Earlier this week, Warner Bros. and NPG Records released the first of what will surely be many posthumous releases by Prince: Prince 4Ever, a 40-track compilation of hit singles and a smattering of deep cuts from the most universally well-regarded 15 years of his career. For most longtime fans, this wouldn’t have been big news–except that 4Ever also included the first official release of music from Prince’s legendary “Vault” since his sudden passing in April: a long-bootlegged outtake from the 1999 sessions called “Moonbeam Levels.” I already wrote extensively on “Moonbeam Levels” and its place on 4Ever for my chronological Prince blog, dance / music / sex / romance; you can also read Andre’s take on the release in this post from last month. What I’m interested in talking about today is 4Ever itself: its function in Prince’s discography, and the gap that still remains to be filled by a truly definitive compilation for one of the most significant pop artists of our time.
For an artist as prolific and popular as he was, there have been surprisingly few compilations of Prince’s work. The first–and, for my money, still the best–was 1993’s The Hits, released both as two separate single-disc volumes and as a package including a third bonus disc, titled The B-Sides. The Hits/The B-Sides is a somewhat idiosyncratic collection: produced with, at best, reluctant cooperation from the artist (he supplied background notes for many of the tracks, which were incorporated into the official liner notes by his former tour manager and R&B music historian, Alan Leeds), the discs are presented thematically rather than chronologically.
The Hits 1 is the poppier disc: opening with Prince’s most recognizable hit, 1984‘s “When Doves Cry,” followed immediately by “Pop Life” from 1985‘s Around the World in a Day, then backtracking for a run through the more radio-friendly tracks from 1978’s For You all the way to 1992’s “Love Symbol Album,” his most recent release at the time. The Hits 2, meanwhile, was composed of raunchier cuts: opening with the respective title tracks from 1981’s Controversy and 1980’s Dirty Mind, followed by a roughly chronological trip through the seedier back alleys of his greatest hits, from “I Wanna Be Your Lover” to “Gett Off”–though the final track is the elegiac “Purple Rain,” presumably because it’s required by law to be the closing track on every Prince compilation.
Though some might quibble with the lack of strict chronology–and I certainly quibble with the use of inferior single edits for most of the songs–The Hits is a solid listen from beginning to end. But the real reason why it remains the O.G. is the aforementioned third disc: a generous sampling of B-sides, non-album singles, and rarities, the majority of which still aren’t available anywhere else on digital formats. For most artists, such a collection would be a mere curio; but any dyed-in-the-wool Prince fan knows that some of his most indispensable music came out on the flip sides of his singles, including bona fide standards like “Erotic City” and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” The B-Sides isn’t perfect–nobody actually wants to listen to the 7″ mix of “Erotic City”–but it’s all we have, even almost 25 years later.
At the time of its release, The Hits also held the dubious distinction of being something of a swan song for “Prince”: the collection was released shortly after he’d changed his name to the same unpronounceable symbol that had adorned his previous album, marking the beginning of an all-out war with Warner over the ownership of his music. In 2000, however, long after he’d departed to become an independent artist, Prince’s publishing contract with W.B. expired; this, presumably, left the label in need of alternative means to leverage his back catalogue, which they still technically controlled. There isn’t really much to say about the resulting compilation, 2001’s The Very Best of Prince: it’s a bog-standard “greatest hits,” a single-disc collection of Prince’s biggest singles from 1979 to 1991. The only real surprise is the inclusion of 1991’s low-key, proto-neo-soul “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” which hadn’t made the cut on the much more expansive Hits set. That being said, it does what it’s supposed to do: this is the single-disc sampler you buy if you like “1999” and for some reason don’t particularly care to dig much deeper. You weirdo.
Warner had other ulterior motives for their next compilation, Ultimate Prince, released in 2006: simply put, for the first time in at least a decade, Prince was finally a hot commercial ticket again, thanks to his twin “comeback albums” Musicology and 3121. A two-disc set, Ultimate feels like an attempt to replace The Hits; the result is a noble effort, but ultimately a failed one. The hook this time around is certainly compelling: everybody knows Prince’s extended cuts trump his single edits 9 times out of 10, so Ultimate uses the extra running length to give us full-length versions of tracks like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” and even the little-heard (and awesome) “dance remix” of “Little Red Corvette.” The trouble is, it’s inconsistent: many of the tracks are still the lame single edits, and the presence of some extended mixes just ensures the absence of the others is felt more keenly. Perhaps worst of all, Ultimate is the only compilation to date to actually suffer from Prince’s involvement: the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince had final approval over the track listing, and deemed some of the selections–including the 12″ mix of “Erotic City”–too ribald for his (and our) delicate ears. If you can’t tell, I’m still not over it.
Which brings us to 4Ever. It’s tempting to look at this latest compilation and see nothing but a cold-blooded cash-in on a beloved, recently-deceased artist–though, it’s worth noting, the set is actually the only one to be produced with Prince’s full cooperation. As a sampler of Prince’s W.B.-era peak, I’d rank it above Ultimate and The Very Best of, but below The Hits, simply because of the lack of a disc like The B-Sides; the track listing, however, is arguably the most balanced yet, with fan favorites like 1981’s “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” and 1986’s “Mountains” appearing alongside the usual suspects. There are also some unadvertised benefits for completionists: the version of “Gett Off” included, for example, is the U.K. single edit, which for some reason bleeps out the word “ass,” but includes an additional verse from the extended version; the 7″ mix of “Alphabet St.” is also included, which is great for longtime haters of the album version’s “rap” by dancer Cat Glover (c’est moi). I don’t necessarily recommend 4Ever for hardcore Prince fans–though I bought it, because I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and pay the estate for a high-quality version of “Moonbeam Levels.” As a holiday gift for the Prince-curious in your life, however, it’s hard to criticize.
But the release of 4Ever still serves to underline something that I hope the preceding rundown made plain: simply put, Prince still needs a truly definitive compilation to his name. 4Ever is a good start, particularly as a replacement for Ultimate: it provides an extra layer beneath the surface for potential fans willing to dig deeper than The Very Best‘s single disc, whetting the appetite for his 1980s albums (all of which, with the exception of Batman, are essential purchases on their own). But what Prince really needs is a four-disc box set; he needs his version of the classic 1991 James Brown compilation Star Time. I want to see a fully chronological overview of the Warner years, integrating B-sides and extended mixes and maybe even a few judiciously-selected outtakes like “Moonbeam Levels,” that gives a full picture of his artistic development from 1978 to 1993. This is the kind of treatment Prince deserves, simply for the sake of his legacy: he’s not just a hitmaker for ’80s nostalgists, he’s an important artist for every serious listener of 20th century popular music, and he deserves to be treated as such. And yes, NPG, if you’re reading this, I will buy such a set, even though I already own all of his albums–if nothing else, as a gift to introduce someone else to his music.
But that’s not all. There’s an even more glaring hole in the compilations listed above: simply put, while “Prince” in his original public-facing incarnation might have died in 1993, Prince Rogers Nelson lived on for almost another quarter century, releasing over 20 albums that have never been officially collected in any form. And while not all of that material would be of interest to casual listeners, that if anything just means that his post-Warner material is even more due for a compilation to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are even genuine hits, from “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” in 1994 to “Black Sweat” in 2006, that have never appeared on a “Best-of.” This is all the more staggering now that Prince has passed, and many of us (myself included) have started to take a more judicious look at his much-misunderstood tenure as an independent artist. I hope NPG Records already has plans to remedy this hole in his discography with a follow-up compilation to 4Ever collecting material from 1994 to 2015; but just in case they need some ideas, next week, I’ll take a stab at putting together my own track list, and we can all have an
argument discussion about it. I’ll see you then!