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Prince's return is 'N.E.W.S.'

By Renee Graham, Globe Staff, 9/30/2003

Almost all singers and musicians, at some point, utter the old line about making music for themselves. If the public and the critics enjoy it, that's all right, too -- but ultimately, they'll claim, true artists create music to meet their own exacting standards and personal satisfaction.

Every musician says it, but only one lives those words with complete conviction -- Prince.

You remember Prince, don't you? Little guy from Minneapolis, plays guitar like he sold his soul at the crossroads, wrote huge hits about God, sex, and little red Corvettes. He could be as soulful as James Brown, as funky as George Clinton, or rock as hard as Jimmy Page. His creativity and abilities were so boundless that calling him a genius seemed an understatement.

With his long absence from radio, MTV, and the pop charts -- all of which he once ruled -- it probably seems that Prince has faded into the misty purple of a self-imposed exile, a self-indulgent recluse whose weirdness finally capsized his career. Yet Prince has continued churning out new music, even if few seem to notice or care.

With none of the fanfare that used to accompany his every move, his latest album, "N.E.W.S.," was released July 29. Its four songs -- "North," "East," "West," and "South" -- are all instrumentals running 14 minutes each, and tend more toward experimental and contemporary jazz than toward the rock-inflected funk and soul that made him an icon two decades ago. Joined by Eric Leeds on saxophones, John Blackwell on drums, Renato Neto on piano and synthesizers, and Rhonda Smith on bass, Prince plays guitar, keyboards, and percussion.

As has been the case with his last few albums, there's no video, no single, no promotion. The album is available in stores (and to subscribers to his online NPG Music Club), but don't look for fancy, eye-catching displays -- Prince doesn't even appear on the CD's cover. Compared to such classic albums as "Sign `O' the Times" and "Dirty Mind," "N.E.W.S." seems a trifle, albeit one with some interesting moments. With its clashing time signatures and jutting sax accents, "East" hints of Jaco Pastorius-era Weather Report, and the spacy bass-nasty "South" is the closest thing here to a standout track. Given that there are no vocals, one might have expected a sky-scraping guitar extravaganza, but Prince doesn't go there.

Mostly, this is background music with an attitude. It isn't inaccessible, but neither is it inviting, since it's so removed from the music that made Prince the most stunning artist of his generation.

He was only 19 when he recorded his 1978 debut, "For You," a one-man opus on which he composed, arranged, produced, and performed every track. Six years and five albums later, the precocious potential of "For You" blossomed into the fulfilled promise of "Purple Rain." By the time his debut film and accompanying soundtrack were released, in 1984, Prince was one of the biggest stars in the world. "Purple Rain" sold more than 10 million copies, featuring such songs as "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," and the anthemic title song. He even picked up an Academy Award for best original song score.

"Purple Rain" was his commercial zenith, but for years each Prince album would be an event. Through the neo-psychedelia of "Around the World in a Day" to the shimmering funk of "Parade" (and especially the hit, "Kiss") Prince was one of the few artists about whom one could always believe the hype. Still, by the 1990s, legal tussles with his former label, Warner Bros., and his subsequent public protests -- which included changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawling the word "Slave" on his cheek -- largely obscured his music.

Even after he extricated himself from his Warner's contract and released the rambling three-CD set "Emancipation," in 1996, much of his audience had disappeared. Whether they were turned off by his eccentricities or simply more interested in younger, newer artists, no one seemed interested in Prince's music.

No one, that is, except Prince. He's 45 years old, and he could still enjoy a major comeback, though he might counter that he's never really gone away. Whatever one's feeling about Prince and his music today, there's something sublime about an artist unshackled by the need to conform. He releases music on his own label, NPG, and if doesn't sell the way it once did -- a press release says "N.E.W.S." has sold about 70,000 copies -- at least it isn't compromised by those who view art as only as product.

Without a hit album since 1991's "Diamonds and Pearls," you get the feeling Prince is unswayed by chart positions. Instead, he manages something few musicians can claim. He makes his music his way, even if it means there are far fewer people enjoying it.



Not so good 'N.E.W.S.,' but a memorable DVD

By Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune, 8/10/2003

While his odd, secretive behavior is nothing new, Prince does continue to come up with new, unpredictible ways of recording misic.

"N.E.W.S." (NPG) -- his first all-instrumental album -- sounds more interesting on paper than it does in the CD player. The disc is made up of four 14-minute tracks: "North," "East," "West," and "South." The compass theme is ironic, since the music lacks direction.

Recorded in one day at Paisley Park with the stellar back from last year's "One Nite Alone Tour," the tracks range from "North's" light-jazz sound to "South's" spacey funk. The best is "East," which hints at a techno influence and showcases drummer John Blackwell's talents. It's interesting stuff, but few fans are likely to keep this one anywhere near the top of their Prince pile.

The 80-minute DVD "Live at the Aladdin" (NPG/Hip-O) is much more memorable. Although the footage is choppy and poorly shot, it captures the fun personality that the singer shows off only on stage these days -- which no doubt was accelerated in Las Vegas, on the final night of this 2002 tour.

Versions of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Nikka Costa's "Push and Pull" (with Costa guesting) are fun curiosities, but old Prince gems such as "Pop Life," "Gotta Broken Heart Again" and "The Ride" -- none featured on last year's exceptional live boxed set -- provide the real magin in "Aladdin.


New on disc

NPG Records

Following a bad breakup with Warner Bros. in 1996 and a nasty outcome to his brief alliance with Arista, Prince now exists on the fringes of the music industry. He's too iconoclastic for the pop charts but too well known for indie audiences. Back in his commercial heyday, now nearly two decades gone, Prince would have hidden a jazz-oriented disc such as "n.e.w.s" under his anonymous side project Madhouse while he focused on more marketable material.

Nowadays he needs all of the sales his familiar name can muster, but listeners looking for the sort of clever pop music in which he used to specialize will hardly recognize the drifting, moody jazz funk of "n.e.w.s."

After the oddball philosophizing of his 2001 collection, "The Rainbow Children," it's nice to hear Prince focus purely on music again. There is no signing on the compass-themed disc, but Prince's voice as a guitarist is as distinctive as ever on the reserved groove of "North."

There is a fine line between musical exploration and meandering, and Prince's band crosses it more than once in the course of the set's four songs, each precisely 14 minutes. Drummer John Blackwell propels the agreeable chug at the tail of "East," and Rhonda Smith's snaky bass line infects the insistent bobbing at the beginning of "South," but the passages surrounding those bits often register as light, informal jamming. The performances are assured, and the listening is pleasant, but the over all accomplishment is not particularly daring.



New on disc

(NPG) C-

Prince deserves credit for going his own way. No performer with an eye to the charts would release an album made up of four 14-minute instrumentals.

"N.E.W.S.," though, won't earn much credit beyond that. The four tracks ("North," "East," "West," and "South," if you were wondering) feature fine playing and some interesting passages. Styles veer from funk to new age to jazz. "East" does indeed contain some Eastern-sounding bits, althought "South," sadly, doesn't quote Stephen Foster.

Unfortunately, the playing goes nowhere. Prince seems content to vamp on a chord or two for most of the length of each track. Occasional bits of inspiration aren't built on and "N.E.W.S" gets very old very quickly. For Prince's most undiscriminating fans only.

- Curtis Ross

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