With these two albums, Prince returns to Warner Bros., the label where he made his Eighties classics, then rancorously left in 1996. Art Official Age is an attempt to get back to the violet-tinted pop mastery of the Purple Rain era. Plectrumelectrum is a set of exploratory funk-rock jams written with his new all-female band, 3rdEyeGirl. Guess which one you’ll probably like best.
A Legitimately Magical Prince Album
By Ben Greenman, The New Yorker
In 2010, Prince released an album, called “20Ten,” that ushered in the longest silence of his thirty-five-year career as a recording artist. For most of Prince’s creative existence, he’s put out an album a year, sometimes double and triple sets. After “20Ten,” though, came nothing. Well, nothing by Prince’s standards: plenty of singles trickled out, along with rumors about upcoming projects, but there was no major release. Then, earlier this year, he announced a return to Warner Bros. records, at first for the purpose of assembling a thirtieth-anniversary edition of “Purple Rain,” which would include outtakes and rare demos. This has not yet materialized. What has emerged is his first album of new material since “20Ten,” and the second: this week, Prince resurfaces with “Art Official Age,” a solo album, and “PlectrumElectrum,” a long-delayed collaboration with his all-female backing group, 3rd Eye Girl.
“PlectrumElectrum” is easier to understand and easier to dispense with, which doesn’t mean that it’s subpar, exactly. It’s a short rock record with plenty of guitar, and includes meditations on sex, self-empowerment treatises, and energetic songs about energy. The more ambitious songs often spotlight someone other than Prince. Hannah Ford, the band’s drummer, sings the plaintive ballad “Whitecaps,” and “Boy Trouble” is a strange flower of a song with an out-of-left-field speed rap.
The so-called solo record, “Art Official Age,” is considerably more interesting. For starters, Prince has dispensed with his typical “Produced, Arranged, Composed, and Performed by Prince” credit, the one on which much of his mystique as a one-man band and all-around genius was founded, and has shared production credit with Joshua Welton, who also happens to be Hannah Ford’s husband. Was this an admission by Prince that he needed another pair of ears? Was he in search of a more contemporary sound? The quasi-title track that opens the album (“Art Official Cage”) seems to suggest so. It’s a strange welter of E.D.M. clichés and Europop, with some gnomic lyrics, some grinding guitar, and some rapping. It’s a mess, provocative but not exactly successful; it sounds like a track that was left off Prince’s 1989 “Batman” soundtrack, updated for 20Fourteen.
But the rest of the album is easily Prince’s most coherent and satisfying record in more than a decade. In the past few years, the Prince songs that leaked online seemed to be less about paving the way for a new album and more about trolling the Internet. “Breakfast Can Wait,” a lithe and light funk number, was released with a cover photo of Dave Chappelle as Prince. Only a snippet of “This Could Be Us” leaked, but it was enough to confirm that Prince had written a song about a popular Internet meme that used a picture of him from his “Purple Rain” days. As proper singles started appearing, though, the album came into sharper focus. Songs like “Clouds” and “U Know,” slower and more repetitive than the kaleidoscopic funk-rock we’ve come to expect from Prince, suggested a new direction—a kind of gelatinous, futuristic R. & B.
These tracks worked in concert with the other singles to sketch out a theme: that technology separates us from those we’re close to, and even from ourselves; and that the lack of integration may well result in disintegration. “Clouds,” the second track on the album, which opens with the sound of a radio tuning, critiques the way the computer age offloads experiences to distant servers (that’s what the clouds are); the song instead prioritizes romance and human connection (“You should never underestimate the power of a kiss on the neck when she doesn’t expect a kiss on the neck”). It also folds in a well-constructed argument about the way the Internet era has encouraged empty exhibition and a half-baked argument about violence and bullying, before ending with a sci-fi monologue delivered by a British female voice that seems to suggest that Prince has been placed in some sort of centuries-long suspended animation.
“Clouds” is a kind of manifesto: “When life’s a stage in this brand new age / How do we engage?” Prince’s answer is to do a version of what he’s always done, which is absorb nearly every kind of music available and, via alchemic wizardry, turn it into something that produces thoughts and emotions. That’s even more evident on “U Know,” which is built on a sample of the singer Mila J’s “Blinded” and alternates wordy half-rapped verses about romantic misunderstanding and spiritual crisis with an irresistibly seductive chorus. The songs seem like R. & B., but they’re statements of deep unrest. Then the album hits a lull, with tracks that declare the power of music rather than demonstrate it, and insist on the superiority of the past. It’s grumpy-old-man music, done with plenty of panache. None of this, though, is sufficient preparation for the homestretch of “Art Official Age,” which is where Prince stops worrying about the future or the past and truly inhabits the present. Beginning with “What It Feels Like,” a duet with the singer Andy Allo, Prince delivers a series of ballads, broken up by interludes and a red-meat dance song, that are like nothing he’s done before.
It’s worth thinking about what it means for Prince to step into new territory. He has spent years trying to recapture pieces of his old self: the provocateur in black lingerie who got booed as an opening act for the Rolling Stones, the New Wave-inflected keyboard freak of “1999,” the motorcycle-riding rock god who ruled the world after “Purple Rain,” the tortured psychedelic introvert of “Around the World in a Day,” the jazzy genius of “Parade,” the pop polymath of “Sign O the Times,” the deeply divided spiritual pilgrim of “Lovesexy.” These old selves then became albatrosses. His albums of the late nineties and the past decade found Prince making gestures toward those personas without ever really inhabiting them again. And how could he? Here, for the first time, he suggests an alternative: maybe there’s an entirely new Prince music, possibly aided and abetted by Joshua Welton, that harnesses his talents and his vision. Maybe he’s not condemned to auto-pastiche.
The closing songs are hard to absorb at first. “Way Back Home” sounds sluggish for a while and then, suddenly, it sounds revelatory. It’s a self-portrait painted in the strangest and most accurate colors imaginable, a melancholy confession and bruised boast in which Prince cops to the fact that he’s out of place, out of sorts, pushed forward at times by desperation but “born alive” in a world where most people are “born dead.” And “Time,” which runs for nearly seven minutes, is a love song, briefly lickerish, that’s mostly about the loneliness of the road. In both cases, Prince brings the tempo way down, focusses on the nuances of his melodies, shares the spotlight with female vocalists, weaves in motifs from earlier songs from the album, and adds a steady supply of surprising touches (such as the superbly funky, if subdued, horn outro to “Time”).
The ballads are broken up by “FunkNRoll,” a straightforwardly exciting party song that also appears on “PlectrumElectrum,” but the version here serves the album’s over-all message—it’s knotty, both playful and eerie, with sonar-like sound effects that create a sense of distance and mediation. The closing track, “Affirmation III,” is a haunting reprise of “Way Back Home.” And while it’s abstract (the clipped, angelic backing chorus, which seems to be on loan from Laurie Anderson, is even more prominent), it’s also concrete. For the first time in years, Prince seems not just carnal but corporeal. Way back on “Controversy,” he challenged categories: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” By the time of “I Would Die 4 U,” the challenge had turned to taunting: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something you can never understand,” and then, messianically, “I’m not a human.” Here, he presents himself as something understandable and fully human. In “Breakfast Can Wait,” he pleads with his lover that she can’t “leave a black man in this state.” But that black man is in this state: he’s in his fifties, grappling with loneliness, aging, creative inspiration, self-doubt, a shifting cultural landscape, and love. As luck would have it, he’s also Prince.
BY JAMIESON COX | SEPTEMBER 30, 2014 9:00 AM EDT
In the two decades since Prince’s long-tailed imperial phase finally wrapped — and yes, it’s been that long since his last top 10 hit, 1994’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” — his vigor has waxed and waned in a cyclical fashion. After the mid-90s minor triumphs of The Gold Experience and the sprawling Emancipation, he wandered aimlessly for a decade, only to recapture the world’s attentions with a pair of strong releases in 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121; after that, it was back into a creative depression of his own making, with more energy devoted to scrubbing YouTube of his music than to writing quality songs.
Now, again, a renaissance: ever since the Purple One started using Twitter via the account of his current all-female backing trio, 3rdEyeGirl, last August, he’s been writing, performing, and operating as a public figure with renewed vitality. A riff on Dave Chappelle’s infamous impression in the cover art for single “Breakfast Can Wait,” a stellar guest spot on Janelle Monaé’s The Electric Lady, a hilarious appearance on New Girl, even a song inspired by the #ThisCouldBeUsButYouPlayin Twitter meme; all are evidence of a kind of re-entrance into the larger cultural conversation Prince hasn’t managed in a decade. The final piece is new music, and he’s finally delivered with two new full-lengths dropping in tandem: there’s Art Official Age, a solo record, and PlectrumElectrum, released as Prince & 3rdEyeGirl. In keeping with his larger resurgence, some of the best music Prince has recorded in years is spread across the two records. Even the failures contained within are interesting, which is more than one can say about Planet Earth or 20Ten.
Art Official Age is the superior of Prince’s two new discs, a collection built around a very loosely applied narrative — Prince has been placed into suspended animation and woken up 45 years in the future, in a world rid of misogyny or vanity — and a couple basic aesthetic attributes. It’s light, crisp, expertly sung, and consistently fun; it finds Prince engaging in a dialogue with contemporary pop music he hasn’t managed in a long time, never mind the decade-plus he spent representing the vanguard of said music. “Art Official Cage” nods to EDM with accelerating synth pulses and, hilariously, a little drop; “U Know” is lush, sneering hip-hop, stark and shot through with breathy moans. Elsewhere he churns out epic electro-pop ballads and breezy, brisk funk like “This Could Be Us” and “The Gold Standard,” the kind of songs he’s been making for over three decades, his voice still dexterous and feathery. And nestled within the album’s core, a song that manages to hang with the best of his recorded output in “Breakfast Can Wait,” a low-key expression of domestic bliss that’s warm, friendly, and effortlessly sensual. It’s as approachable as Prince has ever seemed.
Art Official Age also finds Prince incorporating his spirituality into his composition with a deftness and openness often missing from his other records. Many songs on the album, from “U Know” to “What It Feels Like” and “Way Back Home,” are explicitly religious — and indeed, the story anchoring the album is really just another version of apotheosis — but they aren’t oppressive or heavy-handed. Instead, they posit spirituality as just another source of pleasure and fulfillment, the way sexuality once dominated that aspect of Prince’s music, and illuminate the similarities between the two. It’s a restrained, mature expression of a major part of his life.
PlectrumElectrum, on the other hand, is sonically and thematically consistent, brash, and swaggering where Art Official Age is eclectic and laid back. The genre of the day is hard, bluesy rock, a good choice when it comes to showcasing 3rdEyeGirl’s technical skills; the instrumental title track is a solid example of the form, stuffed with chunky, bold riffs and expertly played rhythms. But while there’s evidence of proficiency to spare throughout PlectrumElectrum, the album is less compelling than Art Official Age, save slower-paced outliers like “Stopthistrain” and “Tictactoe.” Prince is a tough act to match when it comes to vocal agility and charisma, even in his mid-50s, and indeed the album’s best songs feature him playing an able duet partner and lending a touch of sensuality to the proceedings. Otherwise, songs like opener “Wow” and single “Pretzelbodylogic” are surprisingly anemic given the heavy crunch of their guitar lines and arrangements.
Even though PlectrumElectrum is a less worthwhile effort than Art Official Age, it still stands tall over most of Prince’s other late period output; on its own, it would mark a restoration of energy and liveliness to his discography for the first time in a decade. Coupled with another, better disc, it’s a startling return to relative form from an artist who has seemed wholly unconcerned with quality control — or even quality — for much of the last decade.
By Jon Bream Star Tribune | SEPTEMBER 29, 2014 — 1:23PM
Beyoncé released her new album last year without any advance notice. U2 did the same this month — but gave away its record free to iTunes account holders. Prince has decided to go old school with his brand new project.
Make that projects. Like Bruce Springsteen and Guns 'N Roses in the early '90s, he is issuing two new albums on a single day Tuesday. But of course Prince takes a slightly different approach — one is with his new band, 3rdEyeGirl, the other is pretty much a one-man-band effort.
"Art Official Age," the Prince record, and "PlectrumElectrum," with 3rdEyeGirl, are his first U.S. albums since 2009's "LotusFlow3r/MPLSound," a triple-CD that was a Target exclusive. The following year, he offered "20Ten" only in Europe, distributing it via newspapers and magazines. The two new discs are his first for Warner Bros. since 1996, when he acrimoniously left the label that signed him as a teenager and was his home for 19 years.
"Plectrum" is the more fully realized and satisfying disc. It's more energetic, emotional and exciting. It helps that Prince and 3rdEyeGirl — guitarist Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer Hannah Ford Welton — have been performing most of these songs in concert for a good year and a half. There are palpable sparks from working with a new band — one that seems more creatively collaborative than any Prince group since the Revolution.
The recording balances the heavy-rock workouts heard in concert with lighter, more crafted pop pieces and even — surprise —a rap tune featuring Lizzo, currently the toast of the Twin Cities. Her number, "Boy Trouble," is fresh, funky and feminine, with Prince somewhat invisible on the track. Welton takes lead vocals on the dreamy and wistful "Whitecaps," which sounds like he encouraged her to listen to Joni Mitchell.
But the Purple One's fingerprints and voice are all over "Plectrum."
"Marz" is a speedy punk-rocker with social commentary, reminiscent of "Ronnie, Talk to Russia" from his 1981 LP "Controversy." "Anotherlove" starts like slow-burn Prince before blossoming into a slinky, Fleetwood Mac-evoking rocker. On "Fixurlifeup," Prince comments on the pop world and encourages women: "A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band o boys / Trying 2 b a star when u're just another brick in the misogynistic wall o noise.
What stands out on "Plectrum" are the heavy rockers. The opening "Wow" is filled with attitude, mystery and guitar fireworks. The title track is a five-minute instrumental journey that sounds like the James Gang's "Funk 49" goes jazz-rock fusion. And the CD ends with the galvanizing blast of the funky, sassy and slightly swinging "Funknroll."
Electro-funk concept album
Prince offers a strikingly different reading of "Funknroll" on "Art Official Age." It's spare electro-funk, with manipulated vocals and eventually a carnival-like vibe. It's not half as exciting as the "Plectrum" version.
That song isn't the only connection between the discs. There's a visual link. On the cover of "AOA" Prince is wearing sunglasses with three lenses. Those shades would fit perfectly on the 3rdEyeGirl logo that decorates the actual CD of "Plectrum."
"Art Official Age'' — "artificial age," get it? – seems to be a concept album that's a bit unformed. Set to somewhat familiar sounds of early Prince one-man synth-funk, it does some philosophizing about life, happiness and the afterlife, and teases by having a nurse with a British accent address him as "Mr. Nelson." Yes, that's his surname.
On "Clouds" (a nod to Joni Mitchell or technology), he talks about the power of a kiss on the neck, and that nurse gives him something to put him in suspended animation for 45 years. It's a place where the sounds of his old albums "Parade" and "Around the World in a Day" pollinate.
Aided by DJ/producer Joshua Welton (Hannah's husband), Prince samples a variety of sounds, from Euro-dance with Latin tinges on the shape-shifting, danceable title track, to pretty ballads that echo "The Beautiful Ones" from "Purple Rain." Some arrangements don't seem fully thought out, as evidenced on the spare, formless and passion-less "What It Feels Like," the jazzy slow jam "Time" with its tacked-on synth-funk ending or the cartoonish Daffy Duck voice on the PG-sexy "Breakfast Can Wait" ("Fresh cup of coffee, no, no/ I'd rather have you in my glass"). That's not the only dubious lyric here. In "This Could Be Us," he sings about going steady. At age 56? Artificial age, indeed.
The best things here are the emotion-packed ballad "Way Back Home," which could be romantic or religious, and "The Gold Standard," an intriguingly eclectic workout with classic Prince synth-funk keyboards, crisp, funky guitar a la "Kiss" and a liquid bass line that suggests Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."
Prince is blurring plenty of lines between old and new on these two new albums. Neither matches his personal gold standard, but they are a welcome end to the longest recording drought of his career.
Prince puts an end to his patchy period once and for allBy Abigail Covington | 10/01/14 12:15PM
There are only two camps of people in this world: Prince apologists and Prince fault-finders. With the arrival of Prince’s new albums, Art Official Age and Plectrum Electrum, both sides are calling on their members to fall in line. As the reviews start pouring in, there will likely be loyalists who claim these albums to be Prince’s best since Sign O’ The Times, as well as the skeptics who refuse to dole out praise for either record. This case of extremism has plagued Prince ever since the ’80s ended. Starting with Graffiti Bridge and stretching up to the present, Prince’s so-called patchy period has lasted twice as long as his golden era.
That means each Prince release post-Lovesexy has had the same hefty question foisted upon it: Will this be the album that bookends this period? And in a startlingly predictable fashion, the apologists have often boldly answered, “yes” even in the face of extreme cases—like 2007’s unpleasant Planet Earth—while naysayers have insisted that Prince’s reign ended with the cassette tape, and that his new music is overrated by nostalgic audiophiles. This type of behavior is predictable given the size and scope of Prince’s early successes, and by comparison, his towering pile of so-so subsequent efforts. Though, to measure any album’s worth by such all-or-nothing metrics is bad practice. In this case, it pins Prince to the past and denies the albums the right to exist in the isolation of the present moment. And when considered in isolation, in this moment alone and none before it, Art Official Age, in particular, despite moments of turbulence, soars to great heights indeed.
That’s not to say that Plectrum Electrum is devoid of bright moments. Hannah Ford Welton’s mellow, steadfast drumming on “Whitecaps” is mesmerizing as are her semi-sweet vocals on “Stopthistrain.” In fact, Plectrum Electrum is arguably the more listenable of the two releases. It takes a no-nonsense approach to funk and for the most part plays near the shallow shores of rock ’n’ roll’s enormous waters. And while this rule-abiding behavior makes for a good album devoid of any outstanding issues, it also inhibits the album from being great. It’s smart but not brilliant, listenable but ultimately forgettable.
Thankfully Plectrum Electrum’s minimal impact is made up for with Prince’s solo effort: Art Official Age—an album so hot and memorable it scorches the ears upon first listen. It is a tour de force in style, production, and innovation, and it’s ushered in as such when Prince welcomes his disciples back home. “You’ve come a long way” he states as his electronic orchestra builds a Tiësto-esque soundscape around him. This is Prince 2.0. “Art Official Cage” might have funk in its DNA, but it’s dressed in EDM. With a relentless four-to-the-floor beat and a smattering of strange, futuristic sound effects—including air-horns, running water, and laser beams—“Art Official Cage” is the least focused track on the album. It sounds more like the theme song to a UFO landing than anything else, but luckily the remainder of the album doesn’t stay so far out in orbit. With “Clouds” Prince tunes back into the funk and homes in on the album’s central theme: the diminishing of human relationships caused by the excessive use of technology, or as Prince puts it, “When life’s a stage / In this brand new age / How do we engage?” It’s a funky rap against broadcasted emotional expressions that avoids turning into grumpy-old-man music by suggesting a better way forward—“You should never underestimate / The power of a kiss on the neck / When she doesn’t expect it”—instead of pleading for a return to the past. A smart lyrical choice that makes all the difference in separating Prince from other grandfathers of rock ’n’ roll who struggle to learn new tricks.
Despite a few quality clubbangers, it’s the ballads that shine brightest on Art Official Age. “This Could Be Us” features Prince’s faultless falsetto and a lithe piano line working in tandem to create a high-pitched, crystal-clear sound. On “Breakdown” Prince continues to pluck notes from his upper register as he sings about a breakup with a kind of humility and fatigue that is refreshingly down to earth. Lyrics like “I was sorry, so sorry for the things I used to do” ground Prince in plain human emotions, the likes of which he hasn’t explicitly referenced since he took on the roll of the embarrassed and unwanted lover in 1992’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.”
Songs like “U Know,” “What It Feels Like,” and “Funknroll” act as buffers between the balladry, and could easily pass as singles written and produced by artists 30 years Prince’s junior. All three songs feature in-vogue elements of modern R&B. The isolated boom, snap, snares of Miguel come alive on “Funknroll,” while traces of Justin Timberlake’s signature welter of seductive sounds are detectible on “U Know” and the stark, ethereal orchestration of a Weeknd composition hides in plain sight on “What It Feels Like.” Ultimately, “U Know” is the strongest of the three tracks, because Prince plays around more, deploying the popular elements of modern R&B but also recognizing their malleability and sculpting them into a new sound, replete with warped warbles and dizzying tempo changes. This is meant not so much for today as it is for the future—a fitting song for a man who has always been considered ahead of his time.
So far ahead in fact that sometimes it can be disorienting, as Prince expresses on the confessional track, “Way Back Home.” Here again, Prince feels corporeal instead of otherworldly. He admits to aging and feeling out of touch, then protects his bruised ego by insisting that he was “born alive” in a world where most people are “born dead.” But being so kinetic in a passive world can be isolating, as Prince cops to when he sings, “All I ever wanted was to be left alone.” Left alone to roam around in his dreams in order to “find his way back home,” a destination that is difficult for Prince to pin down.
Ambiguity, more than anything, seems to have inspired “Way Back Home” and much of Art Official Age. In his lifelong quest to understand the essence of truth, love, and life, Prince has made many discoveries, each one leading to another rabbit hole rather than a final destination. Somewhere along this quest something inspired Prince to pivot, make nice with Warner Bros., and seek answers in new places—in new collaborations (partial credit for this record’s success must be given to co-producer Joshua Welton), in more down-to-earth lyrics, and in more modern soundscapes. All of which led to Art Official Age being a stellar album that functions more as an ellipsis than a period. This album is an indicator that Prince is still pulling levers and asking questions. In singing about what he is seeking—be it a lover who won’t abandon him or a place that feels like home—as opposed to what he has found, Prince frees himself from the past, unmoors from the future, and reenters the present. And in the cradle of the moment, with all of its unknowns and unsolved issues ahead, Prince has finally recaptured a sound that is both evolved and accessible to cynics and evangelists alike.
By Kyle Anderson | Updated November 08, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST
Prince is undoubtedly A singular talent, though he’s rarely flown entirely solo. Yes, he can play multiple instruments — at times, he’s been a veritable one-man orchestra — but his best work often comes with comrades at his side, be they the Revolution, the New Power Generation, or any number of single-named divas. His two new albums, one a solo joint, the other a collaboration with his raucous all-female touring band, 3rdEyeGirl, stand as a testament to the power of pal-dom.
PLECTRUMELECTRUM, the effort driven by 3rdEyeGirl, is the stronger of the two, if only because it better captures what makes Prince such a lasting onstage draw. He and the girls trade off vocal duties, creating a bold, dynamic playfulness. PLECTRUM‘s hooks are simple but superior, especially on the lighters-up power ballad ”Anotherlove” and the propulsive hybrid ”Fixurlifeup.”
His solo album Art Official Age, on the other hand, runs on unadulterated id, maniacally leaping between styles and genres — sometimes several times per track. Even the purest pop songs get derailed by the sheer volume of ideas he attempts to cram into every sonic cranny, including a confusing sci-fi narrative thread that periodically breaks in. (There’s a lot of nonsense about telepathy.)
Art isn’t a disaster; ”What It Feels Like” is a delightfully sinewy R&B jam, and ”Breakfast Can Wait” remains the best song ever written about choosing sex over pancakes. But it often feels insular to the point of suffocating. The 3rdEyeGirl ladies reestablish a rule that has always been true for Prince: Invite your friends along.
by Amelia Maher | published: 1 Oct 2014
Prince has been a big noise in the music industry long enough to know how to work it to his advantage, and Art Official Age arrives after an extensive period of teasing from the Purple One. There was the Glastonbury kerfuffle – the ‘will he or won’t he headline’ question lingered on lips for weeks. Prince really took his time before destroying the rumour, all the while teasing fans with surprise shows across the UK and America. During these appearances he introduced his protégés, the all-female funk rock band 3RDEYEGIRL, to the world. The shows whipped up excitement and brought attention back to him, and fans and the momentarily excited stood to attention side by side to revel in Prince’s staggering live performances. Needless to say, it’s been a long summer of waiting to see what his next move would be.
And lo and behold, Prince has come back with a vengeance with his 34th studio album, alongside the simultaneous release of 3RDEYEGIRL’s album PLECTRUMELECTRUM. An artist with such an extensive back catalogue and with a formidable reputation as Prince’s is going to be faced with many an eagerly expectant fan, and at least as many a naysayers ready to shoot him down. With Art Official Age, both parties will be satisfied and disappointed in roughly equal measure. There are moments of genuine highs here that suggest a real return to form after 2010’s 20Ten album, where Prince’s ideas and creativity seem endless and his talent boundless. Yet, there are moments that seem wholly unnecessary, too.
Art Official Age gets off to an interesting start, with Prince slowly saying “Welcome home class, you’ve come a long way” over a cheesy club dance beat and then – a klaxon horn? It proves to be the prelude for an album that is something of a mess as far as ideas – and there are many – go. Art Official Age reveals itself to be the aural equivalent of a mood board with paint spilled over it. It is definitely an experiment of sounds, but it doesn’t always work. In parts it doesn’t sound like Prince. It’s hard to know exactly what it does sound like.
Fortunately, Clouds comes in and things start to pick up. It is a full on funked-up Prince tune, full of sexiness. Then there’s this odd session where a bad impersonation of an English accent informs you that you have been in suspended animation for 45 years. This narrative excess would well have been left off, for underneath it all is a fantastically sexy song. Unfortunately, it’s not the last we will hear from this weird conceptual voice.
Breakdown introduces the much stronger middle section of the album. It sees a much more honest Prince step forward, and the way it bursts into life with the introduction of the first chorus is nothing short of stunning. This really is a firm reminder of why Prince is still a big deal. It’s a heart-wrenching song of a love gone wrong, where the longing is amplified by the soaring strings, and builds to a spectacularly over-the-top climax. It’s just what fans will want to hear.
The songs that take up the middle section of this album are by far the strongest. From the full-on-funk of The Gold Standard to the laid-back r’n’b vibes of Breakfast Can Wait, this is some of Prince’s better work. It’s hard at these points to accept that he’s now 56, as songs such as U KNOW sound as though they were written for Frank Ocean or Usher. As such, they demonstrate that he still has his finger firmly on the pulse of what is happening in music today. It’s as though he’s showing how easy it is for him to make this kind of fantastically sensual and brilliant R’n’B – so easy it sounds as though he’s not even trying.
Yet, there are strange interludes of ‘affirmations’ throughout that just sound out of place and pretentious. And What It Feels Like and This Could Be Us sound like the same song split in two. Such moments let down the excellence of the tracks that make up the bulk of the album. Of course, Prince is not a man known for obeying the ‘less is more’ rule, but there are sections of this album where the excessively excessive for excessiveness’ sake draw attention away from the parts that are genuinely fantastic. Not that Prince cares what anyone thinks. He proves with this album that he will experiment and make the music he wants to make: whether it’s funked up sex songs, R’n’B vocals that challenge all before him, or his own signature sound, he’s going to keep on keeping on. We haven’t seen the end of him yet. And on the single-minded evidence of Art Official Age, that’s very much a good thing.
Prince is back on Warner Brothers more than two decades after his bitter departure from the label, and he has two new albums in tow: one solo record, and one credited to his all-female backing band 3rdEyeGirl.
Back in the mid-1990s, Prince and Warner Brothers did not split amicably. Not only did the superstar write the word SLAVE on his face, he also changed his name to an unpronounceable logo that was quickly translated into English as “The Artist Formerly Known As…” Unhappy with faltering sales in the new decade, he tried to release a quick slew of albums in order to get out of his contract, but Warner insisted on waiting the industry-standard two years between major releases. It must have felt like a demotion after Prince more or less owned the 1980s, a decade when even a flop like Under the Cherry Moon could spin off a hit album like Parade. Despite his complaints, however, Prince never regained his former popularity following his departure from Warner; as he struggled to go his own way and keep up with trends he was no longer setting, his independent output quickly grew prodigious and preeningly self-indulgent, ranging from the triple-disc Emancipation in 1996 to the soggy The Rainbow Children in 2001 to the one-two punch of MPLSound and LotusFlow3r in 2009.
What’s most surprising about Prince re-signing (or resigning?) with Warner Brothers nearly twenty years later is just how much sense it makes for both parties. The label has welcomed one of its signature stars back to the fold, who brings his never-reissued/never-remastered back catalog with him. They’ve already teased a new edition of Purple Rain—the dream we all dream of—and Prince gets some major-label backing at a time when he seems creatively rejuvenated and newly focused. A string of startlingly solid singles led to Art Official Age, which despite its ludicrous title, is the most engaged Prince has sounded in a long while. In particular, “Breakfast Can Wait” is an AM lovemaking jam that schools R. Kelly with its old-school slink and Prince in supreme pillowtalk mode (“Come here baby, let me put you on my plate”).
Musically, Art Official Age is all over the map—gloriously so, in fact—as though Prince is trying to cram a triple album into a single disc. Opener “Art Official Cage” cribs directly from Daft Punk’s more arena-ready moments, building a post-disco banger on some Nile Rodgers-style rhythm guitar. It sounds perhaps too familiar, but the song mimics its source with aplomb and what sounds like Princely arrogance. Cockiness has always looked better on Prince than assless chaps or satin frocks, and the song has a feisty energy that even a new jack swing rap can’t derail. Some of the best songs here are slow jams, like the wishful “This Could Be Us” and “Breakdown”, which sounds like one of the most personally revealing tunes Prince has ever recorded: “Waking up in places that you would never believe,” he sings with what sounds like deep regret. “Give me back the time, you can keep the memories.” As the strings lift the song out of the depths and laserbeams fire at the edges of the music, Prince launches into some vocal contortions that prove his voice has lost none of its wild mutability over the years. It’s the rare moment of true gravity on an album that sounds like Prince actually had a lot of fun making.
There’s something reassuring about such good spirits coming from him, as it recalls a much younger Prince whose mischievous smile and eye rolls conveyed a self-possession and self-awareness. On the other hand, the few times he nods to an overarching funk/sci-fi mythology—something about being cryogenically frozen for 50 years and waking up in a society with no first-person pronouns—Prince comes across as a grouchy old guy. “Twenty-four karat hashtag, put your phone in your bag,” he raps on “The Gold Standard”, sounding too much like a man in his mid-50s.
Art Official Age is not a return to form by any means, but a modestly exciting Prince album. That’s certainly more than we could expect in 2014, and it’s certainly more than we get out of PlectrumElectrum. Prince recorded the album with his all-female backing band 3rdEyeGirl, which includes drummer Hannah Ford Welton, guitarist Donna Grantis, and bassist Ida Nielsen. All have backgrounds and even degrees in rock and jazz, so it’s obvious they have immense chops. The rhythm section lock down the grooves on the punk-/surf-rock “Marz” and the strutting “Stopthistrain”, and Grantis (formerly a member of the New Power Generation) riffs and solos on “Anotherlove” with Princely abandon.
What they don’t have is much of a personality. Recorded live in the studio using analog equipment, the album is nevertheless too proficient, too slick, and too professional to come across as much more than anonymous. They show little of the kinky inventiveness of the Revolution or the innate versatility of the New Power Generation; instead, Plectrum is crammed with predictable rap-rock riffs, vague alt-rock menance, and bloozy showboating. Especially blasting from Paisley Park, this is a perversely unimaginative and restrictive idea of rock‘n’roll, with none of the musical freedom that Prince has traditionally shown. One of the great pop synthesists, he has blended so many different styles and sounds so fluidly that his best music sounded positively utopian: a world without charts or genres, release schedules, or label contracts.
Prince and 3rdEyeGirl have good intentions, of course, and at times the album sounds like a rebuttal to the pesky rock-is-dead palaver that so many of the form’s aging practitioners have memorized. “A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band o’ boys,” Prince asserts on “Fixurlifeup”. But he’s decrying prefab pop groups while backed by a prefab pop group, preaching female empowerment while playing up the novelty of an all-female band. Both of these albums sound slightly out of time, but at least Art Official Age, despite its flaws, has the bravado to imagine how the pop music of the future might function. By contrast, Plectrum merely duplicates the sounds and politics of rock ‘n’ roll’s stodgy past.