Happy 20th Anniversary to Prince’s Crystal Ball, originally released January 29, 1998.
For many Prince fans, there were several releases (or should that be un-releases) in his canon that took on mythical status. Suddenly shelved projects like The Black Album that became the stuff of legend for the fans of The Purple One who just couldn’t get enough of his material despite his overly prolific release schedule.
Crystal Ball was such a project.
Crystal Ball is the Sign O’ the Times album that never was. Originally intended as a triple album, Sign O’ the Times got stripped backed and reworked into the majestic double disc set we all know and love.
So when, in 1996, Prince hyped through his website that he was releasing a multi-disc set of never-heard-before material entitled Crystal Ball, I just had to get one. Shipped directly from Paisley Park to your home, the set arrived in an intriguing round-glass case containing not only the promised 3-disc set, but also two bonus discs: The Truth (an all acoustic album) and Kamasutra (an inspired instrumental album.)
What Crystal Ball had promised versus what it delivered depended on your level of Prince fandom. It certainly was a mixed bag of songs you had never heard before thrown in with some that had previously existed in one form or another.
Songs like “Ripopgodazippa” (part of the Showgirls soundtrack,) “LoveSign” (a remix of a track that debuted on the 1800-New-Funk collection,) “2morrow” (a rework of an NPG song) “So Dark” (another rework of “Dark” off the Come album) and “Tell Me How U Wanna Be Done” (an extended coda from “The Continental” from the Love Symbol release)—and that’s just on Disc I—left me feeling a little hoodwinked by the “unreleased” tag given the set.
But it was the tracks that surrounded these that made Crystal Ball worth the price of admission.
With a flabby bass drum intro, the title track “Crystal Ball” had me from beat one. It seemed to reference so much of Prince’s work. The Around the World in A Day inspired horn blows, Parade/Batman era bell and string arrangements (thank you Clare Fisher), and the 1999 synth lines make the first minute thirty of the song already feel epic. And once Prince’s vocals hit, this eclectic mix of sounds falls into place. Dark, intriguing, irresistible, the song’s progression takes in so many styles, tempos and time signatures that had it been released back in ‘96 it would have shaken up the whole musical landscape.
“Dream Factory” by contrast, counters the darkness of “Crystal Ball” with a lighter, airier feel. With Camille-esque vocals, it seduces in the verses before crashing the funk party with a hard rock feel in the choruses.
Additional unreleased tracks like “Acknowledge Me” (which was on, then off, then on then off again The Gold Experience) “Hide The Bone” (a funk-rock “Peach-esque’”jam) and “Movie Star” (an ’86 off-cut that was included due to it being D’Angelo’s favorite bootleg) fill out Disc I and hold the promise of what was to unfold on the remaining discs.
Disc II follows a similar vein with unreleased tracks threaded throughout with songs that were readily available to the diehard Prince fan if they knew where to look. “Interactive” is a funky little ditty that first appeared on Prince’s CD-ROM game of the same title, whilst a newly edited version of “Good Love” was also included (originally available on the Bright Lights, Big City Soundtrack)
But thankfully these are the only rehashes on Disc II. What remains is a kaleidoscope of funk ranging from the bluesy “Da Bang,” the strutting groove of “Calhoun Square,” and the hyper speed funk of “What’s My Name?”
“Crucial,” a Sign O’ the Times contender, is a beautiful song that showcases Prince’s ability as a composer and the a capella retelling of ‘An Honest Man’ showcases his gifts as a vocalist. The bombastic ‘Strays of the World’ was the opening of Prince’s planned Ulysses musical and is filled with all the over-the-top pomp and ceremony one would expect from a purple hued Broadway show.
The undisputed standouts on Disc II though are the 1983 extended funk jam of “Cloreen Baconskin” (featuring Prince on bass and Morris Day on drums) that clicks in at a self-indulgent 15 minutes and the mind-blowingly funky “Sexual Suicide” that is Prince at his most irresistible.
Disc III opens with the raucous “Days of Wild” giving us a glimpse into the typical extended live jams Prince and The NPG were busting out on stages the world over at the time.
“Last Heart” and “Poom Poom” are the yin and yang of Prince’s Gemini twins. The former being a perfectly playful pop track, while the latter is a hyper-sexualized concoction with somewhat juvenile lyrics set against a sweaty, slithering groove.
With one of the most beautiful arrangements you are ever likely to hear, “She Gave Her Angels” soars with air and light and builds without being overbearing or collapsing under its own weight.
The original working of “Come,” “18 & Over” is a delight to hear and shows how a groove, a feel and certain elements of a song can be reborn into a new identity and grow from the experience. It’s these moments of insight into the creative process that I love. Just imagining how Prince would hear the track and think, “Hmmmmm, maybe I can do something more with this.”
“The Ride” is a track first heard on the Sacrifice of Victor video. A purple tinge on a standard 12 bar blues groove, the laid back feel to the track is not trying to prove a point, it’s just being. And it’s cooler for that.
The additional inclusion of the already available “Loose” (in a tweaked-out version) and “P. Control” lessens the impact of the third disc, but thankfully the remaining two tracks, “Make Your Mama Happy” (an uplifting Sly & The Family Stone influenced track culled from ’86) and the blissful album closer “Goodbye” (which vied for inclusion on both the Love Symbol and Emancipation projects) redeem the disc.
Crystal Ball both hit and missed in terms of satisfying my hunger for unreleased tracks. At the time of its release I couldn’t help but feel a little robbed with a lot of songs already getting airings on "official releases.” Twenty years on, I’m a little more forgiving for their inclusion.
And while many of the remaining “unreleased” songs had been traded among the fan community for many years prior, it was refreshing to get them in all their pristine studio production glory (as opposed to the warbled, lo-fi offerings we had held onto so tightly.) For the few songs that I hadn't heard in any way, shape, or form, the set was truly coveted.
It’s probably best to view Crystal Ball as a collection of purple snapshots that make you wonder what could have been if the individual songs had seen the light of day when they were originally slated. Widely ignored by the general public, it remains a must have for any diehard Prince fan. For those wanting to explore more of Prince’s artistry and to better understand his creative process, it deserves a spin or two.