With this four-cd set, the transformation of Paisley Park into a fully dimensioned subculture seems complete. It's now a funky studio rat's glam answer to the Dead, a gung-ho audiophile republic of rockers and popsters and hip-hoppers who remain convinced that the Artist is the man. Crystal Ball is two and a half hours of previously unreleased tracks spread across three fitfully annotated discs (each labeled bootleg) that comprise an overgrown overture to the fourth CD, an acoustic recital subtitled "The Truth." For Paisleyheads, Crystal Ball will represent a treasure; others may find it patchy -- fun, yet annoying in its coy sprawl.
"D'Angelo's favorite bootleg," enthuses an entry in the priceless booklet that accompanies Crystal Ball. The track is "Movie Star," a jive-y piece written originally for the Time's Morris Day. Paisleyheads like D'Angelo will love Crystal Ball: It contains monstrous funk jams like "Hide the Bone," alternate versions of rare, previously released joints like "P. Control," and the Daft Punk-like "Poom Poom." It even includes "Days of Wild," a Chinese-toned R&B workout where background voices implore, "Free the slave!" -- that wry bit of sloganeering from a few years back, when the Artist was determined to leave Warner Bros. and go indie. There are the shadowy ballads built from harmonic microchanges, like "So Dark" and "Crucial"; a killer reggae tune titled "Ripopgadazippa" ("inspired by an episode on a weightlifting bench," the booklet explains); plus blues- and Latin- and gospel-driven songs, all in sexy trademark combinations.
On the title track of The Truth, the Artist comes off like Tracy Chapman's older brother, the formal genius, turning his meticulously natural singing voice to tough questions about responsibility and honesty. Of course, he knows as well as anyone that there's no more "truth," necessarily, in this style of music than there is in "P. Control." But the game here is up-close folkiedom, and hearing the Artist minus his usual musical constructs is interesting. On songs like "Don't Play Me" and "One of Your Tears," the Artist reconditions his sensational studio style, buffing everything down to a fine shine on a guitar line or two. The shocker is "Circle of Amour," a Joni Mitchell-ish ballad with a quietly twisted rhythm track. This remarkable portrait of female friendship before and after cheerleading practice hits with the same wallop of teenage truth as Big Star's "Thirteen." Certainly not all of Crystal Ball scales such heights. But for Paisleyheads, it's one long party. (RS 785)
-- JAMES HUNTER
Review by Matt Diehl
The artist formerly known as Prince has titled his sprawling new four-disc set Crystal Ball: If the music inside accurately foretells 's future, the purple funkster's next career phase should be one wild ride.
Following his much-documented battles with Warner Bros., released 1996's Emancipation on EMI. Crystal Ball, though, remains the true sound of freedom -- operating without any major-label affiliation at all, released Crystal Ball on his own NPG imprint. The DIY approach has its drawbacks -- the packaging looks so cheap it could have been whipped up at Kinko's, and the odds-and-sods approach (some material dates as far back as the early '80s) doesn't always cohere. Yet, while Crystal Ball lacks polish, it makes up the difference by offering an astonishing view into the Artist's breadth as, well, an artist, capturing sides of him never before exposed. "Da Bang," for example, edges surprisingly close to jazz-bo speed punk, while "18 & Over" is 's most convincing hip-hop attempt yet, its head-bobbing G-funk giving Dr. Dre a run for his gangsta dollars.
Ultimately, though, Ball is for aficionados, making crystal clear that isn't a prepackaged pop star but an idiosyncratically brilliant fringe dweller who had a few big chart smashes. If that sounds unappealing, stick to the hits; true followers, meanwhile, will be having a ball. B+
IT'S NOT EVERYDAY DAY YOU get to draw parallels between Morrissey and The Artist but draw them we must.
First, both have dedicated their last few albums to obliterating the memory of the decent ones they made a decade earlier. Second, both have 'increasingly select' fanbases that consider such thoughts to be blasphemy. Lastly, said fanbases would kill their families twice over to own unreleased recordings of their heroes farting 'Barbie Girl' through a didgeridoo. If any of these concepts apply to you, 'Crystal Ball' scores a perfect (10) and the exit's on the left.
For the rest of us, 'Crystal Ball' sets the alarm bells ringing. 'Unreleased' or 'archive material' usually translates as 'utter toss not even fit for a B-side'. So when Crystal Ball boasts four (!) CDs of the stuff and was previously available only via the Internet, to call this a slog would be kind.
And if only for the effort required to tally all the influences, a slog it indeed is. Dub, G-funk, blues, rock, swingbeat and, according to the overblown Strays Of The World's sleevenotes, even Broadway musical all make an appearance. But these are the songs from underneath Prince's mattress and that can mean but one thing: shagging. Completely funked-up, Hide The Bone, Pussy Control and Da Bang are all as subtle as their titles suggest while 18 & Over can't help but, um, stand out for its lilting phrase, "kemo sabe bone ranger".
Fun enough, but with 30 songs gleaned from a 25-year career, thankfully that's not the only dish on offer. So Dark is a sweet '70s ballad, What's My Name? shows Public Enemy figured on the royal playlist while both Movie Star and the improvised Cloreen Bacon Skin are superb, Prince in character and ripping the piss while the band get funky in the back. It's diverse stuff yet for the most part, always reminiscent of a Prince song you'd swear you've heard before.
Not so with the fourth and final disc. Featuring 12 new songs, 'The Truth' is The Artist's 'Unplugged' album and is a minor revelation. The overly earnest title track out of the way, it slips between '60s soul, acoustic funk and, for the bizarre Dionne, easy-listening exotica with ease. Declining "red meat/White fish (and) funky, funky blue cheese" over Animal Kingdom's dolphin samples, The Artist's tongue remains lodged in his cheek for the most part but as the gags and the funk relent, one song stands out. It's a simple ballad, it clocks in at under two minutes and, unlike the outtakes that precede it, it sounds like nothing Prince, Squiggle or The Artist has ever recorded.
It's called Comeback and while the rest of 'Crystal Ball' looks back, it's in here you can foresee the future. Hopefully.
By Mark Brown, Denver Sidewalk
4 STARS (OUT OF 5)
What. The long-awaited arrival of "Crystal Ball," a box set currently consisting of five discs of music. The actual "Crystal Ball" music is three CDs running 49 minutes and 10 songs each, consisting of outtakes and leftovers stretching back to the early '80s. "The Truth" is a brand-new album of 12 acoustic songs performed by Prince with a bit of overdubbing. "Kamasutra" is 50 minutes of instrumental music by the NPG Orchestra, previously available only on cassette ("Kamasutra" reportedly will not be included in the in-store version going on sale in March). The Artist is already planning another disc full of new music to come out this summer.
Songs. 53, counting the 11 "suites" of "Kamasutra."
Cost. $50, plus $10.55 for shipping, plus tax if you're in Minnesota.
How to get it. If you've already ordered, it's supposedly on the way; all deliveries are via Federal Express and started landing on fans' doorsteps the first week in February. You still can call 1-800-NEW-FUNK to order or do it through Prince's Web site at www.love4oneanother.com. But the package - minus the "Kamasutra" disc and T-shirt - is due in Best Buy, Blockbuster and Musicland stores starting March 1 (a Sunday, which breaks the record-industry tradition of releasing new albums on Tuesday).
The history. Prince tried to release the original "Crystal Ball" back in '87 as an ambitious three-LP project. Warner Bros. reportedly balked - one of the first serious signs of trouble between the Artist and the Suits - and "Crystal Ball" was scaled back into the two-disc "Sign O' the Times," generally regarded as Prince's last indisputably great album. Some of the castoff tracks - "Shockadelica," "Feel U Up" - turned up as B-sides. Some of those songs, including the title track, were never legitimately released until now.
Well, forget all that; this album isn't that same "Crystal Ball." While the title is the same, this is a collection of outtakes and live tracks dating back to the "Purple Rain" era and coming right up to the present. And while he's releasing it as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, most of these songs were recorded before the name change, so it's really a Prince album. It's testimony to his deep vaults that some of his best-known and -loved unreleased songs - including "Old Friends 4 Sale," "Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic" and "Neon Rendezvous" - didn't make the cut here.
The verdict. Again, this is The Artist breaking the rules while showing that yes, he could easily play by them if he only wanted to. From the three discs of "Crystal Ball" you could easily carve a sharp, stunning album of the best material - the hard rock of "Calhoun Square," the light soul of "Crucial," the blues-busting "The Ride," the urgent funk chaos of "What's My Name?" and the smooth groove in "Goodbye," for starters. "Crystal Ball" most definitely isn't just a conglomeration of castoffs; while not as cohesive as "Emancipation," its songs are better, friskier and more fun than they've been in years. Even the throwaways, including a 15-minute James Brown-style studio jam called "Cloreen Baconskin," are fascinating. The tone is perhaps best set by the comment Prince makes to an unidentified musician before launching into "Calhoun Square" - "You're listening to the drummer, but you still wanna have fun. It shouldn't be work."
"The Truth," however, comes tightly carved - sharp, snappy and lively. Simply hearing The Artist's voice adorned with just crisp acoustic guitar is so compelling that it's hard to tell exactly how good the songs are. Far from a collection of demos, this is a genuine, full album that could be an adult radio hit if released separately; it'd fit in well with the Tracy Chapmans and Dog's Eye Views of the world. "Circle of Amour" is one of the prettiest ballads he's written in a while; the execution and production is perfect. For a man who has at times made a career of excess, the restraint of "The Truth" is a delight, despite the occasional loopy lyric in something like the anti-milk anthem "Animal Kingdom."
"Kamasutra," on the other hand, is simply pretty New Age background string music. No wonder he tossed it in for free.
The money and the last laugh. Critics scoffed at the Internet-only release as another bit of glyph weirdness and wondered if the discs would ever see the light of day. As usual, the Artist has the last laugh and a fistful of cash. With 100,000 preorders at $50 each, the Artist had $5 million in hand before a penny was put out. From there it was just a matter of pulling together the already-finished tracks and having them pressed up - at a cost of $5 per set, tops. That leaves the Artist with 90 percent of the retail price. Superstar deals such as those cut by Michael Jackson, Madonna and R.E.M. give those musicians 25 percent of the wholesale cost - about $2.75 per disc. To clear the $5 million Prince got up front for 100,000 discs, those superstars would have to sell 1.8 million discs. And to top it all off, most of these tracks were recorded back when Warner Bros. Records was still footing the studio bills. You can bet someone there feels stupid now.
The package. Here's the rip-off. The "Crystal Ball" set has all five discs in one clear round case. It ain't gonna fit on your CD shelf. Worse yet, there's no packaging at all, not even a track listing. What's clearly a cost-cutting measure is being touted as an innovation: The CD booklet is available only online at www.crystalballcd.newfunk.com - an unwieldy and slow-loading site full of stunning art, lyrics and liner notes. Virtually none of it will print out - it takes a complicated process of saving picture files into a word document to come up with any usable liner notes.
What's next. The Artist has given conflicting reports, saying in one interview there's no new album till 1999. But he's also released a statement saying there's a single disc of new music due later this year as his world tour continues. According to Paisley Park, he also plans a "much-anticipated mega show leading us into the new millennium."
Mark Brown is arts and music producer at Denver Sidewalk.
Disc of the week
PRINCE, "Crystal Ball" (NPG)
This "Crystal Ball" does not look into the future; it looks backward. The multidisc set -- four CDs in stores, five via the Internet/mail-order -- is mostly a collection of Prince outtakes and leftovers, some of which have been heard in concert and widely bootlegged. As usual, the music is funky and often fun -- but most of it is for fanatics and completists only.
There are good reasons most of this stuff wasn't released. Some tunes just didn't fit with the album Prince was working on at the time; others are ideas or experiments that aren't fully realized. The best part of the package -- it comes in a standard square jewel box or in a clear plastic oversized hockey puck (crystal ball, get it?) -- are the liner notes. Prince doesn't give dates for any of the recordings but discusses details of the sessions, what prompted the songs and who they were written for. His comments -- both silly and serious -- afford insights into his wacky world.
Disc 1 features lots of electro-funk; highlights are "So Dark," a soulful Curtis Mayfield-like ballad, and "Movie Star," a silly rap that would have been perfect for Morris Day, for whom it was written. Disc 2 finds Prince on some wacked-out excursions, including "Cloreen Bacon Skin," a rambling, ad-libbed talking lyric over a James Brown groove, and "Good Love," which sounds like the Jackson 5 gone psychedelic pop. Disc 3 is the most vibrant, consistent and recently recorded of the three so-called "bootleg" CDs, featuring the oft-performed party jam "Days of Wild," the pining lite-funk "Last Heart" and the heavenly romantic ballad "She Gave Her Angels."
Disc 4 is "The Truth," 1997's curious, mostly acoustic album filled with songs about making choices and commentaries on how screwed up the music business is. Disc 5 -- available only through the Internet/mail order (1-800-NEW-FUNK) -- is "Kamasutra," the music Prince composed for his 1996 wedding to Mayte. Of course, there's more in the vault where this stuff came from.
-- Jon Bream, Star Tribune staff writer
"Crystal Ball" is mostly a Prince work -- live and studio tracks winnowed from his vast vaults that date back to "Purple Rain," right up to his present incarnation as the Artist.
Digesting the 30 tracks that make up this three-CD set of previously unreleased material (plus the bonus acoustic album, "The Truth") is a monumental -- and monumentally fun -- proposition, especially when your CD player won't allow you to listen to anything but three remarkable tracks, over and over and over again.
Of course, as with "Emancipation," some will say that paring down the material here could have made for one killer album. Such a charge lacks imagination, however, since the act of listening to and making music is a journey that fundamentally requires peaks and valleys -- a concept that the Artist embraces, rather than eschews.
Highlights are plentiful, including: "The Ride," "Lovesign," "Hide the Bone," "Movie Star," "Interactive," "Sexual Suicide" and "Poom Poom." But I keep coming back to the scorching live version of "Days of Wild"; a ridiculously playful in-studio funk jam with Morris Day called "Cloreen Bacon Skin," for which Prince sounds like a bong-inhaling Bob Dylan singing over a looped-up James Brown karaoke machine; and the rocker "Calhoun Square," before which Prince instructs the band to follow drummer Sonny Thompson, saying, "It shouldn't be work." He's talking about the moment, and making a comment on music in general, and summing up "Crystal Ball's" singular appeal.
-- Jim Walsh
'Adult' artist again takes musical shots at the industry
On the opening title track of the artist formerly known as Prince's new 12-song, mostly acoustic album "The Truth," the musician growls over a stark, bluesy guitar riff worthy of Lightning Hopkins: "Everybody's got a right to love/Everybody's got a right to lie/The choice you make, it ain't no piece of cake/It ain't no (bleeping) piece of pie."
On the last track, "Welcome 2 the Dawn," the music swells angelically, the artist's voice takes on a cartoonish quality, but the message is serious: "Every choice you make is karma, so be careful what you do."
"The Truth," then, is about facing up to, and making, choices. Big ones, little ones. Tough ones, easy ones. And over the course of his 39 years, the prolific Chanhassen artist born Prince Rogers Nelson has obviously been through changes that came from making such choices. As a result, his 18th album -- an even more overtly spiritual (and personal) work than the highly spiritual "Emancipation" of last year -- is a road map to the lessons he has learned and the person he has become.
That person is, to put it crudely, an adult. On the spooky "Don't Play Me," the former Prince fires a barb at the music industry, ebonics and those who would still see him as the precocious imp who flashed his butt on the "MTV Music Awards" a couple hundred songs ago. He offers this declaration of independence: "Don't play me/I'm over 30 and I don't smoke weed/I put my ass away and the music I play/I ain't the type of stereo you're trying to feed/I use proper English, and I'm straight/I've been to the mountaintop and it ain't what you say."
One of the most misunderstood choices the former Prince has made in recent years is to go outside the music industry to distribute his records -- by any means necessary. Last month, EMI Records, the U.S. label that was distributing "Emancipation," folded. But that hasn't stopped the artist from recording and releasing his music, nor will it impede "The Truth." A hundred copies will purportedly be given away free via the artist's Web site (http://www.love4oneanother.com).
"Don't Play Me" isn't the only track on "The Truth" that takes the music business to task. On "Fascination," a spare dance track built around anti-drug lyrics, a fluttering flamenco guitar and salsa percussion from the New Power Generation, the artist takes a shot at grungesters and gangstas, and his nemesis, Michael "The King of Pop" Jackson, who named his first-born son Prince Michael Jackson Jr.:
"The most vital thing in pop is the epitome of doom/You wake up in a cold sweat, 'cause one of them's in your room/Singing from the telly, making more bucks than sense/So-called king gives birth to so-called Prince."
Another life change depicted on "The Truth" is revealed on the psychedelic workout "Animal Kingdom." Here, the artist declares his decision to follow veganism, an outgrowth of vegetarianism that forbids consumption of animal products. (Chorus: "No member of the animal kingdom ever nurses past maturity/No member of the animal kingdom ever did a thing to me/So I don't eat red meat or white fish/Don't give me no bleu cheese/We're all members of the animal kingdom/Leave your brothers and sisters in the sea.")
Most of this is set to a snapped finger here or there, a made-up drum part spit spontaneously from the singer's lips, some sparse embellishment and ambient noise, and acoustic guitar work that would make Leo Kottke grin. Along with all the philosophizing, there are a few forgettable fillers (namely, the wooden "Man in a Uniform," the pedestrian ballad "One of Your Tears" and the reincarnation rehash "Comeback"), as well as a few light-as-a- summer-breeze confections ("Circle of Amour" is an exquisite old-school tribute to a quartet of friends from Prince's alma mater, Minneapolis Central; "Dionne" is a lazy, slide-guitar-spiced R&B song that soars on the artist's sweet falsetto; and "The Other Side of the Pillow" is a nonchalant love song built around a campy backup chorus and the equally campy lyric, "You're as cool as the other side of the pillow."
In the end, however, "The Truth" attempts not to ask questions but to answer them. As the artist sings on the title track: "The question is, what did you stand for?/The question is, who did you save?/When it gets right down to the nitty and the gritty, did you take more than you gave?"
Artist's marketing bucks bootleggers
by Sonia Murray, Staff Writer
CD of the Week: Crystal Ball, The Artist. NPG Records. 42 tracks.
The Verdict: Listen to the "Crystal Ball" and what do you hear? The ambitious and impressive material that crowned Prince most talented of the 80's single-moniker pop stars (Michael, Madonna), and not too much of the flab (Cloreen Bacon Skin") you would expect on a CD of set-asides.
Fans have been asking for some of that old Prince, and the Artist has delivered in full with a sometimes-great multidisc set in a pretty regular package. (He promised an actual crystal ball.) The collection of vintage bootlegs plus an incredible acoustic CD entitled "The Truth" arrived in stores this week. The Artist first declared last summer that it would be available only through mail order after signing up on his Web site (www.love4oneanother.com). Then, closer to the first "scheduled" release date - somewhere around Jan. 1 - he said Best Buy would sell it; then it showed up at Blockbuster Music last weekend. The chain-store availablility may be perceived as a concession to "the system," but it was actually a way to kind of go around it. The retailers are purchasing the music from a warehouse, which got the music from the Artist's Paisley Park. Usually a record label forms a partnership with a record distributor such as BMG or PGD that's responsible for getting the CDs and tapes to the store. "Cutting out the middleman, which is what I'm all about these days, means more money in my pocket to [pay] the bills," said the Artist, adding that his last CD, "Emancipation" - because of its royalty structure - earned him the most money he's made since 1984's 10 million selling "Purple Rain." Though the critically heralded "Emancipation" didn't have the sales to match "Purple Rain," the Artist says, "I got more than the average artist out there talking about, 'I have a platinum record.' Yeah, that's about all they got. Something to hang on the wall. "And with 'Crystal Ball,' I will finally get some of the money some of these - some of these 'people' - have made trying to enslave me, selling bootleg copies of my records for all these years. I'm breaking the chains!" "Crystal Ball," which started shipping to those on the mail-order list Jan. 29, "has already served NPG Records well," the Artist says in a Feb. 18 entry on his site. "This is the way 2 keep the real meaning of 'currency' active in the world community."
Copyright © 1998 Atlanta Journal