Two years after his premature death, the first album to emerge from his legendary vault finds Prince as we last saw him on tour: alone with his piano

Review: Prince - Piano & A Microphone 1983
Credit: The Prince Estate / Allen Beaulieu

There was, presumably, a reason Prince kept his vault locked. So tight was its security, only he knew the door code; and upon his death, his estate was forced to drill its lock. Inside, reports say, lay enough unreleased material to issue an album every year for a century, but no one’s really asked whether that’s what Prince would have actually wanted.

Given this was a man who refused to allow The Black Album’s release for seven years because he’d become convinced it was “evil”, it’s clear he maintained strict guidelines about what was and wasn’t suitable for public consumption.

But here he is, captured in his early 1980s home studio, seated behind a microphone and a piano performing 35 minutes of music in unusually intimate fashion. Indeed, so raw are these recordings that cassette hiss is audible, and they not only begin with instructions to studio staff, but even include the sound of him clearing his nose, a conspicuous – perhaps unnecessary – reminder he was mortal.

Nonetheless, this collection is endorsed by the Prince Estate, and at its best, it provides an insight into the Purple One’s methods, with unreleased songs – originals as well as covers – on offer alongside stripped-back versions of tracks available elsewhere. Whether an 87-second sketch of Purple Rain is indispensable remains debatable, and while an energetically jazzy, if abbreviated, version of Strange Relationship (later recorded for 1987’s Sign ’O’ The Times) is more satisfying – and, for his comical gasps, more entertaining – both sound as though they’re being improvised in a hotel lobby.

Elsewhere, a brief but heartfelt stab at Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You segues into a passionately improvised take on Spiritual Mary Don’t You Weep, and there’s also the intriguingly delicate – but still directionless – Wednesday, once slated for Purple Rain. He grunts through Cold Coffee & Cocaine, too, before concluding with the minimalist soul of Why The Butterflies, but there are two genuinely crucial inclusions: a hushed – human-beatbox effects aside – version of 1999’s International Lover, and a rowdy, celebratory take on 17 Days (When Doves Cry’s vital B-side), with his piano talents especially conspicuous. Still the feeling lingers, though: was this really how a quality-control fanatic such as Prince intended to be heard?

Written by Wyndham Wallace. Released on Warner Bros Records.

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