It tumbled out of the speakers as if it were some long forgotten buried treasure from another era. Sublime, intoxicating, pensive, cryptic, funny and brazenly weird, Prince’s “June,” a deep album cut from the late visionary’s otherwise mortal HitnRUN Phase One album, appeared like an afterthought. No neon lights. No you-gotta-hear-this-s**t hype. And yet it achieved the seemingly unthinkable: “June” is every bit as great as anything you could choose out of Prince’s swaggering, peerless prime-years lineup.
Go ‘head. Pick any song from obsessed fan favorite to world-beating mega hit to highly coveted bootleg. “Dirty Mind” (1980); “Little Red Corvette” (1982); “Wonderful A**” (1983); “When Doves Cry” (1984); “Condition of the Heart” (1985); “Mountains”(1986); “All My Dreams” (1986); “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (1987); “Adore” (1987); “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (1991). “June” can more than fight in their storied weight class.
Struggling to reconcile with what may come off as pure blasphemous hyperbole? I get it. G.O.A.T. Prince is pretty much rarified pop air — the same game-changing atmosphere in which the likes of other G.O.A.T.s Miles Davis, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, P-Funk, OutKast, Erykah Badu, Joni Mitchell, Rakim and Nas have breathed. Which is why it’s important to break down the otherworldly greatness of “June.”
On what would have been Prince’s 58th birthday – following the revered singer, songwriter, producer, musician and arranger’s shocking April 21 death from an accidental drug overdose – the song’s eye-winking title (June is the month of His Royal Badness’s aforementioned born day) gives you a hint at what is about to go down. Still, who else would have the balls to start off a song with these head-scratching lyrics: “Pasta simmers on the stove in June / Makes no sense yet / But it will soon”? Apparently, Prince was the quirky trickster up for the job.
There’s more WTF stuff going on here. The production on Phase One’s closing statement is sparse, ethereal and paced only by echoing finger snaps. It’s a futuristic nod to the past, if that even makes sense; a paradox wrapped up in an enigma wearing six-inch high heels. As lyrics go, “June” stands among some of Prince’s most startling work, a reminder that when the spirit moved him, the old man could more than produce heat. Prince has apparently lost his love: “You are off somewhere, being free,” he opens up. “While I starve in the lonesome cold / Our bodies got used to each other…Now they’re used to the sound of Richie Havens’s voice on the vinyl spinning 'round and 'round, 'round and 'round.”
For Justin Stanley, one of the studio engineers who worked on both HitnRUN Phase One and the superior Phase Two at the maverick’s Minnesota sanctuary, Paisley Park, compositions like “June” backed up Prince’s reputation as one of music’s most gifted songwriters. “Watching Prince create was really inspiring,” he told me, still washed in awe. “You’ve heard it a million times, but Prince’s work ethic was incredible. He was always the best out of anyone in the room, but he was respectful of all the musicians around him. But at the same time, he wanted everybody to elevate to the highest level of where they could be. This guy shouldn’t have had anything to prove, but to the end Prince was still creating some challenging work.”
What makes “June” especially stand out is Prince’s sheer nakedness, his vulnerability. For an artist who no longer celebrated birthdays (he joined the Jehovah’s Witness religion in 2001), Prince managed to pour out a cup of nostalgia, a genuine surprise given his move-along mantra. The acoustic guitar strumming of the late ‘60s folk rock icon Richie Havens represents angst and longing for a self-proclaimed misfit who bristled at the absurdity of living in a Kardashian world but still recognized the unapologetic humanity of a Kendrick Lamar. “Sometimes I feel I was born way too late / Shoulda been born on the Woodstock stage….” Never mind the fact that Prince was delivered to the world a little over a decade before the flower children’s last gasp.
No one said genius was easy. Yes, it’s pretty cool to witness your favorite artist knock it out of the park. No one wants to see Willie Mays struggling in a Mets uniform or Michael Jordan getting beat on defense as a Washington Wizard. To be real, Prince stumbled in his later years. But he never fell. Indeed, the greatness of Prince can be summed up in his own words: “Somebody famous had a birthday today / All I saw was another full moon…What’s that? Something’s burning on the stove…Must be the pasta…must be the pasta…Oh yeah, it’s June.”
A world without Mr. Nelson? Now that’s truly absurd.
(Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)