Art Official Age

Welcome 2 America
2021 (recorded in 2010)

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Prince’s ‘Welcome 2 America’: Funkier, Sexier, Superflyier Than Most of His Latter-Day Music
With stronger songs and sharper messages than much of the music he released during his final years, the album should have come out when he was alive

3 1/2 stars

Toward the end of his life, Prince was creating so much music that he appeared to lose sight of his vision. Although his records contained glimmers of brilliance, he had started entombing potentially glorious singalong choruses, jaw-dropping guitar solos, and clever lyrics in overwrought R&B and heavy-handed garage rock. (Check the sparkly impotence of 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.) And unlike the stunning concerts he performed until his death, his albums felt sinful (and not in a Dirty Mind kind of way), since the music was often so generic that it barely echoed the raw talent that originally consecrated the title of His Royal Badness. But as the posthumous releases culled from his fabled vault have recently proven, what the Artist deemed worthy of release rarely represented his capabilities.

The latest discovery, Welcome 2 America — a full album of fun, funky pop and R&B from 2010 — proves just how unreliable his instincts were since he inexplicably shelved it. From track one, it’s instantly more likable than everything he released between 2009 and 2014. The grooves are funkier, the sex jams are sexier, and the Curtis Mayfield homages are superflyier. Reports from his collaborators are that he loved the album when he made it. In fact, he liked the title Welcome 2 America so much that he named a tour after the record. So what happened? Whatever crisis in faith led to him abandoning the record is now forever lost to the Great Purple Beyond, but at least its release now shows where his head was at when he made it.

Prince cut the record with a one-off lineup that included bass virtuoso Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman, and the chemistry is undeniable from the first song, “Welcome 2 America,” which feels like a cousin, once or twice removed, of “Sign ‘o’ the Times,” with its bass-heavy backdrop and Prince’s didactic takedown of American values. He performs scabrous screeds about the housing market crash of 2008 and his contempt for iPhones and reality TV with a sort of hepcat-beatnik swagger that’s equal parts Gil Scott-Heron and Maynard G. Krebs. Some of it’s corny (“Go 2 school 2 become a celebrity … but don’t B late because everybody and their mama got a sex tape”) but hey, so were some of the lines in “Sign.”

He continues his tableau of American dystopia on “Running Game (Son of a Slave Master),” a hip-hop–inflected indictment of the music industry for taking advantage of budding musicians. Although he and his backup singers trade upbeat melodies, and he throws in some “What’s Going On”–style background chatter, his lyrics about Black-on-Black crime are sobering. Along with the Mayfield paean “Born 2 Die” and the dreamy “1,000 Light Years From Here,” “Running Game” fits perfectly with “Controversy,” “Race,” “Baltimore,” and all the other songs Prince has written about how the U.S. is particularly Orwellian for Black people.

As always, his message is for people to persevere, echoed in “Stand Up and B Strong,” a cover of a Bon Jovi–like power ballad by Soul Asylum, with a gospel-R&B makeover and one of the album’s best guitar solos. The LP’s closing track promises “One Day We Will All B Free” over disco-guitar scratching and jazzy chord changes. In some ways, the social-justice aspect of the album (and its soulfulness) feels like a descendent of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, by one of Prince’s favorite groups, Sly and the Family Stone.

But the album isn’t all as serious. Prince and his bandmates cut loose on “Hot Summer,” an Elvis Costello–style beach-rock banger (complete with Farfisa organ) that probably would have sounded better live, and the song “Yes” feels like something caught between a Broadway revue and a halftime cheerleader show (the female backup singers chant, “If U’re ready 4 a brand-new nation … say yes!”) but it’s so posi, you can’t help but smile.

But the album’s best song is “When She Comes,” since Prince always did his best work when he was horny. In full “Do Me Baby” mode (piano, light guitar strumming, falsetto vocals, uh, bedroom sound effects), Prince describes his lover’s orgasm in the way only Prince could (“Occasionally, she cries/Please don’t ask me Y” — don’t worry, Prince, we won’t) and it feels natural. It’s Prince’s dirty mind, then aged 52, in arrested development, and the song is the sort of glorious audio pornography that would have made Tipper Gore phone all her friends in 1984, but seems tame compared to the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song),” recorded five years earlier. Prince completely rewrote “When She Comes” with horns and accordion for 2015’s HitnRun: Phase Two, and while it’s still potent, there’s an intimacy to the Welcome 2 America version that sounds freer. Unfortunately, he took the time to overthink the song (and the album as a whole), which might explain why so many of his records came out sounding stilted.

But even if Prince had released Welcome 2 America in 2010, it’s hard to imagine how it would have been received. He had scored an unlikely hit in 2006 with 3121’s “Black Sweat,” which musically sounded like his own “Kiss” reimagined as a G-funk song, but that was his only Billboard hit since 1999. Pop music in 2010 was all about Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Dirty Bit,” neither of which sound very much like anything on Welcome 2 America. Then again, judging from the lyrics to “Welcome 2 America,” Prince wasn’t interested in the pop life anymore anyway. What he did care about will remain a mystery, but puzzle pieces like Welcome 2 America will always be welcome.

Kory Grow


'Welcome 2 America' shows that Prince is still full of surprises
REVIEW: Unearthed album could be a sign of our times.

By Jon Bream Star Tribune | JULY 29, 2021 — 10:46AM

Is Prince speaking to us from beyond? Was he some kind of soothsayer? Or have times just not changed that much?

Five years after his death, the Purple One weighs in with an 11-year-old, previously unissued album that seems remarkably timely and topical in this post-Trump world of media misinformation and racial reckoning.

Sony Legacy's release this week of "Welcome 2 America," a fully completed 2010 project discovered by the Prince estate's archivist nearly two years ago, surprises in many ways:

• There are more songs offering social commentary than on any previous Prince album.

• He recorded this collection primarily with two musicians he'd never worked with before.

• He included his first cover ever of a tune by another Minneapolis act, Soul Asylum's "Stand Up and Be Strong."

• A three-voice female choir sings lead on one selection and figures prominently on several others.

• Prince asked longtime sideman Morris Hayes to add keyboard parts on his own, giving him an unprecedented co-producer credit.

As with many Prince albums, "Welcome 2 America" contains the good, the meh and the "What was he thinking?" Despite its unevenness, this seldom-bootlegged album is a welcome addition to his official catalog, a record that shows a strong sense of purpose, vibrant spirituality and fervent hope for a better world. The music resonates with profound relevance in the post-George Floyd, current-COVID climate of 2021.

"Welcome 2 America" appears to be rooted in Prince's discovery of bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, then 23, in a YouTube video. After jamming with her in Los Angeles, he invited her to come to Paisley Park with a drummer of her choice. She picked Chris Coleman, who had been playing on the New Kids on the Block reunion tour. He didn't even audition.

The three musicians jammed, then recorded tracks. Prince added vocals later.

A trio concept apparently had been in the Minnesota maestro's head for a while. Circa 1993, he recorded a power trio project with drummer Michael Bland, bassist Sonny Thompson and himself on guitar, but it ended up in the vault. This album has now been freed from that storied crypt.

Throughout his career, we heard Prince share his thoughts about the ills of our nation but not as consistently as on "Welcome 2 America." Eight of the 12 pieces could easily be considered social or political commentaries and a couple of others hint at it.

Mixing muted jazz and spoken word, the opening title track evokes vintage Gil Scott-Heron as Prince disses a laundry list of our problems: overdependence on technology (iPhone and Google are targets), media (misinformation and celebrity culture are scorned), racism ("land of the free, home of the slave") and the just-ended presidency of George W. Bush (no new taxes). Prince praises the Bible and jazz, and displays his humor, declaring "here we snatch bass players, not purses." Messages delivered.

On other selections, the paisley potentate tackles poverty (the Curtis Mayfield-inspired "Born 2 Die") and racism ("Running Game [Son of a Slave Master]," sung by Shelby J with Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorillo). He yearns for utopia ("1000 Light Years From Here," with its George Benson-like guitar), equality ("Same Page, Different Book" set to a spare funk groove) and a new world order (the emphatically good "Yes," done to a double-time march beat).

In the closer, "One Day We Will All B Free," Prince mixes spirituality with politics, asserting if "George Washington never told no lie, baby, we'd all be saved" and wondering "who controls the nations if we never have peace." Good points.

In a rare studio cover song, Prince urges us to "Stand Up and B Strong," the Soul Asylum tune recast as a low-key, religious-tinged rallying cry. The Minneapolis band's version was more of a glistening rocker with prominent drums (by Bland, who joined Soul Asylum in 2005). Prince's interpretation is moody and minimalist, carrying on almost two minutes longer, thanks to his rising guitar solo. (Footnote: He cut an earlier treatment of this song with Thompson and Bland; that rendition remains in the vault.)

Three numbers on "Welcome 2 America" feel like familiar Prince oeuvre. The current single, "Hot Summer," is a sprightly piece of synth-pop ear candy straight out of his early-'80s songbook with a Top 40 lyric that could nod to Sly & the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime."

The Minneapolis icon steps into His Royal Badness mode with "Check the Record," a heavy rocker in which he taunts a friend to investigate if the pal's girlfriend has been in Prince's bed. It's a rhetorical question, of course.

By 2010, the always spiritual Prince, a Jehovah's Witness disciple, may have stopped cussing, but his libido is alive on "When She Comes," a slow, seductive ballad with graceful guitar and a perverse purity that climaxes with a whimper, not a bang.

How would this album have played if it had been released when it was recorded — one year into Barack Obama's presidency, with hope coursing through the nation? We didn't find out because Prince decided to shelve "Welcome 2 America."

Speculation is that he wanted to tour behind the record with his new trio, but Wilkenfeld was committed to play with Herbie Hancock and Jeff Beck. What did Prince say about snatching bass players?


Prince: Welcome 2 America review – the best album of his last two decades

Prince’s stock as a recording artist was low in 2010, so it makes weird sense for this work to appear in 2021, getting the posthumous attention it deserves

Alexis Petridis | Thu 22 Jul 2021 07.00 EDT

ix years before his death, Prince’s career was in a peculiar position. He had restored his unimpeachable reputation as a live performer, bolstered by his half-time appearance at 2007’s Super Bowl and his extraordinary 21-night stand at London’s O2 Arena the same year. But his recording career doggedly refused to follow suit. It was in a better state than it had been a decade before – when Prince seemed content to release endless collections of instrumental jazz-funk jams to an audience that had shrunk to diehard fans – but his much-touted albums Musicology and 3121 had never quite recaptured the glory of his imperial phase.

He seemed locked in a cycle of underwhelming releases – Planet Earth, Lotusflow3r, MPLSound – distributed via newspapers and deals with big-box retailers. Things bottomed out with 2010’s 20TEN, which didn’t even warrant a release in the US, and in the UK was given away free with the Daily Mirror. In fairness, it got one laudatory review, proclaiming it “his best album in 23 years” and “as good as anything that anyone has done”. Alas, said review was by Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror. It was genuinely depressing to see the once uncontested, no-further-questions genius produced by 80s pop getting his best response from someone who had been paid to be nice about him.

Under the circumstances, you could be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed that the latest posthumous Prince release isn’t one of his legendary unheard albums – not 1986’s Camille, nor the original, house-influenced version of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, nor 1998’s reunion with the Revolution, Roadhouse Garden – but a collection from 2010 that Prince didn’t consider worthy of putting out.

Lack of interest is likely to turn into bafflement once you play it. From its opening title track – stark, slow-motion funk in which Prince casts a weary eye over the state of the nation, a spiritual younger cousin of Sign o’ the Times – it gradually reveals itself to be of completely different quality to anything he deigned to release at the time: a collection of largely brilliant, socially aware songs. It’s often inspired by early 70s soul, most notably golden-era Curtis Mayfield: the shadow of the gentle genius looms particularly large over Born 2 Die, both in its sound – a dead ringer for the tender funk of Right on for the Darkness or Little Child Runnin’ Wild – and its empathic lyrical depiction of a doomed character.

The album’s lyrical tone isn’t without precedent in Prince’s contemporary oeuvre: 2009’s Lotusflow3r contained Dreamer and Colonized Mind, the former a tough funk-rock track about racism, the latter nothing special beyond the fact that its lyrics foreshadowed the rise of the alt-right. But it’s more carefully done here, and more effective because it’s set to better music. Running Game (Son of a Slave Master) offers a better explanation of Prince’s objection to the relationship between Black artists and a predominantly white music industry than simply writing SLAVE on his cheek; 1000 Light Years from Here sets its fantasy of an enlightened undersea utopia to rapturous string-bedecked pop-soul; the glittering glam-soul hybrid of Yes fits the song’s revolutionary zeal; the closer One Day We Will All B Free is just fantastic.

It isn’t perfect. The staccato 1010 (Rin Tin Tin) is interesting, but slight, while a piano-led cover of Soul Asylum’s Stand Up and B Strong pales by comparison to the more soulful balladry of When She Comes: it seems to have earned its place in the tracklisting less on its quality than as a demonstration of Prince’s ability to absorb any music, even past-its-sell-by-date post-grunge rock. But it’s still the best album Prince made in the last two decades of his life. Or rather, thus far: maybe there’s other music of this standard, from this era, lurking in the vault.

Which begs the question: WTF? Why did he leave this in the can? Perhaps it was just Prince being Prince: you don’t have to delve too deep into his story to find examples of behaviour that seems completely inexplicable by normal standards. Perhaps, behind all the bluster about sticking it to the music industry, he knew that giving your albums away with the tabloids or flogging them in Target somehow devalued their contents and was holding back the really good stuff.

In the long run, it makes a weird sense for it to appear in 2021. For one thing, its contents haven’t dated: they seem heightened by a more tumultuous era than that in which it was recorded. And Prince’s stock as a recording artist was low in 2010. Welcome 2 America might have changed that, but equally it might have been overlooked by a public weary and wary of being told he was back to his best. The posthumous cult of Prince guarantees more attention, focused more keenly, than it would have received 11 years ago: attention it fully deserves.


Prince – ‘Welcome 2 America’ review: purple prophet’s message still sounds fresh on lost album
The first full album of unheard material from the late icon's legendary vault tackles race and injustice through joyful funk

4 stars (out of 5)

By Andrew Trendell | 29th July 2021

“The world is fraught with misin4mation. George Orwell’s vision of the future is here. We need 2 remain steadfast in faith in the trying times ahead.”

No, this wasn’t a recent post from The 1975’s Matty Healy as he came out of Twitter retirement. These were the words of His Royal Badness Prince, who – way back in 2010 – was writing about the themes of his album ‘Welcome 2 America’. Maybe these ideas are eternal of modern life or are just symptomatic of the 21st Century, or maybe he was a portentous purple prophet? Either way, as the record finally sees the light of day, his words mean as much (or maybe more) now, 11 years later, in our era of doom-scrolling and newsfeed mistruths.

‘Welcome 2 America’ was recorded back in spring 2010, when Prince and his backing band The New Power Generation were preparing for a tour of the same name. The tour went ahead, to great acclaim, but the album was shelved. Much mystery remains as to why, but then again Prince was as much a perfectionist and as he was prolific. He released 39 albums while he was still on Earth, but also locked away at least 8,000 songs underground in his legendary vault at his Paisley Park home and studio in Minnesota. An entire career’s worth of material from one of the true architects of modern pop remains unheard – a secret history waiting to be discovered.

That’s not to say we need it all, mind. After his imperial ‘80s era, Prince’s edgy and experimental ‘90s days often proved divisive while being littered with greatness. The middling reaction was interrupted by celebration with the psychedelic funk-pop of 2004’s ‘Musicology’ and the slick, riveting R&B of 2006’s ‘3121’, but before and after that the music was coming so thick and fast – and with varied results – that hunger for Prince’s studio output was not what it once was. Come 2010’s ‘20TEN’ (his third album to be given away with a newspaper), he was far more in demand for his prowess as one of the greatest touring showmen on the planet than he was for new material.

An uncharacteristically long four-year wait followed before a new album. The hunger returned with the fervour that surrounded his impromptu run of last-minute surprise London shows in 2014; the new material debuted there really captured the party vibes of those times. The albums ‘Plectrumelectrum’ and ‘Art Official Age’, released later that year with his live band 3rdEyeGirl, were boisterous and effervescent (and he tragically died in 2016).

Perhaps, then, if ‘Welcome 2 America’ had landed back when it was originally intended, it would have fallen on the deaf ears of a world that wasn’t ready. Judging it now, that would have been one hell of a shame.

The opening title track acts as a spoken-word sermon to rally against a country obsessed with celebrity, sex tapes, cheap thrills and easy wins. This was written in the infancy of Barack Obama’s Presidency, but still Prince laments how “hope and change, everything takes forever – the truth is a new minority”, painting the US as “Land of the Free, home of the slave”. The fluid funk of ‘Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master)’ tackles the exploitation of black culture while plunging the dagger once more into the music industry he so famously loathed: “How much do you want for that real dope beat? / Another A&R man lying through their teeth.”

This is music with an effortless groove and an open-eyed social conscience. There’s a sun-kissed ‘70s soul Curtis Mayfield glow to ‘Born 2 Die’, as Prince’s falsetto tells us of a woman doing all she can to keep her “free from the hustle of the streets”. ‘1000 Light Years From Here’ carries the summer-y pop feel of ‘Parade’ or ‘Lovesexy’, while Prince dreams of a new world order without borders or prejudice. Eyebrow raised, fist in the air, this is the same suave and sophisticated soapbox prowess that he gave us on ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and Hit N’ Run Phase Two’s ‘Baltimore’.

The record is also a joyous ride through the annals of music history and the genres Prince helped to shape. ‘Hot Summer’ should be filed next to ‘Guitar’ as an underrated Prince pop-rock belter, ‘Yes’ smashes glam with gospel, ‘Same Page, Different Book’ takes his funk chops on the freest of walks and there’s a gorgeous and aching cover of Soul Asylum’s ‘Stand Up And B Strong’ – all delivered with a zeal for a brighter day, whenever that may come. Prince didn’t know 11 years ago, but that doesn’t make this record any less powerful.

‘Welcome 2 America’ is an album that speaks to today’s problems and demands to be heard. It’s better to have it now than never. His name was Prince and he was funky, and it seems he has so much more to tell us.


Welcome 2 America

6.2 (out of 10)

by Daniel Bromfield | AUGUST 4 2021

Recorded in 2010, Prince’s first posthumous album of all unreleased material is a state-of-the-union concept record in which he bluntly broadcasts his opinions on taxes, technology, drugs, religion, and the music industry.

Prince has some great protest songs—“Sign o’ the Times,” “1999,” “America,” “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” and “Love Sign,” to name a few—but he was never a great protest songwriter. Amid all of the dizzying ups and downs of his four-decade career, one of the few things that remained constant was his willingness to put subtlety and artifice aside if there was a message that he felt needed to get across, be it “Abraham Lincoln was a racist,” “Let’s take all the guns away,” or “Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read.” He had some good points, and he could be passionate in his conviction and poignant in his starry-eyed pleas for peace, but the intricacies of his songs about love, sex, and God didn’t always carry over to his polemics.

Welcome 2 America is the first posthumous Prince album to consist entirely of unreleased material, discovered by the late pop star’s archivist Michael Howe in the form of a fistful of CD-Rs with tracklists scrawled on their surfaces. As the title suggests, it’s a state-of-the-union concept album, with Prince’s opinions on taxes, technology, drugs, religion, and the music industry broadcast clearly and bluntly over taut power-trio backing by bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman. The 12-song set was recorded in 2010, and he had high enough hopes for it to name a tour after it. Then he shelved it for unknown reasons, most likely because Wilkenfeld couldn’t join the tour, making the album an obsolete representation of his live sound—though, given how consistently his performances outpaced his recorded work in the latter part of his career, it wouldn’t seem to matter much.

Prince had a lot on his mind in 2010, and contemporaneous Prince albums like Lotusflow3r and 20Ten were no less shy in making dire predictions and grave diagnoses. Those were not among his strongest albums, and neither is this one. But Welcome 2 America fares a little better because of the construction of the album itself. At 54 minutes, it finds a nice middle ground between the bloat of the Lotusflow3r triple-album package and the slightness of 20Ten. Welcome 2 America is well sequenced; none of the songs feel like filler; the trio format imposes a consistent sound and style. But a Prince album devoted almost entirely to socially conscious material inherently plays against his strengths as a writer, and he gets in his own way too much for Welcome 2 America to occupy the upper tier of his catalog.

The opening track, “Welcome 2 America,” is by turns funny, embarrassing, and preposterous. A chestnut like “land of the free, home of the slave” actually has the potential to be controversial in a time when the term “critical race theory” has been recast as a red herring to avoid acknowledging systemic racism in the first place, but most of the targets on Prince’s laundry list are too broad for us to really know what he’s pissed about. “Distracted by the features of the iPhone”? Instagram, sure—but did he really have a problem with Voice Memos? “You think today’s music will last”? Elixer hasn’t. “Truth is a new minority” could be a jab at double-talking politicians, but he could just as well be telling us to keep our third eye open; this is a man who apparently believed tuning his songs to 432 Hz made them more aligned with the universe. The best line he manages is razor-sharp and searingly specific. “Hope and change?” he scoffs at President Obama, then a year into his first term. “Everything takes forever.”

Prince sounds strangely detached from this material. He narrates “Welcome 2 America” in a petulant monotone that sounds more smug than righteously angry. “Born 2 Die” is a morality play about a drug-pushing drifter, and it’s so dispassionately narrated it doesn’t really seem to wound him that this girl threw her life away. “Hot Summer” deserves a scorching vocal, but he’s so sedate that we don’t really believe he’s going to have a hot summer, just that he’s writing a song for someone else’s. He cedes the microphone to an animated lineup of female singers for much of the record’s runtime, and they sound like they’re having a lot more fun than he is (though “Same Page, Different Book” does not break the “Cindy C” / “Alphabet St.” streak of unfortunate backup-singer rap verses). Prince slinks between these vocalists instead of standing in front and taking charge. He’s the master of ceremonies on his own album, forever welcoming us to America, never really showing us around.

“Sign o’ the Times” worked because Prince set a scene rather than flatly reading the country’s diagnosis. Each verse focused on a person, not a platitude, and his guitars and LinnDrums generated enough heat and pollution that the song seemed to take place in the very urban hellscape he described. Welcome 2 America, meanwhile, doesn’t take place anywhere but within the cloud-painted walls of Paisley Park. The production is immaculate throughout, cushioned with chimes and big swooning synths, as if Prince is delivering his missives from within the folds of a zebra-print couch. The reverb synonymous with his production style is absent, along with any sense of grit, space, or atmosphere. “Check the Record” wants to be a mid-tempo glam-rock rave-up like “Darling Nikki” and “She’s Always in My Hair,” but it’s so dryly produced that it comes across like a pale idea of a rocker rather than getting into our bones.

Given the incongruously plush sound, it makes sense that one of the record’s best songs, “When She Comes,” isn’t about Uncle Sam at all but is simply one of those Prince sex jams that’s way more ambitious than it needs to be. He luxuriates in the silky spaces between the beats, making lines like “she can see stars shoot all over her sky” somehow sound like affirmations of the beauty of life even as we know he’s just being naughty. It’s one of the few moments on Welcome 2 America where form meets content. Another is the cryptic “1010 (Rin Tin Tin),” whose eerie synth stabs summon the right atmosphere of impenetrability; it lives in mystery, which is always a good place for Prince. There’s also a cover of fellow Minneapolitans Soul Asylum’s “Stand Up and B Strong,” good enough to raise the question of why “Stand Up and B Strong” wasn’t always a half-time slow jam.

It’s easy to praise Welcome 2 America just for being protest music, so long as you believe any ammunition against ignorance is worth throwing into the cannon. This stuff might strike more of a chord now with a disillusioned American public than if he’d released it amid the tentative optimism of the early Obama years, but the recordings have not grown any more or less inspired since they were made, and if they’re “prescient” or “timely,” those are facts, not virtues. He could’ve opened this album by predicting a Trump presidency and a Capitol riot, and it wouldn’t make Welcome 2 America the next Sign o’ the Times; it was and is a spotty album from a time when Prince was making a lot of those.


Prince’s posthumous release Welcome 2 America is fantastic. So why did he leave it in the vault?
Recorded in 2010, then inexplicably shelved, the album features some of Prince's feistiest lyrics and catchiest music of the 21st century

By Noel Murray | 7/26/21 1:15PM

After Prince left his longtime label Warner Bros. in 1996, he spent roughly the next 15 years recording a string of overstuffed albums, often with confusing titles and garish covers, released via sometimes quirky distribution methods that assured they faded into oblivion almost as soon as they arrived. The latest Prince vault discovery, Welcome 2 America, comes from the end of that run, recorded in 2010, just before he shifted his attention away from putting out records and focused more on his lucrative live act. It’s easy to understand why a lost album from this era might be a tough sell, even to Prince fans: While he produced some brilliant art in the 2000s, his curatorial skills often let him down.

Yet heard in the context of 2021, and all but devoid of the musical baggage that immediately preceded it, it’s hard to deny how alive this “new” album feels. Is Welcome 2 America a top five Prince record? Definitely not—but it may be in the top 10.

A recent oral history in Rolling Stone offers a fairly thorough look at how Welcome 2 America came to be. In a nutshell: In 2010, Prince hired a new rhythm section (bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman), and while jamming with them at his Paisley Park studio, he recorded several semi-improvised instrumental tracks heavily influenced by jazz and 1970s funk. By the time Prince called in some members of his touring band to help turn these vamps into songs, he’d added lyrics that were alternately playful and political, depicting a nation of shackled citizens deluded into thinking consumer choice equals freedom.

Prince—or whoever was responsible for sequencing this archival release—establishes the tone of Welcome 2 America with its opening songs. The title track is one of the artist’s semi-regular “state of the world” keynotes (like “Sign O’ The Times” or “Planet Earth”), featuring rueful lines about iPhone addicts and pathetic wannabe celebrities, set to a loose, bass-forward groove that’s been accented by sound effects, piano stings and a tight chorus of background singers offering slinkily soulful responses to Prince’s calls. “Welcome 2 America” then gives way to “Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master),” another stripped-down and softly swinging number, revisiting one of Prince’s common themes: the exploitation of creative labor by greedy, short-sighted corporations.

From there, Welcome 2 America proceeds through ten more songs that frequently combine relaxed, almost breezy music with stinging lyrics (like this arresting opening line from the punchy, poppy “1000 Light Years From Here”: “We could live underwater / It ain’t hard when you’ve never been a part of the country / On dry land”). From the blaxploitation movie soundtrack riffs of “Born 2 Die,” to the sunny vibes of the endearingly tossed-off ditties “Hot Summer” and “Yes,” to the way Prince turns the thudding Soul Asylum power ballad “Stand Up And Be Strong” into a limber self-actualization anthem, there’s a thematic consistency to this album’s sound—a commitment to casual moments of grace and joy.

In a way, Welcome 2 America sounds like every act featured in the recent music documentary/reclamation project Summer Of Soul—including the sunshine-poppers, the gospel singers and the revolutionary poets—blended together and given a modern sheen. The inspirations are retro, yet even 11 years after this album was recorded, the songs sound fresh, both in subject matter and approach. The existence and the backstory of Welcome 2 America do raise some nagging questions. Why didn’t Prince release this incredibly entertaining and vital set of music in his lifetime? And if he had, would all those critics and fans who found his late-period output so frustrating have been able to grasp just how special these songs are?

Not even people in Prince’s inner circle seem to know the answer to the first question. After finishing Welcome 2 America (assuming it was finished… some of his collaborators on the record aren’t so sure), he embarked on the two-year “Welcome 2…” tour, represented by a full concert video included on the deluxe edition of the album. The tour was heavy on Prince’s biggest hits, interwoven with some fan-favorite deep cuts and a few offbeat cover songs—but rarely anything from the actual Welcome 2 America album, which even most Prince devotees didn’t know existed.

As for the second question, well, it’s impossible to know. Assuming that Prince hadn’t sabotaged himself by releasing Welcome 2 America in some unwieldy, hard-to-access way (like putting it all on a thumb drive, or bundling it with three other LPs’ worth of half-finished outtakes of songs by his protégées), it’s hard to imagine the record wouldn’t have had an impact. It certainly wouldn’t have escaped notice that an album so full of righteous skepticism about American values was recorded during President Obama’s first term—or that it featured so many songs Obama probably would’ve put on one of his playlists.

An under-recognized aspect of Prince is that his self-taught opinions on politics, religion, business and music rarely fit into any clear category. He incorporated a lot more of those studies and preoccupations into Welcome 2 America, making it one of his most personal albums. Then he set those ideas to some of his most likable music of the 21st century. If nothing else, this record is evidence that Prince’s one-of-a-kind genius never really dimmed, even if he sometimes lost sight of how to focus it, or—perhaps more importantly to the quick-take internet area that Prince detested so much—how to package it.