Like a stricken priest staring up toward the mysteries of his chapel, Prince died in the place he thought about most: the recording studio. Back in the Eighties he would call bandmates at 4 a.m. and taunt: “I’m cutting hits, what are you doing?” The prodigious output of sounds, looks, and moves, the effortless mastery, only seemed to encourage his obsessive and perfectionist tendencies — if he could afford to give away as many songs to other artists as he did, maybe he also felt compelled to top them. Prince’s vault is said to hold hundreds of deleted tracks and cast-offs, entire albums completed then shelved. Already there’s speculation about its fate. Will we finally get an official release of “Electric Intercourse” or “Dance With the Devil”? One of those 25-minute-plus versions of “I Would Die 4 U”? At least a reissue of the uncanny Sign o’ the Times concert film?
Some of it has circulated for years in compilations lovingly bootlegged, with a certain guilty irony, by fans — his heroic desire for creative autonomy was also a quiet need for control, as several collaborators learned before Warner Records did. Yet the cult of Prince urged you toward heresies: Since his death I’ve spent many hours replaying The Dawn, somebody’s insanely elaborate reconstruction of an album Prince kept revising but never completed. (The compiler of The Dawn is anonymous, presumably out of legal anxiety.) At one point during the 1980s it was supposed to be a musical, and it came close enough to appearing (in a wildly different form) circa 1997 that a cassette single advertised the event. The bootleg surveys and clarifies his disoriented work from that period, when Prince fought Warner’s contractual demands with a glistening deluge of albums: The Dawn strobes, refracts, then gathers itself together again.
Three discs long, at 77 minutes each, the album was pieced together from outtakes, unreleased tracks, and alternate mixes. Even the best-known songs gain a new context: “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Prince’s last top-five hit, always sounded quaint to me, but here, interpolating the saxophone part from Mayte Garcia’s Spanish-language version, it wanders far enough afield to give that title weary poignancy. The dauphin’s opinion of hip-hop flickered between curiosity and antagonism; he granted MC Cat Glover a thrilling cameo on the sample-based Lovesexy single “Alphabet St.” — then hired feeble ringers like Tony M., who made Prince look either disinterested in rap or condescending to it. But the heavier beats on The Dawn suggest he was paying some attention, none more insistently than “Pussy Control,” a half-rapped sex fantasy that plays horniness as absurdity: There’s a female pimp, Ms. Control, a club named International Balls, and “a weepy-eyed white girl riding a hog.”
Hearing drum machines Prince programmed, there’s a sensation of brief force leaving open space, like fingers parting your lips. The Dawn is so monumental that it manages the inverse: Within the four hours of music, including computerized narration, the jokes, ad-libs, and transitions create moments of fleeting calm. I love the part on “The Pope” when Prince says “a loop is a loop is a loop,” and then loops it. I listen for the tambourine coyly emerging from the mix during “Shy.” I always startle at the final minute of the closing track, “Gold,” when all of the instruments drop away and Prince chants “na, na na, na na, na naaaa na” while seemingly dumping a bag of iridescent glitter over his head.
Prince returned to the religiously charged image of “the dawn” again and again, never circumscribing it with a definition. His album of the same name would coalesce and then dissolve. The huge mid-Nineties tracklist purportedly featured songs that surfaced across several different projects, including, in its entirety, the 1994 LP Come. On Controversy or Purple Rain, rock, funk, disco, and soul all sit next to one another, a quilt that Prince wants wrapped around you. This aesthetic culminated with Sign o’ the Times, where Prince studies decades of popular music and diagrams the mandala connecting everything. Come is a misfit among his albums, cohesive in texture yet amorphous in form, and one of my favorites. Its bleakly sensual songs extend throughout The Dawn, tendrils improvising a trunk. “Come” asks, “Can I suck you, baby?” before adding: “If you could see the future, would you try?”
Only months before The Dawn‘s unstable mass yielded Come, Prince changed his alias to the “Love Symbol” in protest against Warner. People ridiculed him, as though he genuinely thought that would void his contract, like he hadn’t learned about theater from Little Richard’s capes and winks. But the label did eventually capitulate, and now we can say, in the pleasing phrase, that Prince died owning his masters. Listening to The Dawn always makes me think of that symbol: Both the bootleg and the image are truthful contrivances, indecipherable curlicues both male and female. Prince traced a shape so many strain toward. Your pose collapses and you make another. How wobbly it feels, how miraculous, to translate these unspeakable glyphs.