Recorded in 2010 at his famed Paisley Park studio in Minnesota, the project enlisted hotshot bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman for a series of tracks inspired by 1970s jazz, soul and funk. Prince recruited longtime keyboardist Morris Hayes to help produce the 12-song album and embarked on his Welcome 2 world tour later that same year.
But the effort was mysteriously scrapped just before release. Even a decade later, those who worked on the album – which will finally be released Friday – still don't totally understand why.
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"That was a surprise to me," Hayes says. If he had to guess, Prince might've axed it because not all of the album's collaborators (including Wilkenfeld) were able to join him on the road.
"I only surmised that if he couldn't put this album out with the crew he created it with, then I think it was a big mitigating factor in why it hit the shelf," Hayes says. "Prince had this thing where he would shoot first and ask questions later. And if he didn't have commitment from all those people that we could go out and make a big splash – with a new band, a new Prince – then the balloon would just go down. If all those things weren't aligned, that would cause that (music) to go in the vault."
Prince was "also working on the '20Ten' album and he was feeling that one more at the moment, so he ended up putting that out" in 2010, says backup vocalist Elisa Fiorillo. But he still played "Welcome 2 America" on tour and "I know he was excited. He was testing the waters to see how it would be accepted or not. Maybe he just thought it wasn't the right time."
The late musician, who died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016 at age 57, grapples with racial injustice and political division on "Welcome 2 America." He also probes how the internet and technology hinder human connection.
"(Fans) are gonna hear a more political side of Prince," Fiorillo says. "He was very concerned with how people were treated and making the world a better place. There's some light stuff (on the album), but I think they'll appreciate the sincerity and realness of what he had to say."
"Same Page, Different Book" is a funky, feel-good highlight about shared commonalities and reaching across the aisle, while Hayes considers the sultry "When She Comes" among the greatest ballads Prince ever released. The sunny "Born 2 Die" is his attempt at emulating R&B icon Curtis Mayfield. (Dr. Cornel West once unfavorably compared the two artists, saying Prince is "no Curtis.")
Unlike most Prince albums, where the singer "micromanaged" every detail in the studio, Hayes produced most of "Welcome 2 America" at home and Prince would fine-tune the songs later.
When Hayes brought him "Born 2 Die," "he just grabbed me by the shoulders and said, 'You're Duke Ellington! Morris, this is great!' " Hayes recalls. "Prince wasn't over the top with accolades. He was really cautious that if you buttered people up, it'd give them big-head syndrome. But that was the most I ever experienced of him going over the top, shaking me and hugging me."
"Welcome 2 America" was made over the course of several months, with backup vocalists brought in to record their parts piecemeal.
"It was a process," Fiorillo says. "We didn't know what was gonna happen to it. We didn't know if we'd ever hear it again. He had a tendency to write constantly and you never knew what he was gonna do with it. He just told us what to sing and we sang it. We had no clue about the lyrics, either. It was thrown at us so quickly that we never got to dive into what we were actually singing. Now listening back to it, it's like, 'Wow, how ahead of his time.' He could always see into the future."
Prince's estate have released several posthumous studio, live and compilation albums since the singer's death. Given his wealth of unreleased music, Hayes says Prince always understood those songs would see the light of day at some point.
"Prince on a bad day was better than most people on their greatest day," Hayes says. Many years ago, "I remember Prince played me some songs from the 'Purple Rain' era. He said, 'You know, "Purple Rain" was the B-reel.' And I said, 'Get out of here, dude. The zenith of your career is 'Purple Rain.' You're telling me you have stuff that's better than that?' And he proceeds to play me four or five songs and I was completely flabbergasted. I was like, 'Wow, dude, you're sitting on some gems. We've gotta put these out!' And he's like, 'No, these are for my kids.' " (Prince and dancer Mayte García had one son, Amiir, who died a week after he was born in 1996.)
Hayes says that was the only time he heard those hidden masterpieces.
"A lot of stuff he put in the vault. He said he was just building something for them."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Prince album 'Welcome 2 America': Why did he shelve 'political' songs?