The Artist Is Back -- But Don't Call It a Comeback
By ANTHONY DE CURTIS
NEW YORK -- The artist formerly known as Prince leaned forward, pointed to my notebook and raised his voice. "I'm not going to be on 'Behind the Music,"' he asserted. "Will you please say that?" It's a demand in the guise of a question. And he was laughing, but he was also dead serious.
It's not that the Artist -- the tag by which he's come to be known, for convenience as much as metaphoric resonance -- doesn't watch the popular VH1 series himself. As he sat in a lounge at Electric Lady Sound Studios in Greenwich Village, he cited chapter and verse of shows about Hammer, TLC and Lenny Kravitz -- all, significantly, African-American artists who, like him, have had run-ins with the music industry. It's just that he has no patience for the show's inevitable 12-step-derived emotional arc: Performer enjoys huge success and gets ego-crazy; performer makes, then ruefully acknowledges, enormous personal and professional mistakes; performer makes amends and, chastened, moves on.
The Artist, who is now 41, views his life in nothing remotely like those terms. He may have spent much of this decade engaged in an excruciatingly public battle to free himself from Warner Brothers Records, the label that in 1992 negotiated a deal with him that was reported to be worth as much as $100 million. He may have disowned all the albums he made as Prince -- including such masterpieces as "Dirty Mind," "Purple Rain" and "Sign 'O' the Times" -- and sworn that he will re-record his entire catalog to deprive Warner Brothers of royalties. He may have painted the word "slave" on his face and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. And, despite having once been one of pop music's biggest stars, he may have spent the last three years releasing music exclusively -- and extensively -- on his own independent label, NPG Records, and through his Web site. "I don't even know how many albums I've made now," he said coolly.
Yes, all that may be true, but the Artist is absolutely unrepentant. On Nov. 2 he will release a new album, "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic," through an arrangement with Arista Records. It is his first association with a major label since he put out the three-CD set "Emancipation" (1996) through a similar agreement with EMI Records, which subsequently went out of business. (Warner Brothers, which dissolved its contract with the Artist in 1996, has also just released an album of Prince outtakes titled "The Vault . . . Old Friends 4 Sale." The CD's notes include a disclaimer that the "enclosed material . . . was originally intended 4 private use only.") "Rave" will be introduced at a listening party in New York for the international media -- and the Arista sales force -- on Saturday. The first single, a powerful ballad called "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold," will be released on Sept. 22, and the Artist will make a video to accompany it. "I will be touring to promote this album -- definitely," he said, and the tour will be extensive and international. He tapped Gwen Stefani of No Doubt and the rapper Chuck D. for cameos on the album. He has even announced that while he remains the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, "Rave," surprisingly enough, was produced by none other than Prince.
Asked if these developments signal a comeback of sorts, the Artist shot back, "A comeback from what?" As far as he is concerned, his way of going about things has not changed at all since his chart-dominating days of the mid-80's. " 'We want you to do this. We want you to do that' -- I've had people talk to me like that. And loud," he said. " 'Everybody has to answer to someone,' they'd tell me." His sense of insult -- and, again, his voice -- rose. "I'd say, 'I answer to God, fool."'
Clive Davis, the renowned founder and chief executive of Arista and a no-nonsense industry veteran, is betting that "Rave" will please Mammon as well as God.
While he has supported outsiders like the Grateful Dead
and Patti Smith, Davis is best known as a hit maker, a man
with sharp commercial instincts and ambitions. Most recently,
he signed the guitarist Carlos Santana -- one of the Artist's
idols -- to Arista, helped produce his new album, "Supernatural," and
guided him to the Top 10 for the first time in decades.
Typically, the Artist professes no awareness of Davis' relationship with Santana or anything else about Davis' career. "I knew nothing about him," he said simply, explaining that their meeting came about at the suggestion of L. Londell McMillan, the Artist's business partner. "But he knows me. We agreed that the album is full of hits. It was just a question of whether or not we would agree on how it should be put out."
And, the Artist added, Davis "agreed that I own the master tapes" -- a crucial issue in the Artist's war with Warner Brothers.
For his part, Davis has long wanted to work with the Artist, and he is determined to make "Rave" a success. Indeed, when Davis speaks about the Artist, "rave" is the operative word. "This is a poet, a renaissance man, an iconoclast," Davis said. "This is someone who is bringing the state of music further and further along. I don't want to get involved in whether this is hype or not -- the man is at the top of his form. He's coming back peak. I don't think it's an accident that the album is produced by Prince. That says it right there."
But that says what, exactly? Davis comes gently down to earth.
"Look, you're never going to pin him down on something like that," he said with a laugh. "He said with a twinkle in his eye that Prince has always been his favorite producer, and he was the right person for this project. There certainly have been hits associated with Prince. But whether it's the Artist Formerly Known as or the production of Prince, it works."
It would be easy to be skeptical about Davis' enthusiasm, but the undeniable fact is that, regardless of his commercial fortunes, the Artist still holds a great degree of allure among both executives and performers in the music industry. Label honchos often take their ability to work successfully with eccentric artists as a point of pride, and the Artist has no equal in that regard. Performers, meanwhile, view him as the epitome of an artist's Artist, a man who creates whenever and however the mood strikes him and who plays by nobody else's rules.
That the Artist carries himself, both on stage and off, with instinctive rock-star hauteur doesn't hurt either. "He's splendid, he's sumptuous, oh my God, he's so striking," said Ani DiFranco, another rebel artist, who plays guitar on one track on "Rave." "Being someone who also lives in her own world and makes a ridiculous amount of records, just to watch him work was fascinating. Any instrument he picks up, he speaks through. He's an example of the ability to keep being inspired by your life. Also, he's sexy. I certainly haven't been immune!"
Sheryl Crow also appears on the new album, singing and playing harmonica on a ballad titled "Baby Knows." "It's not only his ability to play so many instruments, it's the level at which he plays them," said Ms. Crow of the Artist, who plays virtually all the instruments on "Rave." "I've heard him play piano like Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock, move over to bass and play like Larry Graham, then play guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Buddy Guy. He's written some of the most amazing songs ever. And the main impression I was left with is that he really loves what he does."
Dressed entirely in black save for his yellow, ankle-length, high-heeled boots, the matching gold trim on his beret and the gold pendant with the symbol that is his name hanging around his neck, the Artist was putting the final touches on his album at Electric Lady, which was built by Jimi Hendrix, another of his heroes. His wife, Mayte, sat nearby. The Artist's distrust of contracts extends to their marriage bonds, which they have mutually dissolved, though they remain a couple. "We read them over, and there were a lot things in there we didn't like," the Artist casually explained, referring to the marriage documents they signed in 1996. Any further consequences of that decision remain unspecified. Mayte currently lives in Spain, while he continues to live in his hometown, Minneapolis.
At first the Artist was reluctant to let me hear any of the album or even to reveal the titles of the songs. "I'm tripping on that; when I listen, I prefer not knowing what the titles are," he said.
Then, as I was about to leave a couple of hours later, he asked, almost shyly: "Would you like to hear some of it? I'd hate to have you go without hitting you with something." In the studio's control room, he played sections of four songs at such crushing volume that a rubber fish sitting on top of a speaker fell off because of the shaking. The Artist can't be still while the music is playing, so every few seconds he came over and shouted commentary into my ear. He was speaking as loudly as he could, but I could barely hear him.
One sentence came through loud and clear, however. "Tell me that's not a hit," he insisted as the swelling choruses and Arabic scales of "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold" washed over us. I turned to look at him. His chest was puffed out and he was smiling. His hips and shoulders were moving. But in his dark eyes, beneath the bravado, there was a vulnerability he refused to acknowledge, as well as a hope that the answer would be what he needed to hear.
NPG Records has provided us with some feedback about the interview:
NPG RECORDS on behalf of would like 2 thank Anthony DeCurtis and the New York Times 4 allowing him a forum in which 2 speak. The article seemed well-intentioned, although there's just a couple of things we'd like 2 clear up:
Thank u again, Mr DeCurtis. The doors of Paisley Park r always open 2 u.