'Nothing Compares 2 U' and the Dilemma of Prince's Vault
Is it wrong to enjoy music the purple one never intended us to hear?
ast week, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” an extravagant ballad written by Prince and popularized by the Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, was relevant again. To commemorate the two-year anniversary of its writer’s tragic death, Prince’s estate released his studio-recorded version of the track, which has, for years, been collecting dust in the multi-instrumentalist’s orphic, vast “vault” of unreleased music.
Although "Nothing Compares 2 U" is among Prince’s best songs, he never seemed to revere it as such during his lifetime. Because it wasn’t aesthetically in line with his persona at the time of its inception — it was downcast and tender, which clashed with the emboldened, sex-first theatrics of his most recent albums, Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day — he gifted it to other artists. It first appeared, in 1985, on the one-and-only album of The Family, a short-lived, funk side project. Then it became O’Connor’s calling card when she covered it for her Grammy-nominated sophomore album, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and turned it into an international hit.
Before last week, Prince fans clung to the live version he recorded with the soul singer Rosie Gaines for the 1993 compilation album The Hits/The B-Sides. In comparison to the O’Connor cover, which is so excruciatingly emotional that it sounds like the singer’s knees are going to buckle, the 1993 performance, oft-regarded as a deep cut, is bittersweet and nostalgic. Both versions are devastatingly beautiful; the hyper-specific lyrics (“It’s been seven hours and 13 days / Since you took your love away”) up its universality.
Since the O’Connor and The Hits/The B-Sides versions are so indefatigable, I’ve come to believe that there was never a need for Prince to put out a studio take. But then his estate changed my mind. Released on April 19, alongside intimate rehearsal footage from his heyday, this version, sans Gaines, aches as much as O’Connor’s cover does. He convincingly sounds like a man begging his ex-lover to come back to him, his agony heightened by a climactic saxophone solo.
Even though I was emotionally moved by this version, my reaction still couldn’t completely free me from my skepticism. Though the song lives up to its elusive legend, I was also distracted by an increasingly intensifying question: Were we ever supposed to hear this?
Prince had not prepared a will at the time of his death, so, by default, his sister and a quintet of half-siblings were named heirs. But many of them, from his half-brothers Alfred and John to his brother Duane, were not close with the musician when he died. Yet they are, nonetheless, in charge of all of Prince’s assets. To add insult to injury, three of the beneficiaries recently petitioned to dismiss Comerica Bank, the company that had been appointed to manage his posthumous finances and possessions.
Although I do think the dismissal of Comerica was smart — the company had decided to transport almost all of Prince’s locked-away recordings to a temperature-controlled space in California, which made material vulnerable to damage during the moving process — I’m wary of digging into Prince’s much-guarded “vault” of untouched music. Apparently, the release of “Nothing Compares 2 U” was just a taste of what’s to come: It was recently announced that an album’s worth of unreleased material will be coming out in September.
Prince’s inheritors, along with his estate’s advisers, are clearly mindful of preserving his legacy. A “discography” website, which comprehensively details his body of work, was recently launched, and is obviously the product of people who value his artistry. The release of the “Nothing Compares 2 U” recording and “music video” felt more motivated by deference than it did self-interest.
But I nevertheless have reservations. We don’t know if the currently appointed legatees are ones Prince would have chosen had he written a will. And we don’t know how he would feel about having the contents of his vault being up for grabs.
Because Prince was so fiercely private in his lifetime, and because he was so famously contemptuous of those who bootlegged, hacked, and infringed copyright, cries of new material feel improper. It was different when music from 2Pac, Otis Redding, J Dilla, or Amy Winehouse was being released posthumously because they weren’t obsessed with privacy in the same way Prince was. If he really did want us to hear shelved material from the past, including this incarnation of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” he would have shared it long ago. Even though I’m curious about what masterpieces might be lining the walls of his vault, raiding it without his consent feels invasive. I’ll keep dancing to whatever’s offered. But I’ll be unable to do so free of ethical doubt.
- APRIL 27, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.