Note: This is my third and last post on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. If you haven’t already, please read Parts 1 and 2 first.
We’re now exactly one week out from the release of Prince’s shelved 2011 album Welcome 2 America–i.e., just enough time for Sony Legacy to push out one last promotional single to streaming services and, uh, TikTok. As a certified Old, I don’t have much to say about the last bit; but I can certainly share my thoughts about the song itself.
“Hot Summer” is one of a handful of tracks on Welcome 2 America that stretches the definition of “previously unreleased.” Prince premiered the song on Minnesota Public Radio station 89.3 The Current on his 52nd birthday, June 7, 2010, shortly after a heat wave pushed the temperature in Minneapolis to a record-breaking 95 °F on May 24. Initial reactions were, to put it kindly, mixed. Music blog Stereogum compared the song variously to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” (!) and Hanna-Barbera mascot-suit bubblegum act the Banana Splits (!!), before concluding, “At least the lyrics are positive.” A 35-page thread on prince.org began with tepid praise but swiftly descended into mayhem, with arguments over whether the woman singing the hook was Janelle Monae (it’s Liv Warfield) and much hand-wringing over Prince’s “decline in writing ability.” Perhaps the most trenchant burn came a little less than two years later, when ex-Family frontman Paul Peterson responded to a subliminal swipe from Prince by remixing the track into a parody ad for Midwestern home improvement chain Menards.
At this point, it’s customary to marvel at the sheer, staggering amount of music Prince recorded. His finished recordings number in the hundreds, if not the thousands: enough, to borrow a cliché that became ubiquitous after the Vault was cracked open in 2016, to fill an album a year for the next 100 years; or, to put it in more personally meaningful terms, enough to keep me working on this goddamn blog until roughly the end of my natural life. But the mind truly boggles when one considers that those “finished recordings” are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are hundreds more hours of rehearsals and rough sketches recorded for private use–only a fraction of which are ever likely to see the light of day.
By this reckoning, the solo piano rehearsal officially released in 2018 as Piano & A Microphone 1983 is not, in itself, remarkable; it’s just one of countless other “work tapes,” as former Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman describes them in her liner notes, by an artist for whom making music was an avocation as much as a vocation (Coleman 3). Prince Estate lead archivist Michael Howe told Newsweek that when he found the recording–a standard, consumer-grade TDK SA-60 cassette with two tracks, “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and “Why the Butterflies,” listed in Prince’s handwriting–it was in a box with “[l]iterally thousands” of other tapes (Schonfeld 2018). But what it lacks in uniqueness, it makes up for in historical importance: capturing, with near-unrivaled intimacy, a snapshot of Prince’s creative process on the very cusp of the career-defining success of Purple Rain.
Prince, as was his wont, had already moved on to his next phase by the time the 1999 tour entered its final stretch in March 1983. The centerpiece of his master plan was, of course, the untitled film project that would become Purple Rain; but he also intended to cement his musical dominance with follow-up albums by the 1999-era “Triple Threat” of himself, the Time, and Vanity 6. Much as he had a year before, he focused on the Time first: booking a few days at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles before playing the Universal Amphitheatre and San Diego Sports Arena on March 28 and 29, respectively.
The Time’s first two albums had been cut primarily by Prince and singer/studio drummer Morris Day alone; for the new project, however, Prince allowed the rest of the band to take on a more active role. “They played on a lot of the stuff,” former Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary told sessionographer Duane Tudahl–though Prince remained the unquestioned “leader of what was going on” (Tudahl 2018 64). The Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr was even willing to share songwriting duties, basing “Jungle Love” on an instrumental demo by guitarist Jesse Johnson.