Prince breathes new life into his vintage sound with occasionally brilliant results
Prince's new album opens with allusions to “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” But it’s less a re-creation of those Eighties classics than an attempt by the more restless-minded Prince of today to reimagine the funky precision and effortless mastery of his glory days in new ways. It might be the most collaborative album he’s ever made, with a bevy of guest musicians and vocalists — most prominently co-writer/co-producer Joshua Welton and, on one song, the backing band 3rdeyegirl, who worked with Prince on 2014’s willfully eclectic Art Official Age and Plectrumelectrum.
Hit N Run (which is being released exclusively through Jay Z’s streaming service, Tidal) is similarly hit-or-miss. Dance jams like “Fallinlove2nite” and “Ain’t About 2 Stop” thump authoritatively enough, but experimental swerves like the EDM-tinged “X’s Face” feel forced. In one odd choice, “This Could B Us,” a sparkling ballad from Art Official Age, is transformed into drab electro-gauze. “Sade and Babyface/R&B ain’t got no place,” he sings on “Hardrocklover,” a slow-mo guitar blowout. But the soft-and-wet sensuality of R&B often provides the warmth and give of Prince’s music. That comes through here (see the spaciously reflective Sign ‘O’ the Times callback “June” and the elegant love note “1000 X’s & O’s”). If only he’d really relax and let it flow a little more.
Prince's HITnRUN: EW review
By Kyle Anderson | Updated September 10, 2015 at 06:09 PM EDT
Back in 2013, Paul McCartney released a solo album called New, an exceptional batch of pop tunes that featured collaborations with a number of of-the-moment producers (Paul Epworth and Mark Ronson among them) and seemed to genuinely reinvigorate interest in McCartney’s solo career. It contained some of his best songwriting and performances in decades, and holds up as the platonic ideal of a late-period solo album by a living legend.
But in the pantheon of albums crafted by Paul McCartney, New might only barely sneak into the top 20. That’s not a comment on its quality but instead a long shadow cast by six decades' worth of work leading up to it. Even if New was the best album of 2013, it would still crumble under the historical weight and innovation of the Beatles catalog, certain Wings releases, and first wave solo joints like Ram.
Prince has the exact same problem. His early run, particularly the period between 1982’s 1999 and 1990’s Batman soundtrack, is impeccable, and the legacies of Purple Rain and Sign O The Times overwhelm even the exceptional albums that live in the second tier of Prince’s discography (like 1991’s Diamonds & Pearls, 1995’s The Gold Experience, 2004’s Musicology and last year’s Plectrumelectrum).
But of all the albums Prince has released since the days when people used to debate whether he was better than Michael Jackson, HITnRUN Phase One comes closest to matching the Purple One’s vaunted pantheon. Currently available as a streaming exclusive on Tidal, HITnRUN is an invigorating, eclectic modern pop record that takes a now-familiar (but still no less impressive) formula—equal parts hedonistic arena rock, chugging funk, and art-mutated pop—and tacks on a handful of new sounds and twists that give is a satisfying, visceral edge.
There have been stretches wherein Prince sounded somewhat disengaged (the turn of the century was particularly brutal), but HITnRUN contains the same kind of hunger, swagger, and sheer joy of creation that has always informed his best work. The bridge between past and future is apparent right away: First track “Million $ Show” opens with a series of nods to the past—a few drum tracks from the ’80s and a drop of the “Dearly beloved” speech that opens “Let’s Go Crazy”—then snaps into the kind of double-time rave-up funk jam that Mark Ronson is always chasing. Elsewhere, “Shut This Down” marries several generations of hip-hop tricks (including first wave breakbeats and modern day electro-trap) to an icy, slinky groove. In fact, HITnRUN seems to be the album on which Prince has finally grasped rap music, a genre he has always struggled to incorporate into his own work (the rap to “P Control” notwithstanding). “Ain’t About to Stop,” “Like a Mack,” and “X’s Face” all manage to capture the energy currently being churned out of the MCs that have made 2015 one of the best years in hip-hop history (though that could be because some of those releases, particularly Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, are pretty much just Prince records).
Prince also has a knack for making genres his own, and the EDM flourishes on HITnRUN (particularly on “This Could Be Us”) don’t sound like an aging legend chasing a trend but instead a skilled veteran bending contemporary technology to his will. There’s plenty to dance to on HITnRUN, including the pure disco froth of “Fallinlove2nite” and the stutter-stepping “1000 X’s & O’s.” Of course, all of this sonic innovation gets propped up by the fact that each one of the tracks on HITnRUN is a pure, infectious pop tune—even the super weird closing track “June,” a gauzy ballad that finds Prince free-associating his heartbreak (“Somebody famous had a birthday today/ All I saw was another fool/ What’s that?/ Something’s burning on the stove/ Must be the pasta/ Oh yeah, it’s June”).
Time will ultimately tell where HITnRUN Phase One lands on the Prince spectrum, and it’ll take generations before anybody can accurately assess the entirety of his discography. But I keep waiting for the initial rush of HITnRUN to wear off, and it just won’t happen. I’ve mixed these songs into a playlist that also features classic jams like “Raspberry Beret” and “Cream,” and they absolutely sound like they fit perfectly in that context. Nothing can ever hang in the same VIP room as Purple Rain, but HITnRUN is certainly good enough to get on the list and get comped a bottle or two.
Prince inhabits familiar characters, from sensualist to dreamer to campaigner and even humorist. Could this be the enduring classic we’ve been waiting for?
4 stars (out of 5)
Dave Simpson | Mon 7 Sep 2015 10.58 EDT
Prince’s brilliant live shows over the last couple of years – and some of them have been stunning – haven’t quite detracted attention from the elephant in the room: that, like many great artists of his vintage, he hasn’t made a genuinely, unarguably classic album for a very long time. Lovesexy – the 1988 opus which included the mighty Alphabet Street – contained several duffers. Even 1987’s Sign O’ the Times (which features every kind of Prince music imaginable, plus social commentary that brilliantly captured the fears of the early Aids era), has its critics. As desperately as anyone who ever loved Prince wanted his two 2014 albums – Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum – to be barnstorming returns to form, neither of them really were. HITNRUN, though, is more like it.
With new producer Joshua Welton at the helm and much jamming in the studio, the album’s exclusive launch via Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service is his most experimental and shapeshifting in years. There are sonic collages, mystical segments, dips into eastern-tinged funk (Ain’t About to Stop, with input from Rita Ora), big club bangers (the Latin-influenced Like a Mack), ballads (a superior reworking of last year’s This Could Be Us), electronica and rock, as Prince inhabits familiar characters, from sensualist to dreamer to campaigner and even the more rarely heard humorist.
If there’s disappointment when the opening fanfare of sound (which includes a teasing snatch of the famous “Dearly beloved…” intro from Let’s Go Crazy) gives way to the playful but insubstantial concert celebration Million Dollar Show, it doesn’t last. Similar criticisms might be levied at the joyous but slight 80s-meets-2015 pop fluff of Fallinlove2nite, but there aren’t any major misfires. Some of the best tracks find Prince in favoured role as erotically transcendent lover. Shut This Down’s primal, dirty, rubbery, electro groove – wonderfully reminiscent of Hot Thing – finds him declaring “I get you baby, all sweaty and hot, I’m gonna get you where you’ve never been got,” but proving as good as his word. There’s no lack of sauce – the smouldering 1000 X’s & O’s finds him offering to, ahem, “love you all up and down” – but the grinding X’s Face marks another return of the Sign O’ the Times-type protest singer, as he follows hard-hitting recent song Baltimore with another riposte to the recent spate of shootings of young black Americans.
If much of the album has a simultaneously vintage but current feel, at best it has a heady, almost dreamlike atmosphere, finding him – as the genre-busting artist puts it – “in a place that does not require time”. Picking a best track on first plays is tricky, but it might be the guitar-frazzling Hardrocklover, which unoriginally but stormingly equates guitar playing with sexual prowess (“Turn this guitar up, so I can make my woman scream”). Then again, there’s something eerily memorable, already, about the closing June, which finds Prince wishing he’d been born in the Woodstock era and conjuring up a daydream – “Pasta simmers on the stove in June … Richie Havens’ voice on the vinyl, spinning round to love” – so evocative and distracting that, comically, he lets the pasta burn.
Whether any of this results in the much-yearned-for enduring classic only time – and more plays – will tell, but it’s been a long time since a Prince album has been so pleasurable and enjoyable to hear.
The purple-loving icon follows last year's promising two albums with something more hit and miss
3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Prince never lost it. The 1990s and 2000s are littered with albums that were dismissed as the work of a once-great, now-irrelevant artist, but which are packed with overlooked gems. Nevertheless it’s true that His Royal Badness has only recently regained his foothold in the mainstream, cannily exploiting retromania in order to slip albums like last year’s excellent ‘Art Official Age’ into the upper reaches of the charts – note how ‘HITNRUN Phase One’ kicks off with a collage of intros from ‘For You’, ‘1999’ and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ before hitting listeners with the new shit. Like ‘Art Official Age’, the album is co-produced by Joshua Welton, who is swiftly distinguishing himself as one of Prince’s most significant collaborators chiefly by joining the dots between the classic ’80s Minneapolis sound and the dancefloor styles of now.
The most successful tracks are located squarely in the party zone. The thunderous bleep‘n’bass of ‘Shut This Down’ evokes ’90s rave-influenced deep cuts like ‘Eye Wanna Melt With U’, ‘The Max’ and ‘Loose’. The haywire stomp of ‘Ain’t About 2 Stop’ (featuring Rita Ora) is along similar lines, while ‘X’s Face’, built upon a rolling synthetic bassline and crunching snares, is the hands-down standout.
The slinkier tracks are more disposable. ‘Fallinlove2nite’ boasts (synthetic) horns reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire and a bassline that’s pure Chic, but it’s little more than well-produced filler. ‘This Could Be Us’ is reworked from ‘Art Official Age’ but the new IDM-style arrangement is heavier-handed and less affecting than the original. ‘1000 X’s & 0’s’ is the best of the ‘smooth’ tracks; it’s also the one that sounds most like Prince, rather than Prince with Joshua Welton.
Last year’s double whammy of ‘Art Official Age’ and ‘Plectrumelectrum’ served as a reminder that Prince’s capacity for self-reinvention should not be underestimated. ‘HITNRUN Phase One’, on the other hand, feels like a stop-gap. There’s nothing with the emotional weight of ‘Breakdown’, ‘Waybackhome’ or ‘Whitecaps’, and the overall emphasis is more on groove than songwriting. ‘HITNRUN Phase One’ isn’t one of Prince’s best albums. But neither is it his worst. He hasn’t lost it. He’s just resting it.
4.5 (out of 10)
by Seth Colter Walls | SEPTEMBER 10 2015
Prince's new effort, exclusive to Jay Z's Tidal service (for now), is billed as being an "experimental" effort. But the reality is something far less earth-shaking: a casual, slightly-weirder-than-usual release with one very good R&B song (that's reportedly been kicking around in his vault for a while), stranded in the album's penultimate slot.
Prince's hype-man instincts defy categorization every bit as much as his vocal and instrumental talents beggar description. Though he's fallen off since the 1980s—who, in his shoes, wouldn't?—it's this artist's strange and frequent urge to over-promise that helps keep everyone harping on Sign 'O' the Times as his apogee. Yet here we are again. An album title like HITNRUN Phase One promises a fair amount, not least the possibility of a concept worth serializing. And that's before the album is announced by its creators as being "experimental" in construction. Though after stripping away the promotional language from this streaming-only platter, exclusive to Jay Z's Tidal service (for now), one finds something far less earth-shaking: a casual, slightly-weirder-than-usual release with one very good R&B song (that's reportedly been kicking around in his vault for a while), stranded in the album's penultimate slot.
To get to that very good song—at least in the manner that Prince and his young co-composer, producer, and mixer Joshua Welton intend—you'll plug through a half-hour sequence that contains a throwaway intro, a trio of putative party-starters cluttered with the confetti of modern-dancefloor production-debris, two reworked (as opposed to improved) songs from 2014's superior Art Official Age, and a tweaked version of the "Fallinlove2nite" standalone single that failed to make that prior album. (Ditching Zooey Deschanel's backing vocals doesn't much elevate that breezy tune's mild charm.)
Among the remains, "Hardrocklover" would seem to be an opportunity for one of pop's most reliably sensuous guitarists to make up ground. But the song seems strangely subdued and bored with itself. While the lyrics ("Turn my guitar up so I can make this woman scream") suggest that the inevitable appearance of guitar-heroism will be climactic, Prince's unfurling of his distorto-wail cape feels rote. The loopy-but-hard-hitting funk of "X's Face" is initially promising, though it too is thin on development. Elsewhere, the (mostly) instrumental "Mr. Nelson" riffs with a modicum of inspiration on remnants from Art Official Age standout "Clouds".
On a first listen, you might suspect that the album's opening sequence of not-disastrous (but not-terribly-memorable) EDM-influenced jams is going to be the focus of HITNRUN Phase One. Though this, too, is part of a formula: compare Prince's almost-rap flow on "Shut This Down" to that of 1992's "My Name Is Prince", and it's easy to see that the artist has a template for approaching ascendant pop trends. There are stray, tasty touches in this opening salvo—a brief electric-bass clinic in "Shut This Down", the integration of saxophone, rhythm guitar, and digitally programmed curlicues in the last minute of "Like a Mack"—but experimental this ain't. Not for the artist who wrote and recorded "Crystal Ball", anyway. (By point of comparison: Prince has also made newly available some truly chancy and obscure work from the late 1990s—like the extended paranoid-freakout "The War" and the mostly-acoustic album The Truth—on Tidal.)
Disappointments and missed opportunities aside, it's still great to have an official, Prince-sung version of "1000 X's & O's" (an old composition once intended for Rosie Gaines). When Prince sings in an environment unmolested by contemporary cliche, he gives us more than at any other point on HITNRUN Phase One—including that iconic, multi-tracked one-man choir, in addition to lyrics that, while they might not be much on the page, snap with a seductive pull when placed in his mouth ("Every drop of sweat on your brow/ Is well-earned/ So you best believe"). Even if, this time around, you can forget the familiar discographical parlor game of comparing each new Prince record to earlier triumphs—this one isn't his best album in the last twelve months, let alone years—songs and performances like that one show why it remains unwise to count him out.
Prince crashes and burns on HITNRUN Phase One
By Abigail Covington | 9/08/15 10:31AM
In reference to Prince’s new HITNRUN Phase One, co-producer and engineer Joshua Welton told Entertainment Weekly: “I know [Prince] has different types of fan bases and this is kind of for the [hardcore] Purple Collective, the ones who say ‘I don’t care what he puts out! I love Prince.’”
The implication is that in order to be a hardcore Prince fan, one must forego discernment and simply applaud everything Prince does. But as Prince understands better than most, neither person in the artist/fan relationship has to kowtow to the other’s expectations in order to prove gratitude. That’s why being a Prince fan has so little to do with how many of Prince’s albums you claim to love, and so much more to do with how you value Prince’s raw talent and relentless commitment to experimentation. That being said, experimentation sometimes leads to disastrous results—and in the case of HITNRUN Phase One, it’s done just that.
On HITNRUN Phase One, Prince abandoned the helm of his own creation and left Joshua Welton in charge. Though he used to play every note on his albums, Prince’s contributions on HITNRUN are limited to vocals and lead, rhythm, and bass guitar. The remaining parts of the tracks are programmed by Welton, who sounds as if he is in over his head on the first half of the album. The background beats on “Shut This Down” are unfocused and disturbingly inauthentic. The attempts at bass drops on “Ain’t About To Stop” lack depth, and instead sound hollow and sharp. The persistent droning throughout the first four tracks of the album grates like the restless buzzing of a mosquito’s wings in your ear. All of these missteps are caused by a lack of restraint. Welton tinkers too much with too many EDM toys, and often the result is a cacophonous collision of EDM’s lamest trends.
When this album does succeed—which it does on its back half—it’s because Prince and Welton have achieved a balance between dance and funk in which each genre brings out the best in the other. Every musical element on “Fallinlove2nite” sounds endlessly distorted, but the song is grounded in a traditional four-on-the-floor beat. That familiar foundation gives the experimentation on top of it more meaning, so that elements like a digitally rendered, piping piano line are easier to identify and enjoy. “1,000 X’s And O’s” and “X’s Face” work for similar reasons. On the latter, the production is de-emphasized to accommodate Prince’s unfaltering falsetto. The percussion retreats and advances around Prince’s lyrics so that knockout lines like “She’s too busy with the jugular and how it tastes” don’t get lost in the sonic shrapnel beneath. There are other great moments on this album—including an indulgent guitar solo on the otherwise horrific remix of Art Official Age’s “This Could B Us” and a beautiful vocal sung by Judith Hill on “Million $ Show”—but they are merely respites within an altogether over-produced album.
No artist is above a bad release: not Lou Reed, not Jay-Z, and unfortunately, as HITNRUN Phase One proves, not Prince either. But the most promising and redeeming element of Prince is his ability to start new with each album; not a single Prince release sounds like the one before it. The willingness to always accept, but not necessarily enjoy, Prince on his own, perpetually shifting terms is what makes someone a “hardcore” Prince fan.