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.”
Prince’s first side project, the Time, began with a fundamental musical concept: They were a vehicle for the hardcore funk and R&B from which he had mostly steered away in his own career, with an added touch of New Wave rock and roll in the vein of contemporary acts like the BusBoys. Everything else about the group, from their boutique vintage wardrobe to frontman Morris Day’s tongue-in-cheek pimp persona, was an elegant outgrowth of this conceit. By contrast, Prince’s second side project, the Hookers, began with an image, and not an especially sophisticated one–the name pretty much summed it up. So it’s no surprise that the music he composed for the group in mid-to-late 1981 had a distinct whiff of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what stuck: There was minimalist electro-punk (“Drive Me Wild,” “Make-Up”), New Wave-ized girl group pop (“Wet Dream,” “Jealous Girl”), and, with “Money Don’t Grow on Trees,” even a dash of vintage R&B.
Last Thursday, after weeks of rumors and leaks, it finally became official: the next expanded reissue from Warner Bros. and the Prince Estate is Sign “O” the Times, and it’s a doozy: 8 CDs (13 LPs, for the wax-inclined) and a DVD covering the full breadth of Prince’s output from late 1985 to early 1987. I won’t be “officially” writing about this music until 2021 at the earliest (more on that later), but damned if I can’t share some preliminary thoughts about it now. Here they are, disc by disc (and, in the case of the Vault discs, track by track)…
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.
The completed Vanity 6 album, like the previous year’s debut by the Time, was a slim thing: a mere eight tracks, just over 30 minutes of music. But its slimness was not, as Brenda Bennett observed, “for lack of material” (Nilsen 1999 106). Among the songs that were at one point considered for the album, but didn’t make the cut, were five tracks recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981 (“Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”); two from November 1981 (“Money Don’t Grow on Trees” and “Vagina,” the latter of which may have inspired Vanity’s short-lived original stage name); and at least two more from the same March and April 1982 sessions that spawned the bulk of the album (“Too Much” and “Extraloveable”). Prince “spews songs so fast,” Bennett recalled, but “he didn’t want to over-expose the public to too much stuff… It was under-exposure for over-exposed girls!” (106).
In the end, while the majority of the album was written by Prince himself, a couple of tracks came from elsewhere in the camp: “He’s So Dull,” written and produced by guitarist Dez Dickerson, and “Bite the Beat,” co-written by the Time’s Jesse Johnson. Credited on the album to Johnson and Bennett, “Bite the Beat” would be the guitarist’s first published song–though it wasn’t his first attempt at one. During the early days of the Time, Johnson told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics, he would “play tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… He’d call Morris [Day] over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed” (Gonzales 38).