(NPG Records/Warner Bros. 558509-2) is not the Prince compilation I imagined.
I've had plenty of time to think about it, from the day Prince and Warner Bros. announced the end of their decades-long war withthat honest-to-God made me cry, to the day almost exactly two years later where . But even in my wildest dreams, something about a Prince catalogue campaign seemed ephemeral, not entirely knowable--just like The Artist himself. And Prince 4Ever perfectly (and often frustratingly) encapsulates that miasma of conflicting emotions longtime fans know all too well.
The goal is simple: let's say the tragic events of this year have minted you a new fan of Prince's work. Perhaps, in the wake of his passing, you helped lift Warner's scant single-disc overview, 2000's, to the top of the Billboard 200. Now let's also say, for one reason or another, you haven't sought out any more of Prince's albums, or the vital triple-disc 1993 collection The Hits/The B-Sides. The Christmas rush reminds you--ah, yes! I want to know more about this man and hear more of his work. With a striking cover, a 40-song offering and a decent price tag, you bite.
If that's you, you're getting a hell of a set. Prince 4Ever starts each disc with the biggest hits of his pre- and post-Purple Rain periods. Disc 1 blasts off with "1999," then "Little Red Corvette," and follows with the two chart-toppers from Prince and The Revolution's Purple Rain ("When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy") and 1985's "Raspberry Beret." Then the clocks wind back to Prince's first Top 40 hit ("I Wanna Be Your Lover," from 1979) and then even further to debut single "Soft and Wet." Things play out chronologically to 1985's Around the World in a Day before looping back to close with the majestic "Purple Rain."
Another best-of-the-best hit set starts off Prince 4Ever's second disc, with a single from each of his albums from 1986 to 1991. There's the tightly wound funk of "Kiss," the bedsit social despair of "Sign 'O' the Times," the greasy road blues of "Alphabet St.," the insane chart-topper "Batdance" (a four-minute commercial for Tim Burton's blockbuster Batman film of 1989, making its first ever appearance on a Prince collection), the pulsating dance workout of "Thieves in the Temple" and the can-do soul-rock of "Cream," his final No. 1 hit as backed by The New Power Generation. From there, it's a solid overview of Prince's last willing years with Warners, from 1986 to 1993, with a brief mid-set detour into the past for "Moonbeam Levels," the sole offering from the vault (more on that later). The set closes with a spirited NPG rendition of "Nothing Compares 2 U," as made famous by Sinead O'Connor, and by the end we're left realizing how true it was.
In a nutshell, that's what it's like for the casual fan. For the purple believer who has a shelf full of albums, bootlegs, maxi-singles and fan club-only releases, you're likely to have a slightly different view.
As a Prince fanatic--an "I can't believe I found The Black Album for $35 on CD," "did you see how quickly every volume of Work It downloaded" level nut--I still see a lot of good in Prince 4Ever. As a real "gotta have it guy" of sorts when it comes to rare Prince bits, there are about 10 single edits and mixes that have never made it to a widespread CD release, and many of them are quite good. (I'm thinking in particular of things like the shortened "Alphabet St.," relieved of Cat Glover's rap, and a U.K. single mix of "Gett Off" that keeps the best bits of the extended remix that you just don't hear stateside anymore.) And Prince 4Ever also excels by shining lights on lesser-known single cuts--"Gotta Stop (Messin' About)," "Paisley Park," "Mountains," hell, even "Batdance"--so even if you know the hits, there's probably something here you haven't heard in a little while.
And even one "new" archival track is worth it for this true believer. "Moonbeam Levels," a gorgeous and wrenching ballad recorded during the 1999 sessions, is a substantial bridge between Prince's twin ambitions of 1999 and Purple Rain--and although the hardcore have it on bootlegs, it's really never sounded this crisp. And that's an important message to remember as the posthumous Prince campaign marches on in the years (decades? centuries??) to come: fidelity can really raise an outtake from mere curiosity to something you'll want to revisit in time.
Of course, fidelity plays a large part in the chief criticism thrown around about Prince 4Ever. Fans have wanted Prince catalogue remastered, to better compete with modern sonic standards that seemed implausible when CDs were new. The same transfers have been mouldering on shelves since Day 1, and one would appreciate the day when better masters are available.
It is not clear that day is today. Prince 4Ever suffers not from overheated mastering, but seemingly none whatsoever. Even a collection like 2006'ssounded, if not remastered, at least "mastered" so each track maintained a consistent volume level throughout. (This requirement does often leave me cold to the repeated question in the catalogue community of "is it remastered?"--because, ideally and technically, everything is.) The album package lacks any mastering credits, so this question mark will loom large unless Warner offers real clarity on the issue.
The package aspect may prevent many of the more devoted fans from immediately taking the plunge on Prince 4Ever. Single credits are accurate within the booklet, but the digipak makes the question of what's edited really confusing, where several tracks are starred as "previously unavailable on CD" but with no explanation that they're single edits--meaning it looks like the package claims that "Little Red Corvette" or "Let's Go Crazy" are making their CD debuts, which is nuts. (Another frustrating hangnail is Warner's metadata outing "7" as an "album edit" on the digipak, but offering no additional clarity among the tracks.)
With the exception of the cover and an inner digipak panel, both photos of a recent vintage, the other pictures in the package are outtakes from Herb Ritts' gorgeous shoot from The Hits/The B-Sides, and admittedly it's not hard to see why they weren't used when Prince was alive. But that's about all the booklet offers, alongside single credits, breakdowns of who's in The Revolution and The New Power Generation, design credits and a quote from President Barack Obama on Prince's impact. Recalling Alan Leeds' strong essay for The Hits/The B-Sides, one wishes there were new remarks of similar impact.
And one can't help but wish Prince 4Ever, which does a bit of things no other Prince compilation has ever done, broke ground in one more way. While there seem to be a lot of question marks regarding Prince's self-owned, non-Warners material (see the lawsuit currently going on), would it have been better to make Prince 4Ever a three-disc set, shining a much-desired light on the material he made as the symbol and beyond? None of it's ever been compiled, and there was at least one major hit in "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," so it's not too crazy an ask. Prince wasn't resting on his laurels in recent times; his last two albums, 2015's HITnRUN Phases One and Two, were full of lighthearted works, forays into more modern production techniques, gussied up outtakes from the vaults like "Xtraloveable," and works of great gravity like the Black Lives Matter anthem "Baltimore." A proper career overview seems necessary in the future.
In some ways, Prince 4Ever wasn't what I expected, but I'm not sure I know what I expected, either. It's not perfect, but it is a solid second step for new fans, a decent curio for seasoned ones--and, for everyone, a reminder of how much we really, really, really will miss him now that he's gone.