Thursday, October 28, 2010
PRINCE: A LISTENING GUIDE
For You- 1978
For You is in, a word, remarkable. Equally a quietly complex combination of influences, and the display of an emerging songwriting voice, the music here acts of a touchstone for the then-current popular styles of Black music (though, it's interesting to note, Prince makes no explicit nods to disco), as well as an odd, eccentric individualism that appears both in genre choices and lyrical subject matter. Prince was 19 when he recorded this, his first album, and given the quality of his early demos, which, like the embryonic recordings by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, essentially gives no indication of the greatness to follow, it is indeed remarkable that Warner Bros allowed a teenager to produce, mix, sequence, write every song, and perform every single instrument. More remarkable is his willingness to leap into areas that most wouldnt think to go on their debut albums, whether it be the all acapella title song, or the guitar-dancefloor mutation of I'm Yours. Top this all off with teasingly playful Soft & Wet, and the bashful Crazy You, and yes, For You is indeed, remarkable.
Notable Songs- Soft & Wet, I'm Yours, Just As Long As We're Together
A massive step forward from the debut, this self titled second album finds Prince operating at equal facility in spinning out hit singles (I Feel For You, I Wanna Be Your Lover), masterminding entirely new strains of minimalist dance music (Sexy Dancer, and again I Wanna Be Your Lover), or pioneering totally unique forms of rock music (Bambi). All this, and he still finds room for When We're Dancing Close And Slow, which takes all the conventions of the quiet storm ballad and abstracts them into a hermetically sealed black cloud of negative space and dislocation. Plus, Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad? is the first real indication that Prince is a full-on guitar genius who's playing matches boundless extroverted charismatic joy with fantastic melodies, which actually re-shape the entire structure of the songs.
Notable Songs- I Wanna Be Your Lover, Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?, Bambi
Dirty Mind- 1980
Picture if Bob Dylan had gone straight from Freewheelin' to Bringing It All Back Home Again, or if The Beatles had jumped from A Hard Day's Night directly to Rubber Soul. That is the journey traversed by Prince on his first bona fide masterpiece. Prince's sense of minimalism has been taken to such an extreme it makes the previous album look like Earth, Wind, & Fire. With music and production this lean and taut, every single element has to be fully realized, and it is, in all its uniquely wondrous glory. Side Two forms itself into an almost continuous and perfectly realized suite, balancing the seemingly incongruous elements of both carnal depravity, and utopian activism with sustained rhythmic revelry. Dirty Mind remains a completely singular achievement that no artist I can think of has ever tried to duplicate, simply because it would be impossible.
Notable Songs- Dirty Mind, Head, When You Were Mine
Prince takes the template of Dirty Mind and expands the range and scope beyond Uptown and into a bizarre, hallucinatory worldview. Musically, the colour palate has been broadened beyond the previous albums’ blacks and greys into compressed strips of colour that remains otherworldly yet firmly planted in extremely danceable rhythms and accessible song forms. That being said, we also have the first evidence of Prince stretching his arrangements into entirely non-song territory, and there is nothing tentative or exploratory about it, on the contrary, everything feels focused and overwhelmingly confident. Also, this album finds Prince doing away with the conventional R&B ballads once and for all, and inventing an entirely new style for himself, in the ludicrously over-the-top satin sheet brilliance of Do Me, Baby. Ultimately, Controversy sets the standards for future Prince albums at a sky high level, and presents itself as a startling display of musical and conceptual virtuosity. And it’s only his fourth album.
Notable Songs- Controversy, Sexuality, Do Me, Baby
“Don’t worry/I won’t hurt you/I only want you/To have some fun”. Prince's fifth album. His first double album. His second bona fide masterpiece. The sound of the one man music machine in full flight. Prince writes two immortal singles with the title track, and Little Red Corvette, but basically, he uses this album to give us a staunchly imaginative, unprecedented trip into liquid musical strangeness that not only never breaks its spell, but continues to add what would at first appear to be one divergent element after another, and continues to expand outward and outward like a giant, all encompassing amoeba. The witty, wonderfully warped self-satire of International Lover, essentially the anti-Do Me, Baby is the only way to finish the enthralling voyage. By the point of 1999, virtuosity had mutated into mastery.
Notable Songs- Let's Pretend We're Married, Automatic, D.M.S.R.
Purple Rain- 1984
Prince’s third masterpiece. If 1999 was about expansion, Purple Rain is about consolidation. Purple Rain is the rarest of albums in that, every single second is spell-binding, and absolutely, thoroughly essential. With Purple Rain, Prince writes the greatest, most engaging, and truly distinctive pop singles of 80's, and establishes himself light years beyond his blockbuster peers, indeed, play Purple Rain against Thriller, Like A Virgin, and even Born In The USA, and they each seem absolutely leveled and flat by comparison. Purple Rain is of course so much more than a super human display of how to make the masses swoon, it delivers Darling Nikki, Computer Blue, and The Beautiful Ones which reveal the depths of a fascinating interior world and combine the taut strengths of Dirty Mind's songwriting with an incredible flair for richness and detail in the arrangements and musicality. Speaking of forms, in Take Me With U, and I Would Die 4 U, a gorgeous alchemy of sparkling pop songwriting genius just flies out of the speakers. Equally astonishing is the level of expressiveness and passion in the performance of each of these songs. And lest we forget, there is the title track, with the perfect vocal melody, the perfect, subtle string arrangement, the perfect performance, and the beyond perfect aching beauty of Prince's guitar solo, a stunning display of musical grace for the ages. Simply, the guy who started out as the one man band, had now become the one man Motown/Beatles.
Notable Songs- Let's Go Crazy, The Beautiful Ones, I Would Die 4 U
Around the World in a Day- 1985
...And Prince clears the room. There was no way Prince could live up to the expectations unfairly placed on him to give the world Purple Rain II. Being the artist that he is, the sprinted not only in the opposite direction, but in any direction he could think of. What we have here has been unfairly dismissed and marginalized, but listen, really listen to the achievement of Around The World In A Day, and realize that Prince has made a jump comparable to what happened between his second and third albums. The extended introduction to Condition Of The Heart finds him pushing into unprecedented areas of amelodic sophistication, Temptation abstracts 12-bar blues in a fractured and very modern way, Tambourine simply abstracts itself into an entirely new style of song for Prince, and both Paisley Park and Around The World In A Day subvert pop-psychedelia into hovering aural holograms. Sure, Raspberry Beret and Pop Life were the hit singles, but they are the most confrontationally odd, and atypically satisfying radio smashes of their time. Finally, to hear The Ladder's kaleidoscopic deconstruction/reconstruction of gospel music set to Prince's fascinating, imagistic, and symbolic lyrics is to hear the man reaching yet another artistic apex.
Notable Songs- Raspberry Beret, The Ladder, Pop Life
Ostensibly the soundtrack to Prince's directorial debut, Under The Cherry Moon, but much better if simply treated as an album in its own right, because Under The Cherry Moon is as terrible as Parade is great. Parade compresses the wide ranging, vividly coloured phantasmagoria of Around The World In A Day into odd right angles, and ideas that fold over on themselves before they can be fully understood. To further the feeling of distance, just when you think you are getting the idea of this confounding, fragmentary topography, Prince slips in an unassuming 30's style cabaret soft shoe with Do U Lie, the lilting instrumental of Venus De Milo, the straight-ahead percussive drive of Mountains, and the eternally amazing, Kiss, quite possibly Prince's defining pop statement. Parade is also the debut of the great Clare Fischer doing incredible string arrangements for Prince's songs. This collaboration is one of the great, underappreciated meeting of the minds in all of music. His work here matches and elevates the slicing and cutting evident in the songs' arrangements, and in Prince's production style. One interesting thing to note, the first three songs on the album were recorded alone by Prince, with drums first, live, in sequence, before he had any songs or other music to go with them. For a smart aleck examination of Under The Cherry Moon, look here.
Notable Songs- Kiss, Sometimes It Snows In April, Mountains
Sign O' the Times- 1987
How to approach Prince's 4th and greatest masterpiece? Start at the start, obviously. In the beginning there was the would-be final Prince & The Revolution album, a head spinning double album fantasia called Dream Factory. Prince decided to disband the Revolution, so Dream Factory started mutating into a triple album called Crystal Ball, as well as a side album for Prince's female altar ego, Camille, as well as the material for what would become The Black Album. Oh yeah, there was also the jazz fusion albums Prince was overseeing for Madhouse, his production work for Jill Jones among many others, and writing hit songs for The Bangles, Sinead O'Connor, and yes, many, many others. Warner Bros was terrified at how to market and release such a vast amount of material, and the vanity imprint they gave him for Paisley Park Records certainly wasn't going to help things much. Warner Bros forced Prince's hand into releasing one double album, the now universally acclaimed Sign O' The Times. The music? Oh yes, this is about music...well imagine if Dylan had made Blood On The Tracks and Desire one album. In other words, hyper-microscopic examinations of human relationships next to sprawling canvases that take in the scope of world events from the political to the spiritual. Plus, some of Prince's most monstrous and commanding dance music to throw the whole thing into cosmic/philosophical/physical relief. And how does he manage to balance the psychologically imposing It and Strange Relationship with the joyous uplift of Play In The Sunshine and Adore? And how does he manage to take the bizarre, ever shifting narratives of The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker and If I Was Your Girlfriend and paint such convincing, realistic pictures that contain all manor of humour, warmth, ambivalence, and social awkwardness? Such fascinating music, such free-flowing detailed, ornate music, beautiful horn charts on Slow Love, interlocking synthesizer lines that add everything from counter-melodies to alternate rhythmic structures, incredible overdubbed layers and layers of Prince harmonizing with himself, singing rings around the universe, and with Forever In My Life, Prince takes his ability to be the ultimate minimalist into a profound and incredibly empathic seriousness that is as dazzling as it is genuinely touching. Virtuosity? Mastery? It's all irrelevant by this point. Sign O' The Times sees Prince reach into the heights of the songwriting cosmos, while simultaneously becoming the most sophisticated sound-painter of his generation.
Notable Songs- U Got The Look, If I Was Your Girlfriend, Housequake
The Black Album- 1987, released 1994
I am not going to get into the conspiracy theories as to why this album was never released. No sordid tales of Prince taking ecstasy and realizing the album was evil, no silly recountings of Prince driving through a field in rural Minnesota and seeing across the night sky, giant white letters saying "love god", and thus pulling the album from release because it was morally corrupt. The facts are the following...for whatever reason Prince intended to release this album which had been recorded concurrently with Sign O' The Times, just six months after his double album opus. Also, for whatever reason, Prince pulled the album one week before its release date, and since so many copies had already been printed, the inevitable bootlegs started appearing immediately. The Black Album eventually saw official, if somewhat limited release in 1994 as part of his contract fulfillment/corporate buyout agreement with Warner Bros. The music? Oh yes, this is about music...well, for all the build up over hearing Prince's "forbidden" music, what we have here are largely lengthy loping vamps lacking the rhythmic heft or endlessly inventive sonic explosiveness that Prince brought so brilliantly to Sign O' The Times. In light of this, the one Black Album why-was-it-never-released-theory to really make sense is the one engineer Susan Rogers tells, that Black Album tracks were laid down as the music for the private parties Prince would throw, and he eventually thought the better of releasing it to the world. This seems to make a great deal of sense, and explains the absence of songwriting, and the emphasis on grooving for the sake of itself. So, now that I've torn The Black Album down, let me build it back up by saying, some of the aural picture skills appear here and there in vivid detail, like in the ridiculous ghetto cartoon of Bob George, where Prince playing role of a thuggish lowlife refers to a popular musician not-at-all-coincidentally named Prince as "the skinny motherfucker with the high voice". Elsewhere, we have the caustic anti-hip-hop beatbox reduction of Dead On It, another bizarre inner city cartoon with 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton, which builds to a hysterical frenzy, and the open lust letter Cindy C. As for the endless groove tracks, Le Grind certainly has its inspired moments, and could easily have been released as one of the great dancefloor kaleidoscopes he was filling out the b-sides of his 12 inch singles with at the time. So, in the end, the artist created something and turned away from it. Very simple, actually. And what was Prince's take on The Black Album? Well, that was literally spelled out, only visible in slow motion in the video for Alphabet St, from his next album, which he had rush released to quell the rumors and furor of his dalliance with darkness, "Don't buy The Black Album. I'm sorry".
Notable Songs- When 2 R In Love, Bobgeorge, 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton
Lovesexy is obviously the virtuous yin to The Black Album's skanky yang. Think that's a stretch? One is a pitch black album cover, the other pure, snow white, with Prince as Adam/Eve, naked amongst the flowers. Further down the path, it's interesting to note that both albums share one song, the startlingly gorgeous ballad When 2 R In Love, which depending on its surrounding context can either be a) quite naughty and libidinous, or b) praising the transcendental love and freedom shared between God, man, and woman. Lovesexy is essentially a morality play in which love and peace triumph over the temptations and wickedness of "Spooky Electric". As a musical experience, the album is conceived as an album long suite, indeed the original CD pressing presented the entirety of Lovesexy as one continuous track. The sound is buoyant and open, which is odd given that the album as a whole is even more bottom heavy and dense than before, and though Prince runs through his usual head spinning array of genres both established and newly created, every aspect of the album coheres into a unified whole. The melodies, the rhythms, the adventurous arrangements, the shape shifting forms are created and performed beautifully. Lovesexy presents another new series of sonic and conceptual ideas from an artist who mastered the album form several times over, and it remains one of the most laudable facets of his creativity that he did not feel trapped by Sign O' The Times, or feel the need to "top" it in any way. Prince just gracefully evolved into the next stage of his work.
Notable Songs- Alphabet St, I Wish U Heaven, Anna Stesia
Right up front, there is no getting around the stench of corporate interference. Warner Bros had sunk alot of money into making sure the Batman movie was a hit, and they wanted some in-house talent to create a musical analogue for Tim Burton's comic book goth version of the familiar super hero story. Enter Prince, who Warners clearly felt needed hedging in a commercial direction (around this time, Prince also wrote a song for and recorded with Madonna, included on her Like A Prayer album, the alienating, arch oddity Love Song, which I'm sure the executives were none too pleased with), who duly created an album, that given its rather icky mercenary beginnings, hangs together surprisingly well. The two main characteristics that help Batman transcend its origins are high energy levels in the performances, and the new modernist production styles Prince displays with typical assurance and invention. This album is firmly one band man territory, and Prince has now taken to not only sampling himself, but cutting songs across each other, making his already self created artistic environment now even more remote. Prince also deserves credit for not turning the album into a throwaway, he engages the themes and concepts seriously, and in Scandalous, creates a bedroom ballad that puts together the elements of salacious sexual ecstasy with an ice planet of dissonance and free associative musical disruption. But, more on Scandalous in a moment. Forget the movie, and listen to the mix-master chopping up the tapes alone, late at night in his music factory.
Notable Songs- The Future, Electric Chair, Partyman
The Scandalous Sex Suite (EP)- 1990
Apparently, Warner Bros/Tim Burton/DC Comics didnt think that Prince's slow building lust explosion Scandalous would reflect well on the franchise as a single, so Prince went ahead and had it released as an EP, and he even roped in Batman star Kim Bassinger to contribute! Score one for Prince! You may have noticed the word "suite" in the title, and that is correct. Prince went back to the 5 minute ballad, did some remixing, a boatlad of extra recording, and turned one of his most delirious ballads into a 20 minute sensibility spinning tour-de-force. This is the Prince that is great, not only inventing a new form, but comprehensively mastering it, in one fell swoop. This is why expectations for him are so sky high. So, Scandalous is broken into three parts each last around the seven minute mark. The first part, subtitled The Crime has Prince and Kim nervously seducing each other as the songs blurs in and out of focus. Part two, The Passion, is largely the song itself, with extra lyrics and overdubs, seamlessly interwoven. Part three, The Rapture finds Prince turning loose an absolutely searing classic of a guitar solo, before the entire piece reaches its after-glow climax. I think any more explanation is almost pointless, as what Prince does here should just really be listened to. I will note that the lyrics are fantastic, and words like are the reason that women love Prince like they do. He does not present himself in any kind of domineering or macho way. This is sex as celebration, as pleasure, as glorious experience. The song is also about the woman's needs, and what she wants, and his willingness to be whatever she wants him to be, and lets face it, the vast majority of male songwriters would never even think to write something like this. Prince may or may not define himself as feminist, but his sexual politics as expressed in his songs about sex are ideas any self respecting woman should be comfortable with. I already mentioned in the Batman review, the otherworldly orchestrations, apparently built around Prince using samples of parts Claire Fischer had already recorded for a different song, so something else to note is the quality of Prince's voice here. Usually his falsetto is a display of note for note tonal perfection, but on Scandalous it assumes a previously unheard huskier, rasping, 3am quality, that only heightens the expression of desire and promise of ecstatic physical release. It sounds like he's been building to singing this song, this way, for weeks. The final thing to say about The Scandalous Sex Suite is, Prince transcended the form he had already transcended (with the unreleased Crucial, which later turned up on the out-takes collection Crystal Ball, but we will get to that masterpiece of a song later!), the form he had basically invented, if anybody had forgotten. This left him with really nowhere to go, and from here on out, while he has produced some wonderful bedroom ballads, far too many of them feel like a reductive victory lap. When you've taken a form to its absolute breaking point, and then even beyond that, there is simply nowhere else to go. So, enjoy Scandalous for all it's worth. The EP is fleshed out with the interesting, minimalist drum machine exercise Sex, and another appearance of When 2 R In Love.
Notable Songs- The Scandalous Sex Suite
Graffiti Bridge- 1990
Okay, Batman was not the most scintillating artistic endeavor, but certainly had more creative verve, invention, and playfulness than anyone could have imagined. Graffiti Bridge however, is Prince's first failure. Whereas by this point, two of Prince's greatest achievements had been fluid, far reaching double albums, Graffiti Bridge is a double album that stumbles all over itself, punishing the listener with its endless run time, and lurching aimlessly in search of direction. Whereas Prince up until now had been a fearless sonic innovator with virtually unmatched sound painting skills, Graffiti Bridge is propped up with phoned in funk, appropriations of new jack swing, inept attempts at incorporating rap, and the instantly dated aural architecture of that pop era's bad ideas. Whereas Prince had been an ever regenerating, super prolific song machine, Graffiti Bridge is stitched together from all manor of cast-offs from other projects. Whereas Prince had proven himself to be an unbelievably great songwriter for others, with Graffiti Bridge, Prince saddles legends like George Clinton, Mavis Staples, and The Time with clunky, formulaic, dreadful dreck. And most damning of all, whereas Purple Rain was a lean immaculate statement of concision that had indelible song after glorious song bursting with passion and excitement, Graffiti Bridge, the Purple Rain sequel lest we forget, comes off like an act of hubris that barely drags its bloated, exhausted carcass to the finish line, then collapses in a gasping heap. So, that's the bad. Now, the good. Prince did write a great song for newcomer Tevin Campbell with Round And Round, a melodic marvel that combines George Harrison style pop philosophizing with Jackson 5-esque exuberance. Prince wrote an incredible hit single for himself with Thieves In The Temple, an entirely unique, thoroughly intriguing piece of writing, performance and production. A song that pulses with a sense of imagination and urgency sorely lacking elsewhere. Graffiti Bridge hits its peaks with two outtakes from the Dream Factory era, the stunning Joy In Repetition, and The Question Of U, both songs sounding like they were beamed in from another dimension, and both songs are the kind of thing that could only have been born from Prince's pure genius instincts. Elsewhere, Can't Stop This Feeling I Got, and Elephants & Flowers, are solid, interesting, and acquit themselves well enough, but there is just no getting around the Jesus Christ posing pomposity and bombastic nothingness of would-be show closers Still Would Stand All Time, and the title track. It doesnt matter how much Prince tries to sell it, this is empty, lifeless music, and trying to bring the tempo up with New Power Generation II (a pointless sequel within a pointless sequel, way to conceptualize, Prince!), somehow manages to deflate any life that may be left in the entire fucking project , and goodness, not even TC Ellis' "inspirational" anti-drug raps are enough to save it. Other than the essential, great songs mentioned above, feel free to unceremoniously throw this one on the kitsch heap. For a smart aleck examination of Graffiti Bridge, the movie, look here.
Notable Songs- Thieves In The Temple, Joy In Repetition, The Question Of U
Diamonds And Pearls- 1991
Prince needed to make a commercial comeback, and fast. This seemed to be entirely self-imposed pressure, as opposed to a Waner Bros idea, and he apparently took to it with relish, making Diamonds & Pearls the official debut of his new backing band, The New Power Generation, and writing the kinds of hook filled pop hits, that Warners, and to be honest, a significant portion of his fan base, had been craving for years. Diamonds And Pearls as an album, is lighter than a cloud and fluffier than cotton candy. No outre concepts, no confounding song suites, no alienating lyrical conceits, no bizarre stylistic experiments. Just hits, and albums tracks that present a sampler of popular music styles of the time. Prince clearly wanted to engage his audience, and give them what he thought they wanted. So, they liked big rock riffs with Let's Go Crazy, well Thunder will knock them over the head! They liked big ballads like Purple Rain, wait'll they get a hold of the oily slick pastel coloured Diamonds And Pearls! They liked it slinky and sexy with Kiss? Well, step right this way to the tart n' tangy Bang A Gong confection, Cream! They like all those slow burn lustcapade ballads like Adore? Well, this time Prince will really make your panties drop, because he's Insatiable! And they like it when Prince is all freaky blue light late night horny? Well, let's Gett Off right now! Now, all of this sounds terribly cynical, but Prince of course pulls it off convincingly because a) he's a hell of a songwriter b) a hell of a charismatic vocalist and c) can generate arrangements, and memorable musical ideas like nobody's business. It's just, these hits feel calculated in a way Prince really had never been before, and no one likes to leave a record, movie, or book feeling like they've been taken. As for the album cuts, song after song rolls by, their New Jack drums beating away, and some like Daddy Pop, are certainly catchy enough, while Walk Don't Walk and Push are forgettable in a way Prince has never been before. One of the things that sinks large portions of this album, is Prince's newly acquired fetish for sticking in codas, crescendos, and all sorts of musical asides that do nothing at all for the song, in fact they are show off stuff, intrusive, and utterly inessential. The other majour problem is the incorporation of singularly uninteresting rapper Tony M. Tony is often grafted onto the end of a four minute song, dragging something okay-but-not-great into seriously interminable waters. And, the less said about Tony M dominated tracks like the irredeemable Jughead and the laboured Live 4 Love, the better. Special mention then, goes out to the album's one absolute towering masterpiece, the socially conscious, low key early 70's groove, Money Dont Matter 2 Night. A brilliant song with everything you could want from Prince, it gulfs its surroundings, and unintentionally casts a shadow, highlighting the various cracks and fissures that appear throughout the other material. In a sense though, all of that is irrelevant because Prince set out to dominate the charts again, and dominate he did. He didnt hire sessions guys, au courrant producers, or Desmond Child style songwriters to achieve this aim, Prince came by his success honestly. Diamonds And Pearls may not be his greatest art, but even Prince by numbers has a staunch integrity his mainstream peers could never hope to approach.
Notable Songs- Cream, Money Don't Matter 2 Night, Strollin'
The second Prince album with the New Power Generation as his backing band, finds Prince in a confident and ambitious artistic temperament, looking to build upon the success and widen the scope of his world beating Diamonds And Pearls. The Love Symbol album, as its come to be known, is perhaps several steps too far, as the album ends up feeling overlong, over-arranged, over-conceptualized, and overproduced. The album is by no means a disaster, but it is far from the triumph the listener can see the potential of in this material. One majour fly in the ointment is, you guessed it, rapper Tony M who proceeds to upend the momentum of the first three songs, by making a jackass of himself, lets examine this in detail. Take opener My Name Is Prince which finds His Royal Badness not only creating his own amazing version of Public Enemy's Wall Of Sound, but making a hell of an impression with his declamatory lyrics, and impassioned singing. But wait a minute, here comes Tony M, gumming up the works with absurd nonsense about "laying some chrome against a motherfucker's dome". Way to tank a great opening song, and stop such outstanding momentum, Tony M! But oh, Tony's not done yet, next up is Sexy MF, which finds Prince building up a powerful James Brown vamp, with fantastic horns, and all sorts of interesting musical touches, and whats this...Tony M bellowing "SEXY MOTHERFUCKER SHAKIN THAT ASS SHAKIN THAT ASS", and repeat until the song has been destroyed. What could possibly be more unsexy than some lame rapper yelling at you about shaking your ass? But Tony M aint done yet! Love 2 The 9s is a wonderful mid-tempo number, melodically rich, and arranged perfectly, and oh no, fuck you Tony M showing up with your "DANCE GIRL, LET EM SEE YOUR BOOTY BOOM, DANCE GIRL, LET ME SEE YOUR BOOTY BOOM", and repeat until you guessed it, the song has been destroyed. So, on two of these songs he's not even fucking rapping, he's just repeating stupid drivel about shaking asses as loud as he can. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, Tony M. But it's not all just Tony M ruining perfectly good songs, Prince turns the love symbol album into a running conceptual in-joke (hopefully?) phone interview with Kirstie Alley, and apparently they werent just chatting on the phone, someone wrote this "dialog" out unless of course, the rapport between Prince and Kirstie circa 1992 was just so magical and telepathic, they could leap into iambic pentameter on the fly. There is a song late in the album where Prince complains about someone trying to write a tell-all biography about him, so maybe this was his passive-aggressive way of winding that person up? Either way it's inscrutable without being intriguing. And speaking over conceptualizing, there is 3 Chains O' Gold, a queer old fish of a song, which apparently is meant to be a sweeping epic, but comes off like a random splice of riffs, guitar solos, mis-matched vocal melodies, dramatic breakdowns, and lots and lots Bohemian Rhapsody style multi-section gymnastics. It's interesting, but far too umm, remote to mean anything to anyone who isn't Prince. Normally, when Prince goes deep inside his sub-conscious, the results are fascinating, but 3 Chains O' Gold is just...there. The rest of the album is fleshed out with largely successful genre experiments like reggae with Blue Light, house music with I Wanna Melt With U, and 40's style balladry with the gorgeous Damn U. There's also The Sacrifice Of Victor, a new jack swing piece with lots of Tony M that actually works! The two best songs on the album are the incredible The Continental, dance music laced with imaginative melodies and vicious guitar, and the hit single 7, one of Prince's most experimental and brilliant achievements. So, as you can see, there could have been a stunning 40 minute album here, but for the first time, it feels like instead of ratcheting up the brilliance, Prince's desire to take on all ideas at once leaves the listener detached and confounded.
Notable Songs- 7, The Continental, Damn U
Goldnigga (The New Power Generation)- 1993
Warner Bros rejected this album in late 1992, so then Prince self released it a few months before Warner Bros put out The Hits set. Apparently, this album's rejection/self release is the flash point in a long simmering battle between artist vs corporate monolith. On the evidence of Goldnigga, its hard to sympathize at all with Prince. Goldnigga has taken a beating from critics and from fans. The aim of this review then, is not to add to the pile-on, but to understand the album on its own terms. Goldnigga could have been a masterful breakthrough for Prince. For the first time, he makes a serious, conscientious attempt to engage hip-hop culture, and create an album that would be a contribution and maybe even an innovation to the genre, as opposed to the previous few albums' lazy, and fairly cynical rap interruptions. Prince had clearly been listening to hip-hop, from sampling the amazing Chuck D and Ice Cube collaboration Endangered Species, to creating his very own Native Tounges/Digable Planets style groove for the album's best song, 2gether, to the very-forward-thinking-for-its-time concept of only using the live music of The New Power Generation, and confining samples to some vocal tape loops. The sampling issue is even more interesting if you remember how effortless he made sampling look on the Batman soundtrack, so in other words, he was pushing himself. And once again, it needs to be noted, Prince came by this style honestly. He did not hire out big name help, or assign someone the task of creating a new sound on his behalf. All of this is undone by the following...
1) Maybe Prince could have used some outside help. Imagine if he had reached out to Guru, who at the time was creating his Jazzmatazz albums. I'm sure Michael Franti would have taken Prince's phone calls. Why not Ice Cube, or Chuck D for that matter? How about Pete Rock, CL Smooth, and Prince spending a few nights laying down tracks at Paisley Park? And why not invite Q-Tip, and his friends in De La Soul? Can you imagine Rakim letting loose over Prince's grooves? Ok, enough of this, you get the point.
2) While this album does represent a serious attempt to reach the hip-hop world, apparently, it's not serious enough. I'm not sure how long Prince and the NPG spent on this album, one track is an out-take dating back to Diamonds And Pearls, but long stretches of it feel like they were slapped together during a very loose working weekend. Maybe, if there had been a more concerted effort to develop the material, it could have lived up to its...
3) Conceptual overkill! Goldnigga is simultaneously a concept album about, making the record, releasing the record, the "goldnigga" archetype, the NPG on tour, NPG groupies, the NPG taking over a hillbilly bar, Tony M's dismay at the state of Black America, Tony M's incredible sexual prowess, Tony M fucking the racism out of a white bread cracker girl, pulling the great R&B swindle on hapless record execs, and probably others, but as you can see we're pretty close to Southland Tales territory here.
4) Well we might as well get to it now...Tony M is a boring rapper with nothing to say. The best thing you can say about him, is he stays on beat, which is lets face, more than MC Hammer could ever pull off. He does better here than on previous albums, largely because he isnt confined to sub-Das EFX auto-rapping a-skibbpity-be-bop style over Day-Glo new jack beats, but it's a pretty bad sign when Prince gets on the mic, in character as a redneck racist, no less, and outshines him with the one rapped verse he lays down on the entire album. And while we're at it, isn't Prince proto-rapping as early as Irresistible Bitch? Why didn't he just do his own verses? Why did he have to force Tony M, or TC Ellis down the music's throat? Anyway, poor Tony M, here trying to be socially conscious, and not saying anything better said by dozens of his peers, acting as a giant charisma void, and oh, I havent even gotten to his "acting" skills during the segues. Actually, thats all you need to know. Acting during segues.
5) THE NPG itself is woefully underused. Here you have a potential showcase for them, and their incredible playing abilities, and other than the wanky solos in the endless, and strangely Prince dominated, Johnny, they barely get to do anything, so constrained are they by having to support Tony M. The one point where the band gets to bust free and really play is in Oilcan which lasts all of :42 seconds.
So, we wrap up the most effort and thought anyone, including the people who have made it, put into Goldnigga...what could have been a breakthrough, and ended up as a fairly embarrassing obscurity, and the album finishes with the almighty irony of Tony M convincing some corporate guys to give him 6 million dollars for this album. A record that has been out of print for over 16 years, and was last seen as a tour merchandise stand giveaway in 2001. Yeah, Tony...keep reachin for the stars, you are the Poochie The Dog of the Prince Universe!
Notable Songs- 2gether, Black MF In The House, Goldnigga Pt 1
The Hits/The B-Sides- 1993
Score one for corporate interference! Warner Bros actually paid Prince NOT to get involved in the release of the greatest hits set they had been itching to issue since early '91. Now, score one against corporate interference, because since the release of The Hits, Warners has gone to the best of trough twice with Prince's back catalog, and have come up with empty, inconclusive results. The Hits, in all its glory, is the real thing, painting an absolutely glowing portrait of one of the greatest musicians of his time. The sequence goes in roughly chronological fashion, and its virtually impossible to not get swept up in the perpetual motion of beautiful brilliance leaping from the speakers. There are a few odd omissions, and in the case of If I Was Your Girlfriend, the decision to use single edit is enormously distracting, but nothing can stop the Prince express. Who else could fill up two discs like this? In addition to the head spinning, beloved hits, there is a smattering of absolutely essential unreleased material. Pink Cashmere dates from 1988, and is one of Prince's most glorious songs. The melody, the sparse, purposeful arrangement, Prince's wonderful singing, all topped by an extended ballet between Prince's masterful guitar and Claire Fischer's equally masterful orchestrations. Who writes songs like this? Who arranges and them performs songs like this? Truly, no one else. Speaking of songs no one else could have written, we have a live, hymnal reading of Nothing Compares 2 U, enlivened by Rosie Gaines' powerful gospel voice, and, oh yes, the fact that it's one of the greatest songs ever written. We also have Peach, recorded in 1992. Peach is probably Prince's greatest pure rock and roll song, bursting with guitar genius, great arranging, exciting rhythm and melody, terrific lyrics, and probably the most charismatic vocal Prince ever recorded. Pope is also from 1992, and represents one last stab at New Jack Swing, and it is by far his best effort in that style. For one thing, Mayte and Prince play off each other well, and there is no Tony M in sight! There's is a confidence to Pope, between its samples, and Prince's rapped delivery that makes one wonder why he struggled so much with this genre in the past. Apparently, this one was waiting for him. I'm not going to discuss the third disc of this collection much. It rounds up Prince's b-sides, and I will be reviewing his singles in detail, below. I will mention that this disc includes the previously unreleased Dream Factory era song Power Fantastic, apparently a one take recording of Prince And The Revolution live in the studio, that is just magical music. The trumpet sparks, the gracefully descending piano lines, those drums, and Prince's melting, perfect vocal. Once again, who writes songs like this? Who plays songs like this? The answer of course is one person, Prince, the one man phenomenon who has managed to do it for decades, seemingly effortlessly.
Notable Songs- Pink Cashmere, Peach, Power Fantastic
1-800-NEW-FUNK (Various Artists)- 1994
Score one for umm...somebody! Around the time of the release of The Hits, Prince announced he would be recording no more new music, and would be filling out the remainder of his recently signed multi-million dollar deal Warner Bros with material from The Vault. After that, he announced he was changing his name to the unpronounceable O(+> symbol. Prince did in fact, release new music again in February 1994, with the Most Beautiful Girl In The World single, put out through his NPG label, in an agreement with the legendary Al Bell, who handled the release and manufacturing through his own Bellmark Records label. Almost immediately following that breakthrough, Prince put this compilation together (in which he wrote or co-wrote every song) as both a blow against the empire, and the first brick in what would become the mighty NPG Records castle. So, what did Prince include on this sampler that would show the world the shock of the new and Warner Bros what they were missing? A solid, unremarkable previously released George Clinton song, completely average mid-90's R&B by The Steeles, 2gether from the Goldnigga album, a bland Madhouse number, some filler by MPLS, a completely uninteresting song from Mavis Staples (seriously, why could Prince not write a compelling song for one of the all time great voices, the two of them should have produced one classic after another), and that's the bad/mediocre. As for the good, If I Love U 2nite by Mayte is well written, especially since Mayte is not much of a singer, the delightful, Motown-ish Standing At The Altar by Margie Cox is supported by choral sitar, and the two best of the batch, Nona Gaye's A Woman's Gotta Have It, and the Nona Gaye/Prince duet Lovesign, easily one of the most underrated songs in the Prince oeuvre. What's interesting, is this song could have also been his pathway to hip-hop's heart, given it was remixed by Digital Underground's Shock G, and Ice Cube directed the music video. Prince could have consolidated his ideas around this new direction and developed it into something very interesting and provocative. Instead, projects like 1-800-NEW-FUNK acted as further distractions resulting from his ongoing battles with the execs at Warners.
Notable Songs- Lovesign, Standing At The Altar, If I Love U 2nite
The Beautiful Experience (EP)- 1994
Score one for Prince! Sort-of! Well, in a I'll-show-you move, Prince hooked up with Al Bell, and got this ballad released, where it became his biggest hit since 7. It was also his last majour hit, though there was no way of knowing that at the time. The single is of course, an absolute classic, and Prince followed it up a few months later by releasing this EP, which breaks the original into component parts and attempts to re-shape it into startling new forms, Scandalous Sex Suite style. Alas, this EP while interesting, is no Scandalous Sex Suite. The Beautiful Experience leap frogs around popular music styles of the mid-90's, from generic house music thumping to languid, vapid g-funk. Prince adds some cool guitar touches, and there is some nice saxophone playing, but there's not much to these alternate revisionings. Finally, a half hour in, we get the original, in all its pristine, fantastic form. Is it worth the wait? Of course, but there is some serious tedium along the way.
Notable Songs- The Most Beautiful Girl In The World
Initially, there was all manor of mis-information around Come. First, that it was "old" material, rejects from the archives not fit for release, Prince was foisting this music upon the public in the ultimate act of dis-respect to his audience. After all, Prince had stated there would be no more new music, and after the release of The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, the understanding seemed to be anything released under the O(+> name on NPG/Bellmark was new and something Prince cared about, anything released on Warners was tossed-off junk for the morbidly curious and/or obsessive completist. Throughout 1993, Prince went through multiple configurations of the album that was released as Come. Apparently, Warner Bros rejected at least one version of the album, but it is also a matter of public record that this was a very prolific period for Prince, so it only makes sense he would want to explore all of his creative options. Credited to "Prince 1958-1993", Come was pilloried by the critics, and ignored by the general public. The firestorm of criticism and mockery that surrounded the public perception of Prince, and still continues to plague him to this day, to some extent, is extremely unfortunate, especially since Come is an outstanding album, that deserves to be heard and appreciated. Come finds Prince in 1999 or Lovesexy mode, in other words, it doesn't matter that it was apparently cobbled together from unrelated sessions, because the final result is a cohesive musical journey with Prince at the helm, his hands firmly on the wheel, pulling together elements that should, by all rights be incongruous, into a unified, exhilarating set of new music. Come does not backslide lazily into restatements of previous ideas, instead Prince pursues largely unfamiliar song forms, and takes on the then current Nellee Hooper, Euro soul style, and completely makes it his own. The first four songs, the epic title track, Space, Pheromone, and Loose! build in intensity, each based around very simple musical ideas, but layered with great melodies, and typically unique flourishes. Prince's ability to create, maintain, and develop a groove is at it's peak here, and yet each piece works as an extremely well thought out song in its own right. All of this momentum slams into the psychodrama titled Papa, made all the more disturbing by the abrupt shift in musical tone immediately following the antagonists' suicide. Things jump back into uptemo territory with Race, in which Prince raps convincingly, and intelligently expounds on his ideas about racial prejudice. The second half of the album is less suite like than the first, but still hangs together perfectly with the two emotionally open Al Green-esque ballads, the melancholic Dark, and the optimistic Letitgo, the absolutely stunning vocal and harp masterpiece Solo, and we wrap up Prince's dark night of the soul with the spoken word/guitar feedback drenched audio collage, Orgasm, a brilliant ending that makes total intuitive sense. Come is a true album, in which every song exists where it needs to, and also needs to be heard in its entirety to let itself wash over the listener. Prince may have been at a very difficult and questioning time of his life, but his music remained sparkling, inventive, vital, vulnerable, and incredibly honest.
Notable Songs- Pheromone, Solo, Papa
Exodus (The New Power Generation)- 1995
Tony M died on the way back to his home planet! Okay, he didn’t die, but umm, oh the hell with it, he has a Facebook page now, I’m sure he’s happy, and as long as we never hear from him again, we are all the better for it. Prince’s very own Poochie The Dog can take his place at the bottom of the Prince’s Sad Musical Collaborators List right next to Carmen Electra and Ingrid Chavez. But who could replace such a mighty frontman when Prince’s whim wheel spun around to recording the not-at-all-anticipated follow-up to Goldnigga? It took three people to take the place of Tony M, Prince himself, Mayte’s interjections in Spanish, and bassist Sonny T, who’s voice sounds like it came straight off a Parliament album, and guess what? All three are a vast improvement! Coincidentally or not, with the vocal duties evenly dispersed, the music suddenly leaps to life, and the NPG swings with all sorts of cool dynamics, and their effortless dexterity turns Exodus into a loose limbed party record, a funk blowout clearly indebted to P-Funk, but with enough energy, humour, and tangible sense of fun to not feel derivative. There are also fascinating side roads taken, like the acoustic Count The Days, presumably about the Warner Bros stand-off, Cherry, Cherry a nice little girl group style number, and the amazing, epic, early Funkadelic psychedelic freak out Hallucination Rain. Sure the segues are fairly pointless, and yes, ultimately this album of vamps, riffs, and chants is better than it has any right to be, but nevermind all that. Exodus is the dance party Prince had been trying to capture on record since The Black Album, and with this great band behind him, he finally gets it.
Notable Songs- Count The Days, Hallucination Rain, The Exodus Has Begun
The Gold Experience- 1995
Among the Prince faithful, the consensus around The Gold Experience seems to be it is his one true masterpiece of the 1990's. In my opinion, The Gold Experience suffers from many of the problems that plagued the Love Symbol album, namely overproduction, overly fussy arrangements, and, overlong. As for the conceptual aspects of the album, Prince finds an ingenious way to incorporate all types of subject matter simply, with each song you "access" a different "experience", as explained to you by the kindly NPG operator during the segues. As with Diamonds And Pearls, Prince clearly felt the pressure and need to make a big impression on his audience. Unfortunately, due to the numerous delays Warners foisted on The Gold Experience, the lack of proper promotion on both the part of the record company, and the artist, and finally because Prince himself seemed unsure of what exactly the album should be, it quickly faded from public consciousness, though at least this time, the critics were kinder. The album itself has some incredibly strong moments, in particular, the opening trio of the feminist fight song P Control, the mechanized rock n roll powerhouse Endorphinmachine, and Shhh which opens with tremendous fanfare, then retreats into a patented lust ballad. These three songs alone will make you think you have a majour work on your hands. Other high points include Dolphin, Prince's definitive statement on artists' rights and creative integrity, written within a brilliant and imaginative metaphor, and the lengthy title track, which, while not exactly living up to Prince's hype that it would better Purple Rain, is still a classic melody, passionately delivered, and wrapped up with soaring guitar flights of fancy. The NPG reach something of a peak here as Prince's backing band, held together by Michael B's tight drum work, they play with fluidity and sensitivity to Prince's ideas. The downside to The Gold Experience are the stylistic experiments which dont quite work, like the odd narrative, to Shy, the extended monologue in the otherwise haunting ballad I Hate U, and an inferior alternate version of The Most Beautiful Girl In The World. Prince clearly laboured over this album, and some tremendous songs were lost along the way like Days Of Wild, The Ride, and future b-side Rock N Roll Is Alive (And It Lives In Minneapolis), among numerous others. The best way to experience this confounding phase of Prince's creative life is to track down a copy of the Love 4 One Another concert special aired on VH-1 a few months after The Gold Experience's release. There, you can see Prince in his element, whipping through his new material with confidence, and the relief that no executives would be around the corner to interrupt his artistic decisions.
Notable Songs- P Control, Endorphinmachine, Gold
Child Of The Sun (Mayte)- 1995
Prince wrote (with the exception of one cover), produced, and played all the instruments, on this, the debut album of his future wife, and then-current NPG dancer, Mayte Garcia. As noted above in the 1-800-NEW-FUNK review, Mayte is not much of a singer, so everything rises and falls on Prince's songwriting, and ability to give Mayte a vehicle for her limited vocal talents. Also, as with that compilation, one of the better songs on the album is If I Love U 2nite, here in both English and Spanish. There is also a re-recording of the gender flipped The Most Beautiful Boy In The World, and a rendition of The Commodores' Brick House, for some reason. The rest of this album is fleshed out with what Butthead once famously called "music you hear at the mall". That means, lots of synth based dance pop, occasionally distinguished by a Prince vocal cameo, or some all-too-brief guitar flourishes. The album's one truly disastrous moment is the horrid teenage melodrama ballad Love's No Fun, where Prince pushes Mayte's pancake thin voice front and center, and expects her to carry off some truly atrocious high school heartbreak lyrics. Much better is the Brill Building styled Mo' Better, which allows Mayte to sing only a few notes in the melody, and keep her phrasing to a clipped minimum. To her credit, Mayte never really presented herself as a singer, she played live only twice, and once her and Prince were no longer a couple, she steered clear of the recording studio, altogether. Mayte was a child prodigy of a dancer, and still remains one of the best in the world. That's where her talents lie, and where she continues to impress audiences to this day.
Notable Songs- The Most Beautiful Boy In The World, Mo' Better, Aint No Place Like U
Girl 6- Motion Picture Soundtrack- 1996
More of a really well put together Prince mix-tape than a movie soundtrack, or even a greatest hits, Girl 6 works as an intelligently compiled sampler with a few rarities thrown in. The classics are numerous, Pink Cashmere, Erotic City, Hot Thing, Adore, The Cross, Girls & Boys, How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?, and even Nasty Girl by Vanity 6. The theme song, credited to The New Power Generation is okay, but fairly disposable, the ballad Don't Talk 2 Strangers, is okay but overwhelmingly blah, and that leaves the Love Symbol era out-take, She Spoke 2 Me, which is a quiet classic, a better version of which was released a few years later, and will be discussed then. If you have a friend who doesn't like Prince, you could do worse than to start converting them here.
Notable Songs- She Spoke 2 Me, Hot Thing, Nasty Girl
Chaos And Disorder- 1996
Chaos And Disorder is an album that seems to have a dramatically polarizing effect on Prince fans, with detractors declaring it by far his worst ever, and supporters delighting in its electric slapdash spontaneity. Notice the use of the term "Prince fans", because no one else bought this album, his lowest selling at the time, and both critics and the general public were totally dismissive of it. Chaos And Disorder was supposedly the last Prince material owed to Warners, before he could be free of them, and the album was completed in record time, with sessions held in Miami and back at Paisley Park. As for the music itself, Chaos And Disorder is neither as great, nor as terrible as their various shouting factions would have you believe. What works most is the interplay between Prince's raw guitar and Michael B's drumming, the willingness Prince shows to toss any outlandish idea he has into a song, and the fact that quite alot of this material is strong in spite of itself. Now, there are some low points, Into The Light is a nondescript number that shifts between uplifting ballad and mid tempo rock, Dig U Better Dead feels like it was recorded mid-nap, and I Rock Therefore I Am over eggs the pudding with Scrap D's horrendous Ice Cube impersonation, and the pointless inclusion of Jamaican toasting from Steppa Ranks. Otherwise, the absurdity in the arrangement of Right The Wrong, and the lyrics to Dinner With Delores adds life to what could have been the most dour of Prince's contract filling exercises. Not dour at all are the truly psychedelic guitar adventures in Zannalee, the physical rush of The Same December, and the underrated beauty of I Will. The album, and the entire concept of this album winds down to its conclusion with Had U, an embittered fragment equating the fall-out with Warner Bros to a failed seduction. With all the contract wrangling behind him, Prince could now move on to the music he felt he needed to make.
Notable Songs- Zannalee, Dinner With Delores, Had U
Right up front, reviewing a 180 minute album is damn near impossible. One of the components of said impossibility is that Emancipation is designed to be played continuously, as opposed to other epics like The Clash’s Sandinista! which was set up to be listened to as a series of EPs, or the Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion albums, which should never be listened to at all. Emancipation was of course, the grand statement Prince had been building to, as the Warner Bros drama ended once and for all. Considering the amount of material, and that the vast majority of it was recorded one-man band style, and of course with Prince’s meticulous attention to detail, the three hour album was recorded very quickly, over a four month stretch. While writing and recording Emancipation, Prince also married Mayte Garcia, which is notable as the album essentially functions as a giant love letter to his new bride. So, since this review could very easily balloon to insane proportions, the emphasis will be on a short succinct jog through one of the longest albums ever made. We shall proceed disc by disc. First, I will mention that each disc is 12 songs, and runs exactly 60 minutes, so when I say the album is 180 minutes, it is 180 minutes, to the second. Disc One- not only the weakest of the set, but if this had been a stand-alone release, the weakest thing Prince had ever put his name to. Not the worst by any stretch, but certainly the most diffuse and one-dimensional. The modern R&B tracks come in two tempos, the nice-but uninvolving mid-tempo, and the nice but uninvolving slightly faster tempo, and the one “rock” song sounds like Prince dialed up “Prince rock song” on his instant music generator. Not coincidentally, the lyrics to each of these tracks basically re-state the sentiments in their title, and not much more. Examples? Of course…Jam Of The Year is about being at a fun concert (or nightclub, I guess), Get Yo Groove On and We Gets Up are about dancing, and Right Back Here In My Arms is about missing your lover. It should be mentioned that the shortest of these tracks is 4:18, and the longest 6:31, so get comfy when these numbers start. Moving right along, Somebody’s Somebody is a lovely ballad, Courtin’ Time is an amazing little jump blues number, that can’t help but be a stand-out. White Mansion, and In This Bed I Scream are both strong songs in search of better arrangements, and lead single Betcha By Golly Wow!, is wonderful, heartfelt cover of The Stylistics classic. Speaking of heartfelt, Prince also covers Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me, and while he delivers his vocals with palpable passion, the arrangement is strictly hotel lounge band territory, and at six and half minutes, it feels like an eternity. The one out and out failure on the first CD though, is Mr Happy, which wastes its perfectly good Ice Cube sample, and features rapping from Scrap D, who, while better than Tony M, is still quite lame in his own unspecial way. It begs the question, why have an Ice Cube impersonator on a song where you are sampling Cube himself? So, there you have disc one. An oddly unengaging, air brushed slick, modern R&B collection, who’s best ideas are extended past the realm of reason to make the self-imposed run-time rule of 60 minutes. Disc Two kicks off with the pretty damn good Sex In The Summer, and moves directly into the very pretty One Kiss At A Time, and then into Soul Sanctuary, the first truly great song on Emancipation, a song rich with melodic beauty and virtuoso singing. Emale is a slow, forgettable piece, but when the almost medieval A Curious Child segues into Dreamin About U, for the first time on this album, Prince displays the kind of arranging and sequencing muscularity that is one of his hallmarks. Unfortunately, the momentum careens into the nearly 8 minute monstrosity Joint 2 Joint, a wretched song barely salvaged by some 1999 style studio freak out non-sequiturs. Things pick up in a majour way with second single, The Holy River, while not exactly a masterpiece, is certainly a sincere, mature piece capped off with gorgeous guitar, and suddenly, as the second hour of this album is in its home stretch, we find ourselves in the middle of a dynamic, creative Prince album, moving from the beautiful solo piano of Let’s Have A Baby into the twin showstopper extravaganzas (which are pieced together with The Plan, a fragment from the Kamasutra ballet, to be reviewed later) of Saviour and Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife, two ballads that explode with musical ambition, passion, head spinning melodies, and wonderful singing. This is Prince totally unguarded, emotionally open, and happy with his wife, and secure in his enormous musical gifts. With this upsurge, we now stride into Disc Three, with Slave, an inventive, dark piece where Prince takes on all manor of detractors, and then Emancipation skyrockets into New World, an incredible dance piece teeming with great musical ideas, and great lyrics. The Human Body comes next, and is even more expansive dance music, these two songs in a row are total stunners, just marvelous new music, and this far into the album, Prince seems to generate endless creativity and brilliance. Disc Three keeps the high points coming with another cover, this time the Delfonics’ La, La, La Means I Love You, and it’s obvious how much Prince loves this song. Style is the kind of song only Prince could get away with, clever, charismatic, funny, super smart, and just fantastic. The next track is the momentous Sleep Around, a stomping Chic meets techno groove, woven around a fabulous song, and the immortal line “do it like she likes so your baby won’t want to sleep around”. Sleep Around is 8 minutes of dancing bliss, with outstanding horns, and leaves you wondering why Prince didn’t release it to be a world conquering hit single. Just when you think Prince is reclaiming his greatness, the entirely pointless rap track Da, Da, Da plods out, essentially a solo feature for the boring nothingness of Scrap D. It’s largely lousy, and serves no purpose, and undoes a lot of the goodwill you’ve been feeling toward Prince throughout the third disc, so let’s just move on. My Computer is another semi-directionless song that wastes its Kate Bush cameo, and One Of Us…well, you know the song, it’s obvious why Prince covered it, and the guitar is great, but it doesn’t change the fact that One Of Us is a sub-Alanis piece of MOR. Emancipation does manage to build to a grand finale anyway with The Love We Make, one of Prince’s greatest songs, and one that in almost anyone else’s hands would be maudlin and reductive, but Prince writes and sings with genuine compassion and insight, and he manages to turn his feelings about the tragedy of Jonathan Melvoin’s (Wendy and Susannah’s brother) death into redemptive art. The three hour odyssey comes to a close with the title track, and it is a rousing funk song, with fantastic bass and closes the album on an appropriately celebratory note. Emancipation raises several significant question about Prince…who on Earth makes a 180 minute album? Who buries Kate Bush’s voice, but then gives the woeful Scrap D a song all to himself? Why did Prince feel the need to release this much music in one place? Why release middling songs like Get Yo Groove On and We Gets Up in the same place as Sleep Around and The Human Body? Why did Prince insist this was his greatest work, and that people treat it like his debut? Why did he think this album would be so popular he would possibly be releasing up to 18 singles from it? Why did he make the first disc one of the weakest collections of music in his life? Why, did the master of sound painting make a three hour album with his worst overall sound yet, so clean, spit-shined, thin, and brittle? Why did he saddle what was supposed to be the ultimate album of his life with the ugliest album cover art imaginable? It goes without saying that if Prince had made a single album out of this, it would have been treated as a triumph, the album the public not only had been waiting for, but wanted to see him make, an album that found him happy and productive. Unfortunately, Prince turned what should have been very simple yet complex statements like “I love my wife”, and “I’m excited to be a Father” into a massive lumbering dinosaur of self important grandstanding. There was no way Emancipation could have lived up to Prince’s self generated hype. His interviews at the time, and the presentation of the album itself set a tone that if it wasn’t massive overachieving profundity, it was a failure, and too many sections of this album are flabby and Godfather III like in their lethargy, putting too much burden on the great music that appears, staggers everyone with its invention, then vanishes into yet another weak song, or baffling stylistic turn. As for the great music found on Emancipation, and Prince’s songs of genuine joy about marriage and family, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy it’s impossible to hear them now without thinking about how cruelly reality intervened. Prince and Mayte’s baby, Boy Gregory died shortly after birth, due to the effects of Pfeiger’s Syndrome. The death of the child, eventually brought about the end of the marriage as Prince pulled away from his wife with endless touring, and the continued, relentless studio work. Knowing what happened adds depth and tragedy to the best material on Emancipation, and one can’t help but feel bad for Prince and Mayte that their happiness fell apart around them. As for the how the album did with the public, Emancipation did much better than the late period Warner Bros releases, but failed to generate the chart toppers (late alone 18 singles), and millions of sales that Prince had hoped for. More important than that though, was Prince finally owned the master tapes to one his albums, and because of the licensing deal Prince had engineered with EMI, he made more money on the album than he had from almost every other release, and certainly had absolute control over every facet of the final work. Prince was uncensored, unedited, and, truly free. It had been hard fought, and well deserved, and now the only thing that limited him was his imagination.
Notable Songs- Saviour, The Human Body, Betcha By Golly Wow!
Kamasutra (The NPG Orchestra)- 1998
Packaged together with mail order copies of the Crystal Ball set, Kamasutra is the music Prince wrote for his ballet. Clare Fischer directed the orchestra, and I am not sure whether the ballet was actually staged or not, but the music of Kamasutra has some melodically brilliant passages, many of the transitions are very interesting, and the instrumental palette is thoughtful and varied. Plus, there are delightfully creative touches like the use of scissors as percussion in Cutz, the point when Kamasutra /Overture #8 kicks into an almost full funk workout, and the subtle electronic washes that colour the main theme. Kamasutra shows that no matter what the musical style, Prince's most striking musical signatures are always apparent, and always fascinating.
Notable songs- Kamasutra/Eternal Embrace, Cutz, The Ever Changing Light
Crystal Ball- 1998
Crystal Ball is the mail-order (then eventually, conventional retail) set of out-takes Prince had promised in the liner notes to Emancipation, and not the original 3 album opus that got trimmed into Sign O' The Times. Many fans have complained about Crystal Ball, largely for what it isn't...glaring omissions, not enough material from the 80's, a large number of remixes given how many unreleased songs Prince has, and his decision to edit or overdub the material just for this release. I really have no intention of discussing these issues other than to say, this is the way Prince wanted to share these songs, and if we have trusted his judgement long enough to get us to pay attention to a 3 CD set of out-takes, I would say he's deserving of the benefit of the doubt. Plus, as a longtime bootleg enthusiast, I can count on one hand the number of times I got one you could play all the way through without either getting repeat tracks, or songs that are just uncompelling. With bootlegs you have to search for the jewels, it makes the experience that much more fun, and with Crystal Ball, Prince seems to have made his very own bootleg album. Anyway, I have broken Crystal Ball into 5 categories, to help make this more understandable to someone who may not have heard it yet. Straight away, the longest track, is the one that is impossible to categorize, Cloreen Baconskin dates from 1983, and is 15 minutes of Prince and Morris Day playing drums and vocalizing. It's interesting that this was a songwriting technique for them, and apparently quite a fruitful one, but this track is the sort of thing you really only need to hear once. The largest category accounts for almost a full third of this collection, and that is material from the Dream Factory/Crystal Ball era. An Honest Man is a beautiful a cappella piece, and Moviestar is Prince at his most hilarious (seriously, someone needs to note how genuinely funny Prince is, his ability to make you laugh and charm you at the same time may be his most under rated characteristic), and absolutely incredible compositions/recordings like Sexual Suicide, Good Love, and of course Dream Factory and are the kind of masterful brilliance that simply astonishes anyone who comes across them. The two tallest trees from this period though, are the amazing title suite, other than Clare Fischer's orchestrations, Prince created this tour-de-force alone, and what he achieved is simply staggering. Equally staggering is Crucial, quite possibly Prince's purest and most perfectly realized love ballad, originally planned for Sign O' The Times, but replaced by the nearly equal greatness of Adore. The next category are songs from the Gold Experience period in 1995, with the lovely 2morrow, the underrated abandonment of Da Bang, and two live tracks, both of which should have released on The Gold Experience itself, The Ride, a fantastic blues with Prince ripping out virtuoso guitar solos, and Days Of Wild, a key song from this time, especially in this live incarnation with the audience chanting "free the slave". The next category are songs recorded in 1993, for a variety of projects, among them the albums Come, and The Gold Experience, as well as the stage production Glam Slam Ulysses, based loosely around Homer's The Odyssey. The best of these are the NPG showcases Calhoun Square and What's My Name, and the Glam Slam Ulysses extravaganza, Strays Of The World. The next category is the smallest, and these are Emancipation out-takes, it's hard to believe a 36 song, 180 minute album would even have out-takes, but aside from the not-very-good-at-all throwaway Poom Poom, She Gave Her Angels, and Goodbye are both beautiful, very sincere ballads, and easily could have fit into disc two of that epic album. The final category of Crystal Ball material is the most controversial, the 6 remixes Prince chose to include. The justifiable argument can be made that Vault classics like Moonbeam Levels, All My Dreams, or the original uncensored version of Old Friends 4 Sale should be here in their place, but the Shock G remix of Lovesign betters the original, as does So Dark, a re-worked version of the Come standout. Tell Me How U Wanna B Done, extracted out of the Love Symbol album's The Continental also works very well in this new context. All that said, it is hard to defend the existence of the fairly worthless P Control remix (though the Chuck D sample is a nice touch), or the mostly instrumental re-working of Loose!, now retitled Get Loose, and the less said about the Come remix, now revamped into 18 & Over, the better. Overall, Crystal Ball gives fans a huge stylistic range of material, and a generous look at some of Prince's most intriguing unreleased projects. The only real disappointment, is that this did not become a series of releases, but who knows, maybe Prince is planning his very own Archives project? One can hope this is the case.
Notable Songs- Crystal Ball, Crucial, Days Of Wild
The Truth- 1998
Leave it to Prince to release his most focused work of the 90's as a bonus giveaway disc for his mail order 3 CD out-takes collection. Releasing The Truth in such a non-eventful manner is one of the most bewildering decisions he's made in a public life full of bewildering decisions. Okay, that needed to be said, now we can move on. The Truth carries a copyright date of 1997, which means this was his last full album of songs before he converted to being a Jehovah's Witness. The Truth is usually, lazily referred to as Prince's "acoustic" album, but in reality, it's his "non-drum" album, as bass, electric guitars, all sorts of percussion, electronics, and multi-layered vocals are used intelligently and sparingly. The songwriting is uniformly great, and Prince does a fantastic job of providing depth and range to the material. The album starts very strong with the title track and Don't Play Me, both articulate, fascinating statements of purpose. 3rd Eye is a different type of statement of purpose, this one being one of Prince's most intriguing and deepest statements of spirituality, set to a thrillingly stripped down accompaniment. Equally thrilling is Fascintion's take on pop culture, and Prince's place in it, supported by a quiet cacophony of rhythm and propulsion. Circle Of Amour is one of Prince's most wonderfully audacious songs, the kind of which he would basically never write again, and its arrangement is a masterclass is subtlety and shading. Indeed, presenting the material in such an intimate setting, details emerge and make all the difference in the momentum of the album as whole. Listen to the way the distortion in the vocals of Animal Kingdom amplify the disgust and outrage in Prince's voice, just as much as his cadence, the lyrics, or the structure of the melody. Listen to the the lovely moment in Dionne when Prince tosses in the delightful "we could have shared a martini/we could have danced to Mancini" only to have it greeted with a burst of Pink Panther like baritone sax, or the harmonized whistling breakdown in The Other Side Of The Pillow, and realize that the songs that contain them are so well written and classic, that Prince could basically have been a popular songwriter in any era. The fulcrum of the album is the penultimate song, Comeback, apparently written in response to the death of Prince and Mayte's child. It is indeed a ghostly piece of music, not tied to any obvious reality, a song without structure, that doesn't even make it to the 2 minute mark, all the tragedy and emotion compressed into a wandering rumination on the idea incarnation. Prince then shifts gears abruptly into Weclome 2 The Dawn, which seeks to find optimism and freedom in the future. Most of The Truth flows like cool, clear water, and its Prince's ability to not just be artistically and emotionally guileless, but also to instinctively shape and elevate these elements into an album that demands attention and repeated listening.
Notable Songs- Don't Play Me, Dionne, 3rd Eye
The War (The New Power Generation)- 1998
Initially released as a cassette only apology piece to folks who had problems receiving the mail order copies of Crystal Ball, but eventually reaching the world as a 12" single, The War bears the distinction of not only the longest song Prince has ever released, but certainly his most baffling. The War, like Purple Rain, is a live recording, taken into the studio and shaped, edited, and formed into a fascinating, incredible work of art. The piece starts with a chant, Prince enters, things slowly develop into one peak after another, brought upon by the repetitive, churning, ever shifting structures, and of course Prince's searing guitar work. Things build to a percussive bursting point, but the catharsis never comes, the piece circles back into its opening chant, and then retreats into silence, once again with Prince nowhere to be found. The lyrical subject matter finds Prince in a conspiratorial, confrontational mood, daring the audience to leave, not giving the listener a moment of relief, for The War has no joy of melody, no release of pleasure, and no reassurance of God's forgiveness, just the inevitable doomed vibe Prince emits with his challenging new work. Cut down from a 45 minute improvisational performance piece into the 25 minute final version, The War remains the most beguiling, mysterious piece of music from a man who, even at his most extroverted, was at best, unknowable. Oh yes, there are no b-sides or remixes included here, that would only lessen the potency, and deplete what has been done. This art statement, this communication is deepest of the deep waters, make sure your oxygen tanks are full before you get submerged in the inky depths.
Notable Songs- The War
Newpower Soul (The New Power Generation)- 1998
...And Prince proceeds to make the least creative collection of music in his life. Call it psychic exhaustion, call it dearth of inspiration, call it a dismal listening experience, all of these descriptors would be true. By this point, the entire NPG had been replaced, Prince had promoted himself to sole lead singer (and focal point of the cover art, and make no mistake about it, this is a Prince solo album in all but name), and Mayte was relegated to a "thank you" in the liner notes. Say what you will, even on Goldnigga, the original NPG had sonic identity, and certainly at their best could whip up a storm in any musical genre they were driven into by Prince. These new players while competent, are the most complacent, placid musicians, this side of smooth jazz session musos. Prince wrote a series of interchangeable, sexless, "party" jams, and the new NPG bogs it down with a playing style that can best be described by as "recently awoken coma patients on a Xanax binge record music at a restrained, tense dinner party", so as you can see this album suffers on several levels. Never have "party" songs been taken at tempos of such a sluggish, apathetic, not-give-a-fuck extreme. Yes, there are interesting musical ideas, arrangements, and moments of life, that appear randomly, but they are all swallowed whole in the vortex of listlessness and boredom which this album bafflingly sustains. And only Prince would release a song called I Like Funky Music, and make it the most bloodless, indifferent jam of his life. But it's not all dull, endless, "party" music...there's also the sugary morphine drip slush ballad Until U're In My Arms Again, which both Clare Fischer and Prince try to prop up with interesting little musical details, but cotton candy surrounding a large block of wood, is just not going to taste nicely. Meanwhile, Shoo-Bed-Ooh is a not-bad sympathetic portrait of a woman who's been sexually taken advantage of, and some of the arrangement is ear catching, but there is just no escaping the oppressive ennui, as one idea after another falls off the table and dies an unmourned death. Come On was the single from this album, and it has a few moments, mostly in the backing vocals of Chaka Khan, Prince's icy, minimalist synth work, and in the unexpected slide guitar parts. Also among the living are the upbeat(!) soul number When U Love Somebody, which features bizarre lyrics about forgiving a cheating spouse, that somehow leads into a closing rap about physics and Adam and Eve. And leave it to Prince to have one of the albums best songs, the bitter, minimalist, police siren, EKG beeping laced curiosity Wasted Kisses, tacked on as a hidden bonus track. So, even the better songs don't qualify as "great" necessarily, but Newpower Soul, frustratingly enough (because now you can't write it off completely) contains one song which is an absolute unqualified masterpiece, and however incongruously, turns this album's plethora of weaknesses into fully articulated strengths. On the incredibly haunting, evocatively atmospheric ballad The One, Prince (along with Clare Fischers masterful orchestrations) combines elements of music that are at once full of impacted suffering, and depressive withdrawal, and lyrics that are a devotional celebration of monogamy, responsibility, and fidelity. It is the sound of a man trying to hold a relationship together, as he watches it implode by putting on a facade of commitment (and when he finally sings his wife's name at the end of a tremendous melismatic flurry, it is absolutely heartbreaking, indeed the vocal performance here is as open and expressive as the rest of the album is detached and inexpressive), but as the song extends into its deeply moving coda of abstracted classical guitar, and the languorous bassline that continues to wind around itself, you get the sense that even he has one foot out the door. This jewel lies buried in the middle of side two of this album, some of the saddest, most quietly anguished music Prince ever made, a grey vapour trail drifting through the pretend party. So, there you have it, this is what it sounds like when Prince finally reaches creative inertia, and even then, he still manages to pull out a song that ranks with his absolute best. Playing this album is like watching late period Muhammad Ali barely grind out a decision win against a chancer like Alfredo Evangelista. There are inexplicable flashes of the sparkling remnants of greatness, maybe a round or two of magic, but mostly just the heavy air of time moving backwards. And finally, leave it to Prince to release this dull thud and do some of the most aggressive album promo of his life. Why on Earth did he eagerly do press to tout this album while The Truth was released without a whisper? With Prince, you really and truly never know what you are going to get. It should be noted, this was the last album the NPG ever put out, and it's obviously for the best.
Notable Songs- The One, Wasted Kisses, When U Love Somebody
1999: The New Master (EP)- 1999
Talk about diminishing returns! When Prince released The Scandalous Sex Suite, it was a revelation, a breathtaking victory, entirely on his own creative terms. When he put out The Beautiful Experience, it was interesting, but not amazing, and certainly not essential (obviously, other than The Most Beautiful Girl In The World itself). By the time of 1999: The New Master, Prince had turned the "re-create one song into its own suite" idea into a turgid, artless procedure. Apparently, the idea was born out of the larger one to re-record his entire back catalog starting with For You, and then working forward, so that way Warner Bros could never re-release his older music ever again without it competing with the new, O(+> authorized, self-released version, and once Warners announced their intention to once again put out 1999 as a single during the height of Y2K-mania, Prince disposed of this hateful, little EP onto the public. So, we will get this over with quickly...the idea is the NPG (whoever the hell they are at this point) gets grafted over The Revolution, so what that means in practical terms is Doug E Fresh throws in some vocal ad libs, like the helpful "it's the party of the century", and there are computer bleeps and blops to remind you its MODERN now, and Prince turns the formerly incredible, infectious piece of future funk into the sonic equivalent of Bono fly glasses, or maybe a soul patch, or I know, frosted tips. By far the most interesting part of this EP is when Rosario Dawson recites some spoken word about minorities in prison over the music to Little Red Corvette, and then its "The Inevitable Mix" (boy, Prince isn't trying very hard, is he?), followed by 1999 (Keep Steppin), another lame fizzle of a hip-hop attempt, though in fairness, Doug E Fresh is obviously lights years beyond Tony M, or Scrap D. Rosie Gaines shows up and sings for a bit during the 1999 House Music Remix (just had to have one, right?), and then we reach a point of meta pointlessness/hopelessness with a "single" edit of the first track, which we just heard fifteen minutes before. We wrap up this stinking, seething object of contempt up with a no-reason-to-exist a cappella mix, and just let's all agree to never speak of this disaster ever again.
Notable Songs- 1999 (The New Master)
The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale- 1999
Maybe Prince was in such a grouchy mood because he found out Warners was about to release another Vault item, a full three years after that saga had supposedly ceased. In quite an asshole-ish move, the ol' WB did what they had accused Prince of doing for years, flooding the market with divergent albums, confusing the public, and making a coherent album launch all but impossible. Why did they make such a move? Easy, Prince had signed a contract with Clive Davis' Arista records, was planning a majour comeback, and Warners was having none of it. The message seems to be as long as Prince was an in-house self releasing indie artist, they would leave him alone, but signing to another massive conglomerate was out of the question, and they would try to upend his mainstream momentum in any petty way they could. So, that's the corporate maneuvering nonsense that led to this album's release, now its time to talk about music. Most of the material culled together here dates from 1992, and indeed this collection feels like a genuine album. So much so, it sounds like Prince mixed it to all have a similar sound and feel ala Bob Clearmountain's memorable mix work on The Stones' Tattoo You. The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale is Prince's most friendly, casual album, a welcome bright spot in the river of dreariness coming from him at the time. This music also serves as a belated tribute to the original NPG, their touches are all over this adventurous, lively music, and makes one miss the telepathic connection they had with their band leader, second only to the one he shared with The Revolution. Things kick off with the fun, fast, swinging The Rest Of My Life, which hurtles by in under two minutes, and leads directly into the jaunty It's About That Walk, another fun, effortless smile of a song. She Spoke 2 Me, was released on the Girl 6 soundtrack, but this is the unedited take, and the understated bliss of the song gives way to an unexpected, fantastic jazz improvisation section, that flies all over the place, and still manages to land back on its feet. 5 Women was written by Prince for Joe Cocker, and while its another example of Prince writing a perfect vehicle for another singer, his take on it is a great slow burn that gains power by not going into raving histrionics, plus the band is water tight on this one. The band runs loose and open on When The Lights Go Down, another extended improv piece built around a percussion, a cool guitar figure, and once again, Prince controlling the dynamics of the music with his vocal phrasing, Bob Dylan style. The second half of the album begins with the beguiling, knotty fragment My Little Pill, which comes to a sudden halt, and is immediately followed by There Is Lonely, an interesting ballad, that unfortunately is failed by its slightly overcooked arrangement. Speaking of overcooked, the title track is one of the saddest examples of artistic self-sabotage and self censorship in Prince’s entire body of work. Originally recorded during the sessions for Parade in 1985, Old Friends 4 Sale, is presented here as a melodramatic ballad with overlush, intrusive orchestrations from Clare Fischer (seriously, this has to be the first time this collaboration hasn't caught the magic at all), and the whole song seems to be so obtuse, it renders itself incomprehensible. When one finally hears the original (available only bootleg), the listener gets a strikingly personal, emotionally idiosyncratic stunner that would have elevated any album he would have put it on. In artistic terms, it is a travesty Prince picked this airbrushed re-recording over one of his outstanding achievements. We won't belabour the point any further. Sarah returns the album to its fun, slightly throwaway earlier songs, this being the most energetic and funky song here. The Vault closes things with Extraordinary, a gorgeous ballad, with an indelible arrangement that is so sturdy and timeless, it could have been sung by anyone from Billie Holiday to Etta James. It wraps together an album that surprisingly works as a continuous listening experience, and explores moods and ideas rarely seen in Prince's other music.
Notable Songs- Extraordinary, When The Lights Go Down, 5 Women
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic- 1999
In 1979, a prolific pop wunderkind, known for playing all the instruments on his records, yet dogged with the reputation for having reached his artistic peak in the previous decade, as well as living in an unrealistic self-created world far removed from the existence of most people, signed a big dollar contract with a new, massive record label, and went about charting his triumphant return to the charts with an album designed to garner attention, no matter how desperate it came off. "A song in every genre I'm a proven master of!", he thought, yes that will do nicely, "some contemporary touches, so people know I'm modern and in touch!", oh yes, there must be dollop of that, certainly, and finally, he thought "what this album needs most are guest stars, guest stars, and more guest stars, not just to remind people how fabulous and brilliant I am, but with some of the younger hit-makers my important name will be sure to attract, it will simultaneously show how au currant I am while also a timeless influence". He gazed through his monocle and called together his staff to orate what he now charmingly referred to as THE SOLUTION. The team of manservants and record execs bowed profusely at every idea and while averting their gaze, responded in unison "yes sir, very good sir, your new compositions are ever so pleasant sir, and your target demographics will be most pleased sir, we project the utmost market visibility, sir", and with that, his masseuse rubbed his temples and soothingly whispered “you’re more relevant than ever, sir”. Hopes were appropriately set sky high, so high in fact, that rumours abound that golden gold holders were ordered for all who tirelessly toiled to market this product effectively. You know, as a way of giving back, and saying “thank you” to all the little people. The resulting product (and yes, product is the applicable word) was an incoherent mess, and no matter how much it was hyped, it proceeded to unceremoniously flop, and then haunt cut-out bins forevermore, where vampire like devotees, completists, and musical masochists were the only bottom feeders willing to try and suck any inspiration from this dust filled half memory of the platinum conquest gone sour.
Yes, twenty years after the release of Paul McCartney’s Back To The Egg, Prince noted how well the whole enterprise had gone for everyone involved, and decided to live it/be it, and ride the wild fantasy all for himself. Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic is the Prince sell-out, a move previously unthinkable, where the “Slave” gets house-broken and reduced to being a mere entertainer, doing what’s expected of him for the nice people in the audience. The problem isn’t that Prince signed a deal with pandering enthusiast and lowest common denominator specialist Clive Davis’ Arista records, the problem is he allowed his art to be covered in the stench of corporate compromise, and the jerk off gestures Warner Bros would never have thought of pushing him into making, and up until now, he had been staunchly against. Think about it, Prince derailed his whole career, tore apart his reputation as an innovator and genius, made himself the object of every bad stand-up comedian, walked around with “slave” on his face in public, and released throwaway music, over what started out as an argument about release dates. Here was the only mainstream pop musician willing to stake EVERYTHING he had worked for just to have the freedom to create, and present his creation as he saw fit, and in the process kick starting the revolutionary discussion of artists owning their own master recordings. In under half a decade, as long as Prince was able to retain his masters (a key matter of the Arista agreement, and the only mitigating factor in all of this), Prince seemed to have totally reversed most of his convictions, and was apparently willing to write and release music far below his talent level, and worse than that, acts as a refutation to his most daring and best work. So, in review, not only did Prince eat the forbidden fruit after swearing he never would, it was fruit he himself made, and it wasn’t even good fruit, it was moldy, discoloured, and withered, all dried membranes, and no juice (by the way, Liz feels this part is too harsh, but trust me, this is all in context, I am not turning on Prince in any way, just keep reading).
PART TWO AND A HALF:
Part Two And A Half Part One:
This album has no unifying theme, either musically, lyrically, or conceptually. It is virtually impossible to discuss as a cohesive work, because it just feels like random Prince songs haphazardly programmed together. Hence, it will not be discussed in a cohesive way. It is mind boggling that contract fulfillers like Chaos & Disorder and The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale are more satisfying, interconnected listening experiences, than this, his supposed conquering return the biggest of big stages.
Part Two And A Half Part Two:
Here’s the biggest problem with Prince…he is a genius. As a genius, he has certain irrefutable talents. When he’s in full flight, this isn’t a problem at all of course, but when he reaches his nadir, or chooses to shut off his higher operating capabilities (and both happen on this album, keep in mind), you’re still left with a maddening level of skill and craft, so it’s impossible to throw the album away, or label it as useless, or simply say that he is “washed up” (as far as the listener is concerned, the majour downside is, you find yourself wading through art that is objectively speaking, not very good). Like Dylan, or Miles Davis, I don’t think terms like washed up apply to Prince. Whether for bad or good, there is still something there, some spark, some ability to be intriguing, held together by solid command of form. In other words, like everyone from Dylan and Miles to Orson Welles or Pablo Picasso, for that matter, you can argue that Prince has never had any bad creative ideas, just poorly executed/articulated/realized ones.
Part Two And A Half Part Three:
Here’s a rundown of the music, track by track, as I feel this mirrors the wafer thin aesthetics upon which this album was built.
Before we get to that, I will plainly state that for review purposes, I have listened to this album more than any of the others, and it still makes absolutely no sense to me. I listened to it outdoors, I listened to it indoors, I played it by day, I played it by night, I listened to it while distracted, I listened to it fully engaged. Nothing helped. One common trait among these experiences, is I nodded off by the midway point almost each time. I would have to re-start listening from halfway through, just to insure I would hear all the songs.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic- An old song dating from 1988, at one point this was to be the title track of an album which would follow Lovesexy. This is most assuredly, not that album. Rejected from the Batman soundtrack by Tim Burton, though Prince sampled the hell out of it, anyway. This version trots along, with some nice production touches, the guitar sound is great, and that’s all I have to say on this one.
Undisputed- Prince says things like “I don’t follow trends/trends follow me”, and “out of touch?/I am the touch”. Make out of that what you will. He also states nobody will ever be able to tell what he’s thinking, and umm, he sure has got that right. Once again, some great guitar-as-sound generator moments, some cool production sleight-of-hand, and Chuck D appears in fighting form with a fantastic verse. I should add though, the bad idea to good idea ratio is about 4:1 though, so keep that in mind. Prince also states “commercialization of the music is what brought it down”, on his corporate sell-out album, so, yeah. Should he get bonus points or credibility deductions for his self awareness? Years ago, he did sing “I could be guilty for my honesty”, and he sure proves it!
The Greatest Romance Ever Sold- The would-be hit single, Prince even crowed to Anthony DeCurtis “tell me that’s not a hit”. Well, it wasn’t, and what is actually a heart-rending and thoughtful song is undone by its modern R&B sheen, weak chorus, and laboured, endlessly, needlessly repetitive arrangement. If Prince hadn’t been trying so hard to tailor this to prevailing radio tastes, it could have been a head-turner. The end of the Most Beautiful Girl In The World story, and for all the wrong reasons.
Segue- 4 seconds of silence on this album? Why the hell not?
Hot Wit U- Prince tries to get all freaky seductive, but this is just too self-conscious, awkward and overstuffed to achieve the desired effect. Then Eve shows up, and makes a plug for the Ruff Ryders, and it really gets you thinking…too bad 50 Cent wasn’t around in ’99 to join in and shout out G-G-G-G-G-Unit!!! for no reason at all. Prince tries to take the song back, but it’s too late, and too weak to salvage.
Tangerine- A gorgeous slice of a song, some of Prince's bitterest, saddest lyrics, swept within a buoyant acoustic arrangement and perfect vocals. Far too short at about 94 seconds.
So Far, So Pleased- Prince and Gwen Stefani team up for a harmless trifle, that is largely redeemed by the fact its melodically bright, clearly not straining too hard, and Prince's guitar sound and playing is fantastic.
The Sun, The Moon And Stars- An otherwordly, thoroughly beautiful stunner of a song/performance/arrangement/production completely obliterated by Prince's baffling decision to start toasting midway through...yes, this is what Prince's music always lacked, after all, wouldn't Purple Rain have been SO MUCH better if instead of the second verse, Prince kicked in with "I be steppin troo de purple rain/let me show de joy and de pain/de purple rain in spain..." (Oh, and to any PC motherfuckers out there who may think I'm making fun of the way Jamaican people speak, just remember, it was Prince's horrible idea to adopt a phoney baloney patois, THAT is what I'm making fun of), as you can see, this would have been a vast improvement, and looked at from this perspective, the original totally SUCKS now, and hopefully we can get the Purple Rain 2011 (Ultimate Celeb-Rain-Shunnn Mixxx) any day.
Everyday Is A Winding Road- But Prince was just getting our expectations nice and low by ruining such a marvelous song, low enough to handle this disgusting cover of the horrendous Sheryl Crow original. Prince actually managed to make it worse, turning this middle of the road monstrosity of mediocrity into a cliche rotted house music galumph that takes six and a half fucking minutes to walk aimlessly around that winding road all the way to oblivion. At least his cover of One Of Us was passionate, this sounds like he couldnt have cared less.
Segue- 18 seconds of orchestral swells on this album? Why the hell not?
Man O' War- A very frustrating ballad in that it uncomfortably transitions between feeling insightful to self pitying, intensely personal, to emotionally aloof. The terse, clenched tears of the guitar solo eloquently confesses the conflicts of the heart, while the rest of the song strains to hide behind a veil of candor.
Baby Knows- The worst song here by a million miles, and quite possibly the single worst song Prince ever wrote, a pandering, obnoxious, travesty, the anti-Peach, a faux-rocking saucy sexpot that is so brazen and ghastly, it's simply nauseating, and sounds like it should be playing at a TGI Fridays, this song is emblematic of Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic's corporate shucking and jiving, it totally, utterly tanks an album that already had significant flaws. This song is so misguided and pathetic, I still expect the first line of the lyrics to be "cruisin to a bar on the shore" (Dude Looks Like A Lady reference, for those who don't remember). As it stands, the opening "Baby knows/a funky joint in the city/where the freaks come out 2 play" ain't that much better. And have I mentioned this is the track with Sheryl Crow singing on it? Yeah, OF COURSE it is. Let us never speak of this song ever again...
I Love U, But I Don't Trust U Anymore- ...because when all hope seems lost, we hear an engineers voice say "rolling", Prince clears his throat, the delicate interplay of the acoustic guitar and piano begins, and Prince delivers not only one of the greatest songs, but one of the greatest performances of his life. For nearly 4 magical, time suspending minutes, the entire album's posturing vanishes, and Prince sings from his heart, and wrings the pain from his soul. His falsetto becomes the sound of emotional purification, as the lyrics work through the bitterness, anger, and raw agony of the final collapse of his marriage. And it isn't just the emotional openness that is so startling, this is an exact, perfectly written song form, a breathtaking display of incredible writing talent, and the fact it's matched such honest intensity, well, our cups overflow. This is the Prince that has given us so much. This is the Prince who has shared so much. Any gripes we may have, melt away, and we can understand ourselves better through the nakedness of his endlessly expressive gifts. Other than Marvin Gaye, Prince is the only person who can take the most vitriolic emotions and turn them not into noise and ugliness, but stirring, hand painted, aching beauty. So, there it is, I have no idea what else to say about this song, it demands listening to, it truly is heartbreaking, capable of moving any open soul to tears, the somber sequel to The One, a tragic conclusion of a relationship. There never could have been a "break-up" or "divorce" album about Prince and Mayte's marriage, because it really is all expressed here, in one song with the depths of conflicted feelings and regrets, certainties and uncertainties, that if he had tried to write any more like this, it very easily could have permanently disrupted his psychic stamina. This may be purely Pyrrhic to Prince, but whatever hell you had to go through to write this song, thank you for turning it into art. You do light the path so that others might see.
Silly Game- Where to go from there? Prince writes this tribute to the Chi-Lites/Stylistics/Delfonics, that easily could have been recorded in any of their respective primes. The chorus doesn't quite stand up, but the melodic structure, the arrangement, and note perfect lush production more than compensates. Silly Game takes the pain of the previous song, and returns to an emotional home where Prince feels more secure and it makes understandable, absolute sense.
Strange But True- And suddenly we have transcended the corporate sell-out album stigma altogether, and we are now three songs in to a dynamic, creative, honest Prince album. Strange But True may be the most confounding thing on this album, with Prince delivering a perfectly preserved piece of Controversey/1999 era synth minimalism, but with lyrics declaring that he has been delivered from his pain, insecurity, and uncertainty, and as his musical ideas spin fascinating grids around his spoken word vocals, the sense that Prince has turned some kind of corner is audibly tangible.
Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do- And the album comes to a close with Prince playing a reassuring mid-tempo ballad, with some beautiful guitar gliding alongside the rest of the arrangement. This melodically resilient song is the perfect way to end such a discursive, sometimes upsetting record, with Prince reminding us how much of a joy his music can be to just listen to and luxuriate within. There were some rough waters but in the end, alls well that ends well, time for bed. But wait...
Segue- A hidden track where Prince tells us in a slowed down, inhumanly deep voice his various website addresses on this album? Why the hell not?
Prettyman- Okay, and we gyrate into the second hidden track where Prince gets into some aggrandizing self love, it's pretty hilarious how over the top he gets, especially with the overheated pronouncement that he smells himself when nobody is looking. Prettyman is way the fuck out there, and makes me wonder whether he was listening to Jon Spencer at the time, as Prince contorts himself a half James Brown parody, half classic funk track, with Maceo Parker along for the ride, and sounding as great as he ever has. I really have no idea what to make of this album now.
PART TWO AND THREE QUARTERS:
THIS REVIEW IS NOT OVER YET, IT SHALL B CONTINUED R…
Notable Songs- I Love U, But I Don't Trust U Anymore, Strange But True, The Greatest Romance Ever Sold
Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic- 2000
Ah, but corporate America’s crinkled chocolate cherry did not taste as sweet as Clive had promised. I'm convinced that a sign of genius is the ability to get real. Another way of putting it would be honest self evaluation. Sure, one gets fake, or falls for temptation of some sort, we're only human after all. Staying fake is the true sin, and as based on decades of evidence, stick around and Prince will ALWAYS get real. What this means in practical terms is, 5 months after the album sank without a trace, Prince took his masters back from the cloven hoofed, fork tongued Arista execs, and re-released a new version of this album directly to his fan club members. So, Prince was again free of the meddling, money-minded middlemen, but how on Earth could he improve such an enervating and anodyne collection of music? The suspense builds!
Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic- A complete remix, the guitar largely replaced by piano, and sped WAY up, with a techno backing, and while this is not perfect, it is a significant improvement.
Undisputed (The Moneyopolis Mix)- Essentially a new song entirely, MUCH funkier, WAY less awkward, the ego buffing has been replaced with more politically nuanced lyrics, and trust me, the wider context does wonders, and while this may not rank with his best, it is a big step in the right direction. Plus, how cool is it that Chuck D and Prince recorded together? PE had famously sampled Let's Go Crazy way back in 1990 on their classic Brothers Gonna Work It Out, and now here they are. These two NEED to make an album together, hey Prince, Chuck, you guys run your own affairs, make this happen, I have a feeling it would be quite the collaboration.
The Greatest Romance Ever Sold (Extended Remix)- Eve is very talented, and I know I blasted her above, but she shines here, starting off this remix, which is more of a rescue mission, as the mix is clearer, no tailoring to radio tastes, and the music has room to breathe. Instead of an arrangement that feels like it was built out of component parts, it now moves and flows. This one is definitive.
Hot Wit U (Nasty Girl Remix)- Another rescue mission, this remix strips everything down to its core, the music largely a collage of bells and noises, and you can actually now hear the wink in Prince's voice, so when Eve's verse comes in, it still isn't great, but it at least makes more thematic sense, feels like some proper give and take, in other words, part of the song, and not just a tacked on rap interruption. Consider this one definitive, too.
Tangerine (Extended Version)- Improves what didnt even need improving, this version is fuller, and features gorgeous guitar playing from the master, which leads us into...
So Far, So Pleased- ...this duet which isn't noticeably different, but the mix feels more open and alive, I guess its all about context, it flows with the other songs better, and what I wrote about before as a meaningless trifle, now becomes a joyride on the weekend with the one you're infatuated with.
The Sun, The Moon And Stars- Another number unchanged, but still feels spacier, and with more bass, the other version now seems murky, and this feels like actual music. Yes, the toasting section still sucks, but in this new context it comes off more like a curiosity than a song wrecker.
Man O' War (Remix)- The first song not to be necessarily improved, this electro arrangement is a little too clever, and undoes some of the elements that work in the original, especially unfortunate is excising of the guitar solo. The new ending however, does give Prince more room to expound and express himself than the structure of the original did, so consider this a qualified success.
Baby Knows (Extended Version)- Umm it still sucks, and now its even longer. I've destroyed this song enough, so at least I'll point out that Every Day Is A Winding Road is gone, so half the Sheryl Crow is GOOD. Plus, it helps air out the stink of Clive. Okay, that's as perky as I can get, boy this song is really, really horrible, just awful, what the hell, Prince? Majour unresolved problem from the original album, it still sits directly before...
I Love U, But I Don't Trust U Anymore- ...what is still the greatest song here, and wow, that transition from the execrable Baby Knows into this is just as bizarre and jarring as ever, but maybe thats the point? Like, going from the fake to the hyper real? Anyway, Prince didnt a change a note of this one, and thank God. You should not tinker with this level of perfection, and have I mentioned how perfect this song is? Oh yes, my review of it is longer than some of the albums. I should also mention Prince sang this song at his absolutely scintillating concert last year at Montreux, and it is a startling performance, as incredible in a totally different setting and arrangement as it is here. I know I gushed about this one up above, but seriously, one more time Prince, I applaud you.
Beautiful Strange- Strange But True is gone, which is a damn shame, especially since it gave some form to the final third of the original album, and in its place, this odd, lurching dirge that exists almost entirely without melody, and features a grinding guitar deconstruction. It's a fascinating artistic decision to have swapped these two, and forced to choose between them, I pick both, sequenced back to back.
Silly Game- Unchanged, still a highlight.
Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do- Unchanged, still a highlight.
Prettyman (Extended Version)- Slightly longer, but otherwise unchanged, and still one hell of bizarre note to go out on. Maceo has a little more room to play, and...
...as Prettyman fades away, the silence grows and from the silence Prince says all he can about the entire Arista corporate experiment gone awry. No, he does not utter a word, instead, you hear the sound of Prince SMASHING A CD. That's it...crash, end of album. Remember when I said Prince gets real? Everything about Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic is about reclaiming himself after temptation nearly lured him away. It's the reality that's worth waiting for, and once again, Prince, I applaud you...I think we all do.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, I will say, that even with this greatly improved revision, this album is still not Prince at his best, but it's creative and worth listening to. One cannot help but feel joy and relief, that the album is not as dire as its first incarnation would indicate. And it goes without saying, one feels joy and relief to not have lost Prince to the world of Puffy guest appearances, Linda Perry co-writes, and auto tuned duets with Akon, Drake, or any other artistic non-entities.
Rave Un2 The Joy Fanastic = seeing your longtime friend date someone who is not only unfriendly but a horrible influence on your friend, who even without that person by their side, becomes an unrecognizable negation of everything you liked about them.
Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic = having your friend unexpectedly dump this offending person, and you spend three hours on the phone catching up, and you are thrilled to learn all the things you disliked, they came to dislike about this person as well. All is right with the universe, and your friend is someone you can talk to and confide in again. All you have to do now is wait for that stupid haircut they had convinced your friend to get, to grow out.
Notable Songs- Undisputed (The Moneyopolis Mix), Beautiful Strange, Prettyman (Extended Version)
The Chocolate Invasion- 2000-2001, released 2004
Prince may have returned from the dark side, but unfortunately, his artistic winter continued. Now, for the back story of this as well as the next release. After prying himself out of Clive Davis' gnarled, clawed hand, Prince was left quite categorically without a record label, and without alot of options for getting his music released. Prince proceeded to start releasing music in any number of different ways, e-mailing mp3s to members of his fan club, as uploads on his website, as well as internet and physical copy singles. All of this activity was supposed to result in an album called High, and for whatever reasons, the album never came to pass, and eventually Prince rounded these various tracks up and put them out as the two mp3 only compilation albums, The Chocolate Invasion, and The Slaughterhouse. Now, let's talk about music. By all appearances, High was another attempt to capture the mainstream, why else would he record piffle like Vavoom which function as Cream's red headed stepchild, entirely redundant lust jams like Sexmesexmenot, or the egregious self advertisement, High? Most of the material pulled together here is solid, but not spectacular, like the interestingly arranged Supercute which veers between jazz melodies, and slinky R&B, the layered instrumental Gamillah, and rueful melancholy of The Dance, which would be re-recorded in superior form a few years later. As for the best material here, When I Lay My Hands On U is one of Prince's strange, intriguing mood pieces, Underneath The Cream is a laid back sleeper of a lovely melody, and another in Prince's long line of great songs about performing oral sex, Judas Smile is a furious hip-hop/noise piece with Prince lashing out at all types of racial and corporate oppression, and the epic closer, U Make My Sun Shine, a gospel duet showcase with Angie Stone is absolutely marvelous. Overall, The Chocolate Invasion is an odd listen, Prince does some interesting things soncially, he is obviously pushing himself as a songwriter, especially on the best songs, and he twists his guitar into some fascinating, bizarre shapes, less sound painting than sound sculpting and bending. Unfortunately, there are too many stretches where the fresh ideas are sparse, and as a cohesive listening experience, the production is bogged down by a thin demo-like quality, which probably has to do with the fact that these really are just mp3 files. There just isn't any way of getting around the fact that The Chocolate Invasion feels like ideas-in-progress, a few revolutions short of reaching optimum impact. Certainly interesting, but not essential.
Notable Songs- U Make My Sun Shine, Underneath The Cream, When I Lay My Hands On U
The Slaughterhouse- 2000-2001, released 2004
The Slaughterhouse is the second round-up of the High-era, late 2000-early 2001 material, and finds the ideas growing sparser, and the inspiration running thinner. This qualifies as Prince's angriest, most defensive, and most overtly political work to date, with Silicon, Peace, and 2045: Radical Man all carrying heavy lyrics full of social criticisms backed with approximations of hip hop rhythmic styles, ranging from Bomb Squad aggressive, to Black Star/Common mellow. Golden Parachute is a stand-out simply for being a barely veiled attack on Clive Davis. The rest of the collection is filled out with desultory drum loop dance tracks, that while still mostly political, stretch the vaguest of musical concepts to attention shattering limits. The notable ideas among these tracks are again, the weirdo shapes Prince's guitar liquifies into for S&M Groove, and the hyperactive horn charts flying over Y Should Do That When Can Do This' pasted together James Brown drum pattern. Otherwise, it's endless, dull laziness like Northside, The Daisy Chain, and the particularly pointless Props N' Pounds, each taking around 6 minutes to go nowhere at all. So, ten tracks at 55 minutes feels interminable, and while there are no songs on The Slaughterhouse that qualify as "great", there was potential here, and this material could have been edited into an interesting, politicized, new, creative set of ideas for Prince to explore. Unfortunately, The Slaughterhouse finds Prince winding up in another artistic cul-de-sac.
Notable Songs- 2045: Radical Man, Golden Parachute, S&M Groove
The Rainbow Children- 2001
The Rainbow Children is easily the most contentious and divisive album Prince has ever made. The album represents his immersion in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, as if he had been heading toward conversion for some time, but now it had fully arrived, and as we all know, a fresh convert is the most didactic. This may all very well be true, but it ignores one simple thing about the work itself, that The Rainbow Children is not art funneled through a pre-existing belief system; rather, it is a form of spiritual expression channeled into art. What that means is, Prince took from multiple strands of mysticism, religion, history, and post millennial tension, and wove together a concept, a new mythology, that whether one agrees with it or not, should not be dismissed out of hand, and is certainly not just a simple parroting of someone else’s beliefs. The Rainbow Children is a rich bouquet of ideas, theories, conspiracies, questions, and possible answers, that is clearly the work of an artist seeking clarity, and using their creative powers to create the alchemy of all the elements informing their new direction. The closest comparison I can make is some sort of hybrid between the “he who is not with me is against me” hellfire and brimstone of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, mixed with the curious literal translation of the New Testament/Hebraic Judaism/Voice Of The Unwashed Labourer in Dylan’s Infidels. Another comparison that should be noted is, while Prince’s spiritual beliefs are no doubt sincere and deeply held, like Muhammad Ali or Malcom X’s embrace of the Nation Of Islam, the conversion (and resultant art) seems to have as much to do with political/societal aesthetics, and expression of personal dignity within those parameters, as it does with Godly devotion. If you haven’t already noticed, this is a concept album, entirely interwoven and cinematic (including deep-voiced computerized narration from Prince), with emphasis less on tightly developed, traditionally structured songs, and instead, creating an aural architecture for Prince and his incredible band to explore vast vistas of all sorts of musical tangents. The Rainbow Children overflows with outstanding music, outstanding arranging, telepathic musical interplay, and incredible stylistic range. They sound like they were recorded as if they were a jazz ensemble, totally live, and able to move from thundering Gospel, to life affirming rock and roll, to seductive laid back grooves, to some of the best funk Prince had recorded in years. That is, until you notice Prince’s ever so subtle, ever so brilliant touches as editor, overdubber, producer, sound painter, and album maker, frame every single second. You could say he took the photograph, then painted over it, emphasizing, and contextualizing as only he can. It also needs to be noted, Prince’s guitar work throughout the album is both wild and free, and tightly disciplined, with a tone that can cut glass and still radiate warmth. Coming so soon after Prince’s artistic winter, it is jarring how quickly with The Rainbow Children, he finds himself in the center of another creative renaissance, capable of pulling off any idea, with absolute ease and confidence. If any album in Prince’s body of work could be called a return-to-form, this would almost qualify, but to be precise, you’d have to call it a return-to-all-new-form.
Notable Songs- Muse 2 The Pharaoh, 1 + 1 + 1 Is 3, Last December
One Nite Alone- 2002
One Nite Alone. Superlatives fail me. If The Rainbow Children declared Prince's artistic winter over, this album, (which incidentally, was recorded while The Rainbow Children was being mixed, how's that for running at full power) makes it seem like a cruel rumour altogether. One Nite Alone (a fan club only release), is billed as "solo piano and voice", but just like The Truth, bass, guitar, harmonized vocals, percussion and especially the elegant synth/electronic atmospherics are skillfully used as sophisticated musical colouring. As a showcase for Prince's voice, One Nite Alone again proves what an inspired and passionate singer he really is, his technical ability never taking precedence over delivering the song, or serving whatever emotions and ideas he wishes to communicate. As a showcase for Princes piano playing, One Nite Alone makes it clear how vastly underrated he is on the instrument, it shows how much he has grown since his piano and voice only b-side How Come U Don't Call me Anymore? recorded in 1982, and once again, though Prince throws in all sorts of imaginative and intriguing asides, his playing never interferes with the song itself. As for the songs, well, they are tremendous. The opening number is the gorgeous title track, and instantly creates a fully developed, nuanced mood that is sustained and enhanced through the album. U're Gonna C Me is the longest song here, a lovely piece about longing, and leads straight into the stunning Here On Earth, a mood piece that only Prince could have conceived of. A cover of Joni Mitchell's A Case Of U comes next, and Prince betters the original with an incredibly alive and sensitive reading. Have A Heart Comes follows, and is the purest melody here, a song that done with a commercial arrangement, and perhaps sung by someone like Alicia Keys, could be an enormous hit. In any case, it is just beautiful. Objects In The Mirror is another beautiful mood piece which gives way to some extended piano work including a reprise of Have A Heart. Avalanche follows, and is one of Prince's greatest songs. A fascinating statement on institutionalized and economic racism written within an absolutely genius metaphor, expertly extended melodic lines, and spellbindingly performed. After a song of such substantial gravity, Pearls B4 The Swine is lighter, melodically bright, though in no way simplistic. Indeed, the lyrics sketch an extended look at the failings of certain relationships, and how an individual can transcend that pain in order to maintain their identity. Young & Beautiful is once again melodically bright, but a sketch of an entirely different type of relationship, and if you aren't smiling by the second verse, you may not be human. One Nite Alone draws to a close with the instrumental Arboretum, an understated, lilting piece, that brilliantly ends with the perfect touch, as the music fades, you hear Prince close the piano, and walk away, followed by a solid minute of silence. An unexpected, though entirely inspired way for Prince to conclude one of his most captivating musical statements.
Notable Songs- Have A Heart, Avalanche, Pearls B4 The Swine
One Nite Alone... Live!- 2002
Praised for decades as a legendary live performer, Prince chose wisely when documenting this One Nite Alone tour for the purposes of releasing his first ever live album. One Nite Alive...Live! is three mammoth discs, and to try and do a song-by-song would be foolish. Simply, this is an overwhelming rush of incredible music, the mix is vivid and clear, with Prince in top form, vocally, totally confident in front of a justifiably adoring crowd, and the band is in absolutely white hot shape, they handle everything these songs require of them, show a preternatural ability to improvise together, and breathe thrilling excitement into Prince's Bob Dylan-like ability to re-arrange his material into adventurous new shapes. Disc One mostly focuses on Rainbow Children material, and it works astonishingly well in concert, with the band sounding bigger than the Grand Canyon. Disc Two is a 17 song whirlwind ride through all eras of Prince music, the piano medley moments are priceless, and everything culminates in what would have to be considered the definitive, ultimate epic reading of Lovesexy's Anna Stesia. Disc Three is a collage of Prince's famous aftershows, and once again, between burning brilliance of Joy In Repetition, and the delirious jam on 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton, by the time a raspy voiced George Clinton (on a side note, think about it, Prince has George Clinton, Maceo Parker, and Larry Graham, all on one stage, that's some Mount Rushmore action) appears for We Do This, he isn't bragging or hyping, he is stating an absolute fact. One Nite Alone...Live! is one of Prince's essential documents, in its own way just as important as Purple Rain, Sign O' The Times, or indeed, The Rainbow Children.
Notable Songs- Xenophobia, Anna Stesia, Joy In Repetition
The first of three jazz albums to be released by Prince in one year, Xpectation reached fans via mp3 on New Years Day, 2003. Two elements make Xpectation a rewarding listening experience. One, Prince composed these pieces, as opposed to just running the tape recorder, and two, like the One Nite Alone live set, the band is absolutely top notch. The stand out among them is guest violinist Vanessa Mae who adds not only intelligent textures, but a second predominant voice to Prince's electric piano parts. Xpectation walks a tightrope between melodic structure, and improvisational exposition, with the musicians able to jump back into the arrangement at a moments notice. The mix is fully realized, giving each player the spotlight they deserve, and Prince even gets his guitar out for some intriguing use of tonal distortion. Xpectation is another of Prince's creative sideroads, and certainly one worth investigating.
Notable Songs- Xhalation, Xpand, Xpedition
Three days after the release of Xpectation, Prince released this, the second of his three jazz albums, via mp3. During the One Nite Alone tour, Prince opened up his soundchecks, and fans could come and listen as he would unveil new and obscure material for them. C-Note features a track each from soundchecks around the globe. Things open with undoubtedly the weakest number from this period, the lame fusion attempt of Copenhagen Soundcheck is held together by the most generic of bass riffs, and the horn charts, record scratches and Prince's synth pitch shifting cannot breathe life into its 13 endless, enervating minutes. Nagoya Soundcheck is an improvement, an uptempo shuffle with interesting trade offs between the horns and Prince's soaring guitar. Osaka Soundcheck takes the mood down, and has a nice exchange of solos between the band members, before Prince tops it off with a mourful, soulful guitar solo. Tokyo Soundcheck has the first (very minimal) Prince vocals on the album, and is another downcast mood piece, with sound effects, burbling synths, and oddly out of place overdriven bass thuds. The highlight of C-Note is a rendition of 80's Vault classic Empty Room, a startlingly austere composition, which gives Prince room to pour out his emotions in the vocals, and especially in the abstract flights he takes on guitar. C-Note may not be the greatest music Prince has released, and is certainly weaker than Xpectation, but once again, it features some highly rewarding musicianship, and takes the listener through a unique presentation of moods and musical ideas.
Notable Songs- Empty Room, Nagoya Soundcheck, Osaka Soundcheck
N.E.W.S. is the final part of the Prince jazz trilogy, and the only one of the albums to receive a proper a release. It is also the most daunting, 4 separate 14 minute suites, and boasts the best production of all three works. The emphasis throughout N.E.W.S., is on atmosphere and concept. North, the opener is the most spacious, while East is the most frenetic, musical ideas coming and going on top of a succession of jittery rhythms. West segues from soul ballad territory into conventional fusion riffs, into an ambient section made interesting by Prince's serrated guitar jags. South leaps from one movement to another, ending in a swirl of orchestral and electronic quietude. Certainly an intriguing album, and one that was obviously given quite alot of care, but this is largely feels like impassive music, which keeps the listener at arms length, while the players run through their paces. N.E.W.S. is the final installment from one of Prince's most experimental, least commercial, least chronicled, and most idiosyncratic musical phases. Following this release, he set his sights again, on courting the masses.
Notable Songs- East, West, South
2004 saw Prince being lauded for the 20th anniversary of Purple Rain, being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and of course his, attention getting, Vegas-esque performance with Beyonce at the Grammys. In this period, Prince did more press and made more television appearances than he had in years. His stadium dominating greatest hits tour only built his profile higher. Into this milieu, Prince released his new album, Musicology. The album was put out through a distribution deal with Columbia Records, and having learned his lesson from the Arista debacle, Prince made Musicology completely on his own terms. That means, no guest stars, no radio pandering, no rap interruptions, and no MOR cover songs. Musicology is interesting to compare to Rave in that while it certainly does not hit that album's lows, there is nothing on it that is nearly as transcendent as I Love U, But I Don't Trust U Anymore. However, the more accurate way to give a short hand sketch of Musicology would be to look at his other mainstream move, and call it Diamonds And Pearls without the majour hits. Yet Musicology is overall, much more artistically successful than either Rave or Diamonds, especially since while Diamonds felt calculated, and Rave felt dumbed down, Musicology feels like an artist reclaiming what should always have been his. Like Prince's other attempts at wooing the big room, this album has no overriding theme or musical style, and instead, it shows Prince being all things to all people. The title track leads things off, and while it is clever and engaging, it is also a tepid re-working of James Brown's Hot Pants, and isn't nearly as full of funk as it would lead the listener believe. Life 'O' The Party and On The Couch are as pro forma assembly line as it gets, in "party jam" and "seductive ballad" forms, respectively. The lowest points of the album come come in the second half, with the innocuous smooth jazz bubble-bath What Do U Want Me 2 Do?, followed by The Marrying Kind/If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life cojoined twins, songs with so little to say, and with arrangements so bloated and overwrought, you'd swear they were a lesser out-takes from the Love Symbol album. Nothing here is disastrous, of course, but this is hardly the kind of music that will grab the attention of the ever fickle public, especially those with memories of Little Red Corvette they still havent gotten over. The album's best material comes with A Million Days, which is a mid-tempo rock track from the Dolphin school, though the anguish is certainly tangible, and the playing is superb. Cinnamon Girl is slightly lessened by a weak chorus, but the rest of the song is unequivocally great, and deserves to considered a minor classic. Indeed, Cinnamon Girl's thoughtful, empathic lyrics, may very well mark it as the strongest song to tackle the cultural fall-out of the Iraq War. Musicology peaks high at its end with the tough, tightly controlled funk of Dear Mr Man, another broadside political critique, which quickly transitions away into the wistful closer Reflection, a wonderfully written song, that really delves into its concept by sounding almost like the best song not on For You, and its lyrics not only paint an indelible portrait of the time Prince is being ambivalently nostalgic for, it also provides revealing insight into the writer's current frame of mind. Reflection also brings some thematic sense to an album ostensibly about resurrecting "the old school" musical principles of James, Sly, Jimi, Stevie, Marvin, and Curtis, by taking us back to Prince's beginnings, and showing us how far he had traveled. Musicology proves that Prince had long ago joined the fabled pantheon, and as he had sung a few years before, his only competition was now himself, in the past. This album may not show us anything we didn't already know he could do, or of course, he hadn't already done better before, but that's not the point. Who else, 26 years after their debut could create an album this steeped in such self-created songwriting/arranging/stylistic nous and win over yet another entirely new audience? Well, it's a pretty short list, and that's one of the many things that re-confirms the genius Prince is, even though to anyone paying attention, it didnt really need any reconfirmation at all.
Notable Songs- Cinnamon Girl, Dear Mr Man, Reflection
Straight away, 3121 is an enormously frustrating album in that it's simultaneously better and worse than Musicology. What makes it better? Well, if Musicology was a Walls And Bridges-like semi-return to popular form using craftsmanship over inspiration, 3121 shows Prince writing much stronger material, more confident in its presentation, willing to take audacious chances, and operate on the energy that made him great in the first place. What makes it worse? Let's take a more roundabout approach to that one. 3121 is divided into 3 sections, each featuring a ballad that doesnt quite match its surroundings. The album is frontloaded with an incredibly powerful opening quartet of songs, kicking off with the futuristic electro-bizarro funhouse mirror title track, which cuts into the energetic, memorable synth wash of Lolita, followed by the elegant, soulful ballad Te Amo Corazon, and comes back up for the skeletal, clattering electro-bizarro single, Black Sweat. Before we can get too excited, the album swings into its second third, with the sleep inducing Incense And Candles. Love brings the pace back up to fully awake levels, but unfortunately, Love is an amazing song (especially that fantastic chorus) trapped within an overly busy arrangement. The inverse is true of Fury, a nondescript song, wrapped up in a fantastic arrangement, and made remarkable by some of Prince's fiercest and most free guitar playing. The ballad Satisfied rounds out this section of the album, and unfortunately is a Prince-by-numbers-seduction-ballad that sounds so much like Musicology's On The Couch, it very well may be. 3121 then leaps off into its final third, a Jehovah's Witness recruitment suite punctuated by a re-recording of The Dance. While this version is superior to its former incarnation, Prince does slightly overstuff the arrangement and production, though fortunately his truly anguished screams overcome any tacked-on weaknesses. As for the JW action, The Word features nice, subtle interplay between acoustic guitar and saxophone, but the whole piece may be a shade too subtle, as it doesnt impart the feelings of inspiration and engagement being expressed. Prince largely hands the next number, Beautiful, Loved And Blessed over to his protege of the time, Tamar, who has a pleasant but completely nondescript voice to match a song that could be described in the exact same way. 3121 comes to a conclusion with the funk jam Get On The Boat, with Maceo playing beautifully, and for the first time on this album, the religious zeal comes through with passion and genuine enthusiasm. So, as you can see, there is much to celebrate about this album, with Prince again taking the reigns and asserting his greatness. There is also much to be frustrated and dismayed at, in that Prince also seems intent on plowing ahead into the same artistic blind spots that started developing in the early 90's. So, a final summation of this album? Stick with the great songs, and you have another display of the artist dazzling you with his fearlessness and invention. Stick with the mediocre songs (there is nothing outright bad to be found here), and you have signs of atrophied ideas, and questionable editorial skills. Chances are you'll be as divided as most Prince fans are, around this, the second installment of his commercial comeback.
Notable Songs- 3121, Get On The Boat, Te Amo Corazon
Planet Earth- 2007
The third and final of Prince's headline grabbing comeback albums, Planet Earth is a brilliant statement of purpose, and simply, a start-to-finish fantastic collection of music . What are the albums' defining strengths? Uniformly great songwriting/arranging/production/performances, in other words, a true celebration of everything the man can do. The epic title track leads things off, with thoughtful lyrics, brilliant post-Hendrix guitar, and is a great display of Prince's arranging mastery. Lead single Guitar comes next, a cop of the U2 I WIll Follow riff, and the attitude of Jimi's Crosstown Traffic, done up in charismatic Prince style, and yes, the guitar is great on it. One of my little theories is that Prince openly copped U2 as a way of saying, "I can do what you do, but you cannot do what I do". And aint that the truth! Somehwere Here On Earth is a staggeringly beautiful ballad, and by far the best Chi-Lites/Stylistics/Delfonics tribute he's written yet, this song and recording is one of the best things in the man's entire body of work. The lyrics delightfully break the expertly established mood of old school authenticity (it's more like time travel, it's so perfectly realized), with the brilliant "In this digital age/U could just page me/I know it's a rage/but it just don't engage me/I like the face to face". It's moments and juxtapositions like this that make Prince's oeuvre such a joy to go through. Chelsea Rodgers is one of Prince's most authoritative funk statements, a stomping, moving wonder. Planet Earth also finds Prince writing melodically strong, psychedelic influenced rock songs like The One U Wanna C, All The Midnights In The World, and the beautiful closer Resolution, an anti-war piece which ends the album where we started off. Is Planet Earth a voyage into the unknown? No. It is however, extremely creative, and invites the listener back again and again.
Notable Songs- Somewhere Here On Earth, Chelsea Rodgers, The One U Wanna C
Indigo Nights- 2008
Indigo Nights is the live album accompanying the coffee table picture book, 21 Nights, a chronicle of Prince's historic run of shows at London's O2 in 2007. Though obviously not the comprehensive whirlwind experience of One Nite Alone...Live, Indigo Nights is a rewarding listen, with Prince in wonderful, humorous form, and extremely generous in sharing the spotlight with his incredible band. The emphasis is not on performing the songs so much as it is about deconstructing the song-forms, and hot wiring the grooves, in order to ride them till everyone gives out. To accompany this musical train of thought, Prince unleashes some incredible son-of-Hendrix guitar runs that never fail to amaze (especially the combination of The One/The Question Of U). Plus, remember in the 3121 review where I ripped on the ballad Satisfied? Well, colour me wrong, because here, Prince turns it into a totally convincing and delirious come-on, and seduces the entire audience in the process. Instead of a pro forma live album, Prince has given us another unique musical experience, where he runs his and his bands talents together, and it all coalesces in a rousing good time. The collage of ecstatic fan responses at the end of the disc, would appear to be the only reasonable response.
Notable Songs- Satisfied, Alphabet St, All the Critics Love U in London
Elixer (Bria Valente)- 2009
Zzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzz. Hmmph. Ummmm, five more minutes, okay? What? Umm, ok, ok. One second...hello there, I just got done listening to the debut album by Prince's latest protege, Bria Valente. Her album is titled Elixer, and is the first of three albums that came with the purchase of Prince's Lotusflow3r set. Prince of course, wrote, produced and played the majority of the instruments on the album. Okay, I'll level with you, I don't have much to say about Elixer, and certainly don't feel like going through it song by song, or even noting highlights and lowlights. Let's just say that not since the Beach Boys' Friends album, has a body of songs worked so well as a giant musical Ambien. Elixer, not only nods you off, it puts on your comfiest pjs, fluffs your pillow, tucks you in, coos soft lullabies, and has warm milk at the ready, in case you wake up. If looked at from this perspective, the album is a triumph of sustained mood and tone. Elixer's songs are largely well written- but not great (with the exception of Tamar-era holdover Kept Woman, the really only egregious thing here), basically pleasant, and professional. The 3D production is quietly inventive, but unfortunately, exists solely in service to Bria's voice which is competent, and fits the material like a pair of slippers made of satin, velvet, and whipped cream, but is also curiously inexpressive and emotionally flat, and based on her performances here, she certainly doesn't have the personality or range to carry off an entire album. Especially one which has her front and center from the delicate beginnings, all the way to the ending numbers for which the term "quiet storm" is far too raucous. If Prince had written more energetic grooves for her, instead of whipping up a smooth jazz/smooth r&b/smooth ballad/umm smooth adult contemporary/smooth elevator musical pudding/singer's showcase, and simply submerged her voice as just another bleating instrument, maybe the album would pull off its late night sweet nothings, playfully sexual celebration-of-love vibe. That's why 2Nite works better than most everything here. It's not great, but it's more involved than song after song of how pleasant and satisfied Bria is with her love life, and how largely enjoyable a night of intercourse is with the man in her committed relationship. She even almost breaks with the concept entirely when asking to her have her hair pulled (!), but then reassures us, she only wants it pulled gently. Ahh, thats better. I almost had my slumber jostled by an expression of wanton carnality. Okay, this review has gone on long enough, you get the point.
Notable Songs- 2Nite, Home, Something U Already Know
The second part of the Lotusflow3r set is obviously, this album itself. Lotusflow3r is absolutely one of Prince's greatest albums, and certainly among the best of his most recent works. The album is primarily based around recordings made with Prince as the leader of a power trio with the incredible Sonny T/Michael B rhythm section, though Prince certainly mixes in other lineups and instrumentation, making this a far reaching, aesthetically complete listening experience. One can hear this album as an extremely well thought out collection of songs, or a series of searing jams, but what really sets Lotusflow3r into its own dimension is the fact that with this album, Prince, the sound painter of his time, lest we forget, has found himself a new set of brushes, as Prince takes the dreaded modern technology of Pro Tools and Auto-Tune, and uses them entirely to his own ends, creating a warped, winding, multi-coloured sonic topography, which is a joy to explore. The album begins with the psychedelic instrumental From The Lotus... which leads into the even more psychedelic Boom. A cover of Crimson And Clover (with an interpolation of Hendrix's version of Wild Thing thrown in for good measure) works extremely well in this context. The album then changes shape with the beautiful ballad 4ever. Colonized Mind comes next, and on top of the bizarro sonic shapes, and continued guitar brilliance, Prince delivers one of his greatest and most well thought out songs. After getting extremely serious with Colonized Mind, Prince changes tone but not intention with Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful, an uptempo song with great horns, that makes it easy to overlook that as with the previous song, Prince is addressing some fascinating lyrical topics. We then move into a mini suite with the delightfully low key Love Like Jazz which segues into the atmospheric instrumental 77 Beverly Park. The next song, Wall Of Berlin, is perhaps the weakest overall writing on the album, but stick with it, because the band soon abandons the song and jumps in to a fleeting race of exciting, telepathic musical merriment. $ continues the energized mood, with this wry number, and after the revelry fades away, Lotusflow3r takes it home with the Jimi/Martin Luther King Jr-referencing Dreamer, which works both as a lyrical cousin to Colonized Mind, and as a passionate display of guitar/power trio brilliance. Dreamer eventually becomes of a piece with the bookending instrumental Back 2 The Lotus, which tops its opener as Prince not only goes wild with his guitar adventures, but plays sonic adventurer, bending, and altering the sound until the final waves of sound come to a purring close. Lotusflow3r finds Prince playing to any number of his many strengths, but what makes this album so dazzling and impressive is the degree to which he refuses to rest on his laurels. The other incredible thing is how Prince manages to create and sustain such a unique vibe and aural environment while taking the listener through so many contrasting moods and ideas. Lotusflow3r finds the man at yet another creative peak.
Notable Songs- Colonized Mind, Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful, Dreamer
The Lotusflow3r set winds its way down, with this, the third and final album included. MPLSound is as rife with tedium and weaknesses, as Lotusflow3r is overloaded with inspiration and intrigue. The most interesting aspects of this album are Prince as one man band, doing Linn drum programming, and once again using the Auto-Tune/Pro-Tools production technology to create a kaleidoscopic sonic landscape. Where the album really falls down is in the songwriting, and in the pacing/sequencing. So, here we go...MPLSound opens with three Parade style dance numbers, opener (There'll Never B) Another Like Me sets the tone, and while the song isnt great, it is fun, and Prince's musicality/production is certainly worth hearing. Chocolate Box follows, and features a guest cameo from Q-Tip, who almost slips by without anyone noticing, his voice being oddly Prince-like, here. The best of these three is Dance 4 Me, a genuinely libidinous piece that works because, guess what, its the strongest overall song. You could take Dance 4 Me and make it a tango, a waltz, a ballad, and it would still work. Anyway, the dance party vanishes as a weak re-recording of One Nite Alone's U're Gonna C Me, plods out. All the best elements of the song have been weighed down by gloppy, glucosey production, and though Here finds a little more breathing room, it still takes 5 minutes to go sap up any energy still lingering from the openers. The not very good at all Valentina is up next, a listless mid-tempo lust letter about Salma Hayek, puzzlingly addressed to her infant daughter (!?), which trust me, is the only interesting thing about the song. Better With Time is another 5 minute sugary goo ballad, better than the others on this album, but not by much. After the good but not great opening, and seriously underwhelming middle, Prince attempts a big finale, but unfortunately, the seven and half minutes of Ol' Skool Company wastes its interesting subject matter and few good musical ideas on a limp arrangement that all but dissipates in your ears as you listen. That leaves closer No More Candy 4 U as not only the album's strongest song, but its most energetic, and best attempt to make a good impression on the listener, just before the things wrap up. No More Candy 4 U is a Horny Toad/Jack U Off style number and gives Prince a showcase to run through any number of ideas that pop through his head, lending a much needed sense of abandon and fun, to one of his most mannered outings. So, the entire Lotusflow3r experience is certainly a frustrating one, with Prince either at his most inventive, or his most ordinary. MPLSound certainly has interesting production, and something of a sustained mood, but this is one of those times where it is hard to argue with Prince's critics, that he needs to edit himself a bit more judiciously.
Notable Songs- Dance 4 Me, No More Candy 4 U, Chocolate Box
2 B Continued