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Originals Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

The title Originals is a bit of a misnomer for this 2019 compilation, suggesting these 15 songs were intended for an official release by Prince. That's not the case. Every cut on Originals is a demo of an original song Prince handed off to another artist, usually an act who was firmly within his orbit. Prince had a number of these artists during the 1980s, the period when he was at his creative and commercial zenith. Often, these groups were called his protégés -- a designation that may accurately describe Apollonia 6/Vanity 6, Jill Jones, Mazarati, and the Family, but doesn't comfortably fit Sheila E. and the Time -- artists who found their voice under the tutelage of Prince. He either created or sharpened their personas, then gave them songs that suited their style: "Jungle Love" defined Morris Day & the Time just as "The Glamorous Life" encapsulated everything snazzy about Sheila E. Both songs are here in demo form, alongside other tracks recorded by the pair -- there are three other songs originally cut by Sheila E, while the Time only has "Gigolos Get Lonely Too" -- along with big hits for the Bangles ("Manic Monday"), Martika ("Love…Thy Will Be Done"), and Sinéad O'Connor ("Nothing Compares 2 U"), plus a song that was handed over to Kenny Rogers ("You're My Love"). On Originals, each of these songs are written and sung primarily by Prince -- Wendy & Lisa can be heard in passing on occasion, but never as leads -- which turns the album into a useful footnote to his purple patch. "Useful" doesn't usually translate to being better than the original versions, however. On all of the aforementioned big hits, Prince doesn't quite inhabit the songs. His singing is consciously reserved, the tracks lack ornamentation and flair; there's enough to sell the song, but nothing more. While this is a liability on the hits, each of which were fully realized by their respective artists, Prince's affectless performances are livelier than those of Jill Jones and Apollonia 6 on the lesser-known material. Even when he's keeping himself in check, Prince is a compelling performer, and hearing him sing songs that were tucked away on singles and LPs only known to diehards helps usher those cuts into the outer reaches of his canon. Collected, these songs provide some additional work from Prince's imperial phase since they have furious dance-rock and slow jam throwaways that nevertheless have their own idiosyncratic charms. As endearing as these are, make no mistake -- these are demos. If Prince intended these songs to be released under his own name, they'd have been given richer, bolder arrangements, and his singing would've been sharper, but he meant these as guides toward a finished product. Keeping that caveat in mind, this is an enlightening and illuminating listen.

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