Only a few performers have written enough great songs that they could afford to give some away to other artists: Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Lennon & McCartney, Missy Elliott, the Bee Gees, Chic and perhaps most of all, Prince. The Prolific Purple Priapist had many protégés (most of them female) and side groups, and in 1985, after the blockbuster success of “Purple Rain,” he started the Paisley Park label and began outfitting its acts with songs from his massive vault. Incredibly, he was writing and recording “a song a day” in this stage, sound engineer Susan Rogers has said. The new Prince album “Originals,” authorized by his estate, collects fifteen of the songs he recorded and gifted to others. Hearing him sing lyrics he often intended for women suits our nonbinary era.
We’ve ranked the fifteen songs, best to worst, using a rating system of one to five Princes. (Prince icon by Hollis Campbell from Noun Project.)
Recorded by Apollonia 6 (1984)
Many of the songs Prince gave to female singers were fantasies for the male gaze, including this submissive come-on, which he drives with a new-wave-ish keyboard hook. Because of the singer’s determination to challenge sexual and racial categories, it’s fascinating to hear him sing the words he gave to Apollonia: “No girl’s body can compete with mine.”
Is it about sex?: See song title.
Prince-iest moment: “Come on, kiss the gun” leaves little room for misunderstanding.
Recorded by the Time (1984)
First clue: It opens with monkey noises. In this hilarious impersonation of a cocky and clueless Lothario who’s trying to lure a woman to his crib (“I want to take you to my cage / Lock you up and hide the key”), Prince builds an ace groove, with help from Time guitarist Jesse Johnson. And with Prince’s crazy, comic commitment to the song, maybe the “cage” line succeeds.
Is it about sex?: Girl, he’d love to show ya.
Prince-iest moment: The title is one of his unlimited supply of synonyms for sex.
“Love...Thy Will Be Done”
Recorded by Martika (1991)
The Cuban American singer Martika wanted to work with Prince, so she flew to Minneapolis, he borrowed her notebook, found a prayer she’d written and turned it into a song. The music he wrote is peculiar and haunting, with a calm pace and one chord. Prince later became so devout that he renounced profanity, and in this song about surrendering to God, he’s on his way.
Is it about sex?: No, because Prince didn’t write the words.
Prince-iest moment: The complex bridge, with layers of Prince vocals stacked high.
Recorded by Sheila E. (1984)
The range and quality of songs Prince wrote in 1983 and 1984 is stunning. “Noon Rendezvous” is a brief, spare ballad, just piano and a distant drum machine, and Prince delivers the elegant melody in a thoughtful falsetto. This tribute to afternoon delights is one of his best vocal performances, right up there with “The Beautiful Ones.”
Is it about sex?: Duh.
Prince-iest moment: The song has a drum machine, but no tempo
Recorded by Vanity 6 (1982)
Prince was a big fan of British synthesizer whiz Gary Numan, whom he called “a genius,” and “Make-Up,” one of the earliest songs on this album, comes from the height of his new wave infatuation. With a clipped synth riff and a gated drum machine, Prince offers “advice” on how to attract a man. “I guess I’ll wear my camisole” is a lyric he wrote for the female singer Vanity, but coming from him, it’s still believable.
Is it about sex?: Please pay attention.
Prince-iest moment: “If I wear a dress / He will never call / So I wear much less” is not great advice.
“You’re My Love”
Recorded by Kenny Rogers (1986)
Grandfatherly country singer Kenny Rogers didn’t quite know how to handle this pledge of devotion and fealty. Prince’s version evokes Philly Soul producers Gamble and Huff, and he croons like he’s trying to steal a woman from Teddy Pendergrass. He was rarely this simple, direct and chaste.
Is it about sex?: Oddly, no.
Prince-iest moment: The churchy high note (“yah-ooooo”) he holds coming out of the bridge.
“The Glamorous Life”
Recorded by Sheila E. (1984)
A lot of ‘80s pop songs tried to reckon with consumerism. In one of the biggest hits he gave away, Prince describes a woman who wants it all: love, sex, diamonds and her independence. In the Hollywood ending, she falls in love (after having sex seven times in a row) and realizes that’s more important than wealth. Again, it’s fun to hear Prince sing lyrics he wrote for a woman.
Is it about sex?: Seven times, at 55 Secret Street.
Prince-iest moment: “Boys with small talk and small minds / Really don’t impress me in bed” is a hell of a motto.
“Gigolos Get Lonely Too”
Recorded by the Time (1983)
A great, knowing ploy from Prince — this proclamation of sensitivity and loneliness proves to be just one more trick for getting a woman into bed. It’s a corrupted Quiet Storm ballad, with slinky guitar by Jesse Johnson of the Time.
Is it about sex?: The singer sure hopes so.
Prince-iest moment: If you have sex with me, maybe I’ll settle down with you. Sure, guy. Sure.
“Nothing Compares 2 U”
Recorded by the Family (1985)
Prince wrote this agonized ballad not about an absent lover, but about his housekeeper, who’d left his employ due to a death in the family. “The song came out like a sneeze,” sound engineer Susan Rogers later recalled. This was a landmark in his songwriting — he was learning to be subtle — and has a stirring sax solo by Eric Leeds, but nothing compares to the version Sinead O’Connor released in 1990.
Is it about sex?: Probably not.
Prince-iest moment: “I can see whomever I choose.” Grammar mattered to Prince.
Recorded by Sheila E. (1985)
The longest song on “Originals” is a 6:40 funk workout in the style of James Brown, with Prince playing everything except the sax and percussion. “Sheila E.’s my name,” he sings, and then asks, “Don’t you wanna be my bitch?” It’s a nonsense song, with a small debt to “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa, that gets over on dizzy enthusiasm and swagger.
Is it about sex?: “If you got a big enough stick” doesn’t refer to an actual stick.
Prince-iest moment: “Uh-huh. Lawd!” he ad-libs.
“Baby You’re A Trip”
Recorded by Jill Jones (1987)
As on many “Originals” songs, Prince is singing over pretty much the same music track used by the singer to whom he gave it, here his one-time girlfriend Jill Jones. It’s a ballad about frustration and distance, with pearly falsetto licks, but the Linn drum machine groove is clumsy, and at nearly six minutes, it wears out its welcome.
Is it about sex?: Only by implication.
Prince-iest moment: “You’d be great in motion pictures / ‘Cause baby you really got me blind” is a fine example of Prince not worrying too much about lyrics.
“Wouldn’t You Love To Love Me?”
Recorded by Taja Sevelle (1987)
This song had been sitting in Prince’s vault for years, and before Minneapolis singer Taja Sevelle recorded it, he offered it to Michael Jackson, who turned it down. There’s a rough groove, with interesting chord changes and echoing guitar, and it holds up for the nearly six-minute length. But did Prince really think Michael Jackson would sing, “If you can get me off / Sure I’ll love you”?
Is it about sex?: Yes, via seduction.
Prince-iest moment: A few James Brown falsetto shrieks and spectral organ fills.
Recorded by Mazarati (1986)
Prince was struggling to record a song called “Kiss,” which he gave to the Minneapolis funk band Mazarati – but when he heard their arrangement of it, he took it back from them. He did gift them this humdrum, funky strut, which opens with a fanfare reminiscent of “1999,” then lapses into a choppy, unpleasant verse melody. It’s a groove in search of a song. Mazarati’s 7:23 version of it might cause death.
Is it about sex?: Honestly, who can tell?
Prince-iest moment: The crunchy electric guitar riffs he plays on the chorus.
Recorded by the Bangles (1985)
Prince was surprised, and maybe miffed, when he found out the Bangles recorded a new backing track for this song about hating your job — bands usually felt they couldn’t improve what he’d played. After hearing his unusually weak and static version, the Bangles’ decision seems brilliant. Singer Susanna Hoffs lifted the lazy rhyme scheme and repetitive melody by adding more high notes, so the defiance feels giddy — in Prince’s hands, it’s merely glum.
Is it about sex?: Yes, but not until the bridge.
Prince-iest moment: If you woke up at 6 a.m. and can’t get to work by 9, you’re a rock star.
Recorded by Sheila E. (1985)
An ungainly mess with a cluttered and sometimes atonal arrangement. It’s an inspired story – a young Italian peasant girl, deluded or perhaps visionary, becomes obsessed with the great Renaissance painter Michelangelo — but Prince couldn’t pull it together. Sheila E. was the most successful of his protégés, but not because of this song.
Is it about sex?: The peasant believes she’s in bed with Michelangelo.
Prince-iest moment: Dragging out this dreck for 5:23.