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His popularity, personality quirks, and public persona have led
many to dismiss the self-described "skinny motherfucker with the
high voice" as just a less-successful Michael Jackson, which misses the
point. By any other name, the man born Prince Rogers Nelson is a
consummate musician, one of the best singers, guitarists and
bassists in music today. Plus he has a rich musical vocabulary and
manic thirst for new sounds, which keep him from being stuck in one
bag (or even four or five). And he's an intelligent lyricist and
makes the sexiest records I've ever heard.
After early success on the R&B charts, he sailed to multiplatinum
status with 1999 in 1982, then became the Next Big Thing
when his album and movie Purple Rain hit in 1984. He's never
again approached that sales level, but has continued a flood of hit
singles and albums until beginning a public feud with his record
company, Warner Bros, in 1993, the year he changed his name to an
unpronounceable symbol. In 1996, he married backup singer/dancer
Mayte, got out of his contract, and had his first child, all of which
inspired the triple album Emancipation; he spent much of 1997
and 1998 on the road, while compiling an outtake compilation and
working on albums by childhood idols Chaka
Khan and Larry Graham. Then he declared war on his internet fan community,
filing lawsuits against a passel of websites and threatening the rest. After a failed 1999 attempt to copy Carlos Santana's "vet-plus-current-stars" comeback, he changed his name back to Prince and
shifted focus to his internet-only NPG Music Club, where you could pay $100 a year to get a few unreleased songs and videos per month. Then he started making one-off distribution deals with major labels for major releases, while continuing to use the internet to manage the overflow. In late 2007, he launched another round of lawsuits at internet fan sites, which led the sites to band together as Prince Fans United, which led Prince to write a diss track, "PFUnk," which is the funkiest jam he's released in years. He marked the start of 2009 by announcing three new albums, issued as a 3-CD set in March.
Around the site you'll also find reviews of his side projects and bandmates (some are discussed here, while The Time and Wendy & Lisa have their own pages), a recent concert review, and a review of one of the many books about him on
our wonderful Book Reviews Page.
The best Net resource left is www.prince.org, and there's always Usenet.
Prince and the Revolution (Purple Rain, Around The World
In A Day, Parade) featured Wendy Melvoin, guitar;
Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, keyboards; Brown
Mark, bass; Bobby Z, drums.
The Lovesexy band: Matt Fink, keyboards; Sheila
E., drums; Levi Seacer Jr., bass; Miko Weaver,
rhythm guitar; Boni Boyer, keyboards and backing vocals
Prince and the N.P.G. (or New Power Generation) (Diamonds and
Pearls through Chaos and Disorder: Michael Bland,
drums; Sonny T., bass; Rosie Gaines, keyboards and
vocals (Diamonds and Pearls only); Tommy Barbarella,
keyboards, and Morris Hayes, keyboards; Levi Seacer
Jr., guitar (Diamonds and Pearls and
only); Tony M., spoken vocals (Diamonds and Pearls
and ); Mayte, "Spanish vibe and backing vox"
(not present on Diamonds and Pearls or Chaos and
Vanity 6: Vanity (now Denise Matthews),
Brenda Bennett, Susan, vocals.
Apollonia 6: Apollonia Kotero, Brenda Bennett
& Susan, vocals.
Madhouse: Eric Leeds,
sax; Sheila E., drums; Matt Fink, keyboards; Levi
Seacer Jr., bass
(P.S. I've never known of an artist whose fans disagree so much
about what his best and worst efforts are. So if you totally
disagree with my ratings, you're not the only one. I'm not trying
to say which records are the "best": more than anything else, I'm
trying to guide people who are new to his music to where they
should start.) (DBW)
After signing his first record contract as a teenager, Prince learned the ropes of the stage and studio with impressive speed, and started pursuing a dual Master's in Shock Value and Media Manipulation. (DBW)
For You (1978)
Recorded when Prince was only 19, he's already producing, writing
(just one co-write on lyrics), and playing all the instruments. The
arrangements are unremarkable light soul, all love songs, decent
but ordinary, and his voice is pretty but doesn't hint at his
later accomplishments. The single "Soft and Wet" starts to
introduce his singular touch with synthesizers, and has his first
sexual lyrics. The headbanger "I'm Yours" is the other standout
tune, and "Just As Long As We're Together" combines some very corny
lyrics with his first released one-man jam. The extremely low
rating here is only to indicate how much stronger his later work
Apparently the first record didn't sell as well as expected, and
Prince was threatened with an outside producer if he didn't go more
commercial. He rose to the challenge, crafting the tuneful "black
radio" hits "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and "I Feel For You" - both
intended for Patrice Rushen, who declined to record them.
But far from being a soulless sell-out record, he actually
expresses his distinctive personality far better than before, as
well as his improved chops and versatility: he stretches into
country-pop ("When We're Dancing Close And Slow") and hard rock
("Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?"). He also slips in a couple of
"nasty" songs: the dance-funk "Sexy Dancer" and the way-uncool
anti-dyke rocker "Bambi" (with incredible lead-rhythm guitar
Dirty Mind (1980)
His first major work, these love songs, sex songs and pseudo-political anthems were originally recorded as demos, mostly at
Prince's home. He then decided to release the demos rather than
beautify the songs in an LA studio, paving the way for Rick James'
"punk funk" movement. Lyrically he pushed the envelope to the
extreme, with the incest-themed "Sister," concert favorite "Head"
and the title track. But what's often overlooked here is the
brilliant songwriting: every tune is memorable, particularly the
classic "When You Were Mine" (since covered by everyone from
country singers to Cyndi Lauper) and the hit "Uptown." And despite
the stripped-down sound, he throws in some neat gimmicks, like the
massively amplified guitar ending "Gotta Broken Heart Again." For
the first time, Prince used other musicians: Matt Fink plays an
interesting keyboard solo on "Head" while new band member Lisa
Coleman speaks some of the track's more controversial lyrics.
Not a dramatic leap forward, but a consistently enjoyable work.
More confident in his new genre of minimalist funk (R&B hits
"Controversy" and "Let's Work"), he also includes a gorgeous slow
jam ("Do Me Baby), and turns to 50's style rock on "Jack U Off" and
"Ronnie Talk To Russia." Determined to be taken seriously, Prince
throws in numerous political and social references, from the
devastating ("Sexuality") to the silly ("Ronnie Talk To Russia") to
the bizarre ("Annie Christian," so underproduced it's downright
disturbing). He even incorporates the Lord's Prayer into
"Controversy," but despite all his heaviness he doesn't lose his
sense of humor: check "Jack U Off" for confirmation. For those of
you keeping score at home, the credits to this album mark the first
time Prince started using "U" instead of "you." This year also saw Prince's first production for The Time.
3 x 2 = 6 (Vanity 6: 1982)
Prince's first entry in the girl group sweepstakes was no match for the Mary Jane Girls; there's not
much of note here: besides the hit "Nasty Girl" the best tune is
the one Prince didn't write, "He's So Dull" by former Revolution
guitarist Dez Dickerson. (DBW)
His commercial breakthrough. This time around Prince dropped heavy
guitars and focused on post-disco dance songs ("1999," "Delirious,"
"Let's Pretend We're Married") and the ballads "Little Red
Corvette," and "International Lover" (with moving falsetto singing
that got him a Grammy nomination). There's not much stylistic
variety, but the tunes are terrific, the vocals are among his best
ever, and the production keeps things from bogging down (listen to
him pull out every trick at his disposal during "Lady Cab Driver,"
or the guitar solo on "Automatic"). At just over 70 minutes it
wasn't an incredible value as a double album, but on one CD it's a
"Baby I'm A Star"
Not content with making some of the most interesting R&B records of the era, Prince set his sights on film, chart-topping singles, and superstardom. Not to ruin the suspense, but he soon reached those three goals. (DBW)
Purple Rain (Prince & The Revolution: 1984)
Enormously successful soundtrack to the extremely successful motion
picture, making Prince a household name. This is also the record that got Tipper Gore to start the PMRC:
the lyrics to "Darling Nikki" were too much for her. Working
closely with a backing band (the Revolution) for the first time, he
has distorted guitars, arena-rock anthems, funky calls for sexual
abandon, angry love songs, spiritual redemption... what more could
you want? It's divided among rock, dance and ballads, sometimes
more than one at a time ("The Beautiful Ones"). His messianic
tendencies get a bit out of control ("I Would Die 4 U") but are fun
anyway, and he makes up for it with genre-bending lunacy like
"Computer Blue." The #1 pop hits were "When Doves Cry" (a dance
track with no bass line!) and the rocker "Let's Go Crazy," while
the title guitar ballad peaked at #2. (DBW)
Apollonia 6 (Apollonia 6: 1984)
Much more enjoyable than the Vanity 6 effort, and not because of
Apollonia's vocal ability, which is almost nonexistent. The hit,
"Sex Shooter," is solid, and two other tracks, the fast funk "A Million Miles"
and midtempo love song "Some Kind Of Lover" are even better. (DBW)
The Glamorous Life (Sheila E.: 1984)
Stick with the 12" single of the hit title track; there's nothing else
on the record worth hearing. Sheila is a very good percussion
player, but you'd never guess it from the material here ("Neon Rendezvous"). (DBW)
Around The World In A Day (Prince & The Revolution: 1985)
Determined not to copy his past successes, Prince and the
Revolution came up with a heavily orchestrated style, without the
trademark drum effects and guitar distortion of the previous album.
The result is some great pop ("Pop Life," "Raspberry Beret"), and
some experimental numbers that miss (the percussion-laden
"Tamborine") as often as they connect (the touching ballad
"Condition Of The Heart"). Just so Purple Rain fans wouldn't
be totally lost, there is some hard rock ("Paisley Park"),
political pap ("America"), uplifting spirituality ("The Ladder"),
and crotch-level spirituality ("Temptation," which marks Prince's
first use of sax). (DBW)
The Family (The Family: 1985)
Here Prince threw together half of The Time with Wendy's sister
Susannah Melvoin and sax player Eric Leeds; the result is short of
spectacular. This is the place to go if you want to hear the
original version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," which later became a
huge hit for Sinead O'Connor; otherwise, the only number of any
interest here is the James Brown-inspired
Parade (Prince & The Revolution: 1986)
The soundtrack to the unsuccessful film Under The Cherry Moon is
an interesting mess: two of his funkiest songs ever
("Anotherloverholenyohead," "Girls & Boys") are layered full band
productions, while the #1 single "Kiss" is one of the simplest
arrangements he's ever done, and the ballad "Sometimes It Snows In
April" is positively inspired. He does cover more ground
stylistically than ever before. But too much of the album
sounds like a movie soundtrack, with meandering
instrumentals ("Venus De Milo"), period pieces (the schmaltzy "Do
U Lie") and second-rate compositions ("Under The Cherry Moon," "I
Wonder U"). The second, rather unsuccessful single was "Mountains."
Sign "☮" The Times (1987)
This double-album release silenced people like me who were
wondering whether superstardom had made Prince lose his touch. He
fired the Revolution and hit the studio by himself, putting
together four sides that acknowledge all his musical influences
while remaining uniquely his. Heavy funk ("Hot Thing"), gender
bending ("If I Was Your Girlfriend"), a religious rock anthem to
die for ("The Cross"), a lovely, complex ballad ("Adore," with
perhaps his finest vocal performance). For good measure, he has
plenty of music that's uncategorizable and absolutely irresistable
("The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker," "Forever In My Life," "Play In The
Sunshine"). This record is rich in all the things that Prince is
good at. The funky but slight live recording "It's Gonna Be A
Beautiful Night" contains his first flirtation with rap. (DBW)
8 (Madhouse: 1987)
Prince's first take on jazz fusion is not terribly interesting; he just
comes up with some chords and a riff, and lets band members solo
uninspiredly for a while, and then goes on to the next tune. "6" is
an effective funk jam; the rest mostly just drags. (DBW)
Jill Jones (Jill Jones: 1987)
The best album by a Prince protege, partly because Jones has the
best voice in the bunch (not counting Rosie Gaines, who
was established before Prince ran into her). There is a fair amount
of filler here, but the best songs ("For Love," "All Day All Night"
featuring the Revolution) are terrific. For more information on this
talented singer (who for a variety of reasons hasn't released a solo
album since) see the fine unofficial fan site.
16 (Madhouse: 1987)
Like the previous Madhouse effort, there's no real spark here,
although he still puts together some decent hooks ("10," "13").
Apparently Eric Leeds and the other bandmembers had more input into
these songs, but it doesn't help. (DBW)
Black Album (recorded 1987, released 1994)
Scheduled to appear with no title or artist identification, then
cancelled days before release, this became the most widely-discussed bootleg since Dylan's
Basement Tapes. It's stripped-down funk, and fun to
listen to, but it's easy to see why Prince didn't want to release
it with his name on it: mostly party songs, recorded quickly, more
characteristic of a Time album than of
the intelligence and emotional range usually found on a Prince
record. Finally issued to the public in 1994 as part of negotiations
with Warner Bros, by which time everyone who cared already had
the bootleg. (DBW)
This album apparently documents a spiritual rebirth. He reuses one
track from the scrapped Black Album, the pretty ballad "When
2 R In Love." The disc is remarkable for the colossal number of
interlocking melodic hooks throughout: the title track is the best
example, but also see the single "Alphabet St.," and "Anna Stesia,"
a mood-altering masterpiece with dramatic changes in dynamics and
an uplifting religious ending. Many of the melodic lines are in a
different key than the rest of the song, a trick Prince apparently
picked up from P-Funk. He also makes
exciting, effective use of electronic percussion and keyboard
effects on "Dance On." It's a solid work, where even the familiar-sounding tracks are entertaining ("I No," "Glam Slam," "I Wish U
Did his widely-reported cash-flow problems prompt him to make such
a mainstream, commercial album? I have no idea, but there's a lot
of formula music here, both ballads ("The Arms Of Orion,"
"Scandalous") and uptempo pop ("Partyman," "Trust"). The man can
put together professional, saleable product in his sleep, but
usually he's also inspired and/or driven to be original; here he
just takes the easy way out. There's just not much great music
here, besides the cleverly-arranged rocker "Electric Chair" and the
tuneful groove "Vicki Waiting," and the sample-drenched #1 hit
"Batdance" is the only place he's really doing something new.
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
The soundtrack to another unsuccessful movie; there's a lot of
really good music here, but it's incoherent. About half the album
is turned over to special guests including the Time, George Clinton, Tevin Campbell, Mavis
Staples and Elisa Fiorillo. Campbell's tune ("Round & Round")
became a hit - it's catchy but slight pop/R&B; the rest of the
guest spots are lackluster, except when Prince joins the Time on
"The Latest Fashion."
Some of it's terrific: "Tick Tick Bang" has a ton of hooks
including a drum loop from Jimi
Hendrix's "Little Miss Lover," "Joy In Repetition" is a breathtakingly lovely
story song, plus there's the religious rocker "Elephants & Flowers" and
"Still Would Stand All Time" with a splendid testifying vocal. But
you'll suffer through the unbearably corny title track and the "Cherry
Moon" remake "Question of U." The single "Thieves In The Temple" was a
hit; it's yet another minimalist production, this time with a minimal
melody as well. (DBW)
Times Squared (Eric Leeds: 1991)
First solo release by this longtime Prince associate, in a fusion
vein. There's a wonderful funk suite, "The Dopamine Rush," originally written for the canned Madhouse album 24, and "Once
Upon A Time" is a moving duet between Prince on guitar and Eric on flute and sax. Elsewhere, though, there are just a bunch of decent riffs
that don't develop into actual songs (title track, one of several tunes with the weak arranging concept of building to a crescendo by playing
the same phrase over and over, increasingly louder, until you're ready to scream). (DBW)
Diamonds And Pearls (1991)
A huge commercial success, with two top five singles (the
excellent title ballad, with co-lead vocals by Rosie Gaines, and
the disposable T.Rex retread "Cream"). Stylistically there's not
much new: "Strolling" and "Money Don't Matter 2night" are about the
most mainstream pop recordings he's made, although "Walk Don't
Walk" effectively uses sound effects to make its rather obvious
point about individuality. But the tunes are good if predictable:
"Daddy Pop," "Willing And Able," "Gett Off." The weak points are
yet another "Scandalous"-style slow grind ("Insatiable") and
several jarring extended raps by Tony Mosely. (DBW)
Billed as a "rock soap opera," there's a lot of very strong
material here, from old-school funk "Sexy M.F." to the tuneful
rocker "The Morning Papers" to the amazing personal-is-political
jam "The Sacrifice of Victor." "Love 2 The 9's" starts out as a
lovely ballad, then shifts to hip-hop influenced funk and comes out
the other end as pure melody. The hit single was another religious
pop tune ("7"), the flop single was "My Name Is Prince," which
doesn't succeed as hip-hop but is quite amusing. There's even a
nightclub ballad ("Damn U") and a 70s prog-rock pastiche ("3
Chains O' Gold"). There's also a fair amount of filler ("The Max")
and failed experiments with rave ("I Wanna Melt With U") and hip
hop ("Arrogance"). But Tony's raps here are better integrated into
the overall sound, and the NPG Hornz add depth and variety to the mix.
The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)
Even if you have all the other albums, this is essential for the
collection of hard-to-find B-sides like "Erotic City," "She's
Always In My Hair," "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore".... He's
probably the first artist since the
Beatles to include some of his best work on non-LP B-sides.
Otherwise, this is a by-the-numbers greatest hits compilation,
missing only the huge commercial hit "Batdance," and including a
couple of great new songs (the ballad "Pink Cashmere," the blues-rock "Peach") and finally a decent version of "Nothing Compares 2
U," previously recorded by The Family and by Irish
chanteuse Sinead O'Connor. (DBW)
Gold Nigga (N.P.G.: 1993)
Next up, P put together a record for his backing band, midtempo funk with way too much rapping from Tony M. ("Deuce & A Quarter"), too many dull vocal chants (the egregiously overlong "Johnny"), and recycled hooks ("Guess Who's Knockin'" borrows from "Let 'Em In"; the title track relies on Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up"). There's some nice playing from the Hornz (the too-brief James Brown-ish "Oilcan"), but that's about it.
1-800-NEW-FUNK (Various: 1994)
A compilation of tracks from unfinished albums by artists on
Prince's defunct vanity label Paisley Park. Songs vary from very
good ("Standing At The Altar" performed by Margie Cox) to pretty
good ("Love Sign" performed by and Nona Gaye) to
doubleplusungood ("If I Love U 2nite" by then-Mrs. Symbol Guy, Mayte).
"If You Don't Own Your Masters, Your Masters Own You"
Prince's discomfort with Warner Brothers came to a head in 1993, and as a result he briefly changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and even more briefly wrote "Slave" on his cheek. Since breaking with Warner, he's pursued alternate distribution models: fan clubs, web sites, and one-off deals with major labels. He hasn't had a big single since 1994's "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World," but he tours tirelessly, and pops up at carefully selected events like the Grammies and the Superbowl. Compared to fellow 1958-born superstars Michael Jackson and Madonna, the little purple guy has held up pretty well. (DBW)
The artist temporarily not known as Prince (TATNKAP) apparently held back the best
songs from this project, hoping he could get out of his Warner
contract and release them independently. (Eventually tunes like
"Endorphinmachine" and "Dolphin" turned up on The Gold
Experience.) The album was his shortest since Batman, and that's including its 11-minute title track... Still, there are some surprises, including his first a capella recording, "Solo" - it's an
interesting but not particularly successful attempt. There's
a fair amount of top-quality material (the single "Letitgo" which
soars and thumps at the same time; the soulful "Dark"; the chilling child abuse tale
"Papa"), just not as much as we'd come to expect. (DBW)
The Vault... Old Friends 4 Sale (rec. 1985-1994, rel. 1999)
Bleah. A contractual obligation collection of outtakes turned over to Warner Brothers in 1996 or thereabouts, and unlike
1998's Crystal Ball, this one really does consist of previously bootlegged material. There are exactly two surprises
here. One, a consistent jazzy R&B sound - crisp live drums, prominent knowing horns - makes the set hang together pretty well,
unlike most of his work. Two, there's not one track that reminds you how brilliant the man can be: the best cut,
"She Spoke 2 Me," had been previously released on Girl 6, and it's all downhill from there. We've got a couple
of brief snippets from the failed soundtrack to I'll Do Anything ("The Rest Of My Life," "My Little Pill"). We've
got extended soloing over uninspired vamps ("When The Lights Go Down," "It's About That Walk"). We've got routine
fast blues tunes with evidently improvised lyrics ("Sarah," "5 Women," originally recorded by Joe
Cocker). We've got a couple of overproduced ballads ("Extraordinary," "Old Friends 4 Sale"). What we haven't got is
anything that sends you back for another listen: no meaningful lyrics, no great melodies, no brilliant arranging
details. I'd be hard pressed to explain on the basis of this album why Prince is better than, say,
Brian Setzer. This is one for the completists to spin and quickly retire to the shelf. (DBW)
The Exodus (N.P.G.: 1995)
A (mostly) funk album from his then-backup band, includes some
monotonous tunes ("Big Fun," "Return Of The Bump Squad"), really
irritating segues, and a couple of brilliant songs: "Count The
Days" is a simple-sounding ballad with a beautiful melody that
completely contrasts with ultraharsh lyrics; "The Exodus Has Begun"
is an extended funk jam that packs a serious punch. (DBW)
Child Of The Sun (Mayte: 1995)
Only two thirds of this album is new: it's padded out with Mayte's
version of the Nameless One's "The Most Beautiful Girl [Boy] in The
World," a song originally released by Elisa Fiorillo ("Love's No
Fun" - Mayte's version is much better, though, both vocals and
arrangement), and two versions of "If I Love U 2Nite," which
had not only been previously released by Mayte, it was recorded in
1991 by Mica Paris, who's a far better singer than Mayte will ever
be. The album is also marred by some tuneless technotrash
("Children Of The Sun") and the Babyface/TLC ripoff "Mo' Better," but
there's good news too: "In Your Gracious Name" is a lovely ballad
with hip Latin percussion on the fade, "Baby Don't Care" is a
routine dance tune enlivened by spoken vocals by former Prince
flame Troy Beyer, and "Ain't No Place Like U" is classic genre-bending as the man cranks out heavily distorted lead guitar over
a mid-tempo techno track - it's one of my favorite Prince tracks ever. (DBW)
The Gold Experience (: 1995)
On "Gold" our intrepid hero asks the musical question
"What's the use of money if u ain't gonna break the mold?" It's a
good question, because the song, though undeniably powerful, is
from the same assembly line as "Purple Rain," and the album is another
collection of sweaty R&B ("Billy Jack Bitch," "P Control"), uptempo
rock ("Dolphin," "Endorphinmachine") and aching ballads ("I
Hate U," "Shhh"). Also, a bunch of pseudo-interactive segues that
will sound really dated in a few years. Not the groundbreaking
album he'd been promising, but overflowing with entertainment value. (DBW)
Girl 6 Soundtrack (: 1996)
There is one really new song here, the title track, which is an
unmelodic soft-porn heavy breather. Then there are two
unreleased tracks out of the vaults, which are both very good,
though routine for him: another sensuous horn-backed groove
("She Spoke 2 Me"), and another lovely ballad ("Don't Talk 2
Strangers"). The album is filled out with ten previously released
tracks, and almost all of them rank among his finest work ("Adore,"
"Girls & Boys," "Pink Cashmere") but they're redundant for the
fans, who are the only people who'll buy this record anyway.
Chaos And Disorder (: 1996)
After much public feuding with Warner Bros, he agreed to deliver them
one more new studio
album, and promptly knocked this out over a long weekend. While the
production doesn't sound rushed, the tunes seem like he made them
up on the spot: routine funk like "Dig U Better Dead" and "I Rock,
Therefore I Am" is prolonged by boring guest rappers; "Dinner With
Delores" recycles "Money Don't Matter 2Night"'s pop sound;
"Zannalee," the most enjoyable track on the CD, is just an uptempo
blues. Lyrically too, it's all reruns. The silver lining is that, under pressure
to create excitement quickly, he falls back on the exquisite lead
guitar playing that he often displays in concert but has rarely
recorded; the otherwise generic rocker "I Like It There" and ballad
"I Will" benefit from this treatment. Michael Bland's drumming is
also spotlighted more than on earlier releases. Still, Prince is capable of so much better that you'd have to be a completist to
want this. (DBW)
Emancipation (: 1996)
A 36-song, three-hour set, and I've lowered the rating half a star because the sheer amount of music here will overwhelm most non-fans. But taken in proper doses, it's terrific:
His newlywed status made him more romantic than ever, with several of the
best ballads he's ever written ("One Kiss At A Time," "Let's Have
A Baby," "Dreamin' About U") plus the smile-inducing "Sex In The
Summer." Vocally he's at his peak, musically he's overflowing with
ideas, and the genre-mixing is more focused than usual: "Joint 2
Joint" uses everything from tap dance to a slap bass trio as it
deconstructs the singles scene; "Damned If I Do" switches
effortlessly from pop-rock to plugged-in Latin jazz; "In This Bed
I Scream" segues from a lovely melodic vocal to an atonal distorted
guitar jam. All his experiments work this time around (including
big band swing on "Courtin' Time"), the only problems come when he
plays it safe: there's too much uptempo funk rehashing "Partyman"
("Mr. Happy," "Get Yo Groove On"), too many Babyface-sounding slow jams
("Somebody's Somebody"), plus four covers of which only "Betcha By
Golly Wow" was really worth the trouble. Lyrically, he's still very
self-absorbed, with plenty of tracks complaining about his treatment by
the music industry ("White Mansion," "Slave") and the media ("Face
Down"). But you've got to give it up for anybody who can make a
melodic chorus out of "www.emale.com"
- twenty albums under his belt and more inventive than ever.
Kamasutra (The NPG Orchestra: 1997)
A vanity production originally available only through his 800 number, and later tossed into the Crystal Ball
package, this is orchestral music for a ballet written in honor of then-wife Mayte and
arranged by Clare Fischer. I've got to give the man credit for refusing to use his most evident talents -
he doesn't sing, play guitar or bass, or use a drum kit - he's challenging
himself to entertain you blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his
back. Unfortunately, he doesn't. The 12-minute title track demonstrates
exactly why he should stop comparing himself to Mozart: it's in classical
theme and variations style, but with a trivial eight-note refrain, and
his idea of variations is having different instruments play the
theme essentially unchanged. Here and elsewhere on the album ("The Plan"),
he sounds more like John Tesh than His Royal Badness. The only good points
are the softly funky "Barcelona," which belonged on a Madhouse album, and
some arranging details on "Promise/Broken" and the finale "Eternal Embrace."
Even his die-hard fans will probably find this slow going, and everyone
else should stay miles away. (DBW)
Crystal Ball (: 1998)
The cliché "it would've made a great single disc" is irresistable
here. Touted as "previously bootlegged material," this is a three-disc hodgepodge
of everything from previously released soundtrack work ("Good Love," a
terrific electrofunk tune from 1988; "Ripopgodazippa") to remixes
("Lovesign") to live-in-the-studio jamming ("Cloreen Baconskin" is a
painful fifteen minutes) to live cuts ("Days Of Wild") and even some
honest-to-goodness previously bootlegged material ("Last Heart,"
"Crucial"). I think it's a safe bet that just about anyone would've
rather heard a choice outtake like "Moonbeam Levels" or "Old Friends 4
Sale" (neither is included here) than a remix of "The Continental," but
nobody asked me. There are a few mid-80s tracks (the most widely
bootlegged period) but the material is predominantly from the
mid-90s. As you'd expect from a triple-CD collection by an eclectic
artist recorded over fifteen years, it's far-ranging, and it's hit or
miss. The high points are so high (the bewildering, thrilling title
suite, the brief funk masterpiece "What's My Name") no fan should
pass it up; the low points are so lame ("Poom Poom," "Da Bang,"
"Hide The Bone") no non-fan should pick it up.
Also in 1998, he released a meandering 26-minute live improvisation, "The War," online and on cassette - it was supposed to be mailed to people who'd ordered Crystal Ball online, though I never got a copy. (DBW)
The Truth (: 1998)
An acoustic guitar-based set recorded in 1997 and given away for free to
purchasers of Crystal Ball. Some tracks are focused and compelling,
including the smooth love song "The Other Side Of The Pillow," and the
gritty title track. The bare sound is effective when he sticks to it, but
too often he can't leave well enough alone, layering on distracting
ambient background noise or superfluous keyboard parts ("Don't Play Me").
Plus there's a lot of easy listening filler - "Dionne" (like an acoustic
version of "Dinner With Delores"), "Circle Of Amour," "Fascination" -
Steely Dan-style soft rock is not his strong point. On the other hand, the arena rock vegan rant
"Animal Kingdom" is shockingly good. Like most of his late 90s work, this has no appeal to the broader public: he's preaching to the converted,
but he does come up with some good sermons. [The rating reflects the record's value if you could get it as a single disc, which you can't.]
New Power Soul (New Power Generation: 1998)
If you thought The Truth was an indication of more mold-breaking
to come, you were wrong: he's right back to the horn-backed electronic
funk and slow ballads he's been working with since at least 1991, only
duller. Way duller. The would-be party funk is shockingly weak, with
mind-numbing mechanical beats and played-out catchphrases ("Push It Up,"
"Mad Sex," "Funky Music"); the ballads feature amazingly clichéd
lyrics ("Until U're In My Arms Again" would embarrass Diane Warren). To make matters worse,
nearly every track repeats endlessly ("Come On"). As always, there are
some brilliant moments - the manic fade of "When U Love Somebody," the
falsetto vocals on the overblown "The One" - and the horn charts are
enjoyable, but overall you'll never regret passing this one up. Unlike the previous NPG discs, here sings lead on
every song, and I'd be surprised if anyone else in the band had
significant input into the songwriting. Doug E. Fresh contributes a rap
to "(I Like) Funky Music"; supposedly Chaka
Khan and Larry Graham were involved too, but
I couldn't hear them. (DBW)
Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (: 1999)
A one-off deal with Arista, and a return to form, of sorts: it's brimming over with instrumental, vocal and compositional
brilliance, but he has nothing much to say. As usual, the styles are all over the map, shifting from tuneless experiments
with synthesized noise ("Undisputed" with a Chuck D. rap, the 80s holdover title track,
"Strange But True") to gorgeous layered love songs ("The Sun, The Moon And Stars," "Man'O'War") without stopping for
breath. When the approach works (the 90-second acoustic guitar-plus-percussion "Tangerine") he sounds like a genius;
when it doesn't (the dull electrofunk "Hot Wit U") he comes across as a genre-assimilating showoff.
He doesn't play much guitar this time out, though there's a stinging solo on the rocker "So Far, So Pleased,"
which features No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani. Continuing the cavalcade of stars, there's a double dose of Sheryl Crow: she adds faint vocals to the lame-brained party rocker "Baby Knows," and he funks up
her hit "Everyday Is A Winding Road" more than it ever deserved.
Other guests include Ani DiFranco, Eve, and Maceo Parker (on the Morris Day-style parody "Prettyman"). His most radio-ready effort in a while, though it didn't send him back to the top of the charts.
The Chocolate Invasion (rec. 2000-2001, rel. 2004)
Prince's ongoing experimentation with distribution models next led him to form a new fan club, in which membership would not only get you preferred ticket access but also monthly downloads that would include new material in addition to live cuts and goofing around. I can testify that the ticket access was more than worth the annual cost, but the new material was generally considered lacking. In 2004, after the club had been shuttered, Prince collected nearly all the tracks released on these "Ahdio Shows" on two downloadable albums. The tracks are mostly the sort of techno-funk he can turn out in his sleep ("When Eye Lay My Hands On U"), with a couple of mellow seduction numbers ("Underneath The Cream") and the organ-heavy throwback "U Make My Sun Shine" - more of less a continuation of the unimaginative, unexciting New Power Soul vibe ("Supercute"; "High").
Most Prince albums have some throwaway tracks, but this is one of the very few with no keepers.
The Slaughterhouse (rec. 2000-2001, rel. 2004)
Forgettable funk in the same vein as the previous set ("S&M Groove"; "Northside"), but at least "Hypnoparadise" has fine falsetto and unpredictable underpinnings.
Recycles "2045: Radical Man," which had previously appeared on the Bamboozled soundtrack.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Too old-fashioned to garner big sales or airplay, but Prince recaptured his muse: covering a lot of ground
without sounding like a one-man sampler disc, spinning out bizarrre, gorgeous grooves ("Digital Garden"), and for once resisting the siren song of rap.
There's a fair amount of laid-back jazz (title track, with Najee on sax) and Fender Rhodes ("Everywhere"), guitar solos (the instrumental "The Sensual Everafter") and a live band sound throughout
(the James Brown homage "The Work Pt. 1"); John Blackwell's real drums mostly replace programming.
There are problems, though: "1+1+1 Is 3" is an inferior remake of "Erotic City"; the minute-long "Wedding Feast" is absurd light opera; "She Loves Me 4 Me" is
as trite as the title implies; the opening of "Family Name" relies
way too heavily on computer-generated vocals. But he saves the best for last, with two transcendant tracks: the funk opus "The Everlasting Now" and the indefinable "Last December," which develops
from a gentle ballad to screaming guitar rock (more extreme at both ends than previous album-closers "Gold" and "Purple Rain").
Lyrically it's mostly a commercial for the Jehovah's Witnesses, which I guess should bother me, but it's easy to tune out the message and appreciate the music.
One Nite Alone... (2002)
A fan club release, labelled as "solo piano and voice" though synth and backing vocals crop up occasionally; there's even a full band
(including Blackwell) on "Pearls B4 The Swine" and the swinging, jazzy cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case Of You."
His falsetto sounds better than ever ("Avalanche"), it's refreshing to hear such vigorous acoustic piano ("Young And Beautiful")
and there are some solid tunes (the uptempo "Have A Heart"). The sound is spare but not demo-like, the songs are slow but not Adult Contemporary.
However, several of the songs sound made up on the spot, meandering from one mini-theme to another without building up any momentum
("U're Gonna C Me," title track), and all throughout, the lyrics are clumsier and less heartfelt than usual ("Objects In The Mirror").
As fan-oriented trinkets go, it's middling: nothing comes near the level of the best
material on Crystal Ball or The Truth, but it's a heck of a lot better than Kamasutra.
One Nite Alone... Live! (2002)
A 3-CD live boxed set. I already raved about
the tour these tracks were extracted from on the concerts page, so I won't say much about the
performances; the set list is a combination of recent material ("Xenophobia," "Family Name") and obscure fan favorites ("Extraordinary").
I could complain that the lengthy solo piano set on disc two - twelve songs, only a couple of which are played to completion - is a bit
much, but it does build anticipation for the collection's biggest treat, a disc of mindblowing funk-rock jams culled from aftershows.
It's the purest document yet of Prince's joy in, and talent for, playing, without any of the high concepts or head games: though most of the
tunes are his, he spends as much time playing guitar behind George Clinton, Musiq, Larry Graham and Sheila E. as he does in the spotlight, and seems just as happy.
Less than a career-spanning live retrospective - which I hope we do get someday - but much more than a tour memento.
An MP3-only fan club jazz album, featuring Candy Dulfer (sax), Vanessa Mae (violin), Blackwell and Smith, with Prince on Rhodes-like
piano and occasional guitar ("Xogenous"). Mae plays some lovely stuff ("Xcogitate") and the rhythm section has an admirable light touch,
but as with Prince's work with Madhouse and Eric Leeds, the compositions
tend to be very simple and overly repetitive (title track, where a multi-tracked Dulfer keeps stating the same theme with increasing volume).
Some are so slight they're barely compositions at all ("Xcogitate"), and the project tends to sound better the closer to funk it gets ("Xpand"), but I must
admit, I love to hear Prince keep trying to play jazz when so many other forms of music come so much more easily to him: he's not sticking to his comfort zone, and that ought to count for something.
C-Note (rec. 2002, rel. 2004)
Another fan club album, hastily thrown together to pacify folks who felt they hadn't gotten their $100 worth (see title). Drawn from soundchecks on Fall 2002 tour stops, and all instrumental jams named for the performance location ("Osaka") apart from one vocal number ("Empty Room," a never released 80s love song which builds from a desolate opening to an anthemic climax). The band - with Renato Neto (keys), Smith and Blackwell - is probably my favorite of his many excellent backing units, but they aren't shown to best advantage: the jams are either simple funk licks ("Copenhagen") or understated mood pieces ("Tokyo").
Another instrumental fan club release, and this one really sounds like a Madhouse record, with Leeds
on sax, Prince mostly on lead guitar, and the tunes verging between midtempo funk and soft mood music (the interminable second half of "South").
The disc is organized into four fourteen-minute tracks, but except for "North," each track is made up of several unconnected sections: "East"
starts as a drum solo, shifts to a funk dirge with Prince repeating a three-note riff, then breaks into fast James Brown-style
R&B for a few minutes before an impressionistic, gossamer denouement. Which would be great if the individual sections were up to Prince's standard,
but they're just undistinguished vamps: the middle section of "West" is probably the high point, and even that's no more than a solid groove.
The featured soloists - Leeds and Prince - don't play anything we haven't heard from them before, so though Renato Neto plays some
exceptionally delicate keyboards ("West"), the disc is less interesting and no more entertaining than Xpectation.
Distributed by Columbia; Prince did actual promotion for the first time since 1999's Rave, and in common with that album there's a disconcerting desperation to impress: One genre exercise rapidly follows the next - full-band funk (the nostalgic title track), pop rock ("Cinnamon Girl" - not the Neil Young song), gentle introspection ("Reflection") - without ever settling into a comfortable rhythm. The profusion of arranging tricks ("If I Was The Man In Ur Life"; the self-consciously weird "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance") feels more gimmicky than playful. And unlike The Rainbow Children or The Truth, there's no overriding concept to give structure and focus to the collection. Still, the individual songs are solid (the cathartic rocker "A Million Days"; the mellow butunsettling "What Do U Want Me 2 Do?"), and he sneaks in some clever social commentary, wryly commenting on the Iraq war and government surveilance during the heartbreaking ballad "Call My Name," and reeling off a typically idiosyncratic list of social ills in the brooding, Sly-like "Dear Mr. Man."
The one unqualified flop is "Life O' The Party," a New Power Soul-style tepid dance jam that reuses the melody from Vanity 6's "Nasty Girl." (DBW)
Prince can put together decent sounding, expertly performed tunes in practically any genre without even thinking about it. But just because he can doesn't mean he should, and this undercomposed, trivial, painfully dull album shows why. From the one-chord, sluggish funk title track through the trite, upbeat funk "Get On The Boat" (which does have a pleasant Maceo solo), there's plenty of proficiency but no passion, originality or even a solid melody. He hits all the usual formulas - "Kiss"-style minimalist funk ("Black Sweat"); "Adore"-style R&B ballad ("Satisfy"); "7"-style acoustic pop ("The Word"); arena rocker ("Fury"); delicate ballad ("Te Amo Corazón") - but with astoundingly weak hooks and lyrics ("Lolita"). Guests include protege Tāmar (a singer in the grand tradition of Vanity and Elisa Fiorello), his touring horn section, new rhythm section Joshua Dunham and Cora Coleman Dunham, and percussionists Herbert Urena, Ricky Salas and Sheila E.
I could've rated this lower, but the arrangements and production are so much better developed than New Power Soul - similarly shoddy song-wise - I couldn't see rating them the same.
Planet Earth (2007)
Prince "sold" almost three million copies in the UK on July 15th, as it was included in that day's Daily Mail:
He's still innovating on the distribution side, though he seems to be in a rut as a recording artist.
An iffy grab-bag of styles, as his major releases have been over the past ten years, and it's a step up from 3121 though considerably duller than Musicology.
The good: "Planet Earth" is another in Prince's long line of gradually building power ballads stretching from "Purple Rain" to "Last December"; "Lion Of Judah" is crowned with a spiffy guitar solo.
The bad: "Mr. Goodnight" sports a laughable seduction rap worthy of The Onion's Smoove B; "Future Baby Mama" is a revamp of "Do Me Baby" with the bridge from "Thieves In The Temple" thrown in.
The mediocre: the funk jam "Chelsea Rodgers," an advertisement for his latest protege; the disposable pop/rock "The One U Wanna C" (do u know y he spells out "one"?); the cyber-pseudo-single (downloadable by Verizon customers) "Guitar."
Later in the year, he posted the free track "PFUnk" on the web - it's easily the best song attacking an artist's fanbase ever released.
Apparently Prince fell back in love with his main axe while out on the road backing Tāmar, and this new disc is gloriously guitar-heavy, whether the underlying tune is rock ("Dreamer"), funk ("Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful"), or somewhere in between ("Boom"; the bleak "Colonized Mind").
Most of the compositions are equally inspired (the spellbinding power ballad "4Ever"; "Wall Of Berlin"), though there's some lite pop that doesn't really go anywhere ("The Morning After"; the instrumental "77 Beverly Park").
Half of the songs feature the original N.P.G. rhythm section of Michael B. and Sonny T. (the fusion-y bookends "From The Lotus..." and "...Back 2 The Lotus"); most of the rest feature the Dunhams.
The cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson And Clover" which he'd been streaming at LotusFlow3r.com isn't on the downloadable record - I don't have the physical CD, a Target exclusive.
Prince revisits some of his 80s tropes: synth, programmed drums, and his raciest lyrics in ages ("Dance 4 Me").
Largely uptempo (though "U're Gonna C Me" (reworked from One Nite Alone) is a classic falsetto ballad), the racing "No More Candy 4 U" is the kind of 50s-style rocker he hasn't revisited since "Horny Toad" and "Jack U Off." The lyrics too hark back to the good old days ("Ol' Skool Company," a classic party record cum social comment).
Apart from a Q-Tip guest appearance on "Chocolate Box," everything's produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince - it feels good to write that again.
However, from a songwriting perspective the disc is the weakest of his spring collection, overrun with underwritten vamps ("Valentina") and silly self-aggrandizing ("There'll Never B (Another Like Me)").
Elixer (Bria Valente: 2009)
The latest Princette - apparently Tāmar and Chelsea Rodgers are history - and by that low standard she's not bad. She's listed as co-writer on all the tunes, and they came up with a lot of smooth pop ("Everytime") and soft funk (the best being "All This Love," one of a few tracks with the Dunhams) - sort of a Toni Braxton vibe. And not unlike Braxton's work, the songs are well constructed but not particularly inspired, and together with Valente's mellow delivery you're likely to have trouble staying awake ("Immersion"). Prince duets on the ethereal title track, but otherwise stays in the background, and it's an understatement to say that a bit more of his unpredictability would have been welcome.
Like 3121 but even more so, a collection of tunes that are unmistakably Prince and just as unmistakably third-rate. He covers all his genre bases, from drippy ballad ("Walk In Sand") to politicized funk ("Act Of God"), but none of the songs could crack the lineup of Musicology or Lotusflow3r, let alone one of his landmark albums. (Well, "Sticky Like Glue" is clearly better than "Life O' The Party," but you know what I mean.) As on Mplsound the production mostly references the 80s - "Horny Toad"-y minimalist rock ("Everybody Loves Me"); deliberate funk/rock ("Laydown," the album's best line is his self-description as "the Purple Yoda"); lots of programmed Linn drums ("Compassion") - and while that has some nostalgia value, it's a sobering reminder that back in those days every album - every cut, even the lousy ones - brimmed over with the creative vitality and spark that's missing here. This album's distribution quirk: Bundled with an assortment of European newspapers.
Superconductor (Andy Allo: 2012)
Prince's latest protege release is an opportunity to study his production prowess separately from his other talents: he co-wrote three songs and plays lots of backing tracks, but most of the material is Allo's, and he refrains from outshining her faint abilities on vocals or guitar. As her compositions are - to put it politely - lackluster, he lavishes care on the arrangements:
The title track gets psychedelic pop trappings circa 1985, updated with modern club keyboards; the single "People Pleaser" is loaded with funky horns; if I'm not mistaken, "If I Was A King" is his first venture into reggae since 1992's "Blue Light." At times the borrowings are overt ("Nothing More" is an inferior reworking of "Pink Cashmere") but usually they're more subtle ("Long Gone," which shares a mood but nothing else with "Sometimes It Snows In April"). He pulls out all the stops on "The Calm" - "Diamonds And Pearls" tinkling bells, chiming guitars, flute fills - as if it were a masterpiece rather than just another trite love song. So it's a rewarding listen in a weird way for purple people, but everyone else should keep a safe distance. Also in 2012, Prince released a single, "Rock And Roll Love Affair."
PlectrumElectrum (3rd Eye Girl: 2014)
Originally presented as a back-to-basics, four-on-the-floor rawk project - Donna Grantis, guitar; Ida Nielsen bass; Hannah Ford Welton; drums - and when the band sticks to that idiom they're solid (Grantis's "Ocean"-ic title track; "Wow") though predictable ("Pretzelbodylogic").
Ford and Neilsen in particular sound more stifled by the format than inspired by it ("Marz"). But sticking to a program has never been Prince's M.O., so the group ventures into midtempo love songs ("Whitecaps," showcasing Ford's unimpressive pipes), a cover of Alice Smith's "Another Love" and - best of all - the '90s throwback pop/rap "Boytrouble" featuring Lizzo, Sophie Eris and Claire de Lune of Minneapolis outfit The Chalice.
A couple of earlier singles released as 3rd Eye Girl or Prince & 3rdEyeGirl ("Live Out Loud"; Screwdriver") didn't make the album.
Art Official Age (2014)
Released concurrently with Plectrum, and it'd be tempting to say one is boldly inventive while the other is rear-view-mirror retreads, but in truth each has its share of gems and duds. This release does sound a lot better: it was co-produced by Ford's husband Josh Welton, and if he's responsible for the sonic freshness that's probably the greatest serendipity Prince has gotten from adding a bandmember since Lisa led to Wendy.
The lyrics address the same themes that have been preoccupying him for twenty years - creativity and commoditization ("Clouds"); technology and its discontents ("Art Official Cage") - and, yeah, they're set in a field of funk, rock and EDM tropes, but that description doesn't begin to capture the loveliness of the left turns, the wealth of keyboard sounds that never seem like gimmicks, the quasi-mystical intensity of even the bare-bones love song "The Breakdown."
That said, the second half sags with lots of pleasant-ish love songs ("This Could Be Us") and vague philosophizing ("Time"), so it's not the wall-to-wall pulse-pounder I'm still holding out hope for.
HITNRUN Phase One (2015)
Produced, arranged, composed and performed with Josh Welton (Ford Welton's husband), and I think it's not coincidental that the sound is suddenly up-to-date, with plenty of EDM-y keyboards and programmed drums ("Ain't About To Stop," originally intended for a Rita Ora album).
There's a lot of fluff here - the trite intro "Million $ Show" (featuring Judith Hill); a couple of remixes ("This Could B Us"; "Mr. Nelson") - but several of the tracks really connect: "Shut This Down" and "Like A Mack" make good use of Welton's 21st Century sonics combined with some greasy funk bass; the obscure social comment"X's Face" is the sort of oddity I didn't think Prince was still able to come up with. There are a couple of touching romantic numbers ("1000 X's & O's"; "June"), and I have a soft spot for the 2014 retro-disco single "Fallinlove2nite."
Full review coming soon.
The non-album single "Stare" appeared shortly before this release. (DBW)
What's my name?