It might be an unpopular opinion, but Prince‘s criminally out-of-print The Gold Experience is my favorite of all of his albums. Released 22 years ago today, The Gold Experience saw Prince at his funkiest, raunchiest, slyest and sexiest while delivering a collection of songs that easily match previous high points like Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ The Times.
A year and a half prior to the album’s release, lead single “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” was released in February of 1994. It was an instant soul classic, going to #3 on the Billboard charts. Disputes with Warner Brothers delayed the release of the full-length, but in order to herald the new album, excellent and underrated R&B jam “(Eye) Hate U” was released in early September 1995.
When I bought the album on September 26, 1995, I’d heard the first two singles, but I was in no way prepared for what lay under the hood of what I expected to be a softly purring slow-ride. Straight off the bat, the record launches into “P Control,” one of the best things Prince ever recorded. I could do an entire article on this one song, from its Spanish-language spoken intro to its instantly funky backbeat, its brilliant lyrics, and the closest Prince ever came to successfully pulling off rap music.
Good morning, ladies & gentlemen
Boys, and motherfuckin’ girls
This is your captain with no name speaking
And I’m here to rock your world
With a tale that will soon be classic
About a woman you already know
No prostitute, she, but the mayor of your brain
And instead of objectifying women as sex objects as he’d so often done in the past, Prince goes on to spend the next five minutes telling a story of female empowerment, telling us that “Pussy got bank in her pocket / Before she got dick in her drawers,” the story of an inner-city folk hero who lifts her sisters up while keeping a keen eye out for those who would use and abuse her. Of course, Prince being Prince, the third verse is our narrator offering himself up for consideration to our protagonist by telling her, “you need a motherfucker that respects your name,” although he admits that, “it’s gonna be hard as hell / to keep my mind off a body that’d make every rich man want to sell.”
That’s the heavily abbreviated recap and – goddamn! – we’re still only talking about the first song on the album.
In the decade since the release of the blockbuster Purple Rain album, Prince had released ten albums, starred in two more films, gone through an acrimonious legal battle with his record label, and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Among the records he released in that time period were the commercially disappointing Around The World In A Day, the stunning Sign ‘O’ The Times, Diamonds & Pearls, and Lovesexy albums, and the soundtrack to the 1989 Batman movie. After the underwhelming public response to Come and The Black Album, it was easy to believe that Prince had passed his peak.
That is just one of the reasons that The Gold Experience is so goddamned excellent – it defied expectations, it proved to any doubters who would listen that Prince still had the goods, it sounded like a record he’d made for himself rather than for the record label, and it came at you like a phoenix roaring from the embers.
The unbridled fun and funk of the opening cut is followed immediately by the rock-guitar-driven “Endorphinmachine,” a wailing slab of rock-and-roll that sounds best cranked up to 11. Party anthem “Now,” and photo seduction “319” make up the other uptempo cuts on the record, either of which stand up to Prince’s best golden-era singles. Prince tackles social and racial justice on “We March,” “Gold” and “Billy Jack Bitch,” and rounds out the set with slow-jam standards in “Shhh,” “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” and “Shy.”
This album should have marked a commercial resurrection for Prince, as well as an artistic one. There are plenty of reasons why it didn’t and no shortage of blame to go around. Prince was not interested in promoting the album because of his disenchantment with his Warner Bros. contract. Warner Bros., in turn, gave the record no promotional backing and only half-hearted single releases upon the album’s official release. Furthermore, the singles chosen were “safe” downtempo R&B numbers rather than the roaring rock of “Endorphinmachine” or the fun and funk of “Now,” either of which would have recalled to the public Prince’s hit-making heydays and the likes of “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Delirious.”
I will also admit that my high estimation of this album is at least partially influenced by the timing of its release. I was working a McJob that left me lots of free time to hang out and drink with my friends – Phil, Christian, Jessica, Kimmy. I had my own place and we’d all hang out there and drink cheap beer and listen to The Gold Experience on repeat, laughing when the girls would shout, “Billy Jack Bitch!” whenever the song came up again. It was a time of little responsibility and lots of fun and this is an album made for good times, the only potential downers being the environmental screed, “Dolphin,” and the bitter breakup of “(Eye) Hate U,” but we might have skipped over those once or twice.
Prince has an enormous catalog, of course, and I have an enormous fondness for it. On top of that, I’ve got nearly as many of his bootlegs as I have official releases. But amongst all of them, this remains my favorite, the Prince album I’ve played more than any other, the one I go back to time and again, the one I just have to share with friends who think his magic faded after the release of Purple Rain. It’s bold and adventurous in ways that most of his music hadn’t been over several prior releases, and it holds together as an entire album better than almost all of his records before or since.
It’s impossible for me to listen to his music with an objective ear, to hear it again with an unformed opinion, to go into it open-minded, or to see it all again for the first time. But it will always touch my heart and what passes for my soul, and it always brings a smile or a tear depending on the song (and on my level of inebriation). We won’t ever get another proper Prince album, I’m afraid, but he left us with more than most. Seek this one out and buy it if you find it. Then put it on, turn it up, and party down.