Break the Chains : 1994 to 2000

In 1994, Prince’s attitude towards his artistic output underwent a notable shift. He began to view releasing albums in quick succession as a means of ejecting himself from his contractual obligations to Warner Bros. The label, he believed, was intent on limiting his artistic freedom by insisting that he release albums more sporadically. He also blamed Warner Bros. for the poor commercial performance of the Love Symbol Album, claiming that it was insufficiently marketed by Warner. It was out of these developments that the aborted The Black Album was officially released, approximately seven years after its initial recording and near-release. The “new” release, which was already in wide circulation as a bootleg, sold relatively poorly.

Following that disappointing venture, Warner Bros. succumbed to Prince’s wishes to release an album of new material, to be entitled Come. When Come was eventually released, it confirmed all of Warner’s fears. It became Prince’s poorest-selling album to date, struggling to even shift 500,000 copies. Even more frustrating was the fact that Prince insisted on crediting the album to “Prince 1958–1993”. 

Prince pushed to have his next album The Gold Experience released simultaneously with Love Symbol-era material. Warner Bros. allowed the single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” to be released via a small, independent distributor, Bellmark Records, in February 1994.

The release was successful, reaching No.3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and No.1 in many other countries, but it would not prove to be a model for subsequent releases. Warner Bros. still resisted releasing The Gold Experience, fearing poor sales and citing “market saturation” as a defense. 

When eventually released in September 1995, The Gold Experience failed to sell well, although it reached the top 10 of the Billboard 200 initially, and many reviewed it as Prince’s best effort since Sign ‘O’ the Times. The album is now out-of-print. Chaos and Disorder, released in 1996, was Prince’s final album of new material for Warner Bros., as well as one of his least commercially successful releases. 

Prince attempted a major comeback later that year when, free of any further contractual obligations to Warner Bros., he released Emancipation, a 36-song, 3-CD set (each disc was exactly 60 minutes long). The album was released via his own NPG Records with distribution through EMI. 

To publish his songs on Emancipation, Prince did not use Controversy Music – ASCAP, which he had used for all his records since 1981, but rather used Emancipated Music Inc. – ASCAP. 

Certified Platinum by the RIAA, Emancipation is the first record featuring covers by Prince of songs of other artists: Joan Osborne’s top ten hit song of 1995 “One of Us”;  “Betcha by Golly Wow!” (written by Thomas Randolf Bell and Linda Creed); “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (written by James Allen Shamblin II and Michael Barry Reid); and “La-La (Means I Love You)” (written by Thomas Randolf Bell and William Hart). 

Prince released Crystal Ball, a 5-CD collection of unreleased material, in 1998. The distribution of this album was disorderly, with some fans pre-ordering the album on his website up to a year before it was eventually shipped to them; these pre-orders were eventually delivered months after the record had gone on sale in retail stores. The retail edition has only four discs, as it is missing the Kamasutra disc. There are also two different packaging editions for retail, one being in a 4-disc sized jewel case with a simple white cover and the Love Symbol in a colored circle; the other is all four discs in a round translucent snap jewel case. The discs are the same, as is the CD jacket. The Newpower Soul album released three months later failed to make much of an impression on the charts. His collaboration on Chaka Khan’s Come 2 My House, and Larry Graham’s GCS2000, both released on the NPG Records label around the same time as Newpower Soul met with the same fate, despite heavy promotion and live appearances on Vibe with Sinbad, and the NBC Today show’s Summer Concert Series. 

In 1999, Prince once again signed with a major label, Arista Records, to release a new record, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. In an attempt to make his new album a success, Prince easily gave more interviews than at any other point in his career, appearing on MTV’s Total Request Live (with his album cover on the front of the Virgin Megastore, in the background on TRL throughout the whole show), Larry King Live (with Larry Graham) and other media outlets. Nevertheless, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic failed to perform well commercially.

A few months earlier, Warner Bros. had also released The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale, a collection of unreleased material recorded by Prince throughout his career, and his final recording commitment on his contract with Warner Bros. The greatest success he had during the year was with the EP 1999: The New Master, released in time for Prince to collect a small portion of the sales dollars Warner Bros. had been seeing for the album and singles of the original 1999. 

The pay-per-view concert, Rave Un2 the Year 2000, was broadcast on December 31, 1999 and consisted of footage from the December 17 and December 18 concerts of his 1999 tour. The concert featured appearances by many guest musicians including Lenny Kravitz, George Clinton, Jimmy Russell, and The Time. It was released to home video the following year. A remix album, Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic (as opposed to “Un2”) was released exclusively through Prince’s NPG Music Club (NPGMC) in April 2000.

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