The Intimacy of Prince’s Last Great Prolific Period

The newly released Diamonds and Pearls Super Deluxe box set gives us a look at the end of the Purple One’s reign on pop music, through seven hours of B-sides, remixes and extended versions of album cuts.

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The Intimacy of Prince’s Last Great Prolific Period

At 75 songs and a seven-hour runtime, the new super deluxe release of Prince and the New Power Generation’s Diamonds and Pearls is a mammoth project to tackle for any listener, let alone a devotee of the Purple One like myself. This is the second offering we’ve received this year from Prince’s estate, after last month’s unveiling of the 14-song, near-two-hour Live At Glam Slam. The songs were recorded at Prince’s own Glam Slam club in Minneapolis on January 11th, 1992—and it served as a preview back then of what fans might expect on the ensuing Diamonds and Pearls tour. Prince and his backing crew played everything from “Nothing Compares 2 U” to “1999” to “Gett Off.” Out of all of the live recordings we’ve gotten this year, from Coltrane to the Replacements to Joni Mitchell to the Grateful Dead, that Prince joint stands far above the rest. As a means of ballooning the size of the super deluxe set even larger, the live album is included on discs six and seven (or LPs 10 and 11).

Diamonds and Pearls has always sat in Prince’s canon peculiarly. In many ways, it was the most important record he ever made, at least from an artistry standpoint. And I’m not saying that it’s more important to the musical zeitgeist than 1999 or Purple Rain. No, what I mean is that, in October 1991, Prince was on the brink of losing his grip on his own cultural reverence—you might even argue that, by that time, he’d already fallen out of the pop mainstream’s good graces. Acts like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men were quickly becoming synonymous with R&B, Prince was becoming a walking relic.

His previous LP, Graffiti Bridge, was a soundtrack album for the film of the same name that Prince wrote, directed and starred in. Both pieces of media were atrocious, save for “New Power Generation,” which was serviceable. Not to mention, most of the tracks were written and recorded long before 1990, with a song like “Tick, Tick, Bang” having origins as far back as Controversy. And prior to Graffiti Bridge, his Batman soundtrack was rudimentary—as he tried to make a bounty of music that greatly featured samples from the movie it was written for. In terms of staying true to his assignment, he gets a gold star; in terms of everything else, it was a floundering attempt that, miraculously, held the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for six consecutive weeks.

Truly, Prince needed a hit record by the time Graffiti Bridge crashed and burned. His last Hot 100 #1 song was “Batdance,” if you can even believe that. His last non-soundtrack #1 song was “Kiss” in 1986. The man—the symbol—who could, seemingly, fashion a gold record out of thin air was no longer at the height of his powers. In 1991, Michael Jackson would put out Dangerous and resurrect himself after a four-year dormancy. The question was: Could Prince do the same? When September 9th arrived, he released “Cream” and it soared to #1 on the Hot 100 and would crack the Top 5 in Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland. It went gold and moved 500,000 units. It was safe to say that the Purple One was back and as good as ever.

In the context of Prince’s discography, Diamonds and Pearls is a sneaky masterpiece. Most folks wouldn’t immediately place it in the echelons of 1999 and Sign o’ the Times, but I’d argue that it might just be his fourth best record, maybe third—depending on how well Purple Rain is hitting for me on any given day. It was a career renaissance for the greatest performer this side of Reagan, a dashing proclamation of legacy that would, unfortunately, never be reached again. He ditched the aesthetics of flowers and delicacy that largely represented the Lovesexy era and beyond, preferring to instead adopt a more accessible brand of sexuality that leaned into funk, pop and, to many folks’ surprise, rap—a genre Prince often denounced, though there are moments on his previous records that still ring out like a glorified, watered down MC experiment (“Housequake” from Sign o’ the Times comes to mind immediately, though it was masked with enough bone-rattling funk that it blurs the line).

Diamonds and Pearls was Prince’s attempt to smash the radio charts once more, though I wouldn’t consider it more “radio-friendly” than anything he’d done previously up until that point. “You got the horn, so why don’t you blow it (Go on and blow it) / You’re so fine (You’re so fine) / You’re filthy cute and baby you know it (You know it)” arrives on the third verse of “Cream,” and it’s delivered with some of the most glamorous, sexed-up energies Prince ever conjured post-Parade.

Where Sign o’ the Times wagered affections that stemmed from his romantic fallout Susannah Melvoin, it’s follow-up Lovesexy was about, according to Prince himself, that “feeling you get when you fall in love…not with a boy or girl, but with the heavens above.” If anything, Diamonds and Pearls was his attempt to ground himself once again in the intimacy of close-knit hookups and soft-core porn and sexual innuendos—this time with his shirt buttoned up and his eccentricities married to the aches of his blistered guitar, to the palpable current of talent running through him and his collaborators. The record was a return to the boundary-breaking oeuvre that made Prince a controversial marvel but, this time, just without the boundaries. What made it a return to form for him was that it was full of risks that the Prince of 1982 would have taken, but with the hindsight of a 33-year-old superstar.

This super deluxe edition of Diamonds and Pearls is par for the course of any release of its kind. Most of the unvaulted material includes longer cuts of songs from the original tracklist (there’s a version of “Gett Off” that’s 10 minutes, a Houstyle version of it that’s eight; a six-minute cut of “Daddy Pop”), remixes, live mixes, demos, edits and DJ renditions. Any type of flair you could want on a Prince album is available right here—and that’s not a bad thing. The 13 songs that comprise the initial version of Diamonds and Pearls remain intact, and it sounds just as great as it did 32 years ago. Songs like “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” “Thunder” and the title track are benchmarks in Prince’s catalog for a reason; this album is brimming with some of the most exciting, sensual stuff he ever made. “Insatiable” is one of those Prince cuts I don’t revisit enough, but it sounds especially choice in the context of this release—and his falsetto is unbelievably beautiful, rivaling “Adore” as one of his greatest all-time ballads. In short, Diamonds and Pearls sounds like Sign o’ the Times without the James Brown mimicry and tangled sheets.

The mixes disc is one of my favorite parts of the box set, as songs like “Violet the Organ Grinder,” “Horny Pony” and “Gangster Glam” get their moments in the sun after being relegated to throwaways and maxi-single fillers 30 years ago. “Call the Law” is particularly fun and absolutely funkified. Initially a B-side to “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” it showcases the New Power Generation—as Tony M. and Rosie Gaines share co-lead vocal duties. Tony is especially brilliant here, perfectly matching his flow with Prince’s seething guitar solo, and Gaines’ bravado mirrors that of the greatest hype MCs of the era. If Diamonds and Pearls was responsible for anything, it was showing just how many brilliant musicians Prince surrounded himself with. It’s a release like this that makes a good argument for why NPG were superior to the Revolution in regards to his long list of backing bands, but perhaps that is a mark of them being active players in the collaboration process rather than just a battalion of set pieces who could shred.

The rap parts of Diamonds and Pearls are not groundbreaking, nor are they all that moving—at least not in a way that would suggest that Prince finally embracing the genre after flirting with it for a decade was a revelatory endeavor. But, in the proto-East Coast/West Coast rivalry and early boy band era of 1991, when folks like the Fresh Prince and New Kids on the Block were merging pop and hip-hop with cookie-cutter fundamentals, it’s better to consider Tony’s flows in the context of Prince’s overarching catalog rather than as signposts for a greater rap movement at the time. These elements add a distinctive change of pace to Prince’s funk and pop sensibilities, modes of sonic he wove too many tapestries out of, as opposed to holding some sort of timeless phrasing.

When Tony comes in at the tail-end of “Willing and Able,” he counteracts Prince’s spell-binding falsetto with a grounded verse; on “Jughead,” he adopts a Chuck D-style cadence and ushers Gaines into the fold, making a space for her to absolutely wail. For all of the ways that Prince’s workaholism greatly dominated many of his projects, the beauty of Diamonds and Pearls lies firmly in how the New Power Generation feel like his equals. Not since Purple Rain had a Prince LP felt so symbiotic, so jam-packed with voices beyond his own and just as talented. Tony’s rapping was not built to withstand the sands of an always-changing hip-hop culture. Rather, it was meant to compliment the man whose brilliance was in need of a fresh left turn.

The real rewards worth reaping here, though, are the extra tracks that we’ve never heard before. The three-part vault set, clocking in at a total of 33 tunes, is a treasure trove that never lets up. “My Tender Heart,” “Streetwalker” and “Darkside” dominate disc three, while his own performance of “Martika’s Kitchen” (the song he wrote and produced for Martika) and “Blood on the Sheets” and “Don’t Say U Love Me” absolutely rattle disc four. Then, the 10-minute “Thunder Ballet” and the anthemic soul pop cut “Hey U” populate disc five and help round out the material before Live at Glam Slam 1992 arrives. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, had Prince taken a lot of these vaulted tracks and used them to make Diamonds and Pearls a double-album to the magnitude of Sign o’ the Times’ length, there might be more conversations around it being a contender for his all-time best project. That’s what makes this box set such a joy to explore, getting to see the stems of a masterpiece that were left behind.

There’s a bit of tragedy in listening to the Diamonds and Pearls super deluxe set, though, especially if you’re familiar with how the rest of Prince’s 1990s went. His next album, the unpronounceable fantasy rock soap opera Love Symbol, was a return to the flailing, subpar majesty of Prince’s overambitions. He couldn’t salvage a #1 hit out of it, though “7” would peak at, funnily enough, #7 on the Hot 100. Prince would soon get into a beef with Warner Bros., never make another record that could be placed in contention with anything pre-1992 and, of course, go through that phase in his career where he’d convert to being a Jehovah’s Witness, denounce queerness—despite him building great parts of his artistry through androgyny and fluid sexuality—and quit playing his biggest hits at gigs (he’d walk this practice back eventually in the mid-aughts).

To look back on Diamonds and Pearls is to return to the last truly prolific period of the greatest American performer post-Little Richard, just before he would become inoculated with myopic personal policies and witness the luster of his zeitgeist stronghold begin to wane. He’d make more good records, like 3121 in 2006 and Musicology in 2004, but Diamonds and Pearls was his last great LP—and this super deluxe box set doesn’t just confirm that songs like “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Cream” and “Insatiable” are some of the best R&B tracks of their time, it proves that everything Prince was workshopping in 1991 was a feverish, brilliant bookend to his imperial reign on pop music, despite him still angling to contend with his peers and stay two steps ahead of every newcomer.

It’s a devilish, heartbreaking thing—to see the paths to a second lifetime in this business but not until 30 years after the fact. But what’s even more heartbreaking is that they were locked away, scrapped and abandoned by a man who, in the period immediately afterwards, labored just to keep up with the fresh faces of the pop mainstream—artists who grew up listening to and idolizing Prince and, in a flash, for a moment, passed him by.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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