By Scott T. Sterling
Twenty years ago today, Prince released Emancipation, a triple album that marked the beginning of his post-Warner Brothers career. It would be the first of many, many albums where he followed nothing other than his artistic impulses.
For Prince, it was the moment when the shackles were finally off.
After years of waging a very public war with his longtime record label, Warner Bros., November 1996 marked Prince’s first release not to be released on the iconic imprint: the aptly titled Emancipation, which featured a cover depicting a pair of hands being freed from chained bondage.
Prince’s long-running campaign against Warner Bros. had resulted in him issuing a flurry of releases (including famously shelved late-‘80s full-length, “The Black Album”) to fulfill his contract with the label. It was also the inspiration behind the artist’s notorious name-change to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993.
“The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to (symbol),” he explained in a press release at the time. “Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about.”
Emancipation (released on Prince’s own NPG label in conjunction with EMI) was his third album of 1996, following the Spike Lee film soundtrack for Girl 6 and Chaos and Disorder.
Despite having already released two albums that year, Prince went all the way with Emancipation, crafting a triple-album opus packed with 36 tracks and three full hours of music.
After years of trying to shoehorn a broad panorama of musical styles and explorations into traditional album formats and hit singles, Emancipation allowed Prince to truly indulge his artistic impulses to their fullest.
While he would go on to become a master of cover songs across a wide range of genres, this album would mark the first time Prince recorded tracks written by other artists. This includes the first single, “Betcha by Golly, Wow!,” a Thom Bell/Linda Creed composition best known for the version Philly soul group the Stylistics took to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.
Prince’s version came with a music video dedicated to his then-wife, Mayte Garcia, who is featured prominently throughout the clip, with scenes of the couple celebrating her pregnancy.
It’s a video with a tragic real-life ending, as the couple’s son, Boy Gregory, was born with a rare genetic disorder, Pfeiffer syndrome, and died just one week after birth in October 1996. Boy Gregory’s shadow looms large over Emancipation, down to his prenatal heartbeat being incorporated into the beat of Disc 2’s opening track, “Sex in the Summer.”
Another far more curious cover song comes in the form of Prince’s version of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” which had peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 that same year. His dynamic and hard-rocking take on the tune did come with one particular tweak, as he edited a line to say “ Just a slave like one of us,” an obvious allusion to his battle with Warner Bros.
Given the album’s kitchen-sink approach, finding highlights and favorites across Emancipation’s 36 tracks can vary as widely as the songs themselves. While Prince was steadily expanding his musical boundaries, he could still knock out tight, cohesive singles, exemplified by the mid-tempo acoustic guitar-driven song, “The Holy River.” It’s a track that’s ripe to be remade into a hit on the country charts.
He also proved himself to be adept at late-‘90s styled R&B sound (although with his own signature spin) with the album’s third single, “Somebody’s Somebody,” which peaked at No. 15 on the US R&B Airplay charts.
Among the sprawling, seven-minute-plus songs and cover tunes, Emancipation also found Prince exploring the world of house music. The influence is most prominent on Disc 3 number, “The Human Body,” which pairs a driving deep house beat with Prince’s signature falsetto into an intriguing track that would actually work in a contemporary dance DJ set.
“Free – don’t think I ain’t!” Prince sings on the title track, which closes the album. It’s a freedom that’s celebrated wildly all over Emancipation, the artist’s three-hour celebration of finally making music on his own terms since becoming a global superstar.