1999 [Super Deluxe Edition]

(CD & DVD - Rhino / Warner Bros. #604571)

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With Dirty Mind, Prince had established a wild fusion of funk, rock, new wave, and soul that signaled he was an original, maverick talent, but it failed to win him a large audience. After delivering the soundalike album Controversy, Prince revamped his style and delivered the double album 1999. Where his earlier albums had been a fusion of organic and electronic sounds, 1999 was constructed almost entirely of synthesizers by Prince himself. Naturally, the effect was slightly more mechanical and robotic than his previous work and strongly recalled the electro-funk experiments of several underground funk and hip-hop artists at the time. Prince had also constructed an album dominated by computer funk, but he didn't simply rely on the extended instrumental grooves to carry the album: he didn't have to when his songwriting was improving by leaps and bounds. The first side of the record contained all of the hit singles, and, unsurprisingly, they were the ones that contained the least amount of electronics. "1999" parties to the apocalypse with a P-Funk groove much tighter than anything George Clinton ever did, "Little Red Corvette" is pure pop, and "Delirious" takes rockabilly riffs into the computer age. After that opening salvo, all the rules get thrown out the window. "Let's Pretend We're Married" is a salacious extended lust letter, "Free" is an elegiac anthem, "All the Critics Love U in New York" is a vicious attack on hipsters, and "Lady Cab Driver," with its notorious bridge, is the culmination of all of his sexual fantasies. Sure, Prince stretches out a bit too much over the course of 1999, but the result is a stunning display of raw talent, not wallowing indulgence.

[The Prince estate embarked on several projects following his 2016 death but none have been quite as comprehensive -- or dazzling -- as the Super Deluxe edition of 1999. Weighing in at a hefty five CDs (there's also a vinyl version), the box contains a remastered version of the original album supported by two discs of rare and unreleased cuts from Prince's vaults, a full concert given in Detroit on November 30, 1982, and a disc of single edits, remixes, and B-sides. It's an embarrassment of riches that can sometimes drift fairly deep in the weeds; even if the basic track is dynamic, tracing the details separating the edits of "1999," "Little Red Corvette," "Let's Pretend We're Married," and "Automatic" can be a bit tedious. Nothing else on the set is a chore. Both the B-sides and the unreleased cuts operate within the same universe as 1999, fueled by a futurism that manifests itself in the music, the aesthetic, and the sensibility. Primarily working by himself, Prince constructed these songs with synthesized instruments and chicken-scratch guitar, bending pop, funk, and rock to fit the sound. All that is true on 1999 itself, but the bonus material accentuates the point, doubling down on the funk, freakiness, hooks, and humor. Listening to this as a collection, the surplus of ideas is giddy and intoxicating. Prince would return to some of these songs later -- "Bold Generation" was refashioned into "New Power Generation," "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got" was revived for Graffiti Bridge -- and some of the cuts find him hinting at the epic nature of Purple Rain, particularly in the dramatic sweep of "Moonbeam Levels" and the 11-minute "Purple Music." Elsewhere, it's possible to hear both Prince's predilection for power pop ("Teacher Teacher") and his embrace of pansexuality ("Vagina," whose titular hero is "half boy, half girl"), which helps 1999 seem like the birth of prime Prince. The same can be said of the Detroit concert, which finds Prince tearing through songs from 1999, Controversy, and Dirty Mind with the nascent Revolution. It's the best officially released live Prince set to date and it whets the appetite for many more, while functioning as a fitting coda to this set. Most of the box demonstrates how great Prince is on his own, while the concert shows that his stretch and reach far exceeded the confines of his studio.]

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