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Prince’s ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ Deluxe Edition Delivers Rare Gems From His Last Blockbuster: Album Review

Hard as it may be to imagine, at the dawn of the ‘90s, Prince was at a make-or-break point in his career, at least as a chart-busting superstar. He was one of the biggest artists in the world, but it had been several years since he’d had a real hit, and his image and public statements had been confusing, to say the least. He’d had a No. 1 single in 1989 with “Batdance,” but it consisted mostly of soundbites from the blockbuster “Batman” film, and his accompanying soundtrack disc was largely a collection of castoff songs, some of them years old, grafted into scenes from the movie. His most recent effort, the “Graffiti Bridge” album and self-directed, shockingly dreadful film, were uncontested duds. He needed a hit, stat.

So for the first time in years, he took a strategic look at the pop landscape — a dire place in 1990 — and dramatically overhauled his look and sound with “Diamonds and Pearls.” Gone were the experimentation, psychedelia, flowers and long hair from his late ‘80s incarnations, replaced with a harder-hitting, more pop-oriented sound — and, surprisingly, rapping, a genre he’d previously disparaged (calling rappers “tone-deaf” in his song “Dead on It”).

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It was a glossier form of R&B than anything he’d done since his first two albums, and significantly more radio-friendly. The new rhythm section of jazz drummer Michael Bland and veteran bassist Sonny T. brought a heavier, harder-hitting bottom end; keyboardist-singer Rosie Gaines was a sparring partner he’d previously only had with guest vocalists; the keyboards and samples got a lot shinier; and not only was Prince himself rapping, but he had a full-time MC in the new group, dubbed New Power Generation (aka NPG), a title he’d use for many things in the coming years. The new musicians brought a slicker, jazz-fusion-inflected sound, and Sonny T in shook things up with a booming low end that propels a lot of the harder funk songs.

Be all of that as it may, it worked: The resulting album, “Diamonds and Pearls,” sold millions of copies and brought Prince back in a big way, spawning five singles and ubiquitous companion videos in the U.S. alone, with “Cream” reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the title track No. 3, and two others in the Top 25. With a new, curly-haired, yellow-and-purple-themed look, Prince was back on top: The album’s sound brought not only the pop audience, but also the older R&B fans who’d first embraced him in the late ‘70s and may have lost interest amid the rock sounds of “Purple Rain” and the ensuing experimentation.

So how does “Diamonds and Pearls” sound, with 30 years of hindsight and the latest in his estate’s series of massive boxed sets, filled with dozens of unreleased songs from Prince’s vaunted Vault — some of which have long been available on bootlegs, but a lot that haven’t — and a full concert from 1992? (See the full tracklist below.) Well, fresh in some cases and painfully dated in others.

“Cream” and the title track remain two of his classic singles, and they’ll never grow old. On the other hand, the rapping was sub-par even for the era; there are a number of effects and synthesizer and drums sounds that carbon-date certain songs to 1991; and the lyrics are filled with clunky sexual innuendos and a dismaying number of references to plus-sized or underaged female people (Jesus references in the lyrics to one song, soft-core porn in the next — such was the duality of Prince in those days). Also, the lean into a sort of George Benson-esque jazz-pop direction on songs like “Strollin’,” “Willing and Able” and “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” feels prematurely old; Prince was only 33 when he made this album.

In retrospect, the most innovative song here is the lead single, “Gett Off,” which suffers from some of the above-mentioned issues but is actually an imaginative fusion of hip-hop and house music, with a grinding, bottom-heavy rhythm and a recurring digital scream, somehow throwing in a flute hook, a blazing guitar solo and even some imported vinyl scratches during the mini-James Brown tribute in the middle. While it’s featured on most of his greatest-hits albums, “Gett Off” is a surprisingly overlooked jewel in the Prince canon.

But above all, it’s Prince in all his glory, if nearing the tail end of the fireball of creativity that began with “Dirty Mind” and pretty much began fading here. His stacked, multi-tracked harmonies had taken on a gospel flavor that he’d begun exploring on “Graffiti Bridge,” and he unleashes his R&B falsetto on “Insatiable,” a classic Prince bedroom ballad from the “Do Me Baby” school. And his musical genius is on full display: The songs have deeply imaginative arrangements and chord and key changes, and although there’s nowhere near enough guitar IMO, some of the most sumptuous instrumental work here was played by the man himself, who was a virtuoso on guitar, keyboards and bass and was no slouch as a drummer either.

But looking at this massive package as a whole — which has 33 previously unreleased songs, along with the concert (and accompanying video) and a disc of single edits and remixes — some of the most interesting material is the pile of stray tracks toward the end of the studio segment, which the producers have done a masterful job of presenting. The songs are stylistically diverse and offer an expanded view of what this band and this musician were capable of.

Some of the best tracks feel like they required the least effort — just Prince being Prince. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” has a rollicking bassline and some “1999”-esque keyboards, stacked vocals and a loose feel that’s at odds with the rest of the album. “Standing at the Altar” is a sprightly ‘80s-style R&B ballad (think “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”) with Prince’s finest R&B singing and sumptuous backing vocals. “I Pledge Allegiance to Your Love” is a soulful R&B-flavored blues, and the instrumental “Letter 4 Miles” is a straight-up jazz number where the band shows off its chops — and is also completely at odds with the rest of the material here. While fans will no doubt appreciate the complete-ism that went into this curation, “Hey U” sounds like it was written on the spot — complete with a turnaround lifted directly from Archie Bell & the Drells’ 1968 hit “Tighten Up.”

But we saved the best for last: The live set consists mostly of songs from the “Diamonds and Pearls” album, but it finds the band in peak form and stretching out as they roar through a 90-minute set. There are lots of rearrangements and vamps, tempo changes — “Cream” is played much faster than than album version — and loads of vocal ad-libbing. Prince sounds like he’s having the time of his life — “We’re just jamming,” he says at one point — and there’s a looseness and sense of fun that isn’t really present on the album or on many of the ones that followed.

Indeed, the next dozen years were not easy ones for the man or the band. The following “Symbol” album and tour were overblown and lacked major hits, and it was all downhill from there, as Prince feuded with Warner Bros., his longtime label, ushering in his “Slave” era and a pile of mediocre albums (excepting parts of “The Gold Experience”) and a long refusal to play the hits at his concerts. But he changed that policy with his 2004 tour and accompanying “Musicology” album, which put him back on top, where he stayed for more or less the rest of his career — hits were few and far between, but he remained one of the most dazzling live performers in the world.

“Diamonds and Pearls” may have been the last hurrah for platinum Prince, but it was hardly the last we’d hear of his brilliance.

CD1 / LP1&2: DIAMONDS AND PEARLS (REMASTERED)

1.         Thunder

2.         Daddy Pop

3.         Diamonds And Pearls

4.         Cream

5.         Strollin’

6.         Willing And Able

7.         Gett Off

8.         Walk Don’t Walk

9.         Jughead

10.       Money Don’t Matter 2 Night

11.       Push

12.       Insatiable

13.       Live 4 Love

CD2 / LP3&4: SINGLE MIXES & EDITS (REMASTERED)

1.         Gett Off (Damn Near 10 Min.)

2.         Gett Off (Houstyle)

3.         Violet The Organ Grinder

4.         Gangster Glam

5.         Horny Pony

6.         Cream (N.P.G. Mix)

7.         Things Have Gotta Change (Tony M Rap)

8.         Do Your Dance (KC’s Remix)

9.         Insatiable (Edit)

10.       Diamonds And Pearls (Edit)

11.       Money Don’t Matter 2 Night (Edit)

12.       Call The Law

13.       Willing And Able (Edit)

14.       Willing And Able (Video Version)

15.       Thunder (DJ Fade)

CD3-5 / LP5-9: VAULT I, II, III

VAULT I

1.         Schoolyard

2.         My Tender Heart

3.         Pain

4.         Streetwalker

5.         Lauriann

6.         Darkside

7.         Insatiable (Early Mix – Full Version)

8.         Glam Slam ’91

9.         Live 4 Love (Early Version)

10.       Cream (Take 2)

11.       Skip To My You My Darling

12.       Diamonds And Pearls (Long Version)

All tracks previously unreleased

VAULT II

1.         Daddy Pop (12″ Version)

2.         Martika’s Kitchen

3.         Spirit

4.         Open Book

5.         Work That Fat

6.         Horny Pony (Version 2)

7.         Something Funky (This House Comes) (Band Version)

8.         Hold Me

9.         Blood On The Sheets

10.       The Last Dance (Bang Pow Zoom And The Whole Nine)

11.       Don’t Say U Love Me

All tracks previously unreleased

VAULT III

1.         Get Blue

2.         Tip O’ My Tongue

3.         The Voice

4.         Trouble

5.         Alice Through The Looking Glass

6.         Standing At The Altar

7.         Hey U

8.         Letter 4 Miles

9.         I Pledge Allegiance To Your Love

10.       Thunder Ballet

All tracks previously unreleased

CD6&7 / LP10-12: LIVE AT GLAM SLAM, 1992

1.         Thunder

2.         Daddy Pop

3.         Diamonds And Pearls

4.         Willing And Able

5.         Jughead

6.         The Sacrifice Of Victor

7.         Nothing Compares 2 U

8.         Thieves In The Temple

9.         Sexy M.F.

10.       Insatiable

11.       Cream/Well Done/I Want U/In The Socket (Medley)

12.       1999/Baby I’m A Star/Push (Medley)

13.       Gett Off

14.       Gett Off (Houstyle)

All tracks previously unreleased

BLU-RAY

LIVE AT GLAM SLAM, 1992

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, JANUARY 11, 1992

1.         Thunder

2.         Daddy Pop

3.         Diamonds And Pearls

4.         Willing And Able

5.         Jughead

6.         The Sacrifice Of Victor

7.         Nothing Compares 2 U

8.         Thieves In The Temple

9.         Sexy M.F.

10.       Insatiable

11.       Cream/Well Done/I Want U/In The Socket (Medley)

12.       1999/Baby I’m A Star/Push (Medley)

13.       Gett Off

14.       Gett Off (Houstyle)

All tracks previously unreleased

SPECIAL OLYMPICS, METRODOME, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, JULY 1991

SOUNDCHECK – JULY 19, 1991:

1.         Let’s Go Crazy/Baby I’m A Star/Push (Medley)

All tracks previously unreleased

SHOW – JULY 20, 1991:

1.         Diamonds And Pearls

2.         Let’s Go Crazy/Baby I’m A Star/Push (Medley)

All tracks previously unreleased

DIAMONDS AND PEARLS VIDEO COLLECTION

1.         Introduction

2.         Thunder (Live)

3.         Gett Off

4.         Cream

5.         Diamonds And Pearls

6.         Dr. Feelgood (Live)

7.         Call The Law

8.         Willing And Able

9.         Jughead (Live)

10.       Insatiable

11.       Strollin’

12.       Money Don’t Matter 2 Night

13.       Live 4 Love (Live)

Blu-ray is presented in: Stereo, 5.1 Dolby True HD (Special Olympics show and Glam Slam only) and Dolby ATMOS (Special Olympics show and Glam Slam only).

* N.B. video content is exclusive to the physical Blu-ray and will not appear on digital download or streaming versions of the Super Deluxe Edition set.

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