Inside the Release of the New Prince Album 'Welcome 2 America'

In a PEOPLE special edition, two of the Artist's collaborators speak exclusively about Welcome 2 America, the first studio album from Prince's vault. "We did it old-school," says singer Shelby J. "There's seasoning and soul in that tape"

Prince People Special cover

Welcome 2 America, the first new studio album release since Prince's untimely death in 2016, has been rightly hailed as "unheard" music. Of course there are a few people—a handful of the musician's creative collaborators—who had the opportunity to hear the album's 12 tracks before this summer's release.

Morris Hayes, the NPG keyboardist and the album's co-producer, and singer Shelby J both spoke to PEOPLE for a new edition of a special issue, Celebrating Prince, which is out now.

In an exclusive interview, Hayes recalls a conversation with Prince around the time that the album was being recorded in 2010. Prince had asked him to come to Paisley Park and listen to something he'd been working on. Rather than head to the studio, they went to Prince's black Mercedes truck. "He told me to hop in," says Hayes. Prince popped in a CD, and, as if testing the groove under real-life listening conditions, "he did that thing—when he heard something funky he'd make that face." Prince would turn over several raw tracks to Hayes with instructions to " 'overproduce it—I'll take away whatever I don't need.' It was liberating. He gave me an open palette to try new things."

When it came time to record with the band, remembers vocalist Shelby J, "we did it old-school," singing live around one mic, instead of layering separate voice tracks. "It vibrates differently. There's some music that you hear and some music that you feel. Prince makes music you feel. When you do that analog, there's seasoning and soul in that tape."

Prince and Shelby J perform onstage at The Hollywood Palladium on March 8, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Prince with singer Shelby J on tour in 2013. Kevin Mazur/WireImage

They completed the album, which now had a name, Welcome 2 America, its title track a bounding, funky treatise on racism, hookup tech culture and our country's overindulgence in media. Prince and his band sat for a cover shoot and prepped the Welcome 2 America tour. But after playing a few dates, they noticed something odd: They weren't performing the new songs. "We're singing a completely different album," says Shelby J. "Sometimes he sang the lyrics of 'Welcome 2 America' over the music of another song that people were familiar with. We rolled with it."

Available at last, Welcome 2 America suits the present moment so well it might have been written over the tumultuous past year. "He was always ahead with fashion and music," notes Shelby J. "People are going to see how far ahead he was socially, politically." Songs like "Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)" and "One Day We Will All B Free" reflect a focus on social justice, American greed and Black consciousness.

However prescient, the album's social statements never get in the way of its sound. On Welcome, Prince lets the funk rise to the top as he bends genres from jazz to funk to hip-hop. One song, "Born 2 Die," is a fond clap back at his friend Dr. Cornel West, who had teased that Prince was good but was no Curtis Mayfield. "Prince was like, 'Oh, really? I got something for you,' " says Hayes. "He was like, 'I will let Dr. West know I can do Curtis, but Curtis can't do me.' "

PRINCE - W2A Welcome To America promotional art
Mike Ruiz

While the album's posthumous release makes even a Super Fly reference feel unintentionally poignant, "I think it's perfect, especially coming out of COVID," says Shelby J. "People are coming out of this last year understanding what's important. Prince would always say, 'We gotta take care of each other.' I think it's right on time."

PEOPLE's updated reissue of Celebrating Prince is available now wherever magazines are sold.

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