Prince’s impact on the direction and sound of ’80s pop music can’t be overstated. By the mid-’70s, race segregation had become nearly as rigid a musical barrier as it was at the outset of rock’n’roll in the ’50s, but Prince’s brilliant stylistic cross-fertilization has been a major agent in its slow dissolution. He continually demonstrates a phenomenal grasp of forms, styles and production techniques, and has the ability to create stunning syntheses of them. True, he’s shown a lyrical penchant for excessive and/or tasteless sexuality, but he’s also responsible for some of the most playful, open and un-hung-up sexiness in pop music. Prince is the biggest figure in ’80s pop music whom musicians at opposite ends of the rock and soul spectrum will admit liking and paying attention to.
The upstart 19-year-old’s first album, For You, operates within the conventions of soul music — even of disco — without sounding like a tired string of clichés or succumbing to corporate overkill. The assertive sexuality (e.g., “Soft and Wet”) isn’t the LP’s big surprise, which he saves for last — something like a cross between MFSB and the Delfonics trying to condense the Cream songbook into one number. Prince‘s soul is also slick, its rock less crunchy. His libido advertisements range from mock-coy to wham-bam, from straightforward to confusing (“I wanna be your lover…your brother…your mother and your sister too”) to confused (“It’s mainly a physical thing…[but] I think it’s love”). Prince is a bit more entertaining than For You, but both are a touch too clinical.
Dirty Mind and Controversy began to attract the attention of the rock crowd. To oversimplify, the two LPs blend Blondie, Bootsy and Blowfly; while other artists bared their souls, Prince preferred to bare his genitals. Ultimately, Dirty Mind comes off as a flawed triumph, Controversy as a miscalculation. The former’s crotch-mindedness is offset by ingenuous ingenuity. The sly lyrics, good tunes, strong production and his super falsetto all make for a winning combination; a song like “When You Were Mine” (later covered to great effect by Cyndi Lauper) declared that he was a tunesmith to be reckoned with. Controversy, though, shows too much flash with too little substance — Prince is straining too hard for approval from his new audience and the touch-all-bases agenda yields “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” “Annie Christian” and “Jack U Off,” all on one LP side.
The largely dance-oriented 1999, however, is his first real tour de force. Prince exercises even greater skill than before, and when he couples that with some restraint, the results are incredibly gratifying. (The first side alone has three of his best-ever cuts: “1999,” “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious.”) Gratuitous sexuality and stylistic indulgences that overstretch tracks make the double-album set less than an unmitigated success; all the same, sometimes his talent is so dazzling that you don’t notice (or care about) his excesses. (As a result of single-disc time constraints, the 1999 CD was originally issued without “D.M.S.R.,” a defect finally rectified in 1990.)
Purple Rain is the first Prince album to use a band in the studio, and his first movie music; however much those factors influenced the outcome, it also clearly topped its predecessors. Superior focus and control enable him to move effortlessly from the party-down ebullience of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the spare, delicate anguish of “When Doves Cry” to the commandingly Hendrixian guitar balladry of the title track.
From back-to-back killers, though, he went to back-to- back turkeys: Around the World in a Day and Parade. But no matter what he gets into on these records, each has at least one ace track and another just a notch below. Prince’s father helped him write three of the tunes on Around the World, but don’t blame Dad — the blatherings on sex and religion, and the neo- psychedelic/flower-power tripe in which it’s couched, are all Prince’s doing. All the same, “Raspberry Beret” is an uncanny recycling of the Small Faces and the bouncy “Pop Life” (which allegedly incorporates a tape of the crowd that booed him offstage when he opened for the Stones) offers politely witty lyrics. Parade‘s strangeness isn’t as bad as the worst of World, though it’s a wonder the soundtrack of Prince’s laughably bad second film, Under the Cherry Moon, was any good at all. Some of it is weird — stripped-down funk that just doesn’t work — but the spartan “Kiss” is an instant classic. Right on its heels comes “Anotherloverholenyohead,” which isn’t — can’t be — as good, but is still pretty stimulating.
The time for the Revolution had evidently come and gone, so Prince decided to strike out on his own again. The split was apparently amicable; Wendy and Lisa (guitar, keyboards, vocals) appear on his next LP (while also making one of their own). Sign “o” the Times is a two-disc bag of goodies, filled with different flavors and colors. The title track is the most minimal of his minimalist singles (even compared to “Kiss”), an offbeat reality-minded protest record that’s hardly there. It shouldn’t work, but it does, like crazy. Sheena Easton and Sheila E. join in for “U Got the Look,” a throwback to the “old” Prince sound and over-the-top sexual aggression (“let’s get to rammin'”) and a strong track in spite of itself. Otherwise, there’s some of everything — rap, funk, pop, James Brown tributes, rock’n’roll, etc. Highlights include “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which redefines a relationship in a surprisingly mature way; “Strange Relationship,” a nonplused admission of emotional sado-masochism; and the sleeper ending Side Three, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” a “When You Were Mine” melody with an older and wiser message. A double album eminently worthy of the vinyl.
Ostensibly in a disagreement with Warner Bros. over release scheduling, Prince withdrew a completed record known as The Black Album, which wound up widely bootlegged on cassette, vinyl and CD and then given an official release years later. It’s not a great album, but it’s pretty damned neat. Except for the pretty (X-rated) ballad, “When 2 R in Love,” each track offers a slightly different kind of (usually scatological) funk. The sneer of “Le Grind,” a leering call to orgy to the beat, is grating but, like the rest, is so well done it succeeds anyway. “Bob George” is fabulously nasty, off-the-wall black (in many senses) humor; “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” is a tribute (?!?) of sorts to guys like Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff; “Cindy C” is a hot, sexy groove. Lots of synthetic sounds, not the least of which is the obvious electronic alteration of Prince’s voice. This LP would’ve received no airplay, but it’s a gas.
Prince must have known The Black Album wouldn’t really pass muster at the label: he already had Lovesexy ready. (Its cover caused a different retail furor.) With backing by the group Madhouse (minus its drummer, replaced by Sheila E.), it’s a fine record. “Alphabet St.” brightly continues that minimalist single string. “Anna Stesia” is a wonderfully weird intertwining of love, sex and religion that works where it failed before; the title track is a funny/affecting affirmation of real and exciting romance that doesn’t have to be immediately consummated (even though “race cars burn rubber in my pants”!). The only song carried over from The Black Album is “When 2 R in Love.” Prince was on a roll, and the sky seemed the limit. Then came Batman.
Like the movie itself, the lines that open Batman the album (“I’ve seen the future and it will be / I’ve seen the future and it works”) are incomplete, unsatisfying and say less than meets the eye. The film may not have been a total bust, but it had too little substance to live up to its hype. The album is equally deficient, and Prince acting out some of the parts in song, trying to take them even further, simply doesn’t make it. (Caught up in the Batman hype wind, the record did return Prince to the top of the charts.) “The Future” and “Batdance” have moments, but the best bit is still the chorus chanting “Batman!” in emulation of Neal Hefti’s ’60s TV theme. (A special edition of the CD — packaged in a can — was issued commercially.)
“Scandalous” didn’t live up to its title in the 6:15 Batman version; neither do its equally (over)long reworkings, “The Crime,” “The Passion” and “The Rapture” on The Scandalous Sex Suite EP. Prince adds bedroom dialogue with actress Kim Basinger (the couple allegedly had an affair), more “sexy” whimpering from the original (which may not actually be Basinger) and instrumental excess (including heavy guitar). Also included: a non-LP track (“Sex”) and Lovesexy‘s “When 2 R in Love.”
The soundtrack to Prince’s flop movie Graffiti Bridge is nowhere near as disappointing, but neither can it stand up to very many of his other albums. Prince shares the spotlight here: although he had a hand in producing and writing everything and played and sang most of it, three of the seventeen tracks are performed by the Time (Prince joins the Time on another); there’s a collaboration with George Clinton and lead vocals by Mavis Staples and (on the hit “Round and Round”) young Tevin Campbell. The musical mix is a virtue, but the writing is too rarely impressive or memorable, much of it retreading ground he’s already crossed with far more style and grace. Two of the best tracks are the rock’n’rolly opener (“Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got”) and the sing-along title tune.
With his creative momentum slowing, Prince arrived in the ’90s on a downward spiral. His label wasn’t doing well, his movies were not being taken seriously and his albums no longer arrived as major events. With rap a dominant force in the marketplace, the fact that Prince was no MC was a notable commercial impediment. Worse, the eccentricities of Prince’s obsessive personality seemed to be compromising, rather than compelling, his work. His ratio of mind-boggling surprises to predictable fixations — monomania doesn’t begin to describe Prince’s devotion to carnality — had fallen, and it wasn’t clear he could get it back up.
Resorting to the same share-the-mic approach that got him over Graffiti Bridge, Prince made Diamonds and Pearls with the New Power Generation, a multifarious mod squad-complete with rapper and a more businesslike female foil than Prince’s usual slinky playthings — geared not so much to support the star as to complement him. Although facile and frivolous on the surface, the album is deceptively strong, with self-amused tributes like the Sly-styling “Daddy Pop” (in which the phrase “sock it to me” gets aired for what must be the first time since Nixon resigned) and the mock movie musical number “Strollin’ ” displaying more ingenuity than borrowed influence. Meanwhile, the outrageous sex vamps (“Gett Off” and “Cream”) go well into the red zone, tempered by the luxurious romance of the titular ballad and the falsetto delicacy of “Willing and Able,” which loads up the style cart with high-life guitar flow, a guest gospel group and mellow NPG rhyme-buster Tony M — yet never even threatens to tip over.
With such a solid carriage, it took some conscious effort for Prince to drive himself off the rails, but he did it on his next album, titled with the unpronounceable logo he subsequently adopted as his personal designation. (Ironically, he gets the record off with the definitive “My Name Is Prince.”) Despite nods to reggae, rap and techno, the insubstantial album mainly consists of familiar funk, pop and soul ballad designs. Belatedly attempting to claim a place in hardcore hip-hop, he sidles up to the sound of jeep beats in the first track and then goes for the throat in the unconvincing and self-consciously rude “Sexy M.F.,” which drops the coquettish charm of his best come-ons for blunt, witless profanity. Throughout this overlong album, Prince lets signifying intent take precedence over content. His repeated digs at journalists serve only to expose a glass jaw; the attempts to explain himself here are far more confusing than anything one might imagine about his values or motives.
Following a stupendous hits/flips career retrospective — available as a 56-song triple-CD and as two single discs of 18 A-sides each — Prince became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (or Glyph, or Symbol, or TAFKAP, or The Artist). He formalized the affectation on The Beautiful Experience, an impressively chameleonic five-version (pick a style, any style) single of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” an ordinary falsetto ballad used to mount an extraordinary are-you-she? marketing campaign.
Further confusing trivial matters, Come is credited to “Prince 1958-1993.” Declaring the “dawning of a new spiritual revolution,” ol’ whatsisname plays a human sundial here, watching the female world revolve lazily around his dick. From the crashing surf (a familiar metaphor to fans of Russ Meyer movies) that opens the album to the whimpering female orgasm that ends it, Prince makes no bones (er…) about his fleshly desires, although he still finds time to attack racism in “Race” and evil parents in “Papa.” The latter’s locked-in-the-closet story winds up with an unexpected and unsettling coda — “Don’t abuse children or else they turn out like me” — that raises some curious questions about the artist’s own upbringing. In fact, the album is no more sex- obsessed than usual, but the explicit bookends (the eleven-minute “Come” and the much shorter “Orgasm” — there should be a bonus track called “Smoke”) are nasty enough to color the whole album beet-red. The taut, economical and effective bed of simple funk and soul stands little chance of drawing attention away from the bedroom.
The Paisley Park label folded in ’94, stranding a bunch of artists. The former entrepreneur saw to the release of 1-800-NEW-FUNK, a roster sampler he helped write, perform and produce for George Clinton, Madhouse, NPG, Nona Gaye and Mavis Staples. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. whipped up Purple Medley, which reprises the highlights of Prince oeuvre in eleven efficient minutes.
Perhaps the name change and shedding of corporate responsibilities lifted some weight off the diminutive diva’s shoulders, for The Gold Experience spins out from the multi-colored designs of Diamonds and Pearls with stronger rock and loftier pop ambitions, rectifying the bad ideas of Come and by relocating the essential Prince-ness of their intentions. After a bracing introduction, “Shhh” settles in for a quiet storm, then, accompanied by the line “You say you want a slow jam,” opens the door to a blistering rock guitar solo. The sleekly gorgeous “Dolphin” is miles and away the best pop song in the Minneapolitan’s catalogue since “Raspberry Beret.” And rather than attempt to join the roughneck posse, the determined veteran makes an end run around it here. Prostrating himself at the vaginal altar in the hysterical falsetto/rap delirium of “P Control,” “your captain with no name” works up a mighty testosterone sweat exalting the sexuality of womankind and then slaps down those who don’t share his terrible awe. “Don’t you think about calling her a ‘ho,’ you juvenile delinquent,” he warns no one in particular. “Best sit yo’ ass down — talkin’ about pussy control.” This man is one willing slave to love. A reappearance of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” speaks to his respect for the female species — at least as a pleasurable physical manifestation — but his mercurial mood turns over in “Billy Jack Bitch” and “I Hate U.” Consistently stimulating, surprising and sparkling, The Gold Experience is an instant refresher course in why Prince — or whomever — earns his egotism every day.
Just when the name thing seemed to have been settled once and for all, director Spike Lee prevailed upon the man from Minneapolis to create a soundtrack album for his phone-sex film Girl 6 — and to do so under the marketable Prince rubric. Lee’s humiliating liner note is positively prostrate in its grateful acquiescence to form: “Many thanks 2 The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. U made a great sacrifice to make this happen. I love U and U will see the dawn.” Girl 6 feeds a couple of new (at least previously unreleased) songs into an album of such Princely oldies as “Pink Cashmere,” “Hot Thing,” “Erotic City,” “Girls & Boys” and “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore.” There’s also a track by Vanity, two by the New Power Generation and one by the Family.
The funk-rocking Chaos and Disorder — “originally intended 4 private use only” — is a compilation of studio leftovers cobbled together as a final bird-flip farewell to his longtime label. With backing by the New Power Generation, the undatable music and singing are loose and lively. Some of the melodies are well-crafted, the overall tone is refreshingly warm and buttery and there’s lots of boss lead guitar work. That said, the half-baked lyrics of “Dinner With Delores,” “I Rock, Therefore I Am” and “Dig U Better Dead,” plus an incongruous rap, mess up what might have been a fine old time.
Emancipation, the artist’s celebration of his departure from Warner Bros. Records, offers plenty of good times from start to finish. Prince spreads 36 songs evenly across three CDs, each one exactly an hour long and each one loosely focused on a particular aspect of his musical personality. The first CD is the most conventional, devoted mostly to funk and R&B like “Jam of the Year,” “Get Yo Groove On” and “We Gets Up.” The second disc tends toward romantic soul ballads as Prince sings of his marriage to backup singer Mayte Garcia in “Dreamin’ About U,” “One Kiss at a Time,” “Let’s Have a Baby” and “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife” (which he recorded in secret and premiered at their wedding reception). The pop-funk “Sex in the Summer” uses a sample of their baby’s ultrasound heartbeat as percussion. That leaves the album’s darker, more experimental numbers for the third disc. The menacing “Slave” and “Face Down” deliver bitter comments about his former label, while the title track counters them with an exultant chorus of freedom. He explores technological sounds (and themes) in “New World,” “The Human Body,” “My Computer” (in which the singer worries about what kind of world his child will inherit, as he sits in front of the glowing screen) and “Emale” (in which the first face-to-face meeting between two people who connected online goes terribly wrong). Emancipation also includes Prince’s first commercially released cover versions: faithful treatments of the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly Wow” and the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You,” a falsetto rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and a torrid rock treatment of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.” All told, Emancipation has much less sprawl or filler than one should expect of a triple-album; apart from The Gold Experience, in fact, it’s Prince’s most consistent release of the ‘90s. (It’s also a bargain, considering how many remaindered copies are available.)
Prince clearly intended Emancipation to put him back in the public eye; he referred to it in interviews as the album he “was born to make.” He also booked his first full-scale North American tour since 1988. But when his son was born with a rare cranial disease and died a few days after birth, the tragedy derailed his ambitions. He lost interest in Emancipation almost overnight, dropping nearly all promotional efforts for the album and performing very few of its songs on tour. (The marriage ended two years later.) Following the tour, he assembled another three-CD set. Crystal Ball gathers studio leftovers from as far back as 1983, drawing most of its tracks from the mid-‘80s and the mid-‘90s. It also includes remixes of five previously released songs. Highlights include the energetic rocker “Interactive,” the driving, lusty funk of “Hide the Bone” and “18 and Over,” the gorgeous romantic pop song “Crucial,” the ballad “She Gave Her Angels” (“because her man had none 2 watch over him until she returned”) and the murky-sounding, ominous “What’s My Name?” (“Take my name, I don’t need it / Take my fame, I can’t use it”). Unlike Emancipation, however, this set doesn’t warrant the volume; it’s loaded with filler that would’ve been better left in the vault.
Originally recorded for separate release, The Truth ended up as a bonus CD for online buyers of Crystal Ball. (The move may have been atonement for an e-commerce foul-up which resulted in fans who paid in advance receiving copies of Crystal Ball months after it was available in stores.) Following the style of Joni Mitchell’s quieter albums, he recorded The Truth mostly on acoustic guitar, with few backup instruments. The spare setting highlights the haunting “Don’t Play Me” and the title track; the melodies of “Circle of Amour” and “Welcome 2 the Dawn” stand up well in these aural environs. Most of the material, though, relies too heavily on shopworn blues progressions, with little melodic development. The songs blend into each other with little to distinguish one from the next.
Prince delivered The Vault … Old Friends 4 Sale to Warner Bros. at the same time as Chaos and Disorder, but the label chose to hold its release rather than give the market one more album by an artist whose commercial viability had fallen short of expectations. And like the album that did appear at the time, it favors “real” instruments over synths and samples, and captures them with invitingly warm sound. True to its title, though, The Vault is a contractual obligation set, loaded with songs understandably left off earlier albums. “The Rest of My Life,” “It’s About That Walk” and “Old Friends 4 Sale” are the stand-outs in an otherwise undistinguished lot.
With the titular year of one of his biggest hits approaching, Prince must have lost sleep over the thought that his old label would reap a new surge of revenue from his work. (He would as well, but there’s no point in letting a balanced perspective ruin a perfectly good grudge.) Since he couldn’t wrench the master tapes back, he tried to bury them under an EP of six drastic revisions of “1999.” Prince himself seems to be hiding from the listener in these recordings; he sings/speaks only a few lines, letting vocal cameos by Rosie Gaines, Larry Graham, Doug E. Fresh and actress Rosario Dawson carry the tracks. The chilly electronic music sounds haphazardly programmed, carrying little evidence of any imagination, much less any of the playfulness, excitement or even melody of the original. As an attempt to make the public “forget” the classic version, 1999: The New Master worked as well as New Coke.
The artist closed out the ‘90s on a new major label. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic was the first album since Come to use his actual name (albeit in a producer’s credit, not as star billing). Prince keeps the arrangements lean, allowing few superfluous touches and even revisiting his ‘80s instrumental approach (Linn drums, analog synthesizers) on a few tracks. He does follow the well-established ‘90s trend of star cameos, including Eve, Chuck D, Ani DiFranco, Gwen Stefani and Sheryl Crow (whose “Every Day Is a Winding Road” gets the royally funky cover treatment here). “So Far, So Pleased” and “Baby Knows” are energetic rockers in the “When You Were Mine” mode. “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore” is a stark ballad of Prince on piano with DiFranco on acoustic guitar. “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” is melancholy mid-tempo R&B with a memorable chorus and an Asian-flavored hook. The hidden track, “Mr. Prettyman,” is an excellent James Brown homage, with busy live drumming and a tasty saxophone solo from Maceo Parker, a JB veteran who would go on to become an essential part of Prince’s musical efforts. (Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic is a remix album with virtually identical cover art, available through Prince’s website.)
The album garnered neither critical raves nor fantastic sales, and that was that for the Arista experiment. The artist returned to the indie world for his next effort, The Rainbow Children. Insufferably dogmatic and self-righteous, the lyrics are steeped in his newfound Jehovah’s Witness faith; the album describes the conflict between the Rainbow Children (who obey the Wise One) and the Banished Ones (who are pawns of the Resistor). The title track exalts “The Rainbow Children / Flying high on the wings of the New Translation.” “Muse 2 the Pharaoh” blends theology and conspiracy theory: “The children will be laced with the protection of the Word of God / And the opposite of NATO is OTAN” (a reference, perhaps, to a political party in former Soviet republics that has persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses). “Digital Garden” describes the counterfeit Eden built by the Banished Ones, “promoted by the whosepapers, hellavisions, and scagazines,” and destined to be demolished by the Rainbow Children. “Family Name” flirts with anti-Semitism: “U might say, ‘What U mad about?’ / But U still got your family name” to antagonists named “Rosenbloom,” “Pearlman” and “Goldstruck.” Prince backs this drivel with jazz-influenced music that emphasizes instrumental complexity rather than melodies or hooks. Without the cogent framework of actual songwriting, the tracks all but collapse under the weight of the words. In an interview, Prince said that he wanted The Rainbow Children to be viewed not as a commercial work but as a historical document. In retrospect, it is: the nadir of Prince’s recording career.
Solo piano forays have long been highlights of Prince’s concerts so the prospect of an album devoted to the format looked good on paper. The sound quality on One Nite Alone is clear and intimate; on most tracks, his breathing and foot-tapping is audible. (Two tracks include a subtle rhythm section; “Pearls B4 the Swine” fields a mostly acoustic band.) But most of the songwriting has a sketchy, tossed-off quality, as if he spent that “one nite” writing the whole set as well as recording it. The lyrics generally steer clear of religious dogma, but still include lines that break the music’s tranquil mood. In “Young and Beautiful,” the singer warns a girl to be wary of the guys she’s likely to meet, because “they only want your virginity.” In “Objects in the Mirror,” he revels in sharing a bathroom with his partner, rhapsodizing that they’re “the same height, weight and body fluid.” The album-closing “Avalanche” breaks America’s racist history down one individual at a time, from Abraham Lincoln (who “was not and never had been in favor of setting our people free”) to music impresario John Hammond, whom Prince portrays as a devil waiting in the wings at the Apollo, contract and pen at the ready (“Sign your kingdom over 2 me and B known throughout the land!”). A cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” mostly serves to show that the diva’s own songs don’t rise to this occasion.
One Nite Alone…Live! is a three-CD box recorded at several dates on Prince’s 2002 tour. With the help of his very capable band, the artist recasts a wide variety of songs from his quarter-century career (hard to believe it took him that long to release a live album), from One Nite Alone all the way back to his self-titled second album. Most of the highlights come from such ‘80s work as “Strange Relationship,” “When You Were Mine,” “Take Me With U,” “Raspberry Beret” and a solo piano rendition of “Adore.” “For those of you expecting to get your Purple Rain on,” Prince warns the crowd, “you’re in the wrong house! We’re not interested in what you know, but what you are willing to learn.” What the listener learns from this release is that the New Power Generation’s ability to stretch out into long solos and jazzy motifs (especially on the third disc, recorded at surprise after-hours sets) can’t do anything to make selections from The Rainbow Children and One Nite Alone enjoyable.
N.E.W.S. is an EP containing four 14-minute instrumentals: “North,” “East,” “West” and “South.” The recording has the feel of jazz improv, with very live-sounding instruments and shifting dynamics. The band here includes drummer John Blackwell, bassist Rhonda Smith, keyboardist Renato Neto and long-time saxophonist Eric Leeds. Without lyrics or any weighty message to constrain him, Prince leads the way through some exhilarating passages yet holds to a sense of structure that was largely missing from the jazz-influenced mess of Rainbow Children.
The Chocolate Invasion was released via Prince’s website, collecting Trax From the NPG Music Club that had previously been available for download. (“U Make My Sun Shine,” a duet with Angie Stone, was issued as a single three years earlier.) Most of the tunes return to the funk — not to mention the lust — of Prince’s earlier work. In “When I Lay My Hands on U,” he actually seems to abandon the eternal for the carnal, asking his partner, “Are U ready 4 the touch that makes U go insane / From breast 2 lips 2 cheek 2 mane…Are U ready 4 the only 4ever we’ll both obtain?” “Underneath the Cream” has the singer “Lookin’ out the window of a big black limousine / Thinkin’ ‘bout your thighs, wishin’ I was somewhere in between.” In “Sex Me, Sex Me Not,” he invites a sweet young thing at the show to “Come 2 the after-party / Let’s make it hot / Leave your sister and your underwear at home.” It adds up to Prince’s most sex-obsessed release since The Black Album.
The Slaughterhouse, Volume 2 of Trax From the NPG Music Club, feels like a balancing corrective. While the music is still funky (with more of a techno sound here and there), many of the lyrics revisit the heavier concerns compelled by Prince’s faith. The results are less explicitly dogma-driven than The Rainbow Children, but no more palatable. “Props ‘n Pounds” condemns safe-sex practices as a license to immorality: “What’s in the Trojan Horse lubrication? / Nothing goes in my woman ‘cept the Son.” “Silicon” extols a vegan diet as part of a sanctified lifestyle: “U can bet that they’ll be chillin’ in Babylon … While U eating all the bloody chicken and dead prawn / Mickey D. shake and a filet mignon.” Later in the same song, he scolds, “Leave that blood alone / Don’t U know that dead blood kills interferons?” Together, these two collections of Trax offer a picture of an artist still capable of blazing creativity, but confused over his purpose. As Prince sings here, “If you’re getting bored / Don’t front, just yawn / This is the kind of stuff that requires patience.” No kidding.
As 2004 began, Prince finally got serious about a comeback. His surprise performance with Beyoncé Knowles at the Grammy Awards was a highlight of the show, and his acceptance speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was dignified and inspired — but still took a back seat that night to his musicianship, which included a breathtaking guitar solo at the end of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He also found it in his heart to work with another major label, but only so far as a one-album distribution deal with Columbia. The gamble paid off for both sides. Musicology is a tight CD of 12 songs that all play to Prince’s strengths. The title track starts things off on the good foot: Prince salutes musical artists, from classic funk to hip-hop, who can rock the party all night: “Wish I had a dollar / 4 every time U say / ‘Don’t U miss the feeling music gave U / Back in the day?’ / ‘Let’s Groove,’ ‘September’ / Earth, Wind & Fire / ‘Hot Pants’ by James / Sly’s gonna take U higher…/ If it ain’t Chuck D, Jam Master Jay / Know what? They losin’ / ‘Cause we got a Ph.D in advanced body movin’.” The song segues via radio-tuning static to “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance,” a slyly observed tale of a relationship between a gigolo and a wealthy older woman. “A Million Days” moves from Santana-esque guitar into a dramatic, passionate rocker. The funky “Life ‘o’ the Party” includes a sardonic dig at a one-time rival: “My voice is getting higher / I ain’t never had my nose done.” The rocking “Cinnamon Girl” (not the Neil Young song) relates the story of a young girl looking for hope and something worth believing in while living in a war zone. Sex obsessions are replaced by the desire for a mature, monogamous relationship in “If I Was the Man in Ur Life,” ”Call My Name” and the breezy closing number “Reflection,” which takes the album full circle: “Tell me do U like my hair this way? / Remember all the way back in the day / When we would compare whose afro was the roundest?” Throughout, the grooves are sharp, the melodies enjoyable and the arrangements lean and filler-free. Musicology shows His Royal Badness ready at last to reclaim his crown.
Musicology became Prince’s biggest seller since Batman, although its numbers were inflated by a clever distribution gambit: concertgoers on his 2004 tour all received a copy as part of the ticket price, a maneuver that prompted Billboard and Nielsen/SoundScan to update the rules governing the tabulation of album sales. Back in the game in a big way, Prince kept his creative roll going with 3121. In contrast to the sharp relief of the mix on Musicology, the sound on 3121 is downright lush, with modern production tricks. The slow-churning title song echoes a line from the Eagles to describe a luxurious party that never ends: “U can come if U want 2 / But U can never leave.” The funky grooves of “Lolita,” “Black Sweat” and the horn-driven “Get on the Boat” make the prospect of staying at that party all the more enticing. “Fury” is a rocker with ’80s keyboards and sharp lead guitar. As on the preceding album, Prince steers clear of overt carnality; religious references show up in the salsa-tinged romantic ballad “Te Amo Corazón” and even in the seduction scenario of “Incense and Candles,” where Prince tells his willing partner, “We both know we gotta praise the 1 who made ya.” “The Word” and the soulful “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed” (a duet with Támar, an R&B singer who was part of the earliest incarnation of Destiny’s Child) make their heavenward urges more clear, without the leaden dogma.
Like Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which was released around the same time, Prince’s next album got more attention for its means of distribution than for its content. In a wacky move, he gave it away in a British newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, which, not surprisingly, led to the cancellation of its commercial release in the UK. In this case, Prince may have made a commercial error: Planet Earth is another winner, with consistently strong songwriting and an elegant, modern R&B sheen. The rocker “Guitar” lays a riff similar to the one in U2’s “I Will Follow” over a funky backbeat, as Prince teases a girl with “I love U baby / But not like I love my guitar.” “Somewhere Here on Earth” and “Future Baby Mama” are romantic jazz-tinged soul; “The One U Wanna C” and “All the Midnights in the World” are sublime R&B-inflected pop. The danceable “Chelsea Rodgers,” which starts with the dubious assertion that “A model used to be a role model,” is about a woman who gives up the jet-set life for a higher calling. The religious references are limited to the title track and a pop-rock number, “Lion of Judah.” Prince is still capable of some head-scratching lyrics, like in the details of the protracted seduction on “Mr. Goodnight”: “I got a mind full of good intentions / And a mouth full of Raisinets”? Still, for those who weren’t lucky enough to be in the UK and get Planet Earth for free, the album is a worthy purchase.
Following the distribution path blazed by Garth Brooks, the Eagles, AC/DC and Axl Rose, Prince inked a deal with a major nationwide retailer (in this case, Target) to sell the physical version of his next release. Or, as it turned out, his next three releases — LotusFlow3r, MPLSoUND and the Bria Valente album Elixer, Prince’s first released attempt to launch a female protegée’s solo career since Mayte Garcia’s 1995 album — sold as a 3-CD set for the bargain price of $11.88. (The download version was offered “free” to new members of Prince’s reinstated online fan club — which costs the decidedly non-bargain price of $77 to join.) Whether regarded as a whole or as three individual albums, this trio of discs interrupts an upward creative arc. Once again, Prince’s indiscrete editing works against him.
LotusFlow3r, the flagship disc of the set, includes a lot of smoking guitar work, but is short on good songs. On the bluesy “Colonized Mind,” Prince sings about the underlying agenda shared by all systems of authority, whether political (“Upload the 2-party system / The lesser of 2 dangers / The illusion of choice”) or commercial (“Upload a joint venture record deal / It’s just another way 4 The Man 2 steal / While stickin’ U with the bill”). “4ever” blends soaring multi-tracked guitars, elegantly restrained piano and a stirring, soulful chorus in support of a confusing lyric that veers from a desire for marriage (“If I never get 2 see your smile / Underneath a white veil, walking up the aisle / I just might go crazy / I might go wild”) to unbridled lust (“I don’t wanna kiss your lips / Till I get 2 unngh! your hips”). Prince drops Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” riff into the rocking “Dreamer” and folds verses from the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” into his cover of Tommy James & the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” (which is replaced on the download release of LotusFlow3r by an original, “The Morning After”). Too many of this CD’s 12 tracks, though, would qualify as filler if they appeared on one of Prince’s more recent albums. A couple of numbers are bad enough to elevate the filler. Despite such lines as “Baby I don’t care what U learned in lovemaking school,” the song “Love Like Jazz” is so lightweight — jazz of the cocktail-lounge variety — that the love Prince sings about feels as if it must be platonic. And the harpsichord-driven instrumental “77 Beverly Park” resembles nothing so much as the “Good Night, Sleep Tight” closing theme from The Lawrence Welk Show.
As the title suggests, MPLSoUND revisits the style with which the Minneapolis maestro put his hometown on the musical map in the ’80s. Songs like “Chocolate Box,” “Valentina” and “Dance 4 Me” bring the Linn drum machines, synthesizer riffs and irresistibly lush pop-funk grooves that Prince delivered regularly back in the Reagan years. They also bring a few touches of the most obnoxious pop fad of more recent years: AutoTune on the vocals. (Of course, Prince was altering his voice in the studio as far back as “1999.” But he’s usually done it to assume different personae, not as a trendy production touch and certainly not to distract from any inadequacy as a singer.) On the album’s longest track, “Ol’ Skool Company,” Prince addresses recent developments in the state of the nation (“Fat cats on Wall Street, they got a bailout / While somebody else got 2 wait / 700 billion, but in my old neighborhood / Ain’t nothing changed but the date”) and long-standing concerns about the state of pop music (“Radio used 2 B local / Untouched by The Man / Songs we’d sing used 2 mean something / Now they just bland … The White House is black / We gotta take the radio back”). A couple of numbers are pretty obvious retreads: “(There’ll Never B) Another Like Me” is a rewrite of “New Power Generation” (from the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack) and “No More Candy 4 U” echoes the Controversy track “Ronnie, Talk to Russia.” A stripped-down rendition of “U’re Gonna C Me” (itself a rewrite of “The Arms of Orion,” from Batman) appeared on the One Nite Alone album in 2002. MPLSoUND certainly isn’t going to make any listener forget Prince’s ’80s classics, but it’s more fun than LotusFlow3r.
Prince’s instrumental and production fingerprints are all over Bria Valente’s Elixer, but they’re not enough to distinguish this unremarkable album of contemporary R&B-inflected pop. From the self-pleasuring ode “Here Eye Come” (where Valente moans about feeling “like the dirty blonde girl in 9½ Weeks”) to the samba-tinged “Everytime,” from the melodic pop tune “Another Boy” to the lush, new age-informed ballad “Immersion” (“She’s very adept in the art of healing”), Valente brings scant personality or charisma to the music. Her voice is breathy and pleasant, but even on the most upbeat numbers, like the dance track “2Nite,” it rarely rises above a mild, simmering tone. Even multi-tracking doesn’t set her apart from the music. When Prince accompanies Valente on the disc-closing title track, his voice jumps out all the more; compared to his previous duet partners (Chaka Khan, Sheena Easton, Rosie Gaines, even Apollonia), Valente recedes into the background. Elixer isn’t a bad album (except for the misspelled title, but it’s Prince, so such nitpicking is irrelevant), just a dull one. The fact that Prince chose to package it with two CDs of his own music just reinforces the notion that if Valente had to compete head to head in the pop marketplace with Beyoncé, Christina and Rihanna, her album would’ve sunk without a trace — if it had seen release at all.
Indigo Nights was recorded live at London’s Indigo Club, where Prince played after-hours shows during most of his 21-night stand at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. The single CD includes a live rendition of “Song of the Heart” (from the animated feature film Happy Feet), covers of songs by Aretha Franklin, Mother’s Finest, Ella Fitzgerald and Led Zeppelin, and two previously unreleased originals (“Beggin’ Woman Blues” and the title track). Unfortunately, the disc is sold only with the coffee-table book 21 Nights, making it a pretty expensive addition to a fan’s music collection.
Declaring the Internet to be “over” (so hurry up and finish this review before it’s too late!), Prince decided to withhold his next album, 20Ten, from iTunes, Amazon and other pay-download sources. He also closed his website, leaving it unclear whether the fans who had shelled out $77 for access would ever see any substantial return on that investment. Instead, he repeated the approach used for Planet Earth, giving the CD away in several European weekly magazines. (Oblivious to conflicts of interest, the participating Daily Mirror declared the album “his best record since Sign ‘o’ the Times 23 years ago.” Reviews in publications not giving the disc away were somewhat less enthusiastic.) But the covermount approach was a smart move. As he did on LotusFlow3r and MPLSound, the artist placed uninspired tunes right alongside the more fully realized ones on 20Ten. “Compassion” and “Beginning Endlessly” hark back to his early ’80s sound, with analog synths and swirling guitars over Linn drums. “Sticky Like Glue” and “Act of God” are tight funk tracks, the former undermined by a dull rap break in the middle and the latter bolstered by up-to-date lyrics (“Dirty fat bankers sold a house 2day / Sold at auction, once the family out the way”) and hindered by dated ones (“Tax dollars build a plane, drop a bomb / Supposedly 2 keep us all safe from Saddam”). “Walk in Sand” is a romantic ballad buoyed by an airy arrangement, ’70sish melody and one of Prince’s best falsetto vocals in ages…and undercut by his chaste approach to the object of his desire: “Nothing’s better than a walk in the sand / Hand in hand with U.” The ballad that follows, “Sea of Everything,” is so plodding and dull it seems to sink in sand. And the saccharine “Everybody Loves Me” (“2night I love everybody / And everybody loves me…Shake it like U don’t know better, whoop de whoop”) is so dreadful it compelled me to listen to The Rainbow Children again, to see if I had misjudged that album. The best cut on 20Ten is “Laydown,” a hidden track — specifically track 77, after 67 brief tracks of silence. It’s a spare, funky number with more bottom than any other song that precedes it. Prince raps, “From the heart of Minnesota / Here come the purple Yoda” over some grimy rhythm guitar and gritty bass. More than any other track on 20Ten, “Laydown” proves that Prince still can deliver the goods…even if he does “hide” them at the end of the CD.
The Very Best of Prince offers a quick ‘n’ dirty overview of the Warner Bros. catalogue. The 17 choices (some of them in painfully shortened edits) are generally obvious, but four tracks from Diamonds and Pearls is too many, especially at the expense of the overlooked Dirty Mind and Controversy. The first disc of Ultimate Prince corrects some of these mistakes by including “Uptown,” “Controversy” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” although it still settles for a truncated version of “Purple Rain” (which just isn’t complete without that glorious guitar solo). The second disc includes 11 extended remixes, with the full-length version of the B-side “She’s Always in My Hair” the only real surprise. Shoppers looking for a decent representative sampling of the work that made Prince famous should still select The Hits/The B-Sides.