Retroactive Review: The Gold Experience (1995)

Some call it his best album of the ’90’s, and others claim the production ruined the appeal of the original compositions on this album. Wherever you stand on the matter, the level of care and respect Prince had in crafting and promoting The Gold Experience trumps everything else he worked on for Warner Bros. in this timespan. Come and The Black Album were not well-received critically, did not perform well commercially, and after 16 years of being a professional musician, it appeared as if Prince’s run of relevancy had ended. The Black Album was off the charts by February 25th, 1995, and with every track on this album having been recorded and redone by August of 1994, it would appear as if I have nothing to discuss prior to my dissertation of the album, but it’s in this moment when things truly became interesting in Prince’s battle with the label.

The 1995 BRIT Awards were held on February 20th, 1995, at the Alexandra Palace in London, England, where Prince infamously revealed the word “slave” written on his cheek in black marker. He spoke cryptically about live performances being free but his records being where he was constrained, all the while acting as if he was in disbelief about winning the International Male Artist of the Year. Prior to that, it was just business as usual for The Purple One, as his final performance before Come was released on August 8th, 1994, which I’ve written about in my review for that album1, but he didn’t perform again until November 11th, and then followed that up with a performance on the 13th, both at Paisley Park Studios to crowds of less than 2,000 people.

The Black Album was released in the US on November 22nd, 1994, and I suspect the label insisted he perform overseas to promote the album since the standard vinyl release was exclusive to Europe; the US instead received limited edition vinyls that were different colors from the standard black sleeve. His performance on November 24th was for the 1994 MTV European Music Awards, and he followed it up with a midnight performance that same night at Tränenpalast, a small nightclub in Berlin, Germany; the same city where the MTV European Awards were being hosted. He returned to the States shortly after and gave two more performances before the year ended, as the 12th saw him host a benefit show at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City, New York, which was followed by his legendary performance on Letterman the following morning; broadcasted later that night. Rumor has it Prince changed2 the ending of the performance to the ending where he was “shot” and carried off-stage by his band to avoid shaking hands and speaking with Letterman3, as the two apparently did not like each other, but that’s for the tabloids.

I’m more interested in the final configuration of The Gold Experience that was submitted to Warner Bros. on October 13th, 1994. Returning readers are already fully aware of the history behind the album, due to the entirety of this album’s recording process taking place shortly after a large majority of Come, so the only changes made to the record from this final configuration to the eventual release was the fact that “Days of Wild” and it’s succeeding NPG Operator segue were cut, as well as “Pussy Control” being re-titled “P. Control” due to the label believing a song with such a vulgar title would sink the entire album. Prince seemingly found a happy medium between the sprawling configurations from earlier in the year and his stripped-down configuration from the summer of 1994 that had no segues and featured only 12 tracks, but the album wouldn’t be released until the following year; September 26th, 1995, after having been released the day prior over in the UK. Unlike the previous two albums however, there was an accompanying tour, but it wasn’t the grand spectacle that previous tours were, and wasn’t even a month long.

The Ultimate Live Experience began on March 3rd, 1995, at Wembley Arena in London, England, where a majority of the shows took place, as only seven of the shows weren’t held in London. The tour wrapped up on March 30th at The Pointe Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, but that doesn’t mean The Purple One didn’t keep himself busy. He did a handful of one-offs prior to the album’s release, even one for the 22nd American Music Awards on January 30th, 1995, at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, and he would continue to operate under those same principles throughout the year. There was a multitude of after-shows in small clubs after his stadium-stuffing performances on The Ultimate Live Experience, and this must have been the approach he believed would promote his upcoming album better, as he continued holding one-offs throughout the year, mostly in venues like his two Glam Slam nightclubs, one of which was closed that August, making his May 13th performance at the Los Angeles location the final performance he gave to that venue. He did guest appearances for Carlos Santana, Dr. Mambo’s Combo, TC Jammers, and Ron Grant & Friends, all at small bars and clubs or at his own Paisley Park Studios, which is where he began to host a majority of the one-off shows this year, starting in June.

Naturally, the public at large couldn’t understand how a man who signed a $100 million dollar recording contract could call himself a slave, so as you would expect, he was mocked and derided, and I wish I could find anything archived to show proof of journalists taking shots at Prince and his plummeting sales, but alas, once his prophetic words4 began to ring true in the new millennium, people changed their tune. He was ridiculed constantly throughout the decade for refusing to recognize his birth name, and early on, many viewed his tactics as petty publicity stunts to boost sales. He still had two albums left to deliver and the ideological differences between the artist and the corporation were always at odds with one another, leaving us with this interesting quote.

Once the Internet is a reality, the music business is finished. There won’t be any need for record companies. If I can send you my music direct, what’s the point of having a music business?

Of course, that led to an entirely different can of worms, but one issue at a time here. That quote comes from a March 11th, 1995 interview with Andy Richardson, where Prince also would state he was not worried of other’s opinions on what he was doing, and even that he was not upset with the situation with WB. His efforts to speak up and be heard were noticed by everyone, and to be fair, the controversy did reinvigorate interest; briefly. The stadiums he was performing in were packed with diehard fans screaming for a man with an unpronounceable name, and in order to maintain that energy, in order to promote what he must’ve viewed as a watered-down version of The Dawn, three promotional singles were released overseas, to the same continent he just performed most of the album’s stripped-down versions of the tracks for. Fans were familiar with the material on the album, but they had heard completely different versions of these tracks just months ago live.

“👁️ Hate U” was the album’s first official single, released worldwide just two weeks before the album’s US release date. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” was released the previous February, but was unattached to any album or project at the time. “👁️ Hate U” also received a maxi-single a week later, but by this time, Prince was done with promoting the album. I do find it odd that he would cumulatively spend half of the year performing songs from the upcoming album, even if in a different iteration, and then resort to a handful of appearances and video shoots in Paisley Park for the remainder of the year, but he did perform on December 3rd at the Lexington Avenue Armory in New York City, New York for the 1st VH-1 Fashion & Music Awards, but after that he only had one more performance for the year, just six days later, once again, at Paisley Park; ironically, the same day The Gold Experience fell out of Billboard’s Top 200.

The album debuted on Billboard’s Top 200 on October 14th, 1995 at #6, but the very next week would see it drop to #17, and it obviously didn’t last long on the charts since I just mentioned it was off the charts not even two months later on December 9th. Fortunately, the album did manage to sell enough copies to earn a fittingly coincidental gold certification just two days prior to the album falling out of the charts, but the label expected more. After signing Prince to the largest recording contract in the history of the music industry at that point, they expected larger returns on their investment, and it’s baffling as to why they would make that commitment when Prince was so very clearly interested in alternative methods of distribution and stylistic expressions. Despite the grandiose nature of the production on these tracks, the controversy surrounding the man overshadowed the album, and as tough as it is to say, he simply did not possess the listeners attention as he once did.

Take “P. Control” as an example, because even though the track does have high production value behind it, as the incredibly spacious stereo space is welcoming, and the stereotypical mid-90’s synths do have some nice reverb layered over them, they’re still just that; stereotypical mid-90’s synths. The dated composition of the track isn’t helped by the dated rapping, and even the generic, plodding backbeat can’t help the track because Prince’s vulgar lyrics are both hilarious and yet, still feel disingenuous. I’ve been heavily conflicted with this song since I first heard it, partially due to the fact it’s clearly manufactured to be a commercially viable song, and as such, hasn’t aged well and really only sounded “good” because it was new, but with all that being said, I still have a ball with this track.

Unlike the ensuing song, “Endorphinmachine”, “P. Control” isn’t something I can necessarily get hyped up to, and it was certainly meant to do so in clubs for it’s time, but that time has long since passed. However, I still appreciate the song for what it is, and there is merit to the track, as it does portray the power of sex from the woman’s point of view, which is a commendable effort on The Purple One’s behalf. Overall however, it’s just not a very strong song, and although it is rather memorable due to the “moral of this mothafucka”, as Prince himself put it in the song’s outro, the instrumentation is just not that enthralling. Perhaps he wanted to lead the album off with the weakest song, perhaps he thought it would be a hit, or maybe he just wanted to stick it to the label, I’m really not sure, but designating “P. Control” as the album opener certainly was a questionable decision.

We are then greeted by the first of six “NPG Operator” segues, with this first one welcoming us to “the dawn” after a series of keystrokes and early computer sounds; informing us there are over 500 experiences to choose from, and then kindly provides us with a sample. “Endorphinmachine” is powered by Prince’s energetic lead guitar, but to not cast any attention towards the efforts of Michael B. and Sonny T. would be unfair to the other two men primarily responsible for the fantastic instrumentation on this track, and ultimately, the overall sound of the album as a whole. “P. Control” was definitely more mainstream and club-friendly, while the anthemic sound of this rock song falls more in line with the overall sound and tone of the album. Sonny’s bass gives the track a much heavier feel as he chugs along behind Michael B.’s steady drum fills, which is why Prince’s guitar is in the center of the mix, where all the action is happening. His vocals suit the mood and key of composition incredibly well as he restrains himself to his chest voice, but his shrieks at the tail end of the track stand up with some of his better shrieks from the early-80’s. The only unusual moment of the track is when it briefly morphs into a rap breakdown, and it certainly isn’t unpleasant, it just feels forced.

The overall narrative begins to assemble itself with “Shhh”, which is still a kick-ass song regardless of any production or instrumental changes from the live version. An insanely intricate progressive opening gives way to a spacious stereo spectrum that stars Prince’s vocals, but the drums set the perfect slow-paced tempo for the composition to crawl and grind; setting the mood incredibly well. Everything follows the drums lead, as even the tempo changes are even highlighted by the intensity of the drumming, which Prince expertly plays off of by seemingly changing his pitch whenever he feels bored and is in the mood to spice things up. Complimenting his fluctuating vocal range are the backing vocals, which are pushed to either side of the mix and given a flanger to retain a semblance of that throwback soul feeling, as does the wispy sound effects permeating from behind the mix.

Break it down, I don’t want nobody else to hear the sound/

This love is a private affair/

Interrupt the flow, they better not dare

The stereo space fills out with Prince’s distorted and heavily reverberated guitar, practically taking a backseat in the overall composition even when it’s given the opportunity to shine, as is the case later in the track when it’s definitely closer to the mic but is still relegated to the back of the mix. However, it hardly matters when when he rips a masterful solo like the prog-rock sounding solo on this one; ending on a classical breakdown that continues to briefly float in the lingering stereo space as Prince states “Sex is not all I think about, it’s just all I think about you”; stringing together the first of several components in the overall concept of the album that was introduced subconsciously with this first side of music. Surface level observations only do a disservice to the album concept, because the two sides on the first record of music consolidate into one overarching symbolization of love and trust. Prince often preached about the intertwining of love and sex in his music previously, but to start off the entire first side of music with overt sexual imagery in every track would normally be a sign he’s “on his bullshit”, however, when he follows that side up with another one that more intricately describes the wonders of love, then you begin to fully understand the picture he’s trying to paint with this album. In order to fully immerse yourself in this world of acceptance, love, and exploring your kinks, you must be honest with yourself and the world around you.

“We March” opens side two of record one with themes of inequality and racism; undoubtedly inspired by his back-and-forth with WB. The arrangement and composition of the track was assisted by Ricky Peterson and Kirk Johnson, the former of which helped engineer a handful of tracks on the album, and the latter would go on to become his “second-in-command” for several years after this album. Prince’s production team had been in his corner for three-to-four years now, and this was largely their last time handling the engineering aspects of the recording process, as Hans-Martin Buff would make his first credited appearance on a Prince album with the following album, and Chronic Freeze, Tom Tucker, and Ray Hahnfeldt would all slowly find themselves on the outside-looking-in within the next five-to-six years. For now however, this production team undoubtedly reached the pinnacle of what was possible with the stadium-stuffing sound Prince had been going for since 1991, which is exactly why many fans and critics alike comfortably claim this his best album of the ’90’s, as tracks like “We March” simply would not have been able to have been made without the high production value, access to (then) modern technology, better recording set-ups, and every other conceivable factor you can think up as to why Prince continued with this specific sound in mind; likely something he constantly argued and agreed with the label over.

The bass takes a cue from “Endorphinmachine” with a chugging bass line that gives Prince an easy rhythm to sing in a manner similar to rapping, but since he isn’t attempting to overdo it and go double-time, the listener is able to better process the important lyrics. The backup vocals on the chorus really give off the impression there’s more people in the studio with him, definitely adding to the impression of collective understanding. The drum programming is a basic back beat, but there’s not really much to say or complain about here as the track more than fulfills it’s purpose of creating a welcoming environment for anyone willing to open their eyes to the injustices around them. A fan asked Prince in 1999 if the song “We March” was meant to be played at the then-upcoming Million Man March on his website, Love4oneanother.com, and he replied with, “‘We March’ was indeed played at the Million Man March over the loudspeakers, but in fact was written b4 eye had heard about the event,” which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, as I already mentioned the unorthodox recording process to this album in my Come review, but it does demonstrate Prince’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist, even at this stage in his career.

Although “We March” is different in tone from the other two tracks on this side, Prince still gets across his message of living for love and respect, and then further compounds it by following it up with “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, a highly romantic track that features one of his best falsettos ever. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” largely remained the same from its arbitrary single release the year prior, but in the context of the album its preceded by another “NPG Operator” segue, this time singling out a specific experience that I believe sums up the entirety of this side of music. We’re introduced to “beautiful experience”, obviously taken from The Beautiful Experience EP he released on May 17th, 1994 that had several different remixes to “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” on it, which obviously then flows into this track seamlessly.

The inviting stereo space littered with sound effects is precisely what this sensual track needed, especially when you factor in the loving lyrics. The synths are minimalistic and only serve to add density to the overall composition, as the chugging bass creates a solid foundation for Prince to unleash his hearts desire. It’s one of his most legendary tracks, but the spirituality wouldn’t end with this track, as the side-ending “Dolphin” dives deeper into the philosophy of reincarnation. In the middle of a tumultuous time in his life, Prince continued seeking out new age philosophical beliefs, and as a result, we have this track. It questions the meaning of life, especially when faced with obstacles; expertly summarized by his opening verse, which is then further elaborated on in the masterful chorus.

How beautiful do the words have to be/
Before they conquer every heart?/
How will you know if I’m even in the right key/
If you make me stop before I start?

The melody, or the driving force of the track, remains comparable to the preceding tracks on the album, as the higher key is largely driven by Prince’s guitar, much like how “Endorphinmachine” was as forceful as it was due to Prince’s guitar work, and naturally, falls under the same production choices applied on everything else before it on the track list. Although it may initially come across as more of the contemporary rock sound in the mainstream at the time, “Dolphin” ultimately has a jaunty feeling behind it, so when blended with the harsher sounds of mainstream rock and the softer production choices of pop and stadium rock, well, we get exactly this. The first record isn’t game-changing, nor was it going to revitalize long-term interest in Prince, but I don’t believe that was the intention anyway.

That divide is more clearly expressed on the third side of the album, or the first side of the second record if that’s the way you prefer looking at it, by having the third side showcase Prince’s unbelievable talent of getting people in the mood to get up and dance or just let loose. The opening “NPG Operator” skit introduces us to the “now experience”, which outright states this side of music will be “great for dancing and improving self-esteem”, and then name drops a few songs that better explain the sentiment he’s going for. Of course that was then and this is now, something the operator outright states before she’s cut off by an energetic Prince shrieking the title to start things proper. Combining his viewpoints from record one with the feel-good moments dispersed throughout this second record does a better job of fleshing out his ideas than one would surmise, but to be honest, without these segues, I fail to see how he could have possibly slipped in this subtextual narrative.

The “beautiful experience” from the previous side of music returns after the dated radio-bound hip hop composition “Now” ends, suggesting “Now” was inserted as the first official song of record two to interrupt the beautiful experience and allow listeners to understand where Prince was at currently. What we’re left with is instrumentation that indie rappers would call a throwback-styled beat, and it certainly isn’t anything that could pass off as a modern dance track. The bass does thump, and Prince has a nice groove on this track, but as we’ve come to expect, his rapping is also pretty dated. The reverberated guitar licks sneak in and out the back of the mix occasionally, and it’s there where a majority of the understated sound effects reside to somewhat fill out the flat stereo space; not as textured as the rest of the album. The subdued horns give the track a goofy sensibility, and it’s this component that really puts the proverbial bow on the track, as it really highlights Prince’s understated jokey side.

We return to the beautiful experience only to be redirected to a human operator5, who connects Prince to room 319, which of course is the title of the following track. The snares are in the center of the mix, with the reverberated echo being the main highlight of this track as Prince uses his borderline falsetto to propel the rest of the cheap ’90’s instrumentation, if you want to call it that. His sexually aggressive flow makes the dirty synths sound less cheesy, but the drum programming and way he uses his voice actually makes this the first club-oriented track to hold up decently, even if it’s better off as a jam meant for a small group of people with a peculiarity for older lo-fi indie music. It’s a return to what he was preaching on side two, merging the now with the beautiful, but life wasn’t meant to be easy.

The experience quickly becomes damaged, as the robot operator requests the user to access another experience before repeating it once more as the actual pitch of the voice drops to a distorted deep voice, before a few sound effects cue “Shy”, metaphorically showcasing how the wonderful side of life can always be intruded upon from outside forces or events, and it’s up to you to improve your situation, mentality, and self-esteem. The track itself is fantastic, with echoing bluesy guitar licks starting the song before that same guitar sets the mood with an ascending chord progression that settles into the key of the track. The subdued, but solid bass line sets a foundation for sound effects and other instruments to drift and fade in and out of the mix as Prince plays around with said chord progression, creating an old-school bluesy, rock-n-roll feel as the track slowly unfurls into its soothing full mix, accompanied by a playful bass line and quiet percussion snaps.

The track ends with the unification of the bluesy distortion and poppier key of the composition, but this wouldn’t be competing with “Shhh” as the best song on the album without the fantastic vocals by Prince. He’s much more confident in residing within his chest on this album, and it honestly makes his falsettos and higher pitches more lethal in this fashion. He’s done a majority of the heavy lifting on this album with his voice, but when he’s in the midst of an unusual composition such as this, his clear vocals pack even more of a punch; confidently flowing with the arrangement like its second nature. The story itself is of a lonely man seeking adventure, and then encountering a woman who’s killed someone, and he decides to go with her despite the fact they’re both awkwardly shy, or at least that’s what we’re supposed to gather based on the way the characters of the story interact with one another, and the chorus and title of the track.

We tap into the trickster side of Prince, proving his bite does have a little venom behind it, as this little Parliament-lite arrangement titled “Billy Jack Bitch” stars a quick, wormy synth that honestly isn’t the most compelling synth work, but the bass line is insanely funky. The simple drums and snares compliment the bass, being placed on either side of tit; clanking in double-time after every four bars, a tasteful technique in containing the arrangement to its groove. The organ is a welcome addition to the empty stereo space, but it’s disappointing how little time Prince spends shredding with it during the solo. The track goes into a full dance breakdown at the end, complete with slick horns to ensure the appropriate ending for the track, and this side of music.

The lyrics detail Prince’s scorn for journalists, or more specifically in this case, a gossip columnist from the Star Tribune named C.J., who was one of the more outspoken critics6 of Prince, especially in his own city. I won’t go into too much detail about their small-scale rivalry, but I will say her nickname of Symbolina and need to dismiss his message is something she’s long stood by and mocked, even to this day, so I at least respect the dedication, no matter how presumptuous she presented herself. His natural voice fits the composition like a glove, and yet, despite appearing so incandescent on record, when Prince met her face-to-face shortly after the album was released, he denied the track being about her. We’ll continue this dissertation though, because much like the placement of this track itself, once your retaliation is out of the way and you’ve done what needs to be done to protect yourself in dire circumstances, you can return to your experience, although we’re not quite out of the woodwork yet.

Ironically enough, Prince begins his final side of music with “👁️ Hate U”, highlighting how even the ones we love can hurt us. This is also a competitor for best song on the album, as Prince’s falsetto is absolutely masterful, not necessarily his best, but it definitely is worth mentioning. The heavily reverberated snares and pounding drum hits tap center stage, providing the empty stereo space with intrigue until the reverberated keyboards float around the stereo space when Prince speaks seductively after the first verse. The synths contract and roll in a similar fashion to “Baby” from For You, subconsciously highlighting how far he’s come in this timespan, and because the bass is fluctuating in that manner only Prince can play, the synths are allowed to slink in and and slow down the arrangement to give this almost-ballad the gravitas needed for his proclamations of hate, despite having significant love for this person who hurt him. Hs natural voice is absolutely exquisite, not as wonderful as his falsetto, but his confident natural vocals provide contrast to his vulnerable falsetto, but the real highlight of the track is that godly guitar solo unleashed at the end of the track that matches the rhythm of the arrangement perfectly; leading us into the final segue.

The operator is breaking down, reading off the descriptions to other experiences before finally welcoming us to the dawn, and introducing us to “the gold experience”; wrapping everything up rather straightforwardly. There’s more cheesy synths and keyboard work to start the track, echoing around what sounds like a chamber as even Prince’s vocals carry that same echo, but I actually do enjoy the main synth that pulsates across the spectrum. The back beat is solid, a little unremarkable, but the composition itself adds up to more than the sum of its parts as Prince’s descriptions of life and love perfectly synchronize with the reverberated instruments, creating a joyful, hopeful, and optimistic tone. The guitar distortion and solo is absolutely spectacular, and sounds like Prince himself screeching at certain moments, giving the album the proper send-off during such a joyous experience that sounds like freedom. The operator returns in the final minute to once again welcome us to the dawn, and if this is what we were supposed to experience on a grander scale with the actual The Dawn, then I’m upset that Warner Bros. would not allow the public to get lost in such a wondrous experience.

This would largely be the last album Prince had a cooperative hand in, as the following two albums released by Warner Bros. used what was left from the material he gave to them. Chaos and Disorder would feature a handful of new songs recorded in early ’96, but I’ll discuss that more at length when that album receives its dissertation. For now, let me just state that although I am a bigger fan of his ’80’s output, I can understand why people would enjoy his ’90’s material, especially around this time period. Prince had become a symbol, literally becoming The Symbol, or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince if you wanted to have more fun with the situation, and he acted accordingly. The more spiritual and philosophical he became during this timespan, the more embroiled in debate he became with the label, and as such, the angrier the music became; fusing heavier rock with the poppy stadium arrangements he had familiarized himself with in the past half-decade, as well throwing in a pinch of club-oriented hip hop tracks. It’s not an album you casually play, and as such, I can’t recommend this to casual fans, but for longtime fans, or anyone who has a taste for this type of sound, you will absolutely love this album. As for myself, well, I won’t say I love it, but I will say its ambition overrides any flaws the album has, which really isn’t that many, and that Prince’s willingness to sacrifice his lofty position with the company in order to maintain his integrity and own his masters is inspiring, and at the end of the day, that’s what this experience is all about; living for your own betterment.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Havarti – 10/19/2018 – Retroactive Review: Come (1994)
  2. Morris Hayes – Facebook – 5/3/2016 – “No mistakes”
  3. YouTube.com – The Late Show with David Letterman – 12/13/1994
  4. New Musical Express – 3/11/1995 – My Name Isn’t Prince, And I Am Flunky
  5. *gasp*
  6. Star Tribune – 4/24/2016 – C.J. Memories ‘Billy Jack Bitch,’ Prince’s ‘biggest enemy’
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