The aughts were an intriguing time for Prince; with 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121, he appeared to rediscover a love of the crisp, commercial funk he had started to move away from in the late ‘90s. He also began experimenting with distribution: in 2007, copies of his album Planet Earth were bundled with newspapers in the UK. That same year, Prince played a legendary Super Bowl halftime show at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium, powering through a short, achingly beautiful set in the rain. By the end of the decade, though, renewed acclaim from critics dried up; it wasn’t until 2014’s Plectrumelectrum and Art Official Age that mainstream audiences came back around, ultimately for the last time. But Prince, who died in 2016 at the age of 57, never stopped recording: In 2009, he released a triple album packaging his own full-lengths Lotusflow3r and MPLSound with Elixer, the debut release from his then-protégé and sometime romantic partner Bria Valente.
In 2010, the Purple One convened his band the New Power Generation — a revolving-door collective of longtime Prince players and new prospects met through friends which could house anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen members at a time — to record an album titled Welcome 2 America. They embarked on the globe-trotting Welcome 2 tour in winter of 2010, regaling fans at select gigs with the scathing political outrage of the album’s intended title track but otherwise neglecting to mention the studio work that had been the catalyst for the tour. The music was never released. The finished work lingered in Prince’s vast, prodigious, unknowable vaults for the next decade.
That changes today. The album has been released in full for the first time, as part of the posthumous series managed by Prince’s estate that has thus far yielded 2018’s exquisite demo collection Piano and a Microphone 1983 and 2019’s Originals, a batch of excellent recordings of songs Prince famously gifted to other musicians. Welcome 2 America is a delight, easily the best of the artist’s final string of albums. The grooves are airtight and joyous. But he’s also speaking movingly to a shifting political climate, as he would do a few years later with Hit n Run Phase Two’s protest song “Baltimore.” The title track advises the listener to take the blinders off and see America for the imperfect union it is; on “1000 Light Years Away” and “One Day We Will All B Free,” he’s imagining a better future for the patient and the faithful.
Listening to the album, you may wonder how these songs would have shifted perceptions of a misunderstood stretch of Prince’s career. But the musicians who helped make them are unfazed by this trajectory. “To me, you couldn’t find a better time to drop the album than right now,” says musical director Morris Hayes. “It’s hitting on every cylinder as to what’s happening today.” This is their story and, by proxy, the story of Prince’s America.
‘What are you going to do for your people?’
Shelby J., backing vocalist: Prince always reflected either what was happening right there or how he thought that was going to affect the future. In 2010, you’d just had the financial collapse. You had people losing homes. You had people turning inward, people living on Instagram. You didn’t know what was real or what wasn’t. It was the beginning of all this misinformation.
Everybody right now is talking about critical race theory. Prince was also talking about understanding that not everything we were taught is the truth. We were in L.A. one time, and he wanted to go to bookstores to buy all of this different African literature and Pan-African stuff, stuff I didn’t know about. He’d give us DVDs to watch — not to say “You have to watch this,” but more like “I’m trying to open your mind so you can understand the world and where you’re from.” This album is acknowledging that the world’s not perfect and we can’t fix it if we don’t call it out.
Morris Hayes, keyboardist and musical director: When Obama was elected, Prince was talking about wanting to meet him, and it wasn’t because he just wanted to be like, “Yeah, we got a Black president.” It was “I want to talk to this dude and take him to task about what needs to happen for people of color, people that’s disenfranchised.” He was trying to get at this dude and say, “Look, man, I’m glad you’re a soul brother. What are you going to do for your people?”
Tal Wilkenfeld, bassist: In 2009, Prince had called me and said, “I want to make a trio with you, me, and a drummer. I want you to find me the drummer.” Bass players and drummers — you guys gotta like each other. I called four people up and didn’t tell them what it was for. Like, “Come jam.” Prince picked his favorite, Chris Coleman. We recorded the whole Welcome 2 America album in March and April of 2010. We’d never been in the studio with him before. We’d only jammed once as a group. Then the vocalists overdubbed their vocals to the basic tracks we made as a trio. After he got the tracks with the vocals and the trio, Morris overdubbed keyboards and did production on a few of the songs.
Liv Warfield, backing vocalist: I came to be a part of NPG when Marva King was leaving. I met her at a gig in Atlanta. She said, “Prince is looking for another background vocalist.” I was like, “First off, don’t send a video. I’m not even up to par. Please don’t do that.” Video was sent anyhow, and Prince saw me singing “Gimme Shelter.” Two and a half months later, I’m getting a fresh weave in Arkansas, where I had a gig. I’m told that Prince is calling from a private number. He said, “Liv? I love your voice. I want to work with you. Do you want to go somewhere warm?” I’m thinking, What? Really? I went to Paisley Park, and he was as warm and as inviting as could be. I knew him as a legend and an icon, but I didn’t know what I was walking into when I met the band. It was everything that I wanted, everything that I didn’t know that I needed.
‘What does this mean?’
Hayes: The song I really love is “Born 2 Die.” Prince told me he was watching Dr. Cornel West videos on YouTube. Prince would get on the internet and go down a wormhole and be binge-watching a bunch of stuff. He got on Dr. West, who was talking about freedom fighters and Curtis Mayfield. He said, “Prince is great, but he’s no Curtis Mayfield.” Prince was like, “Okay, we’ll see,” and wrote “Born 2 Die.”
Wilkenfeld: I’m pretty sure Larry Graham [of Sly and the Family Stone] was mentoring Prince and teaching him. When we hung out with Larry, we didn’t talk about music. They were passionate about studying. They were both Jehovah’s Witnesses. It comes into the record. There’s biblical references and also stuff about the music industry. There’s also all the racial injustice he’s focusing on, and what’s happening politically.
He liked looking at what was going on, but he always used other people’s devices. He didn’t really use his own phone to call people. I know he had a computer. There’s an iPad reference in a lyric in “Welcome 2 America”; I looked it up, and the iPad had probably only been out for a month when he wrote that. I find it fascinating that the record’s coming out now because it’s touching on some issues that are just as present now as they were then, and maybe in some ways even more so now. He was very ahead of his time.
Elisa Fiorillo, backing vocalist: The songs were coming, and I didn’t understand any of it at the time. What does this mean? But what I kept getting from Prince ever since the first day I met him is that he was searching for this spiritual understanding of who he was, why he was here, what he was here to do. I know that he was trying to make the community and everybody come together, but I do think he always felt like on the other side, there’s this beautiful thing to look forward to. That’s what gives me peace: knowing he got there.
Warfield: You’re dancing to this music feeling good, but you’re like, Wait, he’s really schooling me right now. You’re taking it all in, and he’s dropping the truth on you. We talked about being woke and having that third eye. I think this music is a call from him — “free yourself.” There could be freedom for all of us. There could be light for all of us. There’s a world that he wants to see beside what we’re doing here. There’s another place where he wants to be, a thousand light-years from here, where we can all be at peace. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but I want it to happen.
‘What, y’all can’t do it?’
Shelby J.: The song “Yes” is fun, but if you listen to the lyrics, he’s still dropping stuff there: “Trans4mation for every heart / Everybody’s got 2 play the part.” For a lot of those vocals, the three of us — Liv Warfield, Elisa Fiorillo, and myself — are huddled around one microphone singing the way they do in old Motown footage. Our blend had to be right. I just would like to thank my fellow vocalists for being able to hold that note at the end of “Yes” for 32 beats. There is no breathing.
Warfield: When he asked us to hold that note, he said, “What, y’all can’t do it?” and then did it himself. He just gave this look. You know Prince be giving looks. He did it and said, “Now you girls go do it.” Then he walked out of the room.
Hayes: That’s the mark of a truly great producer. A lot of us will try to mimic a lot of the stuff that Prince taught us, and sometimes we’ll come up short because Prince was able to just know how far to push an artist. He used to tell me sometimes, “Morris, it is very difficult for people to produce themselves. You really have to take yourself outside of yourself.” Because what you do is you set these limits for how hard you can hit it or how high you go. Most people don’t go the extra mile. You have to have that pushed out of you. There have been so many times where I look back like, How the hell did I do it? If left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have. But he knew how to push that out and bring the next level out of everybody he worked with.
Fiorillo: As we got to know each other in the studio, at the end of some of the songs he’d have us just talking and acting like we were at a party. We’d be watching him from the sound room, watching us randomly talking about whatever and having him laugh at some of the things we would say. It was like when you’re trying to prove yourself to your parents, trying to make them proud.
Hayes: Some days, he’d be on me like, “Man, Morris, come on, man.” Other days, we’re joking: “Hot Summer” is just one of them grooves. We hit you with the hard stuff, but then we give you one that lets you know we’re having fun.
Shelby J.: When the album was finished, we all got in Prince’s car, riding through the park listening …
Fiorillo: We listened to the whole record. We drove around the arboretum. I just remember everybody’s head nodding. That place was banging. The darn car was going right and left.
Hayes: I hate to tell on him, but Prince was a terrible driver. He went too fast.
‘I never had an inkling the album was coming out’
Wilkenfeld: Prince also had two listening parties around May 2010 after we tracked. He was so excited to be playing us fully mixed tracks. He was definitely into the music. People were pulling up in limos dressed in Grammy attire. I didn’t know who they were, but they came and we listened to the music and that was it. Then I don’t know what happened. I never had an inkling the album was coming out. Just because you get called for a session doesn’t mean it’s coming out, so I always just go with the flow and play my part. When it comes out, that’s when I know it’s coming out.
Shelby J.: Prince always knew when it was the right time to do the right thing, and I know that sounds simple, but if you want to understand Prince, understand he’s the kind of person that is going to do what he wants to do. I think he just put the album away, thinking maybe it wasn’t the right time. Prince was prophetic. He was writing “1999” in 1982. Welcome 2 America was like a little time capsule he put aside. The album was done. They even had a listening party. If he felt like playing with a band and doing live stuff, that’s what he would do.
He never sat down and said, “We’re about to go on tour, but we’re not going to sing the songs we just recorded.” He called us in to sing, and we would just sing. We didn’t ask, “What is this for?” That’s not how it flowed. It was very organic. Sometimes he might say, “Yeah, this is for the new album.” And sometimes he would change his mind.
We were doing a three-hour show. One of the only new songs we played on the tour was “Welcome 2 America,” and we didn’t even play that over the music to “Welcome 2 America” — it was over another jam. It was different music, but we were singing the lyrics. The fans were like, Okay, what is this? Is this something new?
Hayes: Prince always, always could put together a crazy show. He knew how to take any song and very quickly arrange it, even a song everybody knows. He put his own thing on it and made it come alive. It was always a mistake for me to hear live versions before I heard the record because everything goes up a notch. It’s going somewhere else. I wore [the title of musical director] very loosely. Prince MD-ed his own set. He put his show together. I just maintained some writing orders whenever he’d step away.
Warfield: Frequency was everything. I didn’t understand that until I got onstage with him. Everybody was connected. We just had to be on. You had to flow, and you would have to be ready to go wherever he was about to go. We had to all be there together as one, as a unit.
Shelby J.: When he asked in 2006 if I wanted to be a part of the New Power Generation, I said, “Absolutely.” He’s like, “All right, we’re starting rehearsals for the Super Bowl in a week.” I went from meeting him to playing my first big gig with him to, a month later, being on the biggest stage in the world at the Super Bowl with him, just like that. It was life-altering, life-changing. He kept calling, and I kept showing up.
Hayes: Jesse Johnson [from the Time] told me a long time ago, “Man, really, when Prince do a record, he do three.” I found that to be true. He’ll do three and maybe four sometimes because he writes so much material, then he figures out what he wants to use and where he wants to go. There doesn’t have to be any rhyme or reason. It doesn’t have to be logical. Everybody’s always trying to pin a logic on Prince. He didn’t have to be logical for you and me.
Wilkenfeld: He was focused on the music industry and how it was structured based on his bad experiences. We’d spend hours talking about why I shouldn’t sign this record deal. He’d say, “You need to put out your records yourself.” He was very passionate about having control of your own music and image and this and that.
Shelby J.: It wasn’t like how some people have things all planned out and written out, saying, “It’s going to be coming out on this date.” Sometimes he could be like that but not with Welcome 2 America. We were just getting out what he wanted to get out. He had all this stuff in him he wanted to get out, and we were there to help him do it. That’s it. Music flowed through him. Thoughts and energies flowed through him. And you had to be able to roll with that. Some people need to know the answer to everything. They need explanations all the time. That’s just not the way it worked in Prince’s world.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
*This article appears in the July 19, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Thank you for supporting our journalism.