It's Prince's Birthday, Listen to Camille


Today, on what would have been our dearly departed Prince’s 59th birthday, I have a recommendation: Get into Prince’s Camille project. The eight-song album (which would have turned 30 this year had it been released as originally intended) was to be issued with no mention of Prince’s name. Camille, the artist to be credited, was yet another in a long line of Prince’s alter egos, distinguished by a giddy, pitched-up voice and hyperactive libido. Camille was Prince at his rawest—in terms of sexuality, in terms of love, in terms of funk.

Camille is often referred to as Prince’s “female alter ego,” but that’s too simple of an explanation on a project that luxuriated in ambiguities and contradictions. He supposedly adopted the name after learning the story of Herculine Barbin, an intersex person who was raised from childhood as a girl in 19th century France, only to be reclassified as male later in life (and renamed Abel Barbin, with Camille as a nickname). On Camille Prince felt free to let gender flow wherever and however (most notably in “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which proposed a hypothetical based on his real relationship with Susannah Melvoin: “If I was your girlfriend, would you remember / To tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man?”), but during fleeting moments of pointed declaration, the fundamental perspective emerges as male (“I’m a funky man!” Prince sings on “Shockadelica”). I think about Camille like this: In the same way that Prince, a man, expressed his femininity by writing songs for women, Camille is Prince adopting a female persona to cross back over and write songs for a man. Just as Prince’s vision of women could be exaggerated to the point of absurdity (especially the work he conceived for the likes of Vanity 6 and Carmen Electra), Camille presents a male character who is libidinal to the point of being cartoonish. The project is a bunch of “What if”s reverberating, bouncing off each other and the walls.

Camille came together during an era that Matt Thorne describes in his excellent chronicle of Prince’s released and unreleased catalog Prince: The Man and His Music as “the least understood but most talked about of Prince’s career, a time when he was producing material of incredible quality yet failed to find a satisfactory way of putting it out.” This was after the relative commercial disappointment of Parade (the soundtrack to his unmistakable flop of a second film, Under the Cherry Moon), and perhaps after Prince had abandoned his Dream Factory double-album project.

Prince, being Prince, was elusive about has process during this time, which means existing records are shaped via secondhand sources and hearsay. For example, Revolution member Lisa Coleman, one of Prince’s most crucial collaborators, is quoted in The Man and His Music as saying she knew nothing about a Dream Factory album, only the song, despite it being part of common Prince lore that there was absolutely a time when he intended to release an album with that title. Reading different biographies (and other, more experimental book-length attempts to explain the man and his music) about this time period is like doing a comparative reading of the New Testament’s four books—factual discrepancies abound, but you get the general idea. As Prince fans know well, the lack of a clearcut narrative is an asset not just to his mythology but it creates spaces for our own imaginations to play and fill in.

For whatever reason, after supposedly completing all eight Camille tracks in a span of 10 days, and after Warner Bros had queued up test pressings of its first intended single, “Shockadelica”/“Housequake,” Prince decided to withdraw the record from its intended release in January 1987. The reason Camille’s posthumous profile never rose to that of the legendary Black Album is most likely because many of its tracks were soon officially released (and by the ‘90s, all of them would be in some form): “Housequake,” “Strange Relationship,” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” ended up on his 1987 double-album masterpiece Sign ‘o the Times, along with “U Got the Look,” which wasn’t originally intended for the Camille album, but has its pitched-up vocals nonetheless credited to Camille. “Shockadelica” was the b-side to the “If I Was Your Girlfriend” single. “Good Love” landed on the 1988 Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack. “Feel U Up” was included as a b-side on the 1989 single “Partyman.” “Rockhard in a Funky Place” concluded the also-deleted Black Album, which was finally officially released in 1994 to help speed up the process of liberating Prince from his Warner Bros contract. “Rebirth of the Flesh” is the only Camille track that hasn’t been officially released in its original recorded version (it is, like many unreleased Prince songs, available in decent quality via bootlegs), though a live rehearsal version was officially released by Prince on MP3 in 1998. Camille is so caked with ambiguity it is an unreleased album that was, in an unconventional yet deliberate manner, eventually released.

There’s another notable Camille song, “Scarlet Pussy,” which was the b-side of one of the most criminally overlooked singles in Prince’s catalog, LoveSexy’s “I Wish U Heaven.” “Scarlet Pussy” has the distinction of being one of Prince’s most explicit songs—it is about exactly what you think it is, via an extended metaphor about cats and dogs that Prince convolutes to an almost impossible absurdity with the Shakespeare-invoking line, “Pussycat, pussycat, wherefore art thou, puppy?”

It has been said of Prince several times that he “got away” with presenting in such a feminine manner (the heels, the purple, the makeup) by focusing so much of his lyrics on sex with women. Listening to Camille, I wonder if there is something to be said for an inverse effect: By presenting so feminine, he felt liberated enough to be so sexually frank that he named a goddamn song “Scarlet Pussy.” Elsewhere, especially during “Shockadelica,” “Feel U Up,” and “Rockhard in a Funky Place,” he’s similarly filthy, and frequently very funny. Prince understood the joy in specificity—In “Feel U Up,” he proclaims, “I’m not looking for a one-night stand / I only wanna feel u up / I don’t really want to be your man / I only wanna feel u up.” Got that? No sex, no relationship, the song is literally only about the desire to feel u up.

After overtly appealing to the masses with Purple Rain, and continuing to dabble with a more rock-oriented style of pop (especially on Around the World in a Day), Camille represented Prince’s return to the kind of skeletal funk that was his and his alone. The biggest discernible reference here is to the pitch-shifted voices in Parliament/Funkadelic tracks and the funk-workout, liberal structures of songs like “Housequake.” Some interpreted “Housequake” as a pointed response to the wave of house music coming out of Chicago and taking over the planet (Prince could be resistant to new genres—before embracing hip hop, he dissed it repeatedly, most notably in The Black Album’s “Dead on It”). But if that’s so, how rich is it that “Strange Relationship,” with its thwacking four-on-the-floor beats, follows it directly? “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” a song wedged between reality and hypothesis, is among the most heartfelt pleas in Prince’s entire catalog, and its otherworldly lurch and atmosphere have more in common with the R&B of today than it did when it was released 30 years ago.

Six of Camille’s tracks, as well as the two Camille songs Prince recorded after he canceled the album, are on Spotify, albeit often in truncated forms (the b-sides are the edit versions included on the 1993 box set The Hits/The B-Sides). For whatever reason, The Black Album, despite its eventual official release by Warner Bros, remains un-streamable, as do Prince’s independent releases, which means you’ll have to poke around if you want to hear “Rebirth of the Flesh” and “Rockhard in a Funky Place.” In 2017, Camille is a transmission from the past, an abandoned album that Prince loved too much to truly abandon. It’s an idea Prince once had that technology and his fans have since made a reality. Ultimately, it’s a wonderful encapsulation of how impossible it remains to encapsulate Prince.

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