April 22, 2004

Prince's Strange Relationship

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In recent history, popular culture has tarred or simply forgotten Prince’s legacy. I know the kids don’t understand this anymore, so to gently remind: This is the star who, with one song (“Sign ‘O the Times”), launched political underground hip-hop, Beck’s commercial career, and a capital punishment by funk. But the man who lathered every known instrument in his impish funk-love is now no more than a cruel, unpronounceable joke, coming from a time when the radio would play quaint little songs about AIDS and jacking off. But as the years creeped by and recent Prince albums became more and more irrelevant and inscrutable, it became evident (perhaps surprisingly) that a world without Prince is not a world anyone wants to live in. Prince is the R&B version of water: essential to life and composing 85 percent of our body. Whether you’re aware of it or not.

After a vicious battle with Warner Bros. that left his lovely face scarred and enslaved (literally), his NPG Records willfully became more and more insular and prolific. By the time 1996’s Emancipation hit, it was the longest album of all-new material ever released in pop music history. And one of the longest failures. When N.E.W.S. came out last year, the album of four 14-minute textural and sonic explorations seemed more influenced by Sonic Youth than Sly Stone.

This year, the world once again encountered Prince as he slyly hid under the awnings of Beyonce’s glistening, bronze body at the Grammy Awards. People could barely contain their enthusiasm. “BEYONCE!,” they shrieked. “I’M SPEECHLESS!” And one griseous old coal miner in the back of the theatre croaked out, “There’s that Prince fellow.” After a combustible performance at his induction to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Prince returns with his alleged comeback, the tepidly entitled Musicology. And if it doesn’t even try to soar as high as 1999 or Parade, it’s awfully reminiscent of, well, Prince, which should be enough for anyone to enjoy.

It would take a septennial to develop a better album introduction than the title track. A bass riff bamboozles the hissing synths with a fury unparalleled since the heyday of the J.B.’s. Prince’s eunuch grunts, and dented lungs toss off categorical imperatives like they were undergarments: “Listen to the groove, y’all.” And it even encapsulates that charismatic Prince megalomania as he ends the track listening to a radio that can’t stop playing his hits. The only downside is his shout-outs to Chuck D. and Jam Master Jay, which is a little bit like Miles Davis giving a shout-out to Billy Joel and Justin Timberlake.

“Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” is the political tract, even if it’s not exactly what most of us would call coherent. Prince gets all Hegelian on us, inquiring, “Who’s pimpin’ who?” My initial guess was the pimp, but by the end of the song I stood corrected. This tale of a “dirty dog with hips and chicks” sports sparse, bright punctuations that sprout into lambent bouts of proto-jazz, post-funk guitar. It concludes with the immortal line, “Put your name on this pre-nup, and let’s go to the disco.”

The party just keeps on impercofying with “Life O’ the Party,” a filthy, cracking beat that rebounds off a sole plucked string as Prince’s party jam evolves into a grimaced rant on plastic surgery and his sexuality. At the same time, it’s a return to those more innocent party anthems of Sam Cooke and The Beatles’ “Birthday.” “Dear Mr. Man” flounders in some sinister ’40s jazz, handily quotes Matthew 5:5, and condemns Cheney in one deft stroke. Though there is a notable absence of ballads, “A Million Days”‘ serene, limpid orchestra hums along under some of Prince’s most effective lyrics in a decade: “I didn’t have the heart to say I’m sorry/ I don’t have a heart at all.” The chorus is a conflagration of total, devastated melancholy and superhero anthem. On “Cinnamon Girl” (no, not that one), stomping synth patches squeal over chunky, masturbating guitar and a solemnizing choir. If Prince doesn’t exactly sound like Neil Young, his voice takes on a new resonance and sincerity rarely heard from this smoothest of singers.

Is it a return to form? Are you dense? Prince is the return. Prince is the form. That’s like asking “Is it a Prince to Prince?” That doesn’t even make sense, and the answer is still yes. Prince is pure affirmation. When the critics look back on this decade, its canon will consist of Dylan, Springsteen, Prince, Johnny Cash, David Byrne, and Solomon Burke. The generation war is over, and we lost. We younglings are simply. All we can do is listen to the commands of Prince’s Gulag: “Listen to the groove, y’all.”

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor-in-Chief