The Prince sound is so distinct, it’s like our ears are instinctively trained to recognise it – like a funked up baby cry. The sparkling falsetto, the biting thwack of drums, the purple splashes of reverb-soaked electric guitar, the flashing shots of synth, the flagrant theatrics. Of course, his 39 studio albums are almost entirely genre-less, but his music is so characteristic, so completely unique, that it sits within its own categorisation; its own Prince box. But, as with anything unique, you can only fully comprehend how unique it is when it’s placed within a different context and you notice how it deviates. With Prince, this context arrived in 1993, when he teamed up with another cult music figure – Kate Bush.
Bush was in a strange place when she met the Purple One. Her close friend and guitarist Alan Murphy had just died of AIDS-related pneumonia, she was going through the motions of a relationship breakdown, and was teetering on the cusp of a break from music, which, when it came, would actually last for 12 years. Prince, on the other hand, was going through one of his many spiritual rebirths. He had just emerged from the murky shadows of The Black Album, a creation he withdrew a week after release because he was convinced it was an evil, omnipotent force. He vaulted out of that hole, into a period of making music that was upbeat, pop-tinged and pumped up. In essence, the two artists’ headspaces could not really have been in more opposite places; Prince, artistically baptised and ready to change the world, and Kate Bush, surrounded by a fog of melancholia and disarray.
Prince had been a huge Kate Bush admirer for years. In emails exchanged in 1995 between Prince’s then-engineer Michael Koppelman and Bush’s then-engineer Del Palmer, Koppelman says that Prince described her as his “favourite woman”. But despite both artists being active since the 70s, it wasn’t until 1990 that they actually met in real life. Bush attended a Prince gig at Wembley during his monumental Nude Tour, asked to meet him backstage, and the rest is God-like genius collaboration history.
Perhaps it was the sheer distance between their headspaces at the time that led to what happened. Bush asked Prince to contribute a few background vocals to a song called “Why Should I Love You”, which she had just recorded in full at Abbey Road Studios. But when Prince received the track, he ignored the intructions and dismantled the entire thing like a crazed mechanic taking apart old cars on his backyard. He wanted to inject himself into the very heart of it, weaving his sound amongst her sound, giving it a new soul entirely. As Koppelman explains, “We essentially created a new song on a new piece of tape and then flew all of Kate's tracks back on top of it… Prince stacked a bunch of keys, guitars, bass, etc, on it, and then went to sing background vocals.”
Despite being the lovechild of two of humanity’s greatest music minds, the resulting track is not often mentioned on your average BBC3 pop retrospective presented by Lauren Laverne. It’s startlingly brilliant, with sometimes bizarre, musical depths. It begins as a typical Kate Bush creation; her stratospheric vocals rising across a strange organ melody and tumbling drums. But then, about a minute through, it mutates like an unstable element being dropped into boiling water. Prince invades in a huge wave of gospel sound, the pair singing in unison: “Of all of people in the world, why should I love you?” By the time it reaches the 2-minute mark, it has been completely permeated with that Paisley Park flavour; smatters of electric guitar and rich walls of vocals spilling over its borders. The purple sound arrives like a tsunami, seemingly too vivid to suppress.
Even today, the track is divisive, with some heralding it as a slice of profound art, and others filling fan forums with long rants that essentially boil down to: “It’s tripe.” But two decades later, we can look upon the final version with something resembling objectivity. It’s an endlessly fascinating creation that continues to sparkle with strangeness, forever flitting between blissfulness and an almost painful sadness upon every listen. Even the lyrics reveal an inner turmoil: “Have you ever seen a picture of Jesus laughing? Mmm, do you think he had a beautiful smile?” Kate Bush’s soaring voice wavers, as if she’s asking Prince to convince her.
The pair would go on to collaborate again in 1996, on "My Computer", but it's "Why Should I Love You" that still stands tall, like a giant artifact mounted in the main hall of the Museum of Peak Nineties. It isn't just the sound of two great minds meeting; it's the sound of two geniuses staring at eachother, from opposite ends of the universe. And if that isn't worth listening to, then I don't know what is. RIP Prince.
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