This was a celebration of Prince that was originally published on Generation Bass on 5th October 2014.
A Musical Legend
Prince is the greatest living artist alive today, a musical genius and a legend of epic & enigmatic proportions.
He began his career as far back as 1975 and hit the heady heights during the 1980’s as one of the most essential artists there ever was. In the 80’s he was side by side with Michael Jackson and Madonna who also made their greatest marks during that decade. They were the Holy Trinity during that decade but Prince was something different, something special, something unique, something of the like we had never encountered before.
Unlike MJ & Madonna however, Prince played all of his own instruments, wrote all his own songs, he wrote songs for others too, produced his own albums, had a wider sound and explored multiple genres. He could be Rock God one minute, Funk Master the next, Soul legend one moment and Pop Impressario the moment after. He could dance and sing better than both of them and he was cooler too! In the 80’s Prince ruled the Universe!
When I thought about talking about his 2 new releases, I was at great pains to decide which approach to take. Do I stay totally objective and put aside my Prince obsession and not listen to the albums as a Prince obsessive but as an objective listener or do I write with a deep bias in favour of him as one of my all time favourite artists. I decided that I had to try to merge both approaches as I had to be honest with you and also with myself.
Dilemmas & Comfort Zones
So why the dilemma?
Well, it’s because Prince has not really recaptured the essence of the the kind that he exhibited throughout the 1980’s. After the 80’s he has delivered and it’s been a delivery of great quality but it’s been predictable and unsurprising albeit, it has been very welcomed and appreciated.
I think the problem, if there is one, and clearly I feel there is a bit of a one, is that whilst Prince has continued to make great music since the 80’s to present date, he’s been kind of stuck in the same groove and not being stuck in the same groove is what distinguished him and set him apart in the 1980’s. He has been stuck in his own comfort zone for far too long!
In the 1980’s Prince “innovated”, he surprised, he created new fusions, he was unpredictable, he was unclassifiable, he wowed and he blew our minds. He stopped doing that though and slipped into his own comfort zone. He still makes great music, his albums are still essential, he is still greatly appreciated and it is always a great joy when he brings out new work but he has stopped blowing our minds and he has stopped being innovative. His “unpredictability” was part of what blew our minds.
Paisley Park in the 80’s
On 1999, the album that defined him as an intriguing and innovative artist, he was inspired by the New Wave/Romantic sounds of the UK and he blended this inspiration with Kraftwerk-like Electronica and fused it with Funk, Rock and Gospel. He created a new cocktail of sounds that we had not experienced before and he had one foot firmly in the Dance camp too. It was fresh, new, surprising and it blew our minds.
He continued this with his Rock innovations on Purple Rain. A black American artist that appealed to a white commercial audience of the world whilst retaining a black underground following. Michael Jackson, for one, tried to emulate this later in his career. He had a black & white sound. His band had a Transnational and multi-gender look. He transcended colour & gender! He innovated by making one of the greatest rock movies ever known and one of the greatest soundtracks to boot. He looked different and sounded different. He even had the audacity to create a classic track without a hint of any bass (When Doves Cry) and that sounded like something you had never heard before. It was “Cutting-Edge”!!!
On Around the World in a Day, he continued the “experimentation” and surprised us even further when he delved in the sound of 60’s psychedelica, taking inspiration from the Beatles and the Hippy movement to create a utopian world that invited you into its universe. Once again, it was surprising; a departure from all that he had done previously. It was not a commercial success like the previous work but it still amazed you, hypnotized you and it made you wonder what on earth he would do next! You had no idea where he would go next. He kept you guessing!
Parade was a soundtrack to another one of his movies and although it did not live up to the expectations and calibre of Purple Rain, the soundtrack was killer. Here he “experimented” with minimalist avant-garde funk grooves, created pop classics like “Kiss”. He demonstrated that he could write heart-breaking rock ballads like “Sometimes It Snows In April” and he surprised us all once again!
Sign of the Times was an amalgamation of all these previous experimentations, where he honed and perfected the “Art” of the Prince sound. He developed a relevant, mature and insightful social commentary on the state of the world He created yet more mysteries and enigmas about himself and the music he created. Once again he astounded us with the unexpected.
The Black Album, one of my favourite albums, showed us his darker side but once again, it was a revelation, a surprise, unexpected! I mean who expected ever to hear anything quite like “Bob George”! Who expected Prince to embrace Hip Hop! Who expected him to shelve the album at the very last minute!
“Cutting-Edge” is what set Prince aside from the rest. That surprise and not knowing what he would do next. The experimentations with different sounds and styles that he fused all together to create something brand new, fresh, unique, unexpected, brilliant and cutting-edge.
That is what has been lost since the 1980’s. Prince has not lost any of his talent or magic but he has become predictable. He has limited himself within the confines of Western genres. Indeed, I feel that he has exhausted the Rock, Funk, Soul, Gospel and Dance cannon of predominantly Western sounds. He did it all in the 1980’s and after that he re-worked the same grooves, the same styles, albeit in new forms and in the shape of new songs but all of which sounded like extensions of things that he had previously done before.
I want, once again, to be wowed by Prince. I want, once again, not to know what is coming next. I want, once again, to be mind blown by innovative & cutting-edge creations. I want, once again, to feel that I don’t really know Prince at all. I want, once again, to be kept guessing!
Secretly, with these new albums, I was hoping that Prince would soak in some Transnational flava’s as opposed to staying Multi-National or Pro-Western and covering the same old Rock, Pop, Gospel, Blues, R&B, Funk and Soul grounds. That didn’t happen and so I was initially a little disappointed because I’d love to hear Prince put his own trademark on styles from Africa, South America, the East & Middle East and other parts of the world.
He has flirted with Transnational sounds in the past. The title track of “Around the World in a Day” and “The Cross” flirted with Indian sounds.
Just imagine for a second, him tackling more of that in the form of African Funk a la Fela Kuti style or broaching Saharan Blues like, or even with, Tinariwen. Imagine him putting some Tarraxo, Fodencia, Tarraxinha and Kuduro beats into his glorious soundscapes or even dabbling in some Afro House or Baile Funk, Reggaeton, Dancehall, Arabic Pop or even Chaabi. What if Prince tried experimenting with more Transnational Roots genres!!!
It would be educational for the world and Prince would be stretching himself further into the realms of unfamiliar musical territory and once again, regaining his legend. This could be exciting and a re-birth. One can only dream. I see this as one way forward for him to recapture that excitement of not knowing, of not being able to predict, of being wowed again. It would be sensational, fresh and new as Prince only does things in a completely unique way and I’m quite sure he could pull it off. Here’s to dreaming that one day that might just happen!
Saying all of that, any new Prince release will always be something exciting, something to look forward to, something that will guarantee quality and musical superiority, something that will always be appreciated by Prince followers and something we’ll always be grateful for. Something that will always be a gift as these 2 new albums are!
ART OFFICAL AGE
Prince’s solo effort which is probably one of his finest albums since Musicology, Rainbow Children and 20Ten.
Art Official Cage
If you judge the albums on the opening track from his solo album then that would be a huge mistake because it’s the weakest track on both albums. A far more worthy and appropriate opener might have been Funk N Roll and so sequencing really needed some tweaking here. This opener track should have been relegated towards the middle somewhere or maybe even left out altogether.
This track starts out sounding like Euro House but this is supposed to be a Prince album and the first track doesn’t fill me with great confidence for the rest of the album. My heart kind of sinks. It doesn’t get any better as the track progresses with the “Woo’s” and the pretty mediocre rap half-way thru and then that dubsteppy break.
But there are some good things about the track, Prince’s vox and guitar stabs here and there and the way it ends. This track albeit sounding pretty current right now lacks timelessness and it will date in no time at all. Not the greatest start and the only dud track on both releases!
”Clouds” partially restores my faith in Prince and confirms that the first track could have just been a blip of momentary and misjudged madness. However, Prince is entitled to try new things even though they might not work out and so all is forgiven. The “Classic” Prince is back on Clouds with his funky best. That girl with the English accent, who happens to be Lianne La Havas is pretty sexy too, well at least on a Prince record she is.
“Breakdown” is one of the best things Prince has done for some time. I adore this track, it’s simply heartbreaking. Great melody, beautiful lyrics, exceptional falsetto by the main man and a classic in the making! That bass still sounds a little muffled though and I’m not sure why that is. One of the highlights nevertheless!
The Gold Standard
“The Gold Standard” starts in classic Black Album mould, percolating electro-funk style and I’m funkin’ babeeee! This track doesn’t break any new ground but travels some well trodden ground from the past Prince catalogue of Controversy (wild & rude); Black Album and the 1999 era. It’s a welcome return to that kind of vibe. Even Bob (ain’t that a bitch) George vox make a welcome return too on this track! All in all pretty FunkTastic is you’re a Prince-ite!
“U Know” is just some downright sexy biznizz. That piano loop reminds me of Erik Satie strangely enough. The melancholia of the piano chord is somehow transformed into something pretty erotic though, after all this is PRINCE! In actual fact that piano loop is a sample from a track called “Blinded” by Mila J. which also includes that sexy female “uh” that really seals this track and steals the show. This is a return to some of the best moments of his long and illustrious career of mainly highs and very, very few lows. In spite of what the critics say, there is no bad Prince album or song!
Breakfast Can Wait
You should already be familiar with “Breakfast Can Wait” as it came out a while back as a single with that hilarious David Chapelle cover. This is Prince on top Funk form with a killer bassline and glorious vocal harmonies and a real club flava to murder it on the dance floor. That high-pitched squeaky Prince party piece makes a welcome return too.
This Could Be Us
Prince asks us if we’re ready on “This Could Be Us”, another ballad in the purple vein with a slightly early 80’s American soap feel punctuated by modern spacey atmospherics. It’s a track inspired by a meme of him and Apollonia riding on a motorcycle from Purple Rain. This fits in perfectly with the slew of ballads like “Slow Love” and “When 2 R in Love”.
So 7 tracks in and the only dud thus far was the album opener, not bad at all considering most albums are usually the other way around, more duds than decent tracks but not with Prince, quality is always assured as it’s beginning to show!
What it Feels Like
“What It Feels Like” sounds like it could have come from “Around the World in A Day” with its slightly psychedelic “Pop Life” vibe. But it’s more than psychedelic, it’s damn funky too. Those female backing vox bring back memories of Wendy & Lisa from The Revolution, one of Prince’s best ever bands. In fact the track is a duet between Prince and Andy Allo, Prince’s former guitarist with the NPG. Pure gorgeousness embodied within a few minutes of glorious Post Psy-Funk Cinematics. The album is really coming alive and it sounds like Prince is alive and enjoying his mini-renaissance.
Affirmation I & II
“Affirmation I & II” bring back that sexy English accent courtesy of London’s Lianne La Havas and provide us with, well, affirmations such as “there are no such words as me or mine”!
Way Back Home
“Way Back Home” is the killer track on the album for me. It features another London lass, in addition to Lianne, Delilah adds backing vocals to this perfect track! This is why I have loved Prince for most of my life and why I have never ever lost faith in his genius because he makes music like this. Music that reaches your heart and makes you feel on top of the world and make you want to cry tears of joy. Prince says he is the happiest when he can see his way back home, well I’m happiest when Prince is making music like this again! Easily up there with Prince’s best ever tracks. This is Godly! On constant loop!
Funk N Roll
Funk N Roll starts with an almighty fanfare of guitars and that infamous wild Prince scream before descending into Twerk territory with a bad ass riddim as Prince commands you to Funk N Roll. A really contemporary sounding track that might just light up the dance floors worldwide.
“Time” is another soulful funk ballad in the same form as “Ballad of Dorothy Parker”; it sort of meanders and becomes progressively hypnotic and trance like. Simply, beautiful!
“Affirmation III” is another highlight for me as it is essentially the orchestral version of “Way Back Home” as it contains the same guitar loops, vox and melodies but with the addition of a great orchestral sweep. Lianne is back asking the real Prince, “Mr Nelson”, how he’s feeling about the transformation into his new life. A great way to end the album as it makes you want to listen to the album all over again. And, naturally, you do immediately hit repeat!
This album sees Prince fronting his new band 3rd Eye Girl with the USA’s Hannah Ford Welton on Drums, whose husband Joshua Welton produced “Art Official Age” and so bit of a family affair here.
We have Canada’s Donna Grantis on guitar and Denmark’s Ida Nielsen on Bass. This is the same band who recently accompanied Prince on some of the best live shows we’ve ever experienced when he did his Hit & Run tour and lighted up the world’s stages reinforcing the claim that he is still the greatest showman on earth.
This band is great too:
Hannah could be quite a match for all the great rock drummers. Bonzo et al.
Donna is like a re-born Hendrix.
Ida is sultry and could quite easily give Bootsy a run for his money!
Prince has certainly surrounded himself with some of the best musicians on earth and it’s an exciting time again.
“Wow” starts the album and indeed it begins in pretty spectacular WoW! fashion. Sounding like something that the Black Crowes might have done during their hey-day but better, this is a brilliant opening and Prince sounds so damn fine in Rock voice! The band is tight and the sound & production is perfect!
Moving on next to “Pretzelbodylogic” which begins with an acapella from the girls and man those girls can play! An AC/DC sounding riff kicks in and mayhem ensues. Prince is in fine voice recalling “Dance On” from Lovesexxy!
“Ainturninaround” actually reminds me of my fave Canadian prog rockers Rush combined with Black Sabbath riffs. Hannah, the brilliant and gorgeous drummer takes the lead vocals and she’s got a great voice too in addition to being a kick-ass drummer. She does in places replicate a kind of Geddy Lee vibe in her voice. That Rush connection is further reinforced with the pitched down voice towards the end that sounds like that mad computer voice at the end of 2112 “Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation. We have assumed control”!
The next track up is the title track and an edited version of this is the one that introduced us all to this new Prince project about 2 years ago when that video of the band jamming in the studio was despatched and excited the hell out of everybody. This is the band taking inspiration from Led Zeppelin and inevitable song comparisons rise with Zeppelin’s “The Ocean”. This is a band who knows how to rock the shit out of the entire universe and that Hendrixesque talking guitar part in the middle is just pure bliss! This is how rock bands ought to sound!
At this juncture, thoughts start racing through my mind like “wouldn’t it have been great if Prince would have got a guest vocal from Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes!!!”
“Whitecaps” is up next and starts in a 70’s Santana mode with the spiritual/mystical sounding crashing symbols. Hannah takes lead vocals again and boy she sounds like Joni Mitchell on this track. That bass still reminds me of the best of Geddy Lee & Rush. A really beautiful song!
“Fixurlifeup” is another track that’s been out for a while and that intro always reminds me of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” but thankfully it doesn’t stay sounding like it as Prince’s voice bobbles over a great bassline and the girls join in on backing vox. The bridge in the middle gives Prince a chance to resurrect his “Controversy” days when he tells us
“Don’t worry about what the crowd does
Just worry about being good at what you love
Don’t make this complicated
You know it’s true
Don’t make us put somebody else in for you”
“Boytrouble” is the funky track on the album. It features a lead rap by Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo and someone called Sophia Eris. It’s a cool break from the more rock oriented stuff demonstrating that this band can funk it up there with the best.
“Stopthistrain” shares hues with that awesome and vastly underrated Prince B-side “Girl”. It has Prince resuming vocal duties but with Hannah taking the lead. Not only is she gorgeous and a great drummer but she also has a great voice. She can turn from being a Rock Goddess into a sensitive bohemian type to an R&B sensation. Another gorgeous track and the diversity of this band are on full show now.
“Anotherlove” has Prince back on lead vocals and it’s easily a track that would not have seemed out of place on the brilliant Musicology album. It’s catchy and the chorus is sublime! It’s the only track on the album though that he wasn’t involved in writing as it’s been adapted from a track by Alice Smith of the same title. The Prince adaptation is far superior though as he turns it into a blues based cry-a-thon!
“Tictatoe” is a really feel good track in the same way that “I Wish You Heaven” was a sublime piece of pop-heaven. There are shades of that track and also the utopian lyricism of “Paisley Park”. This one makes my heart feel alive and gushy!
“Marz” is the shortest track on the album coming in at 1:48. It’s the most Punk-ish track on the album too starting off like a Sex Pistols track. But Prince is a far superior vocal talent to Johnny Rotten, even in Punk-ish mode! This is a track that sounds like The Sex Pistols being able to play their instruments properly!
Funk N Roll
The album ends with an alternate version of “FunkNRoll”. I much prefer the version on Art Official Age. The version on this album treads the “Delirious” and “No More Candy” sound but it is a fitting finale!
Why was this track not included on the album? It really beggars belief because it is an astounding track.
2 Great Albums
All in all then 2 of the best & essential albums you’re likely to hear this year. They get better with each new listen and they’re the kind of albums that will grow old gracefully. Even though Prince stuck to the same grooves, he managed to pull it off with aplomb as these 2 albums are probably his most cohesive and consistent work for quite some time.
A Plea to Prince
This is my plea to you Prince, please experiment once again!
Prince rarely disappoints but after the 80’s he rarely does anything totally unexpected anymore!
Prince, emancipate yourself from the shackles that keep you locked to the same groove, break away and experiment and be cutting-edge once again. Keep your audience guessing and keep them riveted to their seats! It could be just like it use to be in the 1980’s when you once ruled the world!
BTW, Prince, you still rule my world!