As of this Friday, the wait is finally over: Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe will at last be in our hot little hands (or at least our hot little streaming services; I ordered my physical copy from the official Prince store, so let’s just say I’m not getting my hopes up about getting it on release day). In the meantime, Warner Bros. has given us one last preview track to tide us over: Prince’s January 1987 recording of “I Need a Man.”
It is, by any metric, an odd choice for a promotional single. Prince originally recorded “I Need a Man” in 1981, for his proto-Vanity 6 project the Hookers; that version remains, regrettably, unreleased. The song was never considered for inclusion on Sign “O” the Times, nor indeed on any of Prince’s myriad other projects in 1986-87; instead, he brought it out of the Vault–along with fellow Hookers leftover “Jealous Girl,” fellow 1981 recording “There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool,” and a 1983 track originally intended for Dez Dickerson and/or Vanity 6, “Promise to Be True”–for a planned collaboration with roots rocker Bonnie Raitt.
Like many of his collaborations with other artists, the Bonnie Raitt project came seemingly out of the blue, initiated by Prince himself: “he had seen my show at the Beverly Theater, in L.A., in December of ’86, and he called me up and said he was interested in working with me,” Raitt told Rolling Stone in 1990. “He was renting a place in L.A., and he sent his private limo over to pick me up. I don’t ride around in limos much, and this car had all kinds of neat stuff–all kinds of purple stuff and neat lighting and little porcelain masks. I didn’t realize I’d be whisked away in a fairy tale!” (Henke 1990).
His invitation came at the right time for Raitt, whose career had hit a slump in the mid-’80s. Three years earlier, she had been dumped from the Warner Bros. roster, “literally the day after” completing mastering on her ninth album for the label (Henke 1990). Warner later asked her back to rework the album, released as Nine Lives in 1986–then dropped her again due to low sales. Prince, who had been experiencing his own woes with W.B. over his planned triple album Crystal Ball, was sympathetic: “He said, ‘It was unfortunate you were treated that way… and would you like to come and do some songs together at Paisley Park,’” Raitt recalled to Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Bream 2016).
In the end, though, the planned collaboration never got off the ground. The tracks Prince had selected for Raitt “were not in my key,” she told Bream. “They were four or five keys lower than what I sing.” She also objected to some of the lyrics–particularly the masochistic “There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool.” “It was something like[,] ‘You can mess me around all over town / But we’re still cool / I like being your fool.’ That’s not something I’d sing,” she recalled. They agreed to reconvene after Prince came back from the Sign “O” the Times tour in the summer; but then the tour was extended, and he fell out of contact. “He never called me, and I put my guys out of work for six weeks,” Raitt said. “A phone call would have been nice” (Bream 2016).
If “I Need a Man” is any indication, however, a completed Prince collaboration wouldn’t have done much to improve Raitt’s fortunes. It’s a perfectly fine song–and, any issues with the key aside, Raitt can be heard having fun with it in her circulating vocal take. But the lyrical premise, a kiss-off to a suitor who has “big money” but “can’t get me hot,” feels like a vague pastiche of the singer’s spunky persona (if, also, an admittedly uncanny foreshadowing of Shania Twain’s 1998 pop-country hit “That Don’t Impress Me Much”). The most interesting part of the song is the slinky, sophisticated horn arrangement by Eric Leeds–the main lead line of which had already been used, to arguably better effect, for live versions of “Controversy” on the Parade tour.
All of which, again, makes “I Need a Man” a puzzling choice to promote Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe. Divorced from the back story of the Bonnie Raitt project, it’s really just another horn-heavy early-’87 Prince tune; nothing to sniff at, certainly, but also unlikely to create any new converts. Aside from the mild frisson of hearing Prince sing about needing “a real man”–an evocation of queerness that should be familiar to listeners of 2019’s Originals compilation–there isn’t much to make it stand out from the crowd.
But then, those of us in the target audience for “I Need a Man” don’t really need any more persuasion to buy the set; what we need is to get it in our ears, and lucky for us, there isn’t much time left to wait. In three days’ time, “I Need a Man” will take its rightful place as one of 45 newly-liberated treasures from the Vault; but for now, those with the self-control to wait can at least take comfort in the fact that they aren’t missing much.
(Edit: In my haste to get this post finished, I completely forgot to welcome new patrons Kia Matthews and JHNTNKS! Thank you both so much for your support.)