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PRINCE: THE TRUTH COMES OUT

The scores of live musical tributes following the untimely death of Prince five years ago proved how beloved the Minneapolis genius was cross-generationally, celebrated in song by H.E.R., Bruno Mars, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Miguel, Stevie Wonder and others. But the performances also proved that, in the public imagination of casual listeners, Prince’s music ended when he retired his stage name (for seven years) in 1993—despite the fact that he subsequently released 23 more albums.

Posthumously, his work has received closer examination, with the types of remastered, high-end deluxe reissues normally reserved for the likes of The Beatles. However, his high-water-mark work of the ’90s (The Gold Experience, Emancipation) gets largely overlooked, or worse, unfairly dismissed.

The Truth, an acoustic set from 1998, recently shot to the top of the Vinyl Albums chart on the strength of this spring’s record-breaking Record Store Day. Among Prince’s record-company dalliances that decade, EMI Records folded before it could release The Truth as his 20th studio album. Instead, the 12-song disc ended up included in his sprawling, independently released Crystal Ball triple CD of outtakes and unreleased tracks, also from 1998. With the popularity of MTV Unplugged back then, The Truth should have been a monster.

A 38-year-old superstar awash in the vagaries of music-industry trends, Prince had famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol to escape an onerous contract with Warner Bros. Records. The seven years he spent recording as a male/female glyph gave him an even greater freedom than liberating himself from his longtime label would allow: the freedom to fail, to not have to sell multiplatinum every time or always capture the zeitgeist like lightning in a bottle. If he wanted to channel his inner Joni Mitchell and sing about his motives for going vegan (as on The Truth’s “Animal Kingdom”), so be it.

The Truth deserves to be viewed alongside The Gold Experience (released three years earlier) as Prince’s strongest album of the 1990s. He’s playful on “Man in a Uniform,” a spirited celebration of a woman’s roleplay kink (“man in a uniform do funny things to me”) dancing around a keyboard hook sounding a military “Reveille.” And on the Latin lilt of “Fascination,” where he references Michael Jackson’s then-recent fatherhood (“so-called king gives birth to so-called Prince”). He’s a jilted lover on both “Dionne” and “One of Your Tears,” a favorite lyrical role throwing back to classics like “When You Were Mine” and “17 Days.” (On “One of Your Tears,” an ex sends him the used condom of her latest lover, shades of the Trojans in “Little Red Corvette.”) He’s badass on “Don’t Play Me,” where he brags that his “only competition is, well, me in the past.”

“Comeback,” the album’s emotional ending—despite the official finale of “Welcome 2 the Dawn”— references the loss of Prince’s only child, Amiir. Born to Prince’s first wife (dancer Mayte Garcia) with a rare genetic disorder, his son only survived six days. Intensely personal about the surrounding circumstances, Prince never publicly opened up about the situation. But “Comeback” speaks beautifully about transitory spirits and souls floating on the breeze, closing with “If you ever lose someone dear to you, never say the words ‘they’re gone,’ and they’ll come back.” If only. It’s the most authentically heartfelt lyric Prince sang during that decade.

There’s more: spirituality via an Adam and Eve parable (“3rd Eye”), a teenage ménage à quatre in “Circle of Amour” (recalling the naughty juvenile hijinks in Sheila E.’s Prince-penned “Oliver’s House”). Bassist Rhonda Smith lends her talents, but the only full-blown band interactions take place on “Fascination” and “The Other Side of the Pillow.” (Guitarist Mike Scott, drummer David Haynes and percussionists Kat Dyson and Kirk Johnson are credited on “Fascination”; credits list Rhonda Smith, saxophonist Najee, keyboardist Renato Neto, trombonist Greg Boyer and drummer John Blackwell on “The Other Side of the Pillow.”)

Only an artist of Prince’s unfettered creativity could release something like The Truth as a bonus to a three-disc compilation album like an afterthought. Sadly, no modern artist comes to mind with anywhere near that kind of creative moxie—and that’s the truth.

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