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).
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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.
Musicology is a showpiece for Prince’s lavish gifts. As usual, his songwriting is effortlessly sophisticated, balancing pop-tune accessibility with jazz chords, tricky key changes and moments of dissonance that resolve with a satisfying crash into a major chord progression. Prince plays some astonishing lead guitar, and sings superbly throughout, summoning different vocal timbres in nearly every song. In “On the Couch,” a ballad, he croons lush blue notes in a feathery falsetto, while a background choir of overdubbed Princes chimes in with low and high harmony parts. He delivers the Teddy Pendergrass-style soul ballad “Call My Name” in a robust baritone; in “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance”–the rawest and strangest funk on the album–his voice is nasal and gasping; in “What Do U Want Me 2 Do” he sounds clipped, boyish, bashful.
All this skill and formal polish is familiar from past Prince albums, but Musicology is in certain notable ways a departure. By far, this is Prince’s most prudish record. Sex has always been his supreme subject, and unlike so many other musical lotharios, Prince is–or at least was–genuinely kinky. His dionysian streak first emerged on his third album, Dirty Mind (1980), and thereafter Prince made it his project to banish all double-entendres and fill his records with as many fantasies and perversions as possible. He sang about a 32-year-old woman who keeps her 16-year-old brother as a sex slave; he sang plaintively of his desire to be his girlfriend’s girlfriend, so he could help her pick out clothes and dress her for a night on the town (and, while they were at it, have some lesbian sex); he wrote what may have been history’s first cyber-sex ballad, back in 1996; he sang an ode to the pheromone.
On Musicology, Prince has tamed his lust. There are sexy songs–“Call My Name” and “On the Couch” are make-out tunes par excellence–but the sex is implied in the slow-simmering grooves, not spelled out in the lyrics. The closest Prince comes to talking dirty is when he begs an angry lover to let him back in bed, so he can “go down south”–rather coy words from the creator of “Jack U Off” and “Pussy Control.”
In fact, the Prince we encounter on Musicology sounds suspiciously like a married, middle-aged Minnesotan (all of which he is). He’s concerned about politics (three songs take swipes at George W. Bush), in love with his wife and, despite the obligatory party tunes, in a subdued, meditative mood. The album ends with one of the most touching songs Prince has written, “Reflection,” a loping ballad, nudged along by woodwinds and a high-riding bass, which offers as poignant a picture of mid-life happiness and resignation as you’re likely to find in a pop song. Its lyric meanders from tender domestic scenes (“Did we remember to water the plants 2day?…Tell me do U like my hair this way?”) to some cryptic lines about death and loss (“It’s nice 2 know/That when bodies wear out/We can get another… Eye was just thinking about my mother”) to an almost pastoral concluding verse, in which we glimpse Prince strumming a guitar on his front porch at day’s end, like a crusty bluesman.
The gentleness of “Reflection” suggests that Prince is aging gracefully, easing into the late afternoon of middle age. But elsewhere on Musicology, we meet a more cantankerous figure. The fact that Prince is no longer a sex fiend comes as a mild surprise; it’s a real shock, though, to find Prince, who for years was the embodiment of everything musically new and weird, embracing a schoolmarmish brand of musical traditionalism. Can the man who gave us “Computer Blue” and other masterpieces of robotic-funk really have become a roots-music snob?
It sure sounds like it. Musicology‘s title track is a shamelessly note-perfect James Brown pastiche, an “old school joint/4 the true funk soldiers” that centers on a rhetorical question: “Don’t u miss the feeling/Music gave ya/Back in the day?” With its horn stabs, cracking snare drum and percolating bass line straight out of “Sex Machine,” “Musicology” is designed to stoke nostalgia for that allegedly better, nobler musical era, and to set up another question, Prince’s big punchline, a dig at hip-hop, delivered with a gruff harrumph over a stop-time: “Take ur pick–turntable or a band?”
As a marketing ploy, Prince’s newfound nostalgia makes some sense. For the past several years, r&b has been overrun by earnest young singers, wielding tattered copies of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Fender Rhodes electric pianos, who revive, with varying degrees of skill and slavishness, the sound of 1970s soul. After a decade in the commercial wilderness, Prince may have decided that neo-soul was good business. After all, he’s capable of disappearing into the studio for an afternoon and churning out a period piece that young stars like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Alicia Keys would labor over for weeks.
On Musicology, Prince gestures in the direction of 1970s nostalgia, invoking Earth, Wind and Fire and Sly Stone, recalling the good old days “when we would compare whose afro was the roundest.” But the yesteryear he’s really wistful for is his own mid-1980s heyday. “Musicology” ends with a cute little audio montage: the sound of a spinning radio dial, picking up snatches of old Prince hits–“Kiss,” “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” “Little Red Corvette.” The implication is clear: This is the good stuff; this is what you’ve been missing.
But there’s a problem: Those one-bar snippets of Prince classics show up everything on Musicology. In the 1980s Prince moved brazenly from invention to invention. His hit singles offered a virtually unbroken sequence of sonic shocks, each carrying new kinds of weirdness onto the pop charts. The young Prince Rogers Nelson was bored with r&b production clichés–he had a particular aversion to horns–and in response, crafted his signature sound, the jagged keyboard-propelled funk of early hits like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Controversy” and “1999.” These stark, irrepressibly danceable songs gave a virile edge to ticky-tacky synthesizer pop and established Prince’s preference for spartan arrangements–and it is that eerie minimalism, the sound of something stripped out, that even today strikes the ear with such electric force. Think of “When Doves Cry” (1984), the spooky Number 1 hit from Purple Rain, which completely eschews bass; or “Sign ‘O’ the Times” (1987), which thrusts a chewy bass out front and brings in guitar only for an occasional bluesy accent; or the delicious “Kiss” (1986), a funk song so spare it seems scored for voice and rattling bones.
Musicology contains no such jolts. Prince the minimalist weirdo has become Prince the maximalist craftsman. The new album is a collection of impeccably realized stylistic exercises, with each horn line and gospel piano chord in its proper place, every song burnished to perfection, sounding exactly like it should. Prince has made a good record, and paid himself a poor tribute.
One of the little-discussed leitmotifs in pop music history is the role of competition in producing great music. All the arts have their rivalries, but popular music is a particularly intense contact sport; antagonisms play out on the Billboard charts and MTV and concert stages, with anxiety-of-influence neuroses hanging thick in the strobe-lit air. Consider the mid-1960s rivalries between the Beatles and Beach Boys, or between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Rap still thrives on the verbal blood sport of rhyme battles; and the extraordinary sonic richness of today’s hit radio is due in large measure to competition between hip-hop producers, who vie to outdo each other with the freshest and most unusual new sounds and rhythms.
Prince has had his own history of rivalries, and on the evidence of Musicology, his competitive impulse is still robust. In the 1980s he was pitted against Michael Jackson in a clash of freaky-eccentric natural-born pop geniuses. Since then, the rivalry has cooled, but on the new record, Prince can’t resist getting a dig in. “My voice is getting higher/And Eye ain’t never had my nose done,” he sings on “Life ‘O’ the Party,” adding, “That’s the other guy.”
In any case, the real target of Prince’s ire these days isn’t sad, grotesque Michael Jackson but the rappers and deejays he dismisses in that snide lyric about turntables. Here is a great big snarl of artistic neurosis that Harold Bloom could appreciate. Prince exerted a powerful influence on the first generation of hip-hop MCs and producers, who sampled his records, copped his hauteur, studied his genre-melding and found inspiration in his talent for coaxing beautiful sounds from new machines. Sometime around 1990, the weight of influence shifted, and for years Prince expended a great deal of effort trying to incorporate hip-hop into his sound–hiring producers to punch up his beats, adding a pitiful rapper named Tony M. to his New Power Generation touring band, even attempting, in a few embarrassing instances, to rap himself.
Now, having failed to master hip-hop, Prince rails against it. His argument–that a turntable is no match for a band, that hip-hop isn’t real music, etc.–is a case that even the woodsiest classic rock fans stopped making years ago, and should really be beneath the dignity of a guy whose synthesizer-steeped early records make most hip-hop sound as earthy as an Alan Lomax field recording. It’s obvious, anyway, that Prince doesn’t believe his own rhetoric. He’s clearly obsessed with hip-hop; on Musicology, he keeps mentioning rappers–Missy Elliot, Dr. Dre and Eminem pop up out of nowhere, hobgoblins of Prince’s subconscious–and it can’t have escaped his attention that the best, most interesting, most beguilingly odd–most Princean–pop music is being made by rappers and their producers. Back on Grammy night, Prince watched the coronation of Outkast, the Atlanta hip-hop duo whose monster hit “Hey Ya!” is, in spirit if not in form, a Prince tribute, and is, truth be told, as woolly and irresistible as anything in the master’s own songbook. If Prince is spoiling for a fight, is it because, deep down, he knows that his hip-hop followers have stolen his mojo?