‘People say Prince wasn’t political. Yes he was!’: The story of lost album Welcome 2 America

Originally recorded in 2010, Prince’s latest posthumous album is the first full-length record to be released from the late musician’s legendary vault. Kevin E G Perry talks to those who worked on the record about why its time has finally come and the new light it sheds on its infamous maker

Thursday 22 July 2021 08:34 BST
Prince at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, 1981
Prince at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, 1981 (Sunshine International/Shutterstock)

When Prince suddenly and unexpectedly departed this thing called life in 2016, at the age of 57, he left behind one of the most impressive and prodigious bodies of work ever created by a musician. On top of the 39 hit-filled studio albums and five films he put out in his lifetime, legend has it that the Purple One also kept as many as 8,000 unreleased songs stored in a subterranean vault beneath his unique and secretive recording complex at Paisley Park, in the suburbs of his hometown Minneapolis.

In the five years since Prince’s death, his estate has been faced with the thorny question of what should be done with all this unheard music. Under the stewardship of Lady Gaga’s former manager Troy Carter, the archive itself was moved to Iron Mountain, a climate-controlled storage facility in Los Angeles, and a team of archivists were put together to sift through the material. Initial vault releases played it relatively safe: expanded versions of classic albums Purple Rain, 1999, and Sign o’ the Times, along with 2019’s Originals, a compilation of Prince’s demos of songs he wrote for other artists.

Then, last year, archivist Michael Howe stumbled across the holy grail: a complete yet unreleased Prince album. Howe has said he found a trio of CD-Rs with a tracklist written out in Prince’s own handwriting, along with a scrawled title: Welcome 2 America.

The album had been recorded in the spring of 2010, when Prince and his band the New Power Generationwere at Paisley Park rehearsing for their tour of the same name, but the project was then mysteriously shelved. While some may question the ethics of posthumously releasing music that a notorious perfectionist like Prince can no longer have a final say over, those who knew him and worked on the album argue it would be a greater crime if the tracks were allowed to vanish without a trace.

“He didn’t have to keep the tapes,” points out Shelby J, a backing vocalist who sang with Prince for a decade and appears on Welcome 2 America. “You put things in a vault to protect them. The man that I know, I know how much this body of work meant to him. I know how much work we put into it. I know that he definitely did not put all of this work into it for it to never see the light of day.”

Elisa Fiorillo, another singer on Welcome 2 America who first worked with Prince in the early 1990s before rejoining his band in 2009, says her initial concerns about putting out unreleased music were allayed by the involvement of Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes, who he personally brought in to co-produce Welcome 2 America. “At first, I was very sensitive about it,” says Fiorillo. “It was just such a shock to me that Prince left the way he did. I know he never put anything out until it was finished, but then I think about Morris, who was in his life just as long as I was – 25 years – so he knew what Prince liked. If anybody was going to finish it, it would have been Morris, so in that respect I’m okay with it.”

The argument for releasing Welcome 2 America in 2021 is strengthened by two key factors: the songs are undeniably great, burnishing rather than diminishing Prince’s legacy, and even a decade after they were written and recorded they still feel timely. While the album is a typically eclectic Prince offering, finding space for Curtis Mayfield-influenced funk (“Born 2 Die”), falsetto seduction (“When She Comes”) and even a heartfelt cover of a Soul Asylum ballad ("Stand Up And B Strong"), it’s also an explicitly political record that sees Prince writing about the fight for racial justice and the dangerous spread of misinformation online. These are subjects that were clearly close to his heart, and which have only become more relevant in the years since his death. When announcing the Welcome 2 America tour in 2010, Prince said in a statement: “The world is fraught with misin4mation. George Orwell’s vision of the future is here. We need 2 remain steadfast in faith in the trying times ahead.”

Prince performing in 2009 (AFP via Getty Images)

“You’re talking about a dude that wrote “1999” in 1982,” says Shelby J with a laugh. “Real talk. He was always so far ahead you couldn’t even figure it out. When you listen to [title track] “Welcome 2 America”, it’s like he could have written it last month. It’s very prophetic.”

That title track, which is mostly spoken word, sees Prince railing against an internet culture he was famously wary of. He casts his country as a place “where everything and nothing that Google says is hip”, populated by citizens “distracted by the features of the iPhone”. One of the most ear-catching moments comes when the backing singers chorus: “Land of the free, home of the brave… Oops, I mean: Land of the free, home of the slave”.

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Shelby J remembers well the moment when Prince presented her with those provocative lyrics for her to sing. “It was great, because Prince was always teaching us,” she says, drawing a connection between the song and the current ongoing debate over what Americans are taught about the country’s colonialist history. “He wanted us to learn, especially the stuff we should have learned in school but didn’t. What’s happening here in America now is that we’re trying to get more things taught in school that are uncomfortable. Prince would speak on what’s uncomfortable because the truth is the truth, and you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. The way he used music is so slick, because you’ll be funking and suddenly he’ll hit you with this educational nugget to make you go a little deeper.”

Prince never told me he didn’t want to have anything released after he passed away

Renato Neto

Keyboardist Renato Neto, a long-standing member of the New Power Generation who was part of the Welcome 2 America tour, agrees that Prince always seemed to have an uncanny foresight about where society was heading. “The reason why what he’s talking about seems so relevant today is that he was always ahead, always thinking in front of everybody else,” he says, adding that he also has no problem with mining the vault for unheard material. “Prince never told me he didn’t want to have anything released after he passed away. I think that for sure wherever he is, whatever dimension he is in right now, he’s going to be enjoying the fact that we’re listening to this music and remembering his legacy.”

While many of those who worked on Welcome 2 America were Prince veterans, for some, like recording engineer Jason Agel, the project was a first glimpse inside his eccentric and idiosyncratic world. Agel remembers one morning soon after he arrived in Minnesota when he was contacted to let him know that someone would come to collect him from his hotel to take him to Paisley Park. “That someone was Prince!” chuckles Agel, still sounding bemused. “He pulled up to this highway hotel in the suburbs in this very flashy black Cadillac sports car. It had his emblem on the hubcaps and anywhere else where there would normally be a Cadillac emblem. He had funk music blasting and he was wearing a jacket that had disco mirror balls all over it. It was right out of a movie.”

Even as a newcomer, Agel says that Prince was open with him about the fact that he intended the record to make a statement. “He would talk about these political things, and why he felt it was important to say something with these songs,” says Agel. “That was exciting to me, because I’ve always preferred to work with serious people who want to say important things. When he sat down next to me to record the vocals for the title track and launched into this very heavy spoken-word thing it gave me chills.”

For those who worked on the album a decade ago, part of the joy of hearing Welcome 2 America now with fresh ears is being reminded that while Prince was a hitmaker, a virtuoso and a consummate showman, he also had a powerful message of unity to spread. “People say Prince wasn’t political. Yes he was!” exclaims Shelby J. “Not always, but he was very aware of what was happening in the world, and in his country. His motto was love for one another, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t talk about things that are wrong. Look at what happened in Minneapolis with George Floyd. It was horrible, and it was ugly, but if we don’t face it and try to fix it then the future can’t be different.”

Fiorillo concurs. “Prince was a teacher in so many ways,” she says. “I feel like this record is him trying to teach the world: ‘Get a grip, get your s*** together and let’s make this work, because this world is slowly failing us terribly.’”

Prince’s ‘Welcome 2 America’ will be released on 30 July via Legacy Recordings

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