Prince of sharpness
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Prince is back and looking to reclaim his throne as the king of rock and soul. It’s been four years since his last album, the disappointing 20Ten, but just last week he broke the longest silence of his career by releasing two new albums on the same day. Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum, by Prince & 3rdEyeGirl. They are his strongest work in nearly a decade.
Of the two, the lavish nu-soul on Art Official Age marks it clearly as the more serious contender for heavyweight status. The bluesier PlectrumElectrum feels more like a bonus disc for completists. Nevertheless there are some fantastic treats on the latter and together both albums give a broad picture of Prince’s triple-threat skills of writer, performer and producer. As I said, he wants to be the king of rock and soul or, as the outstanding song common to both albums would have it, “Funknroll”.
I’ll start with the Art Official Age album. The almost-title track, “Art Official Cage”, opens the record flamboyantly. Its bubbly rhythm is a happy reminder of Prince’s effervescent early -’80s grooves, retooled and refreshed with au courant production. His opening words seem to acknowledge it, too: “Welcome home, class – you’ve come a long way.” There are strong hints of George Clinton on this track, and elsewhere on the album, but that’s only natural: Clinton’s DNA is inextricably bound into funk history. The same goes for Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, whose musical genes are also found everywhere in Prince’s work. The song nimbly twists and turns through a variety of musical textures, always keeping a firm grip on funk. The finale is a rhythm-confounding set piece but somehow it works.
This album’s next two tracks, “Clouds” and “Breakdown”, are when things start getting really seriously good. The former’s slinky soulfulness is effortless and playful while the poignant “Breakdown” shows off his astonishing vocal chops. It is also an early candidate for “Prince classic”. Before it, “Clouds” introduces one of the album’s Prince-y conceits: a female narrator who intermittently plays the role of Prince’s spiritual guide, sent to familiarise him with this strange “art official” world in which he’s landed. It wouldn’t be a Prince album if there weren’t a touch of lunacy somewhere. Again, I see this as a tip of the hat to the legendary concept albums made by funk pioneers Parliament.
The other album, PlectrumElectrum begins with a bang, too: the anthemic “Wow”. This song was originally called “The Unexpected”, and Prince wrote it as the title track for the second album of one of his latest musical protégés and New Power Generation vocalist, Liv Warfield. It has to be said that Prince’s version of the song is the more accomplished of the two – but what would you expect? His skills as a performer and arranger are peerless. The same goes for “AnotherLove”, which is another of this album’s high points. It was first written and recorded by Brooklyn singer Alice Smith on her album from last year, She. Prince has added his own lyrics and spin to the song, completely rewriting the chords and giving the song a richer harmonic texture while still preserving the core of Smith’s composition. Comparing the two versions is an object lesson in just what it is that Prince “does”. This is a master at work.
That same master is there in the two versions of “FunknRoll”, a song placed near the end of each of these new albums and a highlight of both. Releasing two “competing” versions of the same song is an act of musical chutzpah, and Prince pulls it off easily, adept at both ends of the rock and funk pendulum suggested by the title. I really can’t pick one above the other.
“FunknRoll” provides the key to understanding Prince’s grander scheme, too. He’s signalling that his vision can’t be represented by a single record or musical persona; that it’s the totality of his work that is most important to him.
The PlectrumElectrum album was tracked completely live in the studio on analog equipment with no edits, just like in the days of Elvis or Sinatra. Prince and his latest backing band, 3rdEyeGirl, had to play the song together in the studio from start to finish to get a take. Prince, the archetypal studio magician, here recognises the spirit and energy that only a live performance can capture. Of course there is still plenty of overdubbing on the album, and I can even detect digital tricks strategically deployed in various places. Prince the producer/perfectionist/control freak couldn’t completely deny himself the flexibility and creative possibilities that today’s technology has to offer. That’s not the point of the exercise, anyway.
Art Official Age, on the other hand, makes no pretence of being anything other than a completely up-to-date modern soul album and, just as he always has, Prince pushes cutting-edge audio and studio techniques to the limit. Of the many instruments Prince has mastered, the studio is the one he plays best.
Prince Rogers Nelson has always exhibited a dual nature in his work and in his life. The shy high school student shocked everyone when he turned into an outrageous extrovert a few short years later, pirouetting and shrieking onstage in stripper’s lingerie. From the outset his songs contained explicit sexuality along with religious imagery and Prince seemingly saw no conflict between the two sides of his nature. Although he came from a broken family, there was always a strong Baptist/Methodist influence surrounding him. He rationalised sex as a gift from God, a gift he was delighted to accept. This duality was expressed in one of his early hits, “Controversy”:
I just can’t believe all the things people say / Controversy
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? / Controversy
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? / Controversy
Though he happily messed with sexual stereotypes and people’s perceptions, it was mostly to get a rise out of his audience and, more importantly, to be noticed. The fact is he has always been libidinously heterosexual and religiously Christian. It’s been a long time since Prince has worn suspenders on stage, thankfully. But his late-in-life conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect in 2001 put him squarely in opposition to the sexual freedom much of his early work championed. Prince fans were bemused to read interviews where he railed against swearing and straying from traditional sex roles as defined by the fundamentalist Jehovahs.
Whether he has moderated those views in recent years, we can only guess. On the evidence of these albums, however, he is feeling less evangelistic and a little more carefree. The lyrics of “Art Official Cage” explicitly state this is “a new kind of boogie without the halo”. For that blessing, I am truly thankful.
The standouts on Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum are “U Know” and “WhiteCaps” respectively. Both are gorgeous slices of slow groove, and 3rdEyeGirl had a hand in each of them. They are credited with producing the first, and of course they perform on “WhiteCaps”, with drummer Hannah Ford singing lead. Perhaps their influence is the reason the songs sound so contemporary. Prince has always been at his best when he is challenged by his peers. “U Know” in particular has Prince at the top of his game, and when he is, few can match him.
It’s ironic that Prince is back on song after having re-signed with Warner. That was the label he fought so famously to escape 18 years ago, when he publicly accused them of restricting his artistic freedom. Who can forget those photos of Prince with the word “slave” scrawled across his face? That spectacle was the beginning of a bitter, protracted battle between the all-conquering pop icon and the all-encompassing record company, a titanic struggle Prince eventually won. Along the way he had abandoned releasing music under his own name, declaring he should only be referred to as an unpronounceable symbol. Soon he was comically dubbed “Symbol”, then “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”, a nickname he loathed. He invited even more ridicule when he demanded, as a compromise, that everyone call him “The Artist”. Prince thought of himself as emulating Muhammad Ali, who famously rejected his “slave name”, Cassius Clay. But Prince’s eccentric hubris reminded many others of Michael Jackson. He was no longer a “sexy motherfucker”, just a crazy one.
This whole sorry episode was prompted by Prince’s discovery that, under the terms of a standard record industry clause in his contract with Warners, he had signed away the rights to any and all of his master recordings. The effect of this clause had far-reaching consequences that he took as a personal affront.
Throughout his career Prince had been a workaholic: the musical output from all of his studio experimentation had been prodigious. Ideas for songs would come to him constantly and his enormous success had given him the freedom to spend whatever time and money it took to realise his musical vision. As a result, he had amassed a mountain of unreleased songs, all recorded with the same meticulousness and savvy as anything he’d released to the public. There were dozens of full-budget music videos completed for singles that no one would ever hear. Added to that, there were hundreds of hours of live recordings and studio jams, all stashed away in “The Vault”, as his employees called it. Prince was understandably outraged to learn that Warner owned all of it – forever. As he said to Rolling Stone later, “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
Prince’s continued petulant behaviour, ludicrous demands and increasingly patchy albums had made him more trouble than he was worth and the label was eventually embarrassed into releasing him from his contract. They knew it would be impossible to ascertain what recordings were stashed in The Vault but they’d already completely lost interest in releasing any more Prince material. Anyway, they still retained the rights to his valuable back catalogue: the Purple Rain, 1999 and Sign O’ The Times albums.
Prince went his own way, determined to own his work completely from that day forward, but the newly freed slave has seemed to be a man adrift for much of the time since, a lost prophet wandering the wilderness. His concert tours were always hugely successful but his album sales became negligible. His new music was being completely ignored. His attempt at marketing directly to his fans through his own online label failed dismally. For 2007’s Planet Earth and 2010’s 20Ten he even tried giving away his albums free with newspapers – an ill-fated scheme from which U2 should have learned something – but for the most part people cared less and less. His few recent chart successes came only when he partnered with a major record label – Columbia Records – for Musicology. The same year, 2004, he went back to using the Prince name on the album covers. His music, his name. Two years later, 3121 came out through Universal Music.
By returning to his old home at Warner, striking a deal with the-devil-he-knows, Prince has finally been able to negotiate back the ownership of his crown jewels – the landmark albums from the ’80s and all his other masters. Those demons have been laid to rest and both parties can move on. And move on he has. These latest albums show him to be forging exciting new directions creatively. Wherever his musical and spiritual quest may take him from here, it’s clear the funk and the roll will never be far behind. The Purple One has struck a patch of his favourite colour.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 4, 2014 as "Prince of sharpness". Subscribe here.