Release Date: Sep 21, 2018
Record label: Warner Bros.
Just before Valentine's Day in 1983, Prince released "Little Red Corvette," which eventually peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, his first single to end up higher on the general chart than the R&B one. Eighteen months later, he would become one of the biggest pop stars in the world, an artist made more mysterious by their fame. During sessions that lasted from December 1983 to April 1984, Prince finished Purple Rain, put together incidental music for the film, laid down the bulk of the Time's Ice Cream Castle and the Apollonia 6 album, and recorded Sheila E's The Glamorous Life, somehow without collapsing against the studio console.
The Lowdown: "Is that my echo?" Prince asks of the empty space that opens Piano & A Microphone 1983, before unloading both barrels into a propulsive, syncopated version of "17 Days". The nine songs on Piano & A Microphone are not mere echoes of the late icon's power; instead, this recording offers further glimpses of rougher facets of Prince's multi-planed brilliance. Saved on a single cassette tape pulled from the artist's infamous Vault at his Paisley Park home studio in Minnesota, this 35-minute collection documents a solo writing session, including alternate takes, loose covers, never-released song sketches and free-associating grooves.
The first sound you hear on Prince’s Piano & a Microphone 1983 is the singer’s speaking voice--a low, surprisingly sonorous deadpan. Prince employed a panoply of different vocal stylings across his officially released oeuvre, many of which are also represented here: the mellifluous croon of opener “17 Days,” the gravel-voiced pimp rap of “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” the gospel scream of “Mary Don’t You Weep.” But he rarely used his natural speaking voice in his music. As such, hearing it so clearly and prominently on this posthumous release--presumably the first of many standalone collections from the artist’s storied “vault”--creates a feeling of arresting intimacy.
As the first major release from Prince's vault (the 2017 expanded edition of Purple Rain was announced prior to his 2016 death), Piano & a Microphone 1983 is disarmingly casual. Its prosaic title is a precise description of the album's content -- it is nothing more than Prince sitting at a piano, playing whatever comes to his mind for just over half an hour -- yet even if the record delivers upon that promise, it's not quite as simple as it seems. For one, there's a level of intimacy on Piano & a Microphone unlike anything else in Prince's catalog.
B eginning the excavation of Prince's vault of unreleased music with this 1983 home cassette recording is a canny move. It can't sound dated, and it provides a pleasing circularity, taking its name and solo piano format from Prince's swansong tour. Of course, we all still hope there's one last classic unheard album or song to be retrieved. And while this short, spare offering dampens those hopes somewhat, there's no mistaking Prince's incandescent, unquenchable brilliance, as he swoops from song to song, vamps and pirouettes up and down the scales.