Of the many “orphan” tracks Prince recorded in 1982–enough to fill at least two additional double LPs beyond the one that actually did come out, as the Super Deluxe edition of 1999 demonstrates–“Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” is not the most exciting; nor is it the rarest, the most ambitious, or the most thematically compelling. As the 500 Prince Songs blog noted back in 2017, it’s “barely even a song, more a tantric joy in bass-led repetition.” To say that it’s the kind of thing Prince could have written in his sleep does Prince, and sleep, a disservice; after all, we know by his own admission that “Little Red Corvette” came to him between “3 or 4 catnaps” (Dash 2016).
But for all that, it’s easy to see why “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” was chosen as a pre-release single to promote Warner Bros.’ aforementioned 1999 reissue, following a live version of the title track from Detroit’s Masonic Temple and the live-in-studio first take of “International Lover.” Simply put, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” is a banger, with an infectious bassline and a sparkling, rhythmic keyboard part not unlike the one from the Time’s “I Don’t Wanna Leave You.” And while it’s also clearly a throwaway–the chorus literally goes, “Hey, hey / Hey, hey / Hey, hey, hey, hey”–I defy anyone to get through it without at least a head bob and a smile.
In both its lyrical themes and its general lightweight quality, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” feels a bit like a remake of the earlier “Rough”–except in this case, Prince is warning a (presumably) female confidant away from a no-good man. The titular “him” has a “big ol’ Cadillac,” but it’s in immediate danger of being repossessed; he’s “got some pretty fancy clothes,” but “heaven knows how much he owes” for them. The couplets Prince employs for this character sketch have an appealingly tossed-off quality to them: even if it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision to rhyme “I know he said his love would always last” with “But the FBI is lookin’ for his ass,” the glibness of his delivery does a fine job of making it feel that way.
Part of me is tempted to think of “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya,” like “Rough,” as a potential song for the Time; but how would its lyrics have sounded coming from Morris Day, whose onstage persona is basically the exact guy we’re being warned about? In fact, Prince may have written the song for his protégé in an entirely different sense: the artist’s handwritten treatment for the film that eventually became Purple Rain–recently printed in The Beautiful Ones, and according to its editor Dan Piepenbring, possibly written “as early as the spring or summer of 1982”–describes Morris as a “part-time musician, part-time pimp, part-time dreamer” whose “vices” of “music, money, and women” leave him “stuck in the ghetto” (Prince 2019 218). It isn’t hard to extrapolate something of the flashy, conniving antagonist of “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” from that description. Maybe there was another, early version of the movie in Prince’s head that was a little more in the musical theatre tradition, with songs interwoven into the story.
Or, maybe flashy connivers were just in the ether. A few months after Prince recorded “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya,” automotive enfant terrible John DeLorean was charged with drug trafficking after being solicited by an undercover federal agent to bankroll a cocaine smuggling operation. And in July 1982, an up-and-coming real estate developer named Donald J. Trump announced that construction had completed on Trump Tower, an ostentatious 58-floor skyscraper on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It’s an interesting coincidence that, when the song came out earlier this month, more than one commentator on Twitter associated it with the now-President Trump, whose public impeachment hearings were announced that same week. “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya,” indeed.