A guilt-ridden listen to Prince’s ‘Piano & A Microphone 1983’
Prince has long been regarded as one of the most talented musicians the popular music world has ever seen; a multi-instrumentalist, he had the ability to independently churn out hits throughout his illustrious career, striking the perfect balance between complexity and simplicity. Yet, because of his mysterious aura, few knew his music making process, and even fewer actually witnessed it. Finally, with the posthumous release of Piano & A Microphone 1983, a live album that captured Prince sketching out song ideas on a piano, fans have a window into the Purple One’s creative process at the height of his career in 1983.
The album’s title is self-explanatory; the only elements featured are a piano and Prince’s striking voice. With such stripped down production, the project lures you into the basement in which the 35-minute project was recorded. When Prince asks his sound engineer to turn his mic down in the middle of the first track, an “OMG that’s him” reaction ensues, and visions of the artist stomping to a beat or wincing at the beauty of his own falsetto populate the mind.
The album’s live and private nature provides extremely special insight into how Prince worked. On “17,” you can hear him spontaneously voice a synth rhythm to accompany the melody he has already tracked out. On “International Lover,” Prince begins to beat-box the drum beat he saw fit for the completed version of the song. Across the album, improvised vocal riffs and piano licks provide a refreshing twist on Prince’s music that is typically only heard polished and produced. These elements also highlight Prince’s musical prowess from a technical standpoint that many might not be aware of.
However, Piano has one major issue: Prince didn’t want you to hear it. Historically a pioneer for proper compensation for musicians, from his dispute with Warner Bros. to his outspoken disapproval of streaming services, he removed his entire discography from all streaming services when the platform became fans’ primary mode of consumption. His work wasn’t made available on these services until after his death, posing the controversy between the desire to to enjoy his art and the obligation to respect his wishes.
What’s worse, this album was never even intended for release on traditional consumption platforms, let alone streaming services. It was a secret project that sat comfortably in hiding until Prince’s archival music vault was literally drilled open and a deal was struck between the artist’s estate and Sony to release the vault’s exclusive content for profit.
So, if you’re a big Prince fan, it’s tough to enjoy Piano without the little voice inside your head screaming “traitor!” With that said, the project is ironically most geared towards Prince’s admirers who could appreciate the value of its look behind the scenes. How do you deal with such an ethical dilemma, with an angel perched on one shoulder and the devil on the other? My advice: Consume with caution and hope Prince’s improvisational scatting dilutes the heavy guilt that sits in your stomach.