggles with the label. Label drama aside, one could start to hear the toll that this entire ordeal was taking on Prince, as the music for Chaos and Disorder misses the mark more than it connects. It feels almost lifeless in how it is put together, and with no promotion coming from Prince, and very minimal promotion coming from the label, it just felt off as a whole. There was a moderate hit from the album with "Dinner With Delores", and I also thought "The Same December" and "I Will" were solid all around, but there is something missing from this album. The music sounds good here and there, but it was clear that Prince was ready for this entire ordeal to be over and just gave them new music to be done with his contract. 

With the contract over and done with, Prince sought to have his musical freedom back and celebrated it with perhaps his most ambitious effort in Emancipation. With Prince celebrating his new marriage, his independence in the music industry, and a child on the way, he found new creative inspiration and delivered a three disc album, which included him experimenting with even more genres and doing cover versions of other songs. It was different for Prince, but then again, we've come to expect different from Prince of all people. Emancipation is an interesting album honestly, one that isn't among his best, but definitely has some good music on it. The tracklisting is a bit exhausting, but throughout the album you can hear the change in Prince personally and his genuine happiness about having a baby (unfortunate circumstances surrounded the birth of the child), which does make the vibe a bit brighter. One of the most infamous covers appears on the release, as Prince covers The Stylistics classic "Betcha By Golly Wow", and actually managed to make some noise with his version. Other original tracks like "Sex In The Summer", "One Kiss At A Time", and "Dreamin' About U" are pretty solid songs, and if I had to say so, I would consider Emancipation a success for Prince, even if it commercially didn't take over the world, it is still certified double platinum.
After taking 1997 off in a sense to presumably recover from the tough loss of his child, Prince returned with yet another ambitious album in 1998. As the decade began to wind down, Prince seemed to get more ambitious with his releases, as his newfound freedom definitely sparked the attitude of "now I can do what I want". With such a large backlog of material, it should come as no surprise that he wanted to get a lot of it out, but this time he would release a five disc joint project titled Crystal Ball. 

Unfortunately, without the vision of a label and their rollout machine, this album was poorly managed and handled in the release stages. With a three disc set being the initial basis of the album, Prince would essentially unlock his vaults and give us 30 songs of material, some of which worked, some of which didn't. Crystal Ball was the brainchild of Prince back in 1986, but he would hold off on this ambitious release until he was free from his label, and this was the result. The two other discs included with this album are an acoustic release from Prince titled The Truth, with an instrumental album also included titled Kamasutra. The songs on the instrumental album range from jazz to classical and orchestral, and was intended to be played at Prince's wedding back in 1996. While this release was not extremely successful, it does stand as another landmark moment that signals Prince's freedom from major labels, but after the poor rollout of the album, perhaps Prince knew that he would need a label for the time being. Shockingly, as Prince came to this realization, Warner Bros. decided to eat off his hard work once more.

An album that Prince submitted years prior would be released in 1999 by Warner Bros. and given the aptly titled name "The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale". Fans of Prince had actually heard some of these tracks, theough bootlegs and weren't happy that the album itself sounds a bit overworked and watered down even from the bootleg versions. Whatever the case is, Prince was completely free of his Warner Bros. responsibility at the time, and that had to be a victory, but there was little promotion behind this album because Prince would then begin working with a new label to close out the decade. That label would be Arista Records. The mission seemed clear for Prince: get back to what he does best, bring more success, and craft classics. Would Arista be the best place to do this?

Yes and no. Prince was willing to branch out in terms of guest appearances and features on his newest album, something he had never really done before, but that didn't necessarily work as well as one would hope. Prince didn't sound as comfortable as he did before and perhaps that was a result of the music and the sporadic guest appearances. The album in question? Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. Prince would debut a slightly different look (it was comical in essence), and an even more open mind for his final album of the 90's, but it wasn't received as well as he hoped. Prince would have some questionable choices with this album, perhaps none greater than the pop selections he seemed to bring forth. Prince as a pop artist over funk and soul was not a winning strategy. Still, the album did have a few shining moments, such as "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold", "Baby Knows", and a few others. The album would be more successful than previous releases, which would have a lot to do with using the major label machine than anything else. Regardless, this album was a slight commercial success and Prince would end the decade with a Rave Un2 The Joy concert on the very last day of the decade.

With Prince signaling his return and earning some chart success, he set himself up for what would end up being a decent 2000s. I often think of Prince in the 90's, the same way almost I think of Michael Jackson in the 90's. Still a massive star, but not quite as big in terms of commercial success and sales. Michael was undoubtedly bigger in the 90's, but he still saw a minor decline in terms of sales and in some way quality, and that is where the similarities are stark. Regardless, Prince was a legend trying to outdo himself in the best decade, and he struggled at times. He was never able to outdo his 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign O' The Times led run, but he showed enough flashes of brilliance to remind us just who he was. Perhaps we can have a discussion about MJ in the 90's soon as well. That remains to be seen. Stay tuned.



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