I. Come On, Save Your Soul Tonight
In the years since Prince's tragic death in 2016, one of the more shocking events in catalogue history has occurred: the construction of a cottage industry surrounding his vast recorded output - both his dozens of released albums and countless tracks rumored to exist in the mythic vault at his Paisley Park recording complex. As a lucrative artist who left no will, the matters of his heirs were not settled until 2022. In those intervening years - with only a ragtag collection of record industry heavy-hitters, diligent reissue labels and a bank or two minding the store - three cornerstone albums (1999, Purple Rain and Sign O' the Times) were remastered and expanded; a 1985 live concert was meticulously restored; a deal was put in place to make his self-controlled catalogue (material released from 1995 to 2010) physically and digitally available; and several new projects - the rehearsal tape Piano & A Microphone 1983, the demo collection Originals, and the unissued 2010 album Welcome 2 America - were issued.
That's a lot of posthumous work for any artist - so it was perhaps just as shocking (if not necessarily unsurprising) when, following the release of Welcome 2 America in 2021, the purple sky briefly went dark. Rumors persisted that an anniversary edition of 1991's Diamonds and Pearls would be next up to bat - but after Prince's sister Tyka Nelson and five half-siblings settled in as his heirs, soon installing new management to oversee the estate, no plans were announced for over a year. At long last, that planned Diamonds and Pearls (Super Deluxe Edition) (NPG 19439 97841-2 (U.S.)/R2 655935 (EU)) arrived this fall - the first deluxe release to be overseen by both Sony Music's Legacy Recordings (who now distributes much of Prince's catalogue in America) and Warner Music's Rhino Records (who still oversees Prince's "classic" 1978-1994 output in other parts of the world).
When the project was announced in August, the official Prince account on Twitter/X posted a frankly insane statement, less becoming of promoting a legendary artist and more in line with a particularly frenzied preacher urging you to send your $170 for a hastily-assembled salvation kit. "There was much doubt and there were those who kept the faith... WHICH ONE WERE YOU !!!" it read, cockeyed punctuation and all. The deluxe Diamonds and Pearls is assuredly created with care, but does bear a few strange earmarks of this new era - ones that draw a line between what has come out of the vault before, and what we can expect next.
II. All I Can Do is Just Offer U My Love
Diamonds and Pearls is a crucial pivot point in Prince's career. Having stumbled into the '90s with the reviled Purple Rain sequel Graffiti Bridge, The Artist was keen to set a positive course ahead after releasing some of the most critically and commercially successful albums of the previous decade. The plan: mix up his sound a bit by codifying many of his existing live players and a few new sidemen into a proper band, The New Power Generation. Consisting of keyboardist/powerhouse vocalist Rosie Gaines, keyboard player Tommy Barbarella, second guitarist Levi Seacer Jr., bassist Sonny Thompson, drummer Michael Bland, and a posse of dancers/percussionists including Kirk Johnson, Damon Dickson and Tony Mosley, The NPG neither looked nor sounded like Prince's long-abandoned '80s backing band The Revolution.
This creative infusion birthed satisfaction for all involved. Diamonds and Pearls was Prince's first album in four years to spin off more than one Top 10 hit: the chart-topping pop-blues number "Cream" and the emotional title track, which climbed to No. 3. (The album was his fifth to go multiplatinum in shipment figures from the Recording Industry Association of America.) Prince seemed to be pushing cultural boundaries again, from that rear-baring jumpsuit on the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards to the unapologetically Black fashions worn by The NPG in videos and concerts.
And while the album possesses some of Prince's self-contained studio wizardry - lead single and club banger "Gett Off" was mostly played by him alone - Diamonds is an unusual step toward true musical harmony, centering his players more than ever before. The album offers light touch R&B ("Strollin'," "Insatiable"), strong pop-funk bliss ("Thunder," "Money Don't Matter 2 Night") and even a touch of hip-hop, courtesy of Mosley's rap verses on tracks like "Willing and Able" and "Jughead." (Prince had a complex relationship to the burgeoning genre, and his more earnest embrace of its trappings were the target of a few harsh barbs thrown the album's - and Mosley's - way.)
Fans will (and have!) debated the merits of Diamonds and Pearls to justify a deluxe edition like this, but if sonic consistency and irresistible melodies is how you like your Prince LPs, you simply will not be disappointed. And the fresh master from Bernie Grundman gets all the right curves and features of this disc.
III. Time 4 U 2 Go 2 the Wire
As Diamonds and Pearls is more of a "band" record than most of the works in Prince's discography, it then stands to reason that the bonus material may reflect that shift in perspectives. This is not the young upstart tyro rebuilding pop culture in his image or standing in front of the open fire hydrant of raw creativity as depicted in the 1999, Purple Rain or Sign O' the Times box sets. Or is it?
The first of the box set's seven CDs, as always, covers the ground of mostly released, previously uncompiled tracks of the era: remixes, B-sides and edits. (All seven discs are included in individual cardboard wallets with great alternate takes from the album cover shoot; they're all included in a two panel carrier.) For the first time on such a project, this disc...actually doesn't cover the real breadth of what Prince would put out on maxi-singles. "Gett Off" and "Cream," in particular, were crafted as mini suites of drastically different versions, only some of which are featured here ("Gett Off (Houstyle)," "Violet the Organ Grinder," "Gangster Glam," "Cream (N.P.G. Mix)," the Tony M. freestyle "Things Have Gotta Change," and "Do Your Dance," a Keith "K.C." Cohen revisit of "Cream"). Three tracks from the "Gett Off" single and five from "Cream" are omitted; while some are understandable - the more widely available extended mix of "Gett Off" is supplanted by the rougher, new-to-CD 12" promo version, clocking in at "damn near 10 minutes" - the contained nature of these discs make one wonder if it would have been preferable to replicate them on their own. Happily, the long unavailable B-sides "Horny Pony" (dropped from the album at the last minute for "Gett Off") and the NPG posse cut "Call the Law" re-enter the purple canon here.
Over the three discs of material from the fabled vault, listeners get a generous, top-down view of not only the earliest geneses of Diamonds and Pearls, but several of the projects that occupied Prince's mind over a roughly 18-month period. It's difficult to assess what's truly a holy grail in this set, because everyone's tastes are different - but there's still a lot to love. The deeply personal opener "Schoolyard" is a dazzling, breezy pop cut that feels rare in Prince's canon. An early re-take on 1988's "Glam Slam," recorded to promote Prince's Minneapolis nightclub of the same name, contains some of the DNA of "Gett Off." (More on that venue in a moment.) Some early, alternate versions are more intellectually interesting - the second take of "Cream" that doesn't quite possess the original's charm - but early versions of "Insatiable," "Live 4 Love" and a stunning, extended "Diamonds and Pearls" tantalize the ear, the mind and the heart in equal measure.
Fans of Prince's '90s production efforts will enjoy his demos of songs he wrote for Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, Jevetta Steele and Martika. Three songs from 1991's terrific Martika's Kitchen are included (the title track, "Spirit" and "Don't Say U Love Me"), as well as the quirky "Work That Fat," which features a voice-modulated rap from The Artist over the "Martika's Kitchen" rhythm track. (The fourth song he did for the album, the stunning Top 20 hit "Love...Thy Will Be Done," is heard in demo form on Originals.) A few "band" tracks potentially earmarked for Diamonds, like "Something Funky (This House Comes)" and the striking "The Last Dance (Bang Pow Zoom and the Whole Nine)," showcases Prince's deepening connections to hip-hop and trust in Tony Mosley to lead the ship in that regard. A super-sized "Thunder Ballet" brings the vault portion to a rollicking close.
IV. U Ain't Been Gettin' Served
Featured on the box's sixth and seventh discs and the accompanying Blu-ray is perhaps the crown jewel of the Diamonds and Pearls bonus material: a blazing show recorded at the beginning of 1992 - roughly in between the album's release date and the commencement of a full tour - onstage at Minneapolis' Glam Slam. Already, Prince was starting to expand The NPG, adding a full horn section as well as gospel-inspired family group The Steeles. (Prince's future wife Mayte Garcia makes a brief opening cameo, performing a dance.) The set is additionally notable as one of Prince's few Diamonds and Pearls-era dates in North America - he hadn't toured the continent since 1988 and wouldn't again until 1993 - and also serves as an interesting race against time: opening captions and occasional cutaways to an electronic clock indicate that the show started quite late at night, with an obscure local law banning dancing after 1 a.m.!
The multitrack live set sounds great on CD, but comes to exceptional life on Blu-ray. (You'll have to look to find it, though: it's in its own cardboard sleeve in the inside back cover of the book of liner notes.) The newly-transferred footage is crisp and colorful, making everything from house lights to onstage costumes - including four separate outfits for Prince! - pop considerably. The set primarily focuses on Diamonds and Pearls-era material, pausing only briefly to dip into the vault (a tremendous take on Graffiti Bridge hit "Thieves in the Temple" with Prince hammering on acoustic rhythm guitar; a rousing version of his "Nothing Compares 2 U" that Sinead O'Connor had recently taken to the top of the Billboard Hot 100; and an encore that includes snippets of "1999" and Purple Rain cut "Baby I'm a Star") as well as offer a glimpse into the not-too-distant future (fleshed-out versions of "Sexy M.F." and "The Sacrifice of Victor," featured on that year's The Love Symbol). The group's chemistry is off the charts and Prince's commitment to showmanship - dig the breakneck race to beat the clock! - is at its absolute peak. Once again, this set is a solid argument for the Prince estate to codify his many great unreleased concerts into some sort of series, not unlike what the Bruce Springsteen camp (and many others!) do on Nugs.net.
Also on the Blu-ray are some extras of deeply varying quality. First, the good stuff: there's another smattering of unseen HD film footage shot in the summer of 1991 of The NPG (as heard on the album - no horns here) running through a brief set that would open the year's Special Olympics. Some lighthearted moments with each of the members of the new group abound, plus one great dry joke about the soundcheck set to the opening chords of "Let's Go Crazy." It's followed by a decent transfer of the final set itself. (Kirstie Alley, who would appear on skits on The Love Symbol, introduces the performance; look closely behind her and you'll spot Arnold Schwarzenegger, then-son-in-law to Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in the crowd!)
The disc closes with a transfer of the original longform video The Diamonds and Pearls Video Collection, perhaps the only bum note on the entire package. This vital collection of promo videos and live footage, and even vintage news coverage on Prince's return to the spotlight - mostly shot on film then likely transferred to a video source before encoded on to the disc - is marred by the video quality, but not in the way you might think. Our assessment appears to show that video run through some sort of A.I.-based upscaling process, which crushes and distorts detail in certain background images, giving a needless uncanny valley quality to the whole affair. (This is a hot button issue in home video tech right now.) A straight transfer of the DVD onto the Blu-ray Disc would have probably looked better than this does - a real unforced error on an otherwise sterling visual presentation.
V. Punchin' in the Rock 'N' Roll Clock
Luckily, there's still plenty of visual presentation to go wild over. While some of the creators of previous Prince box sets like these were not involved on the super deluxe Diamonds and Pearls, two crucial collaborators continue to do tremendous work in the package's generous hardbound book. Duane Tudahl has guided fans through the vault with his in-depth books on the sessions that created Purple Rain and Sign O' the Times, and he essentially proffers another volume in his detailed track-by-track notes on the album and its outtakes. And Andrea Swensson, whose reportage on the official Prince podcast has illuminated many posthumous reissues, is also on hand with some terrific liner notes. And she's not alone: critic Jason Draper, professor De Angela Duff, historian/fan KaNisa Williams and Chuck D. of Public Enemy offer written commentary that is illuminative, personal and unique. (Duff and Williams are among the strongest voices of Prince fandom in the wake of his passing; their inclusion here is most welcome, and such testimonials should come standard with every reissue of this caliber.) A by-now standard but still top-notch assortment of rare photos, lyrics, tape box images and other ephemera rounds out the many pages of the book; you'll spend as much time poring over it as you will listening to it!
So: was that freakish tweet right? Do we doubt? Do we keep the faith? Prince's music has been a light in darkness for so many - including right here at Second Disc HQ - and fans want nothing more than for his music, heard and unheard, to be preserved and celebrated decently. Even if it doesn't ascend the dizzying heights of similar packages past - and makes a few unique, strange errors in the video quality and presentation of some archival audio - it appears our faith remains rewarded. There will come a time when love will blow your mind; with the deluxe Diamonds and Pearls, that time is, once again, right now.
Diamonds and Pearls is available below in various formats. Please note that as an Amazon associate, The Second Disc earns a small percentage of sales through the below links.
7CD/Blu-ray: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
12LP/Blu-ray: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
4LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
1CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2LP (milky white vinyl): Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / Official Store (clear vinyl)