(Featured Image: Languishing on the inner sleeve of 1999, 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)
It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the color purple took on the deep significance it would come to hold in Prince’s creative universe. The reference to a “purple lawn” in his 1976 song “Leaving for New York” was an interesting piece of trivia, but it felt more like an early attempt at Joni Mitchell-esque lyrical impressionism than the genuine birth of a motif. It wasn’t until much later, after the pastel pinks and blues of 1979’s Prince and the stark monochrome of 1980’s Dirty Mind, when the color began to show up in earnest. The album cover for 1981’s Controversy featured a lavender font, with Prince sporting one of his trademark studded trenchcoats in a matching color. And of course, at some point after he moved into his house on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen, Prince had the exterior painted from its original cream color to an electric purple.
Whether the color’s private importance to Prince was a recent development or a long-simmering fixation, however, it was on his fifth album in 1982 that he finally shared it with the world. 1999 is rife with lyrical references to purple: it’s the color of the title track’s apocalyptic sky; the “rock” he invites listeners to “take a bite of” in “D.M.S.R.”; the “star in the night supreme” to which he compares his lover in “Automatic”; the promised “love-amour” and the “high” he craves in “All the Critics Love U in New York.” The album’s artwork, too, is dominated by purples of all shades: from the deep royal purple of the background to the phallic, red-tinged shades of the lettering, to the cool violet tones of the inner sleeve photo of Prince with his backing band. Yet not even this veritable explosion of purple makes as clear a statement as another song, recorded at some point during the 1999 sessions and titled simply “Purple Music.”
Both musically and lyrically, “Purple Music” picks up where “All the Critics” left off–expanding on its themes in every sense of the phrase. Like that (presumably) earlier song, it’s a minimalist, proto-techno groove, driven by a sputtering Linn LM-1 beat and a murky, almost subliminal synth-bass line. But where “Critics” occasionally broke the tension with its sing-song chorus, “Purple Music” just builds and builds: layering in nervous chicken-scratch guitar, sinuous bass, rapid-fire LM-1 fills, and dissonant keyboard flourishes while Prince rotates through a series of eight mini-verses–repeating some once, several many times, and one never at all. As is typical in Prince’s discography, there’s more going on here than mere repetition. He sings the first verse (“Don’t need no reefer, don’t need cocaine / Purple music does the same to my brain / And I’m high, so high”) no less than six times in the song’s 10 and a half minutes, but each delivery is different: from a “Controversy”-style android recitation, to a sensual near-whisper, to an eroticized gasp. Other phrases are played with, deconstructed, and then reassembled throughout the song, as he alternates between using his words as a vehicle for meaning and relishing in their purely sonic properties.
At their most cogent, those words constitute a kind of manifesto–Prince’s most straightforward artistic statement of intent this side of “D.M.S.R.” “Purple Music,” we learn, “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules,” and “can’t be judged, it happens naturally.” There’s even a kind of capsule summary of the Minneapolis Sound in the lines, “Don’t need no cymbals, no saxophone / Just need to find me a style of my own”–a less bellicose version, perhaps, of “Critics”’ “It’s time for a new direction / It’s time for jazz to die.” Meanwhile, the references to “reefer” and cocaine–both rendered obsolete by “Purple Music”’s naturally intoxicating properties–echo the second half of the “Critics” verse: “Fourth day of November / We need a purple high.” Even the sheer mania of Prince’s vocal performance speaks to his compulsive creative drive: an extended dramatization of “Critics”’ mantralike chant, “Body don’t wanna quit, gotta get another hit.”
Yet if “Purple Music” retreads familiar thematic territory, it also takes some darker, more esoteric detours than its officially-released counterparts. One can detect resonances of the occult–or, at the very least, some of the more paganistic strains of Christianity–in the lines, “We’ll find a serpent to sacrifice / We’ll make a wish and then we’ll visit purple paradise.” Later, a surreal spoken-word vignette finds Prince in the role of a manservant asking his master what he “would like to bathe in this morning,” and audibly blanching at the (unheard) response; shades of Elizabeth Báthory and her alleged vampiric predilection for bathing in the blood of virgins. “Purple Music,” then, is not only an art form and an intoxicant, but also a kind of witchcraft–an association which an older, more devout Prince would categorically disavow. “Funk is the opposite of magic,” he’d flatly tell Dan Piepenbring, the coauthor of his unfinished memoir, in 2016 (Prince 2019 15). But in 1982, funk’s magickal possibilities remained a source of morbid fascination.
With apologies to Prince in heaven, it’s this undercurrent of sorcery that makes “Purple Music” such a great outtake. Like a handful of other unreleased tracks from the same period–see, for example, “Extraloveable” and “Lust U Always,” both notably absent from the forthcoming deluxe remaster of 1999–the song feels like the private tinkering of an unhinged genius: a funky Aleister Crowley drawing ritual circles in his suburban Boleskine House; a post-disco Dr. Frankenstein cackling over his Tesla coil-powered drum machine. The fact that most circulating recordings come swathed in generations of tape hiss only adds to the sense of illicitness. When “Purple Music” finally sees the officially-sanctioned light of day later this month, I’m almost afraid that it will lose some of its arcane allure.
If Prince were still with us, of course, it’s likely that a very different version of “Purple Music” would have come out. He first took the song for a test drive outside the Vault in July 2010, during an aftershow at Le New Morning in Paris–appropriately enough, as part of a medley with “All the Critics Love U in New York.” Six years later, it started showing up in his Piano & A Microphone setlists under a new title, “Welcome 2 the Freedom Galaxy”; in his introduction to the memoir, Piepenbring quotes Prince saying he “just might release it” (Prince 2019 30). If the version of “Extraloveable” released in 2011 (and again in 2013 and 2015) is any indication, “Welcome 2 the Freedom Galaxy” would have been a more polished, sanitized take on “Purple Music”; in his 2016 live performances, Prince even replaced the words “reefer” and “cocaine” with “whiskey” and “champagne.”
In the end, though, the song that will become widely available in a few weeks is to all appearances the raw, uncut original–and I, at least, think that’s a good thing. The core of “Purple Music,” its recipe for Prince’s trailblazing style, clearly resonated with the artist throughout his life, even if the darker undertones most likely didn’t. And those darker undertones make a solid case that (whether Prince wanted to admit it or not) sometimes funk is just a little bit like magic.
(“Unofficial” versions of “Purple Music” are currently available for streaming on YouTube; given the impending release of 1999 Deluxe, however, I’m going to hold off on linking anything just yet.)