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Welcome 2 America, 2011

Born 2 Die

If nothing else, “Born 2 Die” sheds some light on what a blaxploitation film written by Prince circa 2010 might have looked like.

We now have just under two months to go before the release of Welcome 2 America, the album Prince recorded and shelved before his tour of the same name in 2010 and 2011. So, with the 63rd anniversary of the artist’s birth right around the corner on Monday, the time was ripe for another promotional single; and Sony Legacy has delivered with a track previously teased on 60 Minutes back in April, “Born 2 Die.” In fact, the drop appears to have been timed to commemorate not just one date, but two: Thursday, June 3 would have been the 79th birthday of Curtis Mayfield, whose early-’70s sound was a transparent source of inspiration for the song.

Excerpts from a 60 Minutes segment on the making of Welcome 2 America.

As longtime NPG keyboardist, musical director, and Welcome 2 America co-producer Morris Hayes recently shared on 60 Minutes, “Born 2 Die” was one of many Prince songs to stem from the artist’s competitive spirit. “Prince was very good friends with Dr. Cornel West,” Hayes told reporter Jon Wertheim, and was watching some “early footage of Dr. West talking about Curtis Mayfield and about the music of the struggle back in the day in the ’70s, and he said, ‘Yeah, Brother Prince is great, but he’s no Curtis Mayfield,’ and Prince was like, [feigns umbrage] ‘Really!’” According to Hayes, “Born 2 Die” was Prince’s way of showing Dr. West that “I could do Curtis… but Curtis can’t do me.”

There was this early footage of Dr. [Cornel] West talking about Curtis Mayfield and about the music of the struggle back in the day in the ’70s, and he said, ‘Yeah, Brother Prince is great, but he’s no Curtis Mayfield,’ and Prince was like, [feigns umbrage] ‘Really!

Morris Hayes

Indeed, “Born 2 Die” is a capable pastiche of Mayfield, with whom Prince shared both an indelible falsetto and a penchant for fluid, melodic guitar licks. But I can’t help but wonder if he might have missed Dr. West’s point a bit. When West praised Mayfield’s “music of the struggle,” he almost certainly meant his more overtly political songs, like “Keep on Pushing” or “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Prince, however, goes straight for the Super Fly soundtrack–political in its own way for its gritty portrayal of inner-city desperation, but then, gritty portrayals of inner-city desperation aren’t exactly Prince’s wheelhouse.

If nothing else, “Born 2 Die” sheds some light on what a blaxploitation film written by Prince circa 2010 might have looked like. For starters, his “Pusherman” is a Pusherwoman: A “bad girl” who “sells everything, A to Z / Anything just to keep her free from the… hustle of the streets.” With its oddly paternal brand of exoticization, the character study feels a bit like Planet Earth’s “Chelsea Rodgers” gone bad; notably, Chelsea required her man to “be baptized… Before she give up the good thang,” while the heroine of “Born 2 Die” “left the church a long time ago,” and “lost her virginity” soon after. There are also traces of the fallen-angel gang initiate from 1995’s “Shy”; but the Prince of 2010 shrinks away from that song’s palpable sexual tension, instead electing to cluck his tongue and gesture “subtly” to a Bible lying just out of frame.

© Sony Legacy/the Prince Estate

If it seems like I’m down on “Born 2 Die,” though, the truth is I’m really not. I may not buy that its blend of blaxploitation tropes and churchy moralizing gave Cornel West any reason to doubt his esteem of Curtis Mayfield, but it still sounds amazing: from the core performances by Prince, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, and drummer Chris Coleman, to the lush production touches added by Mr. Hayes, including some decidedly “Theme from Shaft”-ian backing vocals by the early-2010s trio of Liv Warfield, Shelby J, and Elisa Fiorillo. If the point of this single was to drum up anticipation for Welcome 2 America next month, then mission accomplished; I personally can’t wait to get my hands on it and hear some more of the latest treasures to be liberated from the Vault.

Speaking of, you can of course preorder Welcome 2 America on CD, double LP, and a deluxe edition including both formats, a book, a poster, reproductions of tour memorabilia, and a Blu-ray of Prince’s April 28, 2011 performance at the Los Angeles Forum. There is also an exclusive clear vinyl variant still available from Target; the official Prince store-exclusive gold vinyl appears to be sold out!

Finally, some thank-yous are in order. First, thanks to Daniel Dor and D’Amontae Breland for supporting the Patreon in the last few weeks. Second, thanks to everyone for their patience during yet another quiet period from me. Long story short, I moved house last month and have just had less time to write than I’d prefer. The long-promised “Darling Nikki” post is on the way, along with some other fun things I’ll tell you about later. Be back soon!

“Born 2 Die”
Spotify / TIDAL

2 replies on “Born 2 Die”

I was prepared to dislike this song, expecting another Prince song marred by overly dogmatic and preachy lyrics. But other than the DUMB line about losing virginity after quitting the church, it’s more like one of Prince’s cinematic story songs, which I can deal with. And the production and vocals are on point. It definitely has a Curtis Mayfield vibe, but mainly in the beginning. When the horn section does all that dissonant jazz stuff after the vocals drop out, that’s pure Prince to me; harkening back to Parade-era arrangements even. I wonder though, if the reason he didn’t release it, and perhaps the extends to the rest of the album, was that it was too much of a pastiche, ‘let’s see if I can do this,’ tune, as opposed to something more organic. Guess will never know, but nonetheless can’t wait to hear the rest!

I totally agree about the cinematic story-song thing; I think that’s why it brought up “Shy” for me, one of my favorites from the ’90s. It also helps (in terms of my anti-religiosity) that Prince was never all that great at gritty realism, even pre-conversion; his depictions of street life always feel more like something from a movie he half-remembered rather than something he recognized from experience.

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