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.
Even after the news was leaked by a French fansite earlier this year, I was still pleasantly surprised when the Prince Estate confirmed the shelved 2011 album Welcome 2 America for official release in July. Up until now, I’ve found the Estate’s posthumous release strategy to be laudable but predictable: alternating between expanded reissues from Prince’s critical and commercial peak (Purple Rain, 1999, Sign “O” the Times) and sure-thing one-offs engineered for mainstream attention (i.e., the Originals compilation of Prince’s versions of the hits he wrote for others). Even the closest thing to an odd one out, 2018’s Piano & A Microphone 1983, had the distinct commercial advantage of coming from the sessions for his most popular album.
Welcome 2 America, however, is something different: a complete album of almost entirely unreleased material, from a period of Prince’s career that even some of his biggest fans neglect. Case in point, well, me; I’d followed along with Prince’s contemporary music for 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121, but fell off after 2007’s Planet Earth and 2009’s Lotusflow3r/MPLSound/Elixer threefer left me cold (for the record, I’ve since come around on Lotusflow3r and, thanks to friend of the blog Darling Nisi, even Elixer; Planet Earth and MPLSound, not so much). When the next album, 20Ten, wasn’t officially released in the U.S., I didn’t even care enough to try and pirate the MP3s. All of which is to say that Welcome 2 America is even newer to me than to many of the active fans who were following the news of its planned release at the time–and while that was my loss in 2011, a decade later it’s now my gain.
“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’
“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!
“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).
Note: Please be advised that this post contains uncensored reproductions of racist and homophobic slurs, quoted from contemporary publications and recollections of the events of October 9 and 11, 1981.
In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.
In his recent cover story for Rolling Stone, reporter Brian Hiatt writes about what would become his final visit to Prince’s Paisley Park complex, in January of 2014. At one point, he describes standing in front of a mural “where a painted image of Prince, arms spread, stands astride images of his influences and artists he, in turn, influenced” (Hiatt 2016). Among the “influences” depicted in the mural are the usual suspects from Prince’s Grand Central days–Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Grand Funk Railroad–as well as Chaka Khan.