It’s mostly forgotten now, but Prince announced his retirement in 1993. After establishing himself as one of the key musical talents of the 1980s, producing a sequential body of work that’s rivaled only by Stevie Wonder a decade earlier, he released a greatest hits compilation and told fans that he was done.
My friends and I were devastated young teenagers, Prince posters still on our bedroom walls, too young and naive to understand public relations and corporate strategy. But it became clear later that this was an early strike in Prince’s battle with his record company Warner Bros to secure creative freedom and, crucially, ownership of his master tapes.
In the five years since Prince’s death in 2016, former Spotify executive Troy Carter has overseen the release, on behalf of Prince’s estate, of several previously hidden recordings from the famous vault at the Paisley Park studio complex in Minnesota, which reputedly contained 8,000 songs that were either shelved or unfinished. Prince didn’t even enter his own vault for years, Carter told US news show 60 Minutes, and for a charmingly mundane reason: “He just forgot his passcode.”
So far, we’ve heard extended versions of classic albums, session outtakes, and demos. But the latest release, in July, will be different; Welcome 2 America is a complete album, recorded and also shelved in 2010 by Prince himself. By the time the vault has been fully mined, Prince is likely to have the most extensive posthumous back catalog in music history. Someone will make money for many years; Prince didn’t leave a will, and the inheritance remains contested.
“This a missing piece,” says Matt Thorne, author of Prince. “It’s a politically significant album from the best of the best, and it’s interesting to see how he was responding to Obama’s America.” The press release says the record “documents Prince’s concerns, hopes, and visions for a shifting society, presciently foreshadowing an era of political division, disinformation, and a renewed fight for racial justice.” The lyrics of the title track mention Google, the iPhone, the financial crisis of 2008, and the “land of the free, home of the slave.”
Prince’s political and social commentary
Given that global antiracism protests began in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis last year, with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd under way, and more fury this week after police in a nearby city killed another Black man, Daunte Wright, the timing and pitch of this release seem appropriate.
But Prince made idiosyncratic political and social statements in his music from the very beginning, says Zachary Hoskins of the princesongs.org blog. “On ‘Sexuality’ [in 1981], he said ‘Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read,’ and now on ‘Welcome 2 America’ he’s talking about being distracted by iPhones,” Hoskins says. “There’s a really interesting continuity there, across 30 years.”
On other records, meanwhile, “Uptown” (1980) is a protest song about racial discrimination in Minneapolis; “1999” (1982) describes a nuclear apocalypse; and “Sign O’The Times” (1987) refers to AIDS, gangs, the Challenger shuttle disaster, and heroin.
The vault, whose contents are now in California, also contained Prince’s final album, Black is the New Black, which was recorded in early 2016. There are no plans yet for its release but as the title suggests, it could be an even more powerful statement of Prince’s commitment to social reform, says journalist and Prince biographer Erica Thompson.
“Welcome 2 America was recorded prior to the death of Trayvon Martin,” she says. “Even though Prince has been talking about this stuff his whole career, there was a change in him when Black Lives Matter was established. I think—I hope—that Black is the New Black will be even more intense.”