Modern superstars like Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Jay-Z, and Future release albums when they want and how they want. Back in the ’90s that wasn’t the case. For decades, musicians at the top of the food chain all operated pretty much the same way. Labels meticulously crafted an album cycle to squeeze every penny out of a record. It was carefully timed to maximize exposure, chart position, and ticket sales. Sure, variables in the equation changed — tastemakers came and went, physical formats evolved, and demographics shifted — but the system held.
Before anyone did surprise releases, bundled records with phones, or snuck out of contracts thanks to “video albums” (Oh, Endless!), Prince bucked trends and blazed those trails. Unsatisfied with the confines of major labels and the corruption of the system, he embarked on a journey of creative freedom and innovation. This journey was so far ahead of its time that many still don’t comprehend how fully Prince presaged the modern music industry — and society today.
In the early ’90s, the notably prolific Purple One had over 500 songs in the vault. Prince wanted to release them as he saw fit. Warner Bros., his longtime label, didn’t like that one bit. That’s when things got heated. The first salvo in his war with Warner was The Name Change. You know the one. He dropped letters altogether and famously settled on Ƭ̵̬̊ (it’s the closest I could get without downloading the official TAFKAP font). Some thought it was a cheap move to get out of his contract, but there’s more to it.
Prince’s work pointed to the agency you gain when you take control of your own identity. You’re allowed to define yourself, and there’s power in that act. This idea was decidedly not mainstream at the time. If you were born a Todd, you stayed a Todd, so to speak. However, questions of who controls identity are commonplace today. Through a modern lens, we can see Prince’s name change as an act of reclamation. He wrestled his personhood back in a situation where he felt robbed of it.
Now that The Artist Formerly Known as Prince had freedom and his own NPG Records imprint, he released music at a breakneck clip. In 1996 alone, he put out a whopping 180 minutes of music in the form of Emancipation. For some comparison, that’s about the same as his first five records combined — if you count the single-LP version of 1999. During this era, he released so much that even some diehard fans couldn’t keep up. People didn’t know what to do with so much information in front of them. We consumed, processed, and discussed media at an exponentially slower pace just five years ago. We could hold our own in today’s world of always-on connectivity. Back then, The Artist was running circles around us.
Prince didn’t simply put out a lot of music. He got very creative with how it was distributed. When everyone else was trying to maximize CD sales, Prince was releasing tracks through an Internet-only fan club. When everyone else was suing Napster, he was premiering songs on there. And hell, before Radiohead pulled their “pay what you want” stunt in 2007, Prince gave away a record in a newspaper! I think you get the point here. The rest of the industry was a young Luke Skywalker. Prince Rogers Nelson was Yoda.
There are downsides to a massive output and revolutionary tactics, though. As mentioned before, fans could barely keep up with his material, much less the general public. And only releasing songs online before the internet was ubiquitous means some records straight up don’t exist. In other words, this era hasn’t been explored by a lot of people.
This is where the silver lining comes in. Sony just released the NPG era recordings online. That means we can finally catch up to Prince all these years later. But with over 20 hours of music, it can be hard to find your way in or seek out the biggest bangers. Thankfully, we’ve done the work for you! Here’s an easy guide to Prince’s catalog from 1995 to 2010:
Chaos and Disorder (1996)
The last new album to be released by Warner Bros. (a subsequent vault release was prepared several years later), Chaos and Disorder transcends its underappreciated status for hardcore fans, offering a breezy selection of catchy pop melodies and rock guitar virtuosity. Lead single Dinner With Dolores and the crunching title track are particular highlights.
The Artist was feeling free in the wake of leaving Warner for good, and it shows on this release: a carefully-constructed, three-hour triple album. His moods are light and enthusiastic, reflecting his growing curiosity with technology (My Computer), singing songs that captured his fancy (covers of The Stylistics’ Betcha By Golly Wow, Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me and Joan Osborne’s One Of Us are highlights), and reflecting on love for his new wife Mayte Garcia (Somebody’s Somebody, The Holy River) and their unborn child (whose heartbeat is sampled on the fun Sex In The Summer).
Crystal Ball (1998)
In the 1990s, when The Artist made an artistic move that longtime fans had hoped for, he still did it on his terms. Such was the case for Crystal Ball, a triple album of unreleased selections from his storied vault (named for an aborted triple album from 1986, trimmed down and released as Sign O The Times a year later). Having struck a one-off deal with a major label on Emancipation, Crystal Ball was an attempt to bypass the system entirely, available only through The Artist’s 1-800-NEW-FUNK phone line and website. (In a controversial move, it was later made available exclusively through Best Buy, with some of the retailers’ stock arriving before the direct orders.) The material, spanning from 1983 to 1995, featured fan favorites from the ’80s (Crystal Ball, Dream Factory, Crucial, Good Love), remixes and re-recordings (Love Sign, Tell Me How U Wanna B Done, P. Control), and songs dropped from his recent, ambitious projects (Interactive, She Gave Her Angels, Days Of Wild).
The Truth (1998)
The fourth disc in the Crystal Ball package remains one of Prince’s most sorely underrated albums: a rare trip into solo acoustic territory which tackles some of his rawest emotions at the time. Don’t Play Me is a somber reflection on his fame and achievements, while Comeback is a touching ode to Gregory, Prince and Mayte’s son, who was born with a rare birth defect and died shortly thereafter. But there are moments of uplift and light, like the sensuous Circle Of Amour, blues forays like The Truth and The Other Side Of The Pillow, and the closer Welcome 2 The Dawn.
Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1999)
Prince had taken quite the ownership of 1999 more than a decade ago, so it was no surprise that the last year of the new millennium was one of The Artist’s biggest. Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (another name from the past, a 1988 project that was aborted in favor of the soundtrack to Batman) is a pop-leaning, major-label album, featuring a surprising amount of guest artists (Chuck D of Public Enemy, Eve, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow) and a clutch of radio-friendly tracks (The Greatest Romance Ever Sold, So Far, So Pleased, Hot Wit U, a cover of Crow’s Everyday Is a Winding Road).
Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic (2001)
For a time, Prince seemed to find the commercial freedom he was looking for on the Internet. Almost a year before the release of The Rainbow Children, he founded the NPG Music Club, a website where subscribers could access new music (and occasionally things from his storied vault) for a nominal subscription fee. One of the first full releases for club members was this remixed version of Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic; highlights include a remix of Hot Wit U that incorporates elements of the Prince-penned Vanity 6 hit Nasty Girl and the previously unreleased Beautiful Strange.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Two major personal changes occurred as the millennium began: The Artist changed his name back to Prince, and then became a Jehovah’s Witness (inspired by longtime friend Larry Graham of Sly & The Family Stone). This album reflects his newfound faith, with meditations on heaven, race and social change against a jazz-inspired musical background. Prince also continued his experimentation with alternative forms of distribution, releasing the album through a small distributor and giving away the first single, The Work, Pt. 1 for free on the controversial file-sharing service Napster.
One Nite Alone… (2002)
As part of his quest to buck the major-label system, many of Prince’s albums in the early ’00s were released wholly through the NPG Music Club, rarely appearing on CD or through other digital partners. Thus, only the most devoted fans have experienced One Nite Alone…, a relaxed album of soulful originals (plus a cover of Prince’s idol Joni Mitchell on A Case Of U) accompanied not by his signature guitar, but solo piano.
One Nite Alone…Live!/One Nite Alone…Live – The Aftershow: It Aint Over! (Up Late With Prince & The NPG) (2002)
Prince waited 25 years into his career to release a live album, but he didn’t skimp on the presentation. The triple-disc One Nite Alone…Live! box highlighting material from The Rainbow Children and One Nite Alone… in concert as well as an impassioned piano set of rare back catalog material (Sometimes It Snows In April, How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore, Anna Stesia) on its first two discs, and a loose aftershow on its third, featuring guest appearances by George Clinton and Musiq Soulchild.
An even more esoteric entry in Prince’s discography, this NPG Music Club exclusive is an all-instrumental jazz fusion experiment undertaken by Prince on guitar and keyboards, with longtime rhythm section Rhonda Smith (bass) and John Blackwell (drums), saxophonist Candy Dulfer and violinist Vanessa Mae.
The fusion experimentation continued on N·E·W·S, offering four 14-minute jams named after the directions on a compass. Blackwell and Smith returned for this session, with new additions in touring keyboardist Renato Neto and, most excitingly, Eric Leeds, a saxophonist who’d played with Prince since the Purple Rain Tour and a key figure in his first foray into fusion, the group Madhouse.
An EP-length collection of live material from Prince’s One Nite Alone… Tour (previously captured in the triple-disc box set One Nite Alone…Live! in 2002), C-Note largely abandons traditional songs for jams recorded at various soundchecks around the world. The exception is Empty Room, a live take of a song written (but not released) some 20 years prior.
“People are calling this my comeback,” Prince bemusedly told Entertainment Weekly after Musicology peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, his highest peak since 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls. “Comeback? I never went anywhere!” While he’s not lying, the Musicology era marked a notable change in Prince’s style: he was back to writing user-friendly pop and throwback soul (Musicology, Call My Name, Cinnamon Girl), graciously accepting his position as elder statesmen of the culture (sharing the stage with Beyoncé during the opening of that year’s Grammy Awards and accepting induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a month later), and — once again — innovating the way his music was distributed, bundling copies of the album with every ticket to that year’s bestselling tour.
Prince was nothing if not versatile: shortly before releasing his most mainstream album in years, he digitally issued two albums’ worth of material delivered to the NPG Music Club over the last few years. In some ways, it was a test run for Musicology: upbeat, dancefloor-friendly pop, rock and R&B, with fun tracks like Supercute, U Make My Sun Shine (a duet with R&B diva Angie Stone), Props ‘N’ Pounds, Peace and 2045: Radical Man, heard in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled in 2001.
After Musicology, Prince was ready to show off, and pulled off a similar coup with 3121 — this time, reaching the top of the Billboard 200 for the first time since 1989. And for good reason: It’s full of flights of pop fancy, from Latin-tinged acoustics (Te Amo Corazon), incendiary guitar epics (Fury), gentle soul ballads (Beautiful, Loved and Blessed) and throwback dance cuts (Black Sweat, a modern, spiritual follow-up to 1986’s chart-topping Kiss).
Planet Earth (2007)
Planet Earth kicked off a more “old-school” phase of Prince’s late-career “comeback.” In 2006, weeks after winning a lifetime achievement Webby Award for his landmarks in Internet distribution, he shut down the NPG Music Club and began to retreat from the Web. Nonetheless, he made sure people knew where to find him, as indicated by his iconic performance at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show that same year, and the unique British release of Planet Earth, as a free item with copies of the newspaper The Mail On Sunday. Stateside, it came out in record stores like his last two albums, and became another Top 5 record. The six-string jam Guitar, the contemplative title track, the jazzy Chelsea Rodgers and the upbeat closing track Resolution (featuring Wendy and Lisa, appearing on a Prince album for the first time since The Revolution was his backing band) are all highlights.
Indigo Nights (2008)
A supplemental album to 21 Nights, a coffee table book chronicling Prince’s 2007 residency at London’s O2 Arena, this disc features live highlights from aftershows at the IndigO2 club in England. Unsurprisingly, it’s a loose album, featuring unreleased originals (Beggin’ Woman Blues, the title track), covers (Aretha Franklin’s Rock Steady, Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love), and old-school hits (Delirious, Alphabet St.).
Highlighted by a return to online distribution as well as a continuation of nontraditional sales (U.S. audiences had to go to Target to pick up a set of both albums, plus a release by Prince’s then-protegee Bria Valente), LOtUSFLOW3R and MPLSoUND find Prince continuing his free-pop phase on the first disc (4Ever, Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful, a cover of Tommy James and The Shondells’ Crimson and Clover) and experimenting with a more modern version of his minimalist ’80s production styles — think whirring synths and thudding electronic drums — on the latter (Dance 4 Me, Valentina).
Perhaps the least affecting album of this phase (only given away with European periodicals like The Daily Mirror and never officially released in his home country), 20Ten is a simmer where previous albums boiled. Still, taken as a direct sequel to MPLSoUND, there’s fun to be had in hearing him revisit the sound he helped articulate nearly three decades prior.