Once upon a time, there was a Prince who was so powerful that he could write a hit song on command. It happened when he was making his watershed 1999 album. In Alan Light’s Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain, the artist’s former manager, Bob Cavallo, recalled telling Prince he was missing a first single for the set. Two weeks later, the guy came back with “1999,” which would become one of his signature songs. Same goes for Purple Rain. The movie’s director, Albert Magnoli, told Prince that he needed a track to play over a mid-picture montage, tying its themes together. The next day, Prince handed him “When Doves Cry,” another signature and his longest running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It happened again with Diamonds and Pearls. Ahead of the 1991 release of a major comeback for one of the titans of ‘80s pop and the unveiling of his new band the New Power Generation, suits in the Black-music department of his record label, Warner Bros, weren’t hearing a lead single for R&B radio. Prince disagreed but he took the weekend and came back with “Gett Off,” a pummeling interpretation of new jack swing that contained a string of slick pick-up lines—some rapped—from Prince and the promise of “21 positions in a one night stand” from N.P.G.’s in-house rapper Tony M. It became a No. 6 R&B song, and its orgiastic video portraying an HR nightmare of a dance audition lived in heavy rotation with the persistence of a vibrator that summer on MTV.
“Gett Off” was a perfect single, and not just because it reoriented Prince in a hip-hop context while sounding both fresh for him and the genre. It also sported the radio-friendly ambition that guided the album it previewed. Diamonds and Pearls was tailored to be a success. “He wanted a big—capital B-I-G—pop record,” Marylou Badeaux, former Warner exec in the promo department, recalls in one of the extensive essays in the new Diamonds and Pearls Super Deluxe Edition, a package that’s almost as big and heavy as a tombstone (at least on vinyl). The album was a shot at regaining chart relevance after flops like 1988’s Lovesexy and 1990’s Graffiti Bridge album and movie. Prince engaged in an “uncharacteristic sweep of industry showcases,” according to the zine Uptown, and even deigned to speak to journalists.
The early ’90s was a time when many veteran Black acts who had, to one degree or another, been accused of ignoring their Blackness and their Black audience, made a concentrated effort to prove that chatter wrong. Whitney Houston hooked up with Babyface and L.A. Reid on her third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, and Michael Jackson had Teddy Riley co-produce roughly half of 1991’s Dangerous. This was all before the R&B craze that would find marathon runs at No. 1 from the likes of Boyz II Men—but it was just before it. For Prince’s part he incorporated samples, loops, and raps and… hired a band, which was actually not very contemporary-R&B of him at all. But he was Prince. It was always going to be at least a little weird and he was going to do his damnedest to make it work. The album spawned both R&B and pop hits and went double platinum. It contained his strongest string of singles since Purple Rain, including the regal title track; “Insatiable,” the perfection of his quiet-storm aesthetic; and “Cream,” which is so simultaneously self-affirming and horny that it’s as close to autofellatio as any Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 ever got.
Engineering hits and demographic goodwill was just part of Prince’s M.O. on the varied and uneven Diamonds. Subliminally, the album shrieks, “Look what we can do!,” as Prince takes his shiny new band out for a spin. Included in the lineup were master craftsmen: Michael Bland on drums, Levi Seacer, Jr. on guitar, Tommy Barbarella on keys, Sonny T. on bass, Damon Dickson and Kirk Johnson on percussion, and Rosie Gaines, whose voice is nothing less than titanic. Prince seemed proud of them, saying their names during the tracks and thrusting them to the front of the mix. They flew through jazz, glam rock, operatic balladry, and, yes, quasi-hip-hop. The resulting album is playful and projects a palpable joy, but absent the futurism of Prince’s best work, it doesn’t wow. It’s merely a funky fait accompli.
Inspired by the era’s hip-hop, Prince promoted back-up dancer Tony M to the NPG’s in-house MC at a time when slapping rappers on a track was de rigueur in dance-pop. The uptempo hip-hop/dance tracks are the weakest on Diamonds (aside from “Gett Off,” which has a spareness that the others don’t), and the anti-manager “Jughead” is often considered the red-headed stepchild of Prince’s catalog. But these songs are slightly more tolerable when seen through the everyone-is-doing it lens of early ’90s beat-based music. (Prince, it has been said, was a fan of C+C Music Factory at the time.) They’re disposable, but that’s capital B-I-G pop records for you.
Regardless, Chuck D was a fan of the dabbling, or so he writes in a brief essay included in the D&P SDE: “I remember being fascinated with the rapper on the album, Tony M,” whom he describes as “just dope.” In another piece, Tony M, who comes off as a swell guy who sincerely appreciated his time in the spotlight, expresses his trepidation about Prince’s incorporation of hip-hop after the artist had mocked it (and so eye-rollingly) on The Black Album’s “Dead On It.” Tidbits like these make this deluxe edition more than just a deep dive in a shallow pool. Duane Tudahl’s extensive notes on every track—including the haul unearthed from the vault—endow the songs with captivating backstories. “Push” featured samples referred to as “dogs in heat,” and one of the loops in “Daddy Pop” was labeled “animals doin’ it.” Among its many layers, “Insatiable” (a solo production) features a loop of Prince whispering “push and pull.” Most shocking: That indelible, sneezy shriek at the start of “Gett Off” was unleashed not by Prince but by Gaines.
Naturally, the point of interest for many diehards here goes beyond the remastered album and its collected remixes and B-sides. We’re here for the vault. Thirty-three previously unreleased songs are spread across three CDs/five records. But even though these songs could technically fill entire albums, most of what’s here is only relevant in the context of a very close look at a post-peak album. Unlike the would-be-classic vault material on the Sign ‘o’ the Times and 1999 Super Deluxe Editions, the “grooves and grooves up on the shelf” here are mostly one-spin curiosities.
Of the 33 new-old tracks, 13 are Prince’s reference versions for songs that were ultimately released by other artists. These could easily have been assembled for a follow-up to the excellent 2019 compilation Originals, which featured Prince’s demos of hits he wrote for others. But nothing here was a hit in its ultimately released form. These songs largely represent his conformist streak to replicate what was working on radio, and they’re generally devoid of the eccentricities he was still endowing his own music with, so there’s some generic new jack swing (“Skip to My You My Darling,” which went to Jevetta Steele), adult R&B (“Open Book”), and some frivolous dance pop he worked on with Martika (including the frisky, double-entendre-laden “Martika’s Kitchen”). However, “My Tender Heart,” co-written with and eventually recorded by Gaines, features a luscious and mournful vocal from Prince, and the arrangement predicts the kind of weepy Babyface-generated dirges that would, in less than two years’ time, overtake Top 40 radio, asserting R&B as pop music, period.
Diamonds sat on the shelf for a while at Warner Bros’ urging and so, according to engineer Michael Koppelman in Ronnin Ro’s book Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, “we just kept working on it.” That drafting process may account for the many alternate versions that populate the vault discs, including an extended title track (with even higher vamps from Gaines), a more swinging version of the anti-war song “Live 4 Love,” a sparser (and cooler) version of the B-side “Horny Pony,” and a remix of “Jughead” dubbed “The Last Dance (Bang Pow Zoom And The Whole Nine)” that’s less cluttered and features an endearing moment of Prince cracking up Tony M with a self-effacing punchline.
Eleven of the vault tracks—a third of them—weren’t released in any form. They include the gag track “Work That Fat” (using a pitched-down voice a la The Black Album’s “Bob George” over the “Martika’s Kitchen” instrumental, Prince objectifies and mocks fat women and then learns a valuable lesson), “Schoolyard” (which lived on early configurations of the D&P tracklist, and according to a 1990 Rolling Stone interview is about “the first time I got any”), the moving instrumental Miles Davis tribute “Letter 4 Miles” (recorded two days after the innovator’s death), some early rock noodling that the N.P.G. would hone in subsequent years, and “I Pledge Allegiance To Your Love” (a killer torch song that Prince curls his vocal around, like smoke on fingers at a nightclub a few decades ago).
The vault tracks show Prince as reliably prolific in the early ’90s, though there were now very clear bounds on his creativity—at least in the studio, and especially when writing for others in attempt to gussy them up in the day’s fashion. Onstage was a different matter, as evidenced by the blistering performance recorded January 11, 1992, at Prince’s Minneapolis club Glam Slam that appears in both audio and video in this set. It was an intimate version of the Diamonds & Pearls tour he was about to take to larger venues and it’s absolutely insane. At its most populated, there are damn near 20 people onstage (including the five-piece NPG Hornz and the vocal group the Steeles, who join for an extended, gospel-infused version of the then-unreleased “The Sacrifice of Victor” from the Love Symbol album). Prince dons four different outfits—he both ties his tie onstage then undoes it along with his button-down shirt a few songs later, during a seductive “Insatiable.” Virtually everything here outdoes its studio counterpart. “Cream” is funkier. “Gett Off,” at over 14 minutes, is longer. “Jughead” is… more tolerable. The show climaxes with Prince practically floating back and forth across the bar.
Also included on the Blu-ray is Prince’s performance at the 1992 Special Olympics (as well as its soundcheck) and the Diamonds and Pearls Video Collection. Missing, though, is the “Gett Off” video maxi-single, which included videos for its B-sides like “Violet the Organ Grinder.” There are also many tracks associated with this era, like “Gett Off’s Cousin,” “Player,” and “I Wonder,” that are absent from the vault discs. The Diamonds and Pearls Super Deluxe Edition makes the picture of Prince’s creativity during this period more complete but it’s still far from complete. It’s a solid study of a genius after he’d peaked creatively, but it doesn’t transcend that mission. There are some gems, yes, but we already knew about those. Too few are the diamonds in the rough.
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