This past February's forty-sixth annual Grammy Awards ceremony began with a surprise performance by the pop virtuoso who is once again calling himself Prince. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of the career-making album and film Purple Rain, and it was strange to see Prince thrust into the role of elder statesman--he is 46 years old and looks about 22. At the Grammys, his svelte 5'2" frame was packed into one of the form-fitting toreador-pimp outfits that he has been wearing for a couple of decades; he raced through a medley of old hits, looking every bit as sleek as he had in what the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences has decided was his prime. He whirled and strutted and winked; he sang like a soul balladeer and howled his best rock star banshee wail; he played squalling solos on two different guitars: one a classic Fender Telecaster, the other a pointy purple thing, custom-made in the shape of the unpronounceable glyph--a sort of ankh with a few extra jagged bits attached--to which Prince legally changed his name in 1993. He was joined on stage by an actual 22-year-old, the r&b star Beyoncé, who gamely sang along but seemed overwhelmed by the old-timer's outlandish energy and musicianship. When the medley crashed to a close, Beyoncé stood teetering on a pair of stiletto heels, looking like she needed a medic; Prince peeled off his guitar, threw it to the floor, and glowered out at an audience filled with famous musicians as if to say, Anyone else want a piece?
The Grammy appearance kicked off what has been Prince's most high-profile, studiously crowd-pleasing year in a decade. In March he delivered another show-stopping performance and gave a genial speech at his induction to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He launched a world tour focusing on the big hits he had vowed never again to perform, sat for magazine and television interviews, said flattering things about his audience and generally conducted himself like an entertainer on a promotional junket--par for the course for most pop stars but something new for this self-styled genius-recluse, who just a few years earlier had sued his own fanzine for copyright infringement. Then, in April, came the charm campaign's coup de grâce: a lean new album, Musicology, which, in contrast to his last several records, took dead aim at the pop charts. It entered the Billboard Top 200 at Number 3, Prince's highest-charting release in fifteen years.
If nothing else, this is a major music-business story, a big comeback by a big star who has spent the past ten years baffling his fans and watching his album sales plummet. The trouble began with the infamous name-change, followed by a legal tussle with Warner Bros. records over contractual issues and the ownership of Prince's master recordings. (It was during this imbroglio that Prince began painting the word "Slave" on his face--a bit of a stretch, given that his six-album deal was worth close to $100 million.) In 1996 Warners finally agreed to cut Prince loose, freeing him to distribute his own records (largely through his website) and to sit at home, in a shopping-mall-sized recording studio complex in the Minneapolis suburbs, indulging his musical whims, however inspired or harebrained.
The result was a great outpouring of music--some of it sublime, some terrible--that few people heard. Prince has always made wonderful pop records, guided by, and in spite of, his eccentric muse; but in recent years, he's drifted further from pop and deeper into tedium. By the time he released The Rainbow Children (2001), a messy, inscrutable theme album about his Jehovah's Witness faith, and followed it up with a rock-star folly straight out of This Is Spinal Tap--the four-song, fifty-six-minute instrumental "jazz" epic N.E.W.S. (2003)--it seemed reasonable to assume that Prince had stopped making music for anyone other than himself and his most masochistic diehards (perhaps those poor fanzine editors against whom he'd filed suit).
Which is why the taut, radio-friendly Musicology has struck so many listeners as a delightful surprise. Just twelve songs and forty-seven minutes long, it's a proper album, not another three hour, triple-CD set like Prince's behemoth Emancipation (1996), and it sounds super. It may be the most sharply produced of any record in Prince's catalogue; as usual, the pop-rock tunes, funk workouts and ballads are densely arranged, but every guitar line, harmony vocal and piano chord stands out, in vivid focus. Typical is "Life O' Party," which starts with an a cappella vocal, adds a hammering electronic kick drum and over the course of the song piles on percussion, background vocals, horns, at least five different keyboard lines, rubbery bass guitar, wah-wah, and at the very top of the mix, a triangle, pinging like an elevator bell every four measures. Each part bursts through the stereo speakers with perfect clarity, and they slot together to form a gargantuan groove. As on all of Musicology's songs, Prince plays nearly every instrument.
It's that preposterous one-man-band virtuosity that insures Prince's place in the rock-and-roll pantheon. In terms of sheer musical talent, Prince has no peer. He is both an anomaly in the history of twentieth-century pop music and that history's logical end point--all of the excitement and grandeur and nonsense of rock and roll (and virtually every subgenre) embodied in one preening, doe-eyed, androgynous, biracial, sartorially resplendent, sexually and spiritually obsessed musical polymath. When he emerged from Minneapolis in the late 1970s wearing thigh-high boots and bikini underwear, he seemed like a period curio: a creature sprung from disco-era clubland who played choppy funk on New Wave keyboards. But by the time of Purple Rain, it was clear that Prince was a musician for the ages. He mashed together gospel, soul and funk, gentle folk, hard rock, Tin Pan Alley pop and a dozen other styles, sometimes--often--in the space of a single song. He played guitar like Jimi Hendrix and wrote melodies like the Beatles; in his remarkably nimble voice you could hear echoes of guttural James Brown, silken Al Green and John Lennon, in his hoarsest primal-scream mode. No one before Prince had done so many things so well; twenty-five years later, his successor has yet to arrive.