Prince Goes All-Out ’70s on the Overlooked ‘Sleep Around': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
In 1997, the Washington City Paper called Prince's "Sleep Around" a "definite future hit." So, what happened?
While "Sleep Around" is one of Prince's very best '90s dance songs, it wasn't widely heard because he was too deeply wed to the compact-disc format, rather than club DJ-preferred vinyl. Finally free of Warner Bros., Prince attached "Sleep Around" to a triple-CD project titled Emancipation in which every individual disc was precisely the same length. That, of course, wouldn't have worked with a shift to wax.
Moreover, it was simply too long for radio. There were several tracks – and "Sleep Around" is undoubtedly one – where Prince expanded the format in order to meet his tidy 12-song, 60-minutes-per-disc restrictions. That allows him to fully recall the free-form, disco-fied 12-inch joys of the Studio 54 era over the course of a nearly eight-minute romp: He samples a favorite band from the era, brings in some period-perfect strings, and then completes things with a series of hip-shaking brass blasts from the NPG Hornz.
In terms of nervy attitude, "Sleep Around" could have fit into either of his earliest, late-'70s albums. But not lyrically. The title, in fact, is a bit of a head fake. This isn't one of Prince's patented libido-driven come ons. Instead, "Sleep Around" – as Oprah Winfrey so aptly described it, during Prince's Nov. 21, 1996 appearance on her show – "tells how to keep a woman happy."
Likely recorded while Prince and engineer César Sogbe were also completing Prince's contract-obligation album Chaos and Disorder, "Sleep Around" gets no small amount of its power from counter-point work by trombone player Michael B. Nelson, trumpeters Steve Strand and Dave Jensen, and saxophonists Brian Gallagher and Kathy Jensen.
Dubbed the NPG Hornz, and later the Hornheads, they work here in funky symbiosis. "You had to keep up with him. You had to anticipate. You had to be 100 percent prepared," Nelson told the Wausau Daily Herald in 2016. "And basically, the horn section had to work like his right hand on a keyboard."
Then there's a tasty sample of "Squib Cakes," from Tower of Power's 1974 album Back to Oakland. This was no accident. In fact, the band was an integral part of Prince's maturation as a musician – and a man.
"When he sits down at the drums, he hears [Tower of Power's] Dave Garibaldi," Paisley Park engineer Chuck Zwicky says in I Would Die 4 U. Prince also admitted in a Rolling Stone interview that he first made out with a girl while "Squib Cakes" was playing, and later recounted the moment in his unreleased track "Schoolyard" from the Diamonds and Pearls sessions.
Prince became an every-day proselytizer for the group, steering friends and even reporters toward Tower of Power. He also was a regular at their shows. "He loved the band," Tower of Power co-founder Emilio Castillo told Maui News in 2016, "and would come and see us play."
Mix it all together and you get something endlessly infectious, and too often overlooked: "Sleep Around" never found its way to national dance floors, much less the charts. Still, Prince held the song in high enough regard that it served as his pre-encore concert closer during the Love 4 One Another Charities tours between 1995–97. And with good reason: It remains a key component in a double-platinum project that represents Prince's last true public-spectacle moment, a final attempt to take in the totality of his musical perspective across a sprawling multi-disc set.
Of course, Prince's label tried (and failed) to make an event-album out of 1999's guest-laden Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, but he wouldn't consistently match this kind of gumption and groove until the following decade. Even then, Musicology and 3121 arrived as discrete album releases in 2004 and '06, respectively.