A pair of Prince-associated debut albums appeared in 1991 by two people who did not sing or play a lick. Graffiti Bridge co-star and would-be poet Ingrid Chavez was backed by easygoing, theatrical music on May 19, 1992, while would-be rapper T.C. Ellis’ True Confessions transformed Prince and George Clinton tunes into hip-hop beats. These were the sort of LPs that even diehards put on once and then filed away forever.
Prince’s first full-fledged album with the NPG arrived late in the year and was called Diamonds and Pearls. Several elements marked the LP from Prince’s previous recordings. To begin with, it featured his first foray into rap, courtesy of NPG rapper Tony M. Secondly, it included the soulful vocals of Rosie Gaines, the most prominently featured non-Prince voice to ever appear on one of his albums. Thirdly, it was mostly a band project with more traditional instrumentation and fewer electronic devices than in the past. Lastly, it contained some of the most conventional-sounding pop of Prince’s career.
While D&P did go on to become Prince’s most successful album since Purple Rain, spawning four hit singles, it was an uneven, frequently awkward effort that confirmed he was in a creative tailspin. The concession to rap was unnecessary, particularly since Tony M’s delivery and rhymes were vapid and rudimentary. Songs such as “Walk Don’t Walk,” “Push” and “Money Don’t Matter Tonight” were bland and boring. “Thunder” and “Insatiable” were retreads of past releases. And, “Strollin’” and “Willing and Able” were better suited for B-sides. The Sly Stone-influenced “Daddy Pop,” infectious “Cream,” slamming “Gett Off” and rowdy “Live for Love” supplied D&P’s few highlights.
Was Prince losing it? As evidenced by his next album, the answer was an emphatic no. Titled for a symbol combining the biological emblems for male and female, the same moniker that Prince would later change his name to, the LP has been called the Symbol or Androgynous album. By any name, it was Prince’s strongest work since 1988. The disc was chockfull of state-of-the-art funk and intoxicating ballads. He was still working with the NPG, but the kinks had been ironed out and a new member, exotic belly dancer Mayte, was added to the troupe. The rapping was much less obtrusive and the departure of Rosie Gaines shifted more vocal responsibility to Prince, whose singing never sounded better.
It really didn’t matter that the album’s theme of a popstar’s romance with a 16-year-old Middle Eastern princess, featuring segues with actress Kirstie Alley, was muddled. Funky highlights included “The Max,” “The Continental,” “I Wanna Melt With U” and “The Sacrifice of Victor.” Ballad highlights included “The Morning Papers,” “Sweet Baby” and “Damn U.” Also included was the Biblically inspired hit single “7.” The LP only misfired on the flimsy reggae tune “Blue Light” and the bombastic “3 Chains O’ Gold,” which was a blatant rip-off of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
In the tradition of Vanity and Apollonia, came a new “fabulous babe” called Carmen Electra. Prince and members of the NPG played a major role in her enjoyable self-titled debut. The album served up lots of spirited funk such as “S.T.,” an update of the Ohio Players’ classic “Skin Tight,” “Everybody Get on Up,” “Fun” and “Just a Little Lovin’.” It was a shame that the LP did not get the attention it deserved.
Prince dropped a couple of bombs in the first half of 1993 by announcing he was retiring from recording and that he had changed his name to the symbolic emblem of his most recent album. But the year still saw new releases from him as a greatest hits collection was packaged three different ways. Available as either the single CDs The Hits Volume I and The Hits Volume II or the three-CD set The Hits/The B-Sides, these discs represented the first attempt at summarizing Prince’s towering contributions to popular music.
While most of the songs on The Hits are best appreciated when heard in the context of their original albums and many of them appear in edited form, these curiously sequenced compilations were ideal for casual fans. The three-CD version was also worthwhile for serious followers since it included new material, such as the glowing “Pink Cashmere,” hard-rocking “Peach” and hip-hopped “The Pope,” and rounded up the majority of Prince’s B-sides. Most of the B-sides, including gems such as “She’s Always in My Hair” and “Erotic City,” had not been previously available in digital form. But many of them are presented in abbreviated versions.
Gold Nigga, the New Power Generation’s debut album, dropped before the year was out on Prince’s new independent label, NPG Records. Although not mentioned in the credits, Prince contributed significantly to the project. With Tony M moved up front, the LP’s sound was similar to the rap-based songs that had appeared on Prince’s previous two releases. Despite the absence of an especially distinctive song, the band was much more palatable as a separate entity from their boss. Meanwhile, debuts were anticipated from Rosie Gaines and Mayte.
Prince’s “retirement” lasted all of a year as he yielded the lightweight pop ditty “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” early in 1994. He reportedly had assembled a new five-piece band called the Beautiful Experience, was returning to the guitar- and keyboard-driven funk-rock of the early 1980s and was gearing up for a new album. What else was he going to do, settle down and have a family? That’s for common folk, not for a man born married to his music, a restless perfectionist who used to be known as Prince.
(Editor update: Prince’s retirement, name changing and other antics during the 1990s were due to him wanting to get out of his Warner Brothers contract and also own his master recordings. In 1996, Prince married Mayte and lost his only known child a week after birth due to a rare skull defect. They soon divorced, and years later Prince subsequently remarried and divorced again. Around the year 2000 he began referring to himself as Prince again, and in 2014 he finally assumed ownership of the Warner period masters. Must-hear/have later albums include The Gold Experience [1995, FUNKY]; The Rainbow Children [2001, FUNKY]; 3121 [2006, FUNK]; Art Official Age [2014, FUNK]; and Hit N Run Phase 2 [2016, FUNK], and also New Power Generation’s Exodus [1995, [FUNK]) Prince’s April 21, 2016 death at 57 stunned the world as he had appeared to be in strong health apart from a bout of the flu.)