We live in a golden age of one-named, soulful lovemen. The radio is full of their heavy breathing: Seal (he wants a kiss from a rose), D'Angelo (he wants some brown sugar), Usher (you make him wanna) and Babyface (king of the world). All of these artists owe a lot to Prince. Back in the Eighties, when hip-hop was dropping the bomb, Prince showed everybody how to be a soulman in a hip-hop world, proving that soul could groove on tradition without going retro. Now that hip-hop and R&B are sharing bodily fluids all over the radio, making this a dynamite soul era, many artists are trying to live up to the Prince legacy -- and that includes the Artist Formerly Known as Prince himself.
Maxwell is a one-named, soulful loveman who is definitely working the Prince style: sensitive, cerebral, glamorous and loaded with sex-mystic pretensions. Sometimes he sounds as if he spent his formative years on a desert island listening to nothing but Side Three of Sign o' the Times. He's always had a wildly ambitious reach; on 1997's Unplugged, he turned Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" into a sticky slow jam and put an absurdly soulful twist on Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." He also once told MTV that he idolizes Bryan Ferry, which explains the clothes. But Embrya is where Maxwell takes his pretensions to the bank. Check out his song titles -- "Everwanting: To Want You to Want," "Submerge: Till We Become the Sun," "I'm You: You Are Me and We Are You." (Come back, Terence Trent D'Arby, all is forgiven.) Lucky for him he has the voice and the passion to get away with it; he flexes his charm until over the top feels like the place to be.
Embrya is full of long soft-focus vamps that don't bother much with chords or verses or choruses; the music sets a mellow mood, while Maxwell spends a good many minutes making sure you understand that he respectfully requests the pleasure of your booty's company this evening. The songs are pretty wonderful, even though they're impossible to tell apart or to remember after they're done. (If you're concentrating that hard, you're clearly not making out while you listen, and that would hurt Maxwell's feelings.) Maxwell purrs through his lush musical backdrops, occasionally singing in Spanish or breaking out his trembly falsetto, and the grooves linger like a pair of velvet pants that takes forever to hit the floor. So it's pointless to complain that the tracks go on way too long or about lyrics like "Tell me what you thought I thought you thought I thought." Maxwell is just trying to cast his own eccentric kind of seductorama spell. If you're looking for company in your bathtub or boudoir, Embrya is the next best thing to having Maxwell there.
As for the Artist Everybody Still Calls Prince himself, he's back with another pocketful of Trojans, some of them used, on Newpower Soul, his first all-new album on his own label. Despite this hard-won artistic freedom, Newpower Soul follows the same basic formula as the Artist's other Nineties albums: two great tunes and a buttload of filler. He obviously didn't waste much time on either the songs or the recording -- his real gig these days is on the road, where his recent shows with funk bassman Larry Graham and soul virtuosa Chaka Khan are already the stuff of rock & roll legend.
Newpower Soul (which is credited to the Artist's band, New Power Generation) works mainly as an ad for the live show, sort of like a Grateful Dead studio album. One of the two keepers is the unlisted final bonus track, a moody three-minute ballad about two lovers wasting their kisses. The other is "Mad Sex," which proves yet again that women, not girls, rule his world. Over tinkling piano and an obscene bass line, the Artist promises to go "dirty-up another room" with his paramour: "Do it till your tattoo's dizzy/And the stud in your mouth turns gold."
After that, the songs are just competent throwaways; the musicians sound bored, waiting to rip it up onstage, and the ballads are flimsy coming from the man who once sang "Adore," the six most blissful minutes of sex ever captured on tape.
Newpower Soul also recycles the clunky hip-hop and stale jamming that have cluttered most of the Artist's recent work. As he self-consciously evolves from radio star to cult funk hero, the Artist doesn't see the studio as the place to prove himself. He's still a uniquely vivid cultural presence, showing up in the strangest places - squeaky-clean country teen LeAnn Rimes even sings "Purple Rain" on her new album. In his own music, though, the Artist is just one of many trying to carry on the Princely tradition. The catch is that other people -- Maxwell, for one -- are making better Prince records than he is.
-- ROB SHEFFIELD
Little new in Artist's 'Power Soul'
Three months after unleashing the four-CD Crystal Ball, the Artist (formerly known as Prince) returns Tuesday with an uneven single disc of party jams and languid ballads.
In a sign o' the times gone by, New Power Soul (*** out of four) revisits old-school funk and Princely themes of sex and salvation. It also rehashes familiar turf and yields little of the innovation that fueled his '80s output.
He handles most vocals and instruments, with backing by his New Power Generation band and guests Chaka Khan and Larry Graham, onetime bassist for Sly and the Family Stone.
As always, the Artist delivers pristine sonics, rich R&B textures and spectacular vocals. He fails to construct songs as infectious as Kiss or Let's Go Crazy but does keep the party cooking with addictive grooves that range from silky to thumping and sensual to funky. Push It Up and (Eye Like) Funky Music are dance-floor kindling, as is the brassy When U Love Somebody and a nasty, piano-stroked Mad Sex.
Vocally, the Artist nails all the high notes on pillow-talk numbers and musters a muscular tenor on grittier tunes, yet he comes across as a merely competent rapper. In a spine-tingling falsetto, he agonizes over an absent lover on Until U're in My Arms Again and croons devotion on The One. He slips into a deeper register to wax philosophic in Freaks on This Side and growl a lecture about self-respect in Shoo-Bed-Ooh. There's evidence of marital bliss in the lusty monogamy of Come On: "C, eye don't want no mistress, I want to be bound/Let's find a preacher so we can get down."
On these 10 songs (plus a CD bonus: the delicate ballad accessible as track No. 49), the Artist is playful, confident, content and, unfortunately, not particularly ablaze in creative ambition.
After peddling Crystal Ball via the Internet, he's returning to retail outlets, though he's bypassed distributors to get New Power Soul on shelves. While the Artist's rebel stance and growing autonomy are admirable in an industry mired in corporate formulas, his insistence on wearing every hat in his empire is beginning to tarnish the crown that gleamed during Prince's reign.
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS a handsome Prince. He made beautiful, inventive, magical music which charmed all the world's more adventurous princesses into falling in love with him. But one day he turned, bizarrely, into a twisted typographical error and waged a one-man war with the evil kingdom of Warner Brothers for his freedom to flood the market with substandard funk drivel.
Once the dragon was slain, the multimillionaire slave was free to make merry with the fairest maidens in the land. Alas, coincidentally, the maidens decided they were all washing their hair that night. Without even noticing, the prince had turned into a frog.
Put it another way: Prince, as he was, wrote songs as drop-dead sexy as 'Alphabet Street', as anthemic as '1999', as portentous as 'Sign 'O' The Times', as roaringly dramatic as 'Thieves In The Temple'. The Artist, meanwhile, specialises in piss-poor, ladeez-in-the-house party jams such as 'Push It Up' or 'Freaks On This Side', two characteristically vacuous cuts from this latest forgettable collection.
Most of 'New Power Soul' is bad George Clinton right down to the rubber-kneed basslines and appallingly shoddy cartoon sleeve. It's not a question of needing to know your porno-funk history to appreciate it either: stupid-fresh retro chic or not, this is ripe tripe on a silver platter. The remainder of the album is all helium-voiced slush ballads, with The Artist drooling on about treating his laydee real fine with perfume and champagne. Oh, ambassador of lurve, with these rank romantic cliches you are spoiling us. Let's face it, take away his maverick spark and Rogers Nelson is naffer than an '80s provincial disco full of lecherous travelling salesmen. With moustaches.
Sure, even those prime-time Prince albums had their incontinent jams and bonkers asides, but always balanced by bravura ambition and breathtaking self-reinvention. And granted, all the maestro's usual tricks are here: James Brown licks, lascivious seducto-grooves, multitrack vocals, pristine production, shimmering guitars. But without memorable tunes or innovative thrust, it all adds up to a degree in slap-bass from the University Of Muso Toss. Thus, as he turns 40, The Artist becomes ever more like Kenny G with a side order of George Michael: a wanker in a waistcoat.
For my money, Warner Brothers were right: old Purple Head was far more interesting as a 'slave'. Only a fool would write off a talent this febrile, but for now, the schlong remains the same. 3/10
New Power Generation
Yes, it's Prince by yet another nom-de-disc -- this time letting Paisley Park acolytes New Power Generation play some of the instruments, although make no mistake, the diminutive one is in charge of proceedings here. The career of the artist fleetingly known as Victor may have stalled -- "enslavement" by Warner Brothers notwithstanding -- but some things remain immutable in the man's ever-burgeoning canon -- namely the marrying of Sly-meets-Parliament funkadelicism with lashings of lyrical prurience. Thus things kick-off predictably enough with the propulsive groove of Gemini Rising On The Seventh Day and the difficult-to-misinterpret Mad Sex which details a typical litany of groinular encounters over a snapping snare-drum-led, although it's ultimately a pedestrian funk jam. Until Ure In My Arms Again revisits the saccharine pop-soul of The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, while Shoo-Bed-Ooh starts promisingly, like a slippery re-working of Sly & The Family Stone's Family Affair before demurring to an insouciant chorus that The Real Thing might have thought twice about. After such an opening, Push It Up! and Freaks On This Side -- the latter featuring an angular horn arrangement worthy of Neal Hefti -- come as something of a relief, both being easier on the steamhammer rhythmic assault and multi-overdubbed Princely harmonies. Come On, Gett Off's laid-back cousin, contains some deliciously elastic guitar chops and contrastingly cheesy string synthesizers and Prince's apparently helium-assisted vocals describing an unconventional love triangle in London. Further respite arrives on the leatherette-smooth muzak-ballad The One, although its airbrushed blandness is hardly a cause for celebration. Much better, despite the less-than-groundbreaking title, is the closing Funky Music wherein loquacious clavinets and popping percussion vie for dominance over a dance groove. Buried deep in the run-off groove, or CD equivalent thereof, is an uncredited bonus track, possibly titled Why Do I Waste My Kisses On You, that sees our narrator getting into a lather about burgundy stockings over some suitably sleazy jazz-funk stylings. So no change there, then. It's a meticulously executed exercise in treading water. It's been the case for too long now. More artistry next time, please.
The Artist/New Power Generation
"New Power Soul"
Another week, another album from the Artist. The 10 tracks here were recorded over the past year, while the former Prince's live show took on an organic, loose, jam-oriented direction that can be transcendent live. Here, the same jams come off as unfocused noodlings, and aggressively old school. And while the New Power Generation may be the most powerful funk band on the planet, their leader gives them little to wrap their mighty chops around.
There are a couple of nice jams ("Come On," "Mad Sex"), and a sweet buttery soul ballad ("The One"), but ultimately this "Soul" provides more fodder for those who believe the Artist to be in dire need of an editor, producer or someone to separate the weak from the dope.
Rarely has he sounded less inspired, more cliched and more at a loss for original ideas. His most recent releases have led the listener down an often profound spiritual path, but the journey has been interrupted here, with tossed-off and callow lyrics.
Presumably, this is a soundtrack for a party, but this isn't a party, it's an Artist's rendition of a party: This normally restless, fiercely innovative soul has embraced the prevailing '70s nostalgia like those unfortunate young fashion victims who have taken to stumbling through life in platform shoes.
The former Prince has made countless records that felt special; this isn't one of those records. This is a sub-Greazy Meal record. This is a bottle of detergent, hanging from the front-door knob in a plastic bag, filled with two-for-the-price-of-one coupons.
By Jim Walsh
The Artist Formerly Known As Prince/New Power Generation
It's just like the man. After he's almost completely slipped under the general population's cultural radar, The Artist decides to go ahead and drop the album that everyone's been waiting a long, long time for. An album that's funky. An album that's accessible. An album that's sexy. An album that manages to wrap his extraordinarily, uh, unique personality around songs that folks other than insatiable and diehard fans will actually want to hear this year.
Granted, he's come close to this sort of release in the relatively recent past, most notably on the Purple Rainesque Gold Experience. But Gold, as great as it was, also possessed that Prince-ly "I'm gonna show you everything I got" diversity that seems designed to confound the average, heavily-formatted radio listener.
New Power Soul, on the other hand, is by far the most consistent album the Artist has released since the much-maligned, streamlined Batman soundtrack. Thankfully, it's also far better than that effort: leaving the soundtrack's stripped-down tone behind, NPS is a full-blown funk jam, notably light on guitars and heavy on thickly-textured grooves.
Straddling sublime balladry, roof-raising anthems and purely danceable funk, New Power Soul states its aims succinctly on the title track: "Keepin' the crowd movin' is my one and only duty, with the New Power Soul." The Artist approaches his task with his trademark cocky smile and the jams to back it up, dishing out what may well be the party record of the year. Between grinding grooves like the hilariously self-explanatory "Mad Sex" and the brilliant, Camille-esque "Come On" (probably the most sublimely sexy song he's done since "If I Was Your Girlfriend"), as well as four-on-the-floor late-night stompers like "Push It Up!", "Freaks On This Side" and "Funky Music," you can almost picture the empty wine bottles and stray underwear scattered around your house the next morning. The goose-bump-inducing ballads include an almost-saccharine-but-still-beautiful "The One," and a song that will surely wind up on a million "Please-don't-break-up-with-me" tapes, the swooning "Until You're In My Arms Again."
And then there's the extra track (skip to #49), the only song here that hearkens back to the days of Prince: the creepily romantic "Wasted Kisses," about someone who's dead. Real dead.
This is not the record that "Prince fans" have been dying for. There's little here resembling oblique spirituality, complex musicality or ego-stroking personality. And, well, Doug E. Fresh is on two tracks. But it's still a hell of a record, one that is just about perfect for Jeep-jamming all summer. And, for those searching for a reason to listen to The Artist in 1998, this album should just about do it for you, because, as with everything else he's done, it's always better than what's out there now. In the end, people just gotta remember who he is, and what he's meant to music for so many years, and they'll groove on his latest. Like the lyric for "Come On" goes: "I got the butter for your muffin, I just need the keys to your room."
-- Jason Ferguson