Let’s Go Crazy: Prince’s Legendary Vault is Real, and it’s Giving Us Years’ Worth of Posthumous Music
I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray…
When musician and rock star Prince died back in 2016, it truly felt like the end of an era, in no small part because of how prolific and gifted he was, as well as the sheer amount of content he was able to produce. Prince stayed prominent for decades, achieving longevity most artists only dream of. More than 20 years removed from his pinnacle achievement of Purple Rain, and he was still playing the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Losing him, especially so young, felt like a tragedy because it felt like we were losing a well of still-untapped talent from a modern-day Mozart who could visualize and synthesize music in a way none of us could possibly imagine.
Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…
Surely, there had to be more Prince material out there somewhere, in the form of unreleased and alternative songs and albums. Prince was meticulous in monitoring his personal collection, and yet very little of it has appeared in museums, at auction, in personal collections, etc. There were vague rumors here and there about what was going on with Prince’s catalog. Occasionally, there would be a release on his YouTube channel to remind you that it was him, after all, who wrote both “Manic Monday” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” with no disrespect intended to either the Bangles or Sinead O’Connor, respectively.
“Nothing Compares 2 U”
As much as I like what both the Bangles and O’Connor did with those songs and probably prefer them, Prince is still able to show off what both made him so unique and how he could bring out the best in his fellow musicians. For example, “Manic Monday” doesn’t change all that much in Prince’s rendition, but his tenor voice does provide different energy to the iconic pop hit. I particularly enjoy his rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” for a similar reason, Prince’s voice and the harmonizing background vocals show off a vulnerability that O’Connor’s version simply doesn’t. I ultimately prefer O’Connor’s rendition because it benefits from her singing by herself, the backing orchestration, and her soulful, alto performance. It’s truly one of the best songs of the 1990s. But there is a surprising strength to Prince’s rendition, a different energy to it. Hearing his rendition if you’re more familiar with O’Connor’s version can provide insight into his creative process.
These sorts of features kept Prince’s estate in the limelight, showing off the types of things Prince would’ve never put out for public consumption while he was still alive…
But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else: the afterworld…
So imagine my surprise when a recent report on 60 Minutes clarified one of the great mysteries of Prince’s legacy: just what is this supposed massive amount of material he left behind? It was speculated that there was a once-legendary vault, one whose existence I was first alerted to by filmmaker Kevin Smith in a routine he did 20 years ago about a failed collaboration between himself and Prince.
But now, CBS’ flagship news program has the answer: there is a vault, it is real, it has been opened, and soon, you, me, and Prince fans all over the world might get the chance to listen to the treasures it contains. 60 Minutes correspondent Jon Wertheim begins, as all good Prince fans do, with “dig, if you will, the picture.” He then goes on to describe Prince’s vault as “a trove of material this blazingly prolific artist secreted away,” and that “administrators of [Prince]’s estate are cracking open the vault.”
The story takes Wertheim to Prince’s iconic residence Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota, truly a funk/soul castle, the Mecca for Prince die-hards, and a house that encapsulates the man who lived there as much as Monticello does Thomas Jefferson. Wertheim describes Paisley Park as a “trippy dreamscape” and “Oz accented in purple, not green.”
A world of never-ending happiness; you can always see the sun, day or night…
Wertheim samples an upcoming album release entitled Welcome 2 America with Prince’s longtime keyboardist and music director, Morris Hayes. When asked why Prince kept so much material unreleased, Hayes responds that Prince would say things like “well, we’ll just have to revisit that down the line.”
8,000 original songs by Prince are estimated to have never left Paisley Park, which 60 Minutes calculates to mean that a new Prince album containing new music could theoretically happen every year for the next millennium. “I’d never seen anybody that had that much work inside of them…just an unending stream of music,” Hayes admitted.
“I asked him about that,” Prince’s vocalist Shelby J. recounted to 60 Minutes. “I’m like ‘what’s going to happen with this music?’ And he’s like ‘somebody will do something with it.’ Very cavalier, like, ‘I won’t be here.’ But he knew it’d see the light of day.”
Prince famously didn’t leave behind a will. The bank managing Prince’s estate through a family dispute with his living survivors hired Troy Carter, former Spotify executive, and manager to Lady Gaga, to “sort out the music collection and unlock its value.” Carter admits that the vault was the first thing he wanted to see when he traveled to Paisley Park for the first time. 60 Minutes’ cameras weren’t allowed to get super-close to the actual vault, but pictures from an investigation into Prince’s death made what it looks like from inside of it available to the public.
“It’s literally a vault,” Carter describes. “It’s a room, floor to ceiling with tapes. You have recorded music, a video archive, then you have a written archive.” Among Carter’s favorites among the vault’s holdings are Prince’s handwritten lyrics to my favorite song, “Little Red Corvette”. Carter moved the vault’s contents to Iron Mountain Film & Sound Archive Services in Hollywood to be digitized. According to 60 Minutes, “a team of archivists bears the responsibility of listening to the music and proposing new releases.”
Prince actually stayed out of the vault for many years because he forgot the password. When asked directly about the existence of it in 2014, two years before he died, Prince responded with “I don’t go back in time and listen to it. I worked on it, and brought it as far as I could right then. A lot of it I didn’t even finish.” As Prince eventually won ownership of his master recordings, his estate controls all his music. As Wertheim states, “the challenge [is] monetizing the catalog while doing right by Prince,” with Carter going as far to say “I want to make sure that Prince isn’t somewhere in Heaven giving me…that famous Prince side-eye.”
Because in this life, things are much harder than they are in the afterworld…
I was first turned on to the existence of Prince’s vault of unreleased music in a segment from An Evening with Kevin Smith, a 3-hour documentary of Smith’s titular speaking engagements at universities in the early 2000s. Among the film’s highlights is one wherein Smith describes his experience working with Prince on a failed documentary concept. Smith had reached out wanting to use one of Prince’s songs in his movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. While Prince declined that offer, he did ask Smith to collaborate on a documentary film project. Smith then flies from his beloved New Jersey out to Paisley Park, where he is soon overwhelmed by the lack of foresight and clear vision on Prince’s part. Smith chronicles his difficulties, with the common refrain being “but I don’t say anything, ‘cuz it’s Prince.” Smith eventually stumbles upon what the Paisley Park staff and Prince’s various collaborators refer to as “Prince World,” where, as Stephanie, Prince’s liaison to Smith, put it, “Prince doesn’t comprehend things the way you and I do.” She elaborates, saying “Prince will come to us periodically and say things like ‘it’s 3 in the morning in Minnesota, I really need a camel, go get it.’ And then, we try to explain to Prince…‘that is not physically or psychologically possible.’ And Prince says ‘why?’”
“What, is he being an asshole?” Smith asks.
“No, he’s not malicious when he does it,” Stephanie replies. “He just doesn’t understand why he can’t get exactly what he wants, he doesn’t he understand why someone can’t process a simple request like a camel at 3 in the morning in Minnesota.”
After filming for a week, growing ever more frustrated and confused by Prince’s behavior, Smith asks Stephanie what will happen to the project. She tells him that she wouldn’t “count on seeing it.” When Smith presses her to elaborate, Stephanie says “frankly, a lot of this stuff never sees the light of day. I’m his producer, right? I’ve produced…50 fully-produced music videos with costumes and sets and everything for him.” When Smith inquires which ones, she responds “You’ve never seen ‘em…‘cuz they’re for songs you’ve never heard.’”
“Where are they?” Smith asks.
“He puts them in a vault,” Stephanie responds.
“For what?” Smith pleads.
“I dunno,” Stephanie responds.
“And they’ve never been seen on MTV or anything? BET? VH1?”
“No,” she tells him. “He just puts them in a vault.”
I must admit that part of the reason the 60 Minutes piece resonated with me so much is because the existence of the vault brings a lot of validity to Smith’s anecdotes. The Prince story is easily one of my favorites that Smith has ever recounted, second only to one about the failed Superman reboot he worked on with producer Jon Peters in the mid-90s that is also included on An Evening with Kevin Smith. Additionally, I think that the notion of “Prince World” will be an important part of Prince’s legacy, showing an artist’s certain level of detachment from reality either in spite of or because of his natural eccentricity and genius.
Don’t make me waste my time…Don’t make me lose my mind, baby…
I’ve also been reflecting about this present moment, as the vault’s treasures are finally about to be unveiled, and what Prince would think of the current state of the world five years after he left it, particularly his native Minneapolis. Shelby J. articulates it better than I ever could in the 60 Minutes piece: “The injustice and inequality, Prince knew about that firsthand, growing up a Black man. He knew what that was, and he could write about and he could sing about it. You’ve got Breonna Taylor, you’ve got Ahmaud Arbery, you’ve got George Floyd going on…it’s like, the movement is happening, and I think the world is ready to absorb what he’s saying on [the Welcome 2 America album]. It’s right on time, ya know, right on time.”
In a wonderful opinion piece, CNN senior writer Lisa Respers France echoes those thoughts by beginning with the headline “Prince: Five years after his death, his beloved Minneapolis has been in turmoil”. Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Prince’s untimely death, she writes that “five years later, I can’t help but reflect on what the man and the artist might have made of what’s been happening in his hometown. I imagine how heartbroken he would have been, how he probably would have taken to the streets to protest, and the great art that may have come from his pain.”
Her thesis seems to be that, as she puts it, “in many ways, it feels like Prince foretold that these days would come.” The article ends with “the music video for his single ‘Baltimore’ ends with a quote from Prince. ‘The system is broken,’ the quote reads. ‘It’s going to take the young people to fix it this time. We need new ideas, new life…’ None of us ever imagined that Prince wouldn’t be around to see young people trying to do just that.”
I’m excited, but I don’t why…
Maybe it’s ‘cuz we’re all gonna die…
When we do, what’s it all for…?
A lot of questions have been raised about Prince’s wishes. Would he be comfortable with the world listening to the contents of his storied vault? All indications seem to point in that direction. Prince was an eccentric genius, his mind constantly creating, performing, and playing a steady stream of new music. I can’t speak for the man himself, but I think Prince would be pleased with the opportunity to stay relevant, perhaps even current, past his earthly demise. I see no evidence of people benefiting from Prince’s posthumous output in a way that he would have been uncomfortable with.
When I think of Prince’s vault, I think of the buzz surrounding the upcoming documentary movie Get Back, in which Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson will compile never-before-seen footage of the Beatles recording what would end up being their final album, Let It Be. It promises to be an intimate portrait of the Fab Four that is sure to have us witness their final clashes, but also the collaboration that made them as skillful as they were. With only half of their roster alive to express approval, would either John Lennon or George Harrison be comfortable knowing millions of fans would be witnessing that footage decades later? I can’t be confident of that. What I can say is that the Beatles, like Prince, have become an iconic part of our shared collective culture, and unearthing new insight, or content, or especially music is the equivalent of a great archeological discovery on a historical topic we all thought we knew well.
I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if I went too fast…
I think Prince knew that his vault would be of interest to someone at some point. He was a perfectionist and someone who recorded everything, even Kevin Smith noted how every room in Paisley Park was wired for sound. Ultimately, I think he knew what he was doing when he let the decisions about its contents be spared for another day, and it is us who will continue to reap the benefit of Prince’s genius for years and years to come. As the man himself said, “life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last…”