Reckoning with the Ethics of the Ever-Unfurling Prince Vault

The demos, b-sides and rarities keep coming. How should we feel about listening?

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Reckoning with the Ethics of the Ever-Unfurling Prince Vault

Last Friday, Prince’s estate surprise-dropped an acoustic demo of a 20-year-old Prince singing a sparse version of “I Feel For You,” the song Chaka Khan would later turn into a comeback hit in 1984. The recording was lifted from a cassette tape found in the singer’s massive archives and—as the estate is quick to point out—is available for purchase for $15.00 on their website, on purple vinyl, no less.

Is the recording good? Undoubtedly. The cassette was made in the winter of 1978-79, the same year Prince’s debut album came out, and even on the stripped-down recording, it’s startling to hear how fully fledged Prince’s vocal patterns and musical talents were. The demo stands just fine on its own, with or without Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo.

What’s less clear? Whether we should have access to this recording, an early unfinished work by a notoriously private artist, at all.

Since Prince died unexpectedly in 2016, his legacy has been handled with all the grace of a hail Mary pass. Despite having sold an estimated 100,000,000 albums, he left no will, and three years later, his $200 million estate remains unsettled and undisbursed to his sister and five half-siblings, though not without burning through $45 million in administrative fees in the process. Paisley Park, Prince’s home and private studio, is now being managed by his estate (per Variety) after taking over from Graceland Holdings—yes, the same company that oversees that Graceland—and was opened to the public within six months of the singer’s death. For those curious, the tour begins in the atrium, where Prince’s ashes were at one time on display in an urn resembling a miniature Paisley Park and two caged white doves coo for ambiance nearby. It ends in the gift shop, where patrons can buy ping pong balls emblazoned with the Love Symbol.

All of these reactions read as a gross defiance of the privacy Prince maintained while he was alive. Until his death, he remained tight-lipped about his personal life, not even cracking for a trademarked come-to-Oprah moment when she interviewed him at Paisley Park shortly after the death of his infant son in 1996 (“It’s all good. Never mind what you hear,” Prince said in response). He hid the extent of his addiction, stashing opiates inside aspirin bottles and arranging his medical appointments for himself, privately.

There’s a weight to black celebrity status, one that not everyone willingly withstands (see: Dave Chapelle, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo). “Black stardom is rough,” Chris Rock once pointed out. “You represent the race, and you have responsibilities that go beyond your art. How dare you just be excellent?” While Prince defied easy racial and gender stereotypes through over-the-top costuming and pointed lyrics, there’s probably a reason that Purple Rain, his most guitar hero-y album, is often hailed as his best: a three-minute guitar solo on “Purple Rain” checks the traditional boxes of what masculinity and black musicianship look like more readily than Prince channelling the mysticism of the female orgasm for eight minutes on “Do Me, Baby.” Whether Prince acknowledged them or not, there were (and are) firm expectations weighing on him as a black artist—you can hardly blame him for upholding those personal life boundaries over the course of such a lengthy career.

The pressure of those expectations is most evident in Prince’s relationship with the industry side of the music industry. Four years after Warner Bros. signed Prince to what was then, in 1992, the biggest recording contract in history, he etched “Slave” across his cheek and changed his name to an intentionally unpronounceable symbol, officially ushering in “The Artist Formerly Known As” era and taking ownership of his name in the process. He cranked out albums as quickly as possible to exit the contract, and in 2014 he told Rolling Stone that he may have intentionally withheld music from Warner Bros. as well: “I didn’t always give the record companies the best song,” he said, hinting that there was enough unreleased material to fill multiple vaults.

These details are classic Prince lore and further contribute to his enigmatic double status as a mega-celebrity and largely unknowable figure. There’s a reason Beyoncé modelled her relationship with the public off of Prince’s—aside from the hyper-controlled narrative of Lemonade, how much do you know about Beyonce’s personal life? His ability to rebel against expectations could have been interpreted, at best, as an impish need for artistic freedom and, at worst, as deep-seated paranoia that he was not in total control. In 2015, he pulled all his music from Spotify, citing that the streaming giant didn’t compensate artists properly, and his antagonistic relationship with uncopyrighted use of his music on YouTube is legendary.

Fast forward to 2019. Prince’s entire catalogue, some 49 albums, is on Spotify. His YouTube channel is rampant with videos of live performances from across the decades, and fan videos are no longer removed via aggressive notice-and-takedown procedures. Warner Bros. is re-releasing 1999 in a box set containing 35 new tracks from Prince’s vault, effectively quadrupling the album in length. We now get to listen to “I Feel For You” without fear of judgement in 2019—what a time to be alive.

Given these details, it’s easy to have a kneejerk reaction in the face of the blatant posturing and profiting that seems to plague Prince’s legacy. It feels cheap to see his name splashed across Spotify’s ReleaseRadar for new music, knowing there’s nothing really new coming from him, and there never will be. Charging $100 for an hour-and-a-half stint inside Paisley Park’s stark, Prince-less walls feels borderline morose.

But if we could do anything for Prince (we can’t, nor would he care if we tried, but it’s a gesture), it’s to rise to the challenge of thinking outside conventional norms. Yes, it’s nauseating to think of Paisley Park as the next Graceland, but it’s also worth noting that when Prince died, his estate was in freefall, facing considerable tax bills and looming upkeep costs. “Paisley Park is in your heart,” Prince once sang, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fall into disrepair if left unattended. His family made a judgement call and opened it and its vaults up to save what was left, giving the public more access to Prince than we ever had while he was alive.

And maybe that’s not so far off from what Prince would have wanted. He opened Paisley Park for tours in the past, charging $15 in 2000 to see exhibits he curated during his own lifetime. Even the Saturday before he died, Prince welcomed the public into his home, inviting in over 200 guests for a house party where he unveiled a new purple guitar and piano. He watched his parties from above on a balcony, included in them, but at a distance. He had an obsession with breakfast foods that ran deep (as The Chappelle Show lovingly informed us) and frequently treated guests to pancakes. He anonymously supported environmental initiatives, hackathons for underrepresented youth and public libraries. He was a quiet fixture of the Minneapolis music scene, long after he was famous enough to have abandoned the Midwest for either coast.

At the end of the day, Prince’s aloof public persona, defined by misdirection, quips and a hell of a lot of side-eye, makes it impossible to know for certain how he’d react to each new mining expedition into his private vaults. In 1991, Prince told Details that “There’s not much I want them to know about me, other than the music.” It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for fans feeling ethically icky about enjoying any posthumous transmissions from Prince, nor will they ever have the luxury of closure via a graceful final bow in the vein of Blackstar, but if what Prince truly wanted was for his music to stand independently of him, then maybe we can allow ourselves to appreciate each newly emerged recording for what it is: a snapshot of art from an icon existing on its own terms, regardless of context. After all, isn’t that how Prince did everything else?

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