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.
That intimacy may be the most striking thing about this slim but reverently presented recording of Prince at the piano just a few months before work began on his epochal 1984 album and film Purple Rain. Recorded live in the artist’s home studio, the 34-minute rehearsal is preserved in its entirety, interrupted only by the engineer flipping over the tape. Unlike the studio-polished bonus tracks on last year’s expanded edition of Purple Rain, the songs here are improvised, seemingly not intended for public consumption.
The first half of Piano & a Microphone 1983 unfolds as a kind of stream-of-consciousness medley: Prince is barely a minute into “Purple Rain” before he drifts into the next song, a sublime but equally fragmentary cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Even the album’s more fleshed-out tracks—such as “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a loose cover of the traditional African-American spiritual—feel less like finished pieces than fleeting glimpses into Prince’s creative process. Elsewhere, the more familiar songs are mere sketches of their studio versions: The effervescent “17 Days” is performed as a bluesy vamp, while the syrupy “International Lover” is halting and exploratory.
The album’s three previously unreleased songs are also of note, even if they’re just rough drafts. “Wednesday,” intended at one point for protégée Jill Jones to sing in Purple Rain, is pretty but oddly stilted, pitched somewhere between a Joni Mitchell homage and a showtune, with a jarring line about contemplating suicide. “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” is a germ of what could have been a skit for Morris Day and the Time, with Prince improvising comical lyrics about a one-night stand gone wrong. The closest thing here to a buried treasure is closing track “Why the Butterflies,” an anguished tone poem on the maternal themes of “When Doves Cry.” Prince’s performance of the few, half-enunciated lines is spellbinding, his fragile falsetto slowly finding the melody, almost as he were feeling his way through a darkened room.
Hearing Prince work his way through “Strange Relationship” four years before it appeared on Sign ‘o’ the Times is a revealing look at his songwriting process, highlighting the way a song can gestate for years before being released, often radically different than its original form. By all accounts, music for Prince was both vocation and avocation, and it’s a testament to his talent that even at play he was nothing short of transcendent.