[9 April 2009]
You know it’s hard out here for a Prince fan.
Actually, I’m not supposed to say “fan”. I believe the proper term is “friend” or “fam”. Whatever you want to call us (“avid Prince listeners”, maybe?) there’s hardly a dull moment in our support of our favorite eccentric genius.
And Prince seems to enjoy not making it easy. Sometimes my Prince fanaticism makes me feel like Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire when he’s explaining to Cuba Gooding Jr.‘s stubborn and proud professional footballer Rod Tidwell why it’s so tough to be Tidwell’s sports agent: “I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be me out here for you. It’s an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, okay?”
The last time I wrote about Prince, it was 2007 and he had released Planet Earth. Anytime Prince drops an album, I’m happy. It’s a chance to add new songs into my Prince mixes, and a chance to reevaluate what I think I understand about his vast outpouring of music. But then he followed the release by engaging in copyright and trademark skirmishes with Internet sites like YouTube, demanding that all unauthorized music, images, and videos pertaining to Prince be removed. That was fine, I guess, except for the irony of Prince performing Radiohead’s “Creep” at Coachella and then blocking videos of the performance from the web. Not even Radiohead could see his version of their song. “Really? He’s blocked it?” was Thom Yorke’s response. “Well, tell him to unblock it.”
He has also made similar demands of fan sites, many of which have social networks based around a shared affection for his work. Prince enthusiasts decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. They got together and formed Prince Fans United (PFU), and entered into discussions with Prince’s representatives.
I’m positive the next big moment in the saga could only occur in a Prince chronology: Prince recorded a “diss” record targeting PFU. The song, “PFUnk”, was actually kind of funky, as the name surely implies, using a swirl of guitars and freaky vocal effects to let his fans have it: “I love all y’all. Don’t you ever mess with me no more.” Interestingly, many PFU members thought it was one of Prince’s better 21st century tunes. They even featured it on their PFU website.
While I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a diss record aimed at one’s own fans, I’m intrigued by the idea of being sued by Prince. Forcing him to sit for a deposition might be my best shot at meeting him. During the deposition, I could pull another Tom Cruise maneuver but, this time, it would be the Cruise-Nicholson showdown in A Few Good Men. Prince would sue me in a jurisdiction that allows legendary bassist Larry Graham, a non-lawyer, to represent Prince without committing an “unauthorized practice of law” violation. I’d represent myself, and I’d annoy Prince during the deposition by playing Michael Jackson’s “Bad” on repeat in the waiting area outside.
Me: What happened to Andre Cymone? Did you order the Code Purple?
Larry Graham: Objection!
Prince: I did what I had to do.
Me: DID YOU ORDER THE CODE PURPLE?
Prince: YOU’RE DOG GONE RIGHT I DID!
But it’s 2009, and all things are forgiven when a new album appears. And this time, it’s a three-album package consisting of two sets by Prince (LotusFlow3r and MPLSound) and one from the latest in the long line of Prince associates, Bria Valente. The package sells for just under $12, thanks to an exclusive deal between Prince and the U.S. retail chain with the bull’s eye logo. You can also download all three works from Prince’s website, www.LotusFlow3r.com, but you have to pay a subscription fee of $77. Presumably, the subscription will also earn you access to members-only music, videos, coveted concert tickets, and other assorted goodies.
I considered joining, but then my inner President Obama came out and said, “Look, let’s be clear here. You can’t afford that.”
Plus, I’ve had some experience with Prince’s previous direct-to-consumer and online efforts. Lest you forget, he was the Al Gore of this online music thing! There was the 1-800-NEW-FUNK mail order service, and then www.Love4OneAnother.com, the NPG Music Club, and www.3121.com. Prince would not be Prince if he made things easy. Even if the new website works flawlessly, I figured he’d make me solve a riddle or decode something in order to enter the site, or play “I Spy” to find the download link before you can purchase it. Sorry, Prince, I can’t come out and play in the sunshine right now. Maybe later.
As for the breadth and scope of the collection, you already know the drill. Prince likes to release as much music as he can, in as many styles and genres as he can muster, and he’ll do what it takes to accomplish that goal. It seems he has a fondness for the multi-disc format. Sign ‘O’ the Times was originally conceived as a three album set before it was reduced to two. Revolution band members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, whose White Flags of Winter Chimneys is a seriously good listen, recently discussed the Sign ‘O’ the Times era with Vibe Magazine.
Other collections that go to the max are: The Hits/The B-sides, the three 60-minute CDs of Emancipation, Crystal Ball‘s three discs of outtakes, and the live performance flavor of One Nite Alone…Live!. “New Power Pak” of 1998 reminds me of this LotusFlow3r package. It featured the New Power Generation album New Power Soul (which is really a Prince/the Artist), Chaka Khan’s Come 2 My House, and Larry Graham’s GCS2000.
Of course, a common critique is to question whether Prince should release so much music. Couldn’t the best tracks of LotusFlow3r and MPLSound be whittled down to one excellent disc? Shouldn’t he edit more? Interesting sentiment, although it’s three CDs for the price of one, so you can just buy the thing and create your own playlist, right? Besides, you’ll never get a consensus about which Prince songs to cut and which ones to keep, so it becomes more a philosophical exercise.
Speaking of which, let’s discuss this music. But a word of caution as we move through this. I’m not going to be comparing this new release solely to the Prince songs of yesteryear. That’s the mistake everybody makes. Despite his declaration in The Truth‘s “Don’t Play Me” that his only competition is “me, in the past”, you have to also compare him to the current music landscape.
What’s your favorite Prince album? Dirty Mind? 1999? Purple Rain? Parade? Sign ‘O’ the Times? Chaos & Disorder (sike!). Well, the Prince who recorded whatever your favorite album is will probably beat “New Prince” in a comparison contest. It’s automatic. And if U play that game, U’ll B dissatisfied. Boo hoo. That’s automatic 2.
Of the three CDs, LotusFlow3r is the centerpiece. Rolling 12 tracks deep, LotusFlow3r embarks on a trippy esoteric journey through an organic assemblage of rock, funk, and jazz.
If you want to play the comparison game, LotusFlow3r is a concept album of sorts, but not in the soundtrack format of Prince’s own Purple Rain, Parade, or Graffiti Bridge. This is more like LoveSexy and its struggle in song between the good news of “LoveSexy” versus the negativity of “Spooky Electric”. LoveSexy presented an enjoyable but cartoon-like path toward spiritual contentment. By contrast, LotusFlow3r is a bit more serious, but without succumbing to self-importance and melodrama, and it’s certainly less preachy than 2001’s The Rainbow Children.
The Prince criticism I hear most is that he’s “self-indulgent”, with his unwillingness to edit his output as a close, and related, second. That criticism is largely unfounded here, although I can understand it in regard to the set’s instrumental numbers “From the Lotus…”, “…Back 2 the Lotus”, and “77 Beverly Park”.
The thing is, the instrumental pieces contribute to the album’s concept. In particular, the opening and closing “Lotus” instrumentals frame the album, giving it a cyclical feeling, even while these pieces are less form than function. That is to say, they fit into Prince’s “lotus flower” motif as the universe’s primordial matter, providing an array of jazz-flavored accompaniment to other songs, like “Boom” and the psychedelic “Wall of Berlin”, that speak to intergalactic, as well as individual, evolution and enlightenment.
Letting go of one’s earthly trappings and socially conditioned viewpoints is a regular theme throughout. For instance, the mellow rocker “Colonized Mind”, in title and content, recalls Me’shell Ndegeocello’s line in “Untitled” from her debut album Plantation Lullabies: “Her beauty cannot be measured with the standards of a colonized mind”. The song “$” espouses a familiar “easy come, easy go” perspective on money (“What difference does it make who got the most bank, it’s just ink & chlorophyll”). I don’t get why Prince thinks symbols can be song and album titles, but the groove is fresh enough to make Andre 3000 say, “Now that would have been perfect for the Idlewild soundtrack.”
By letting go, you can transcend the frustrating and the mundane, which is why we get the James Brown-styled workout “Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful”. Ultimately, this leads to ascension, exemplified by the Jimi Hendrix-saluting “Dreamer”. Channeling the famous guitar lick of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”, “Dreamer” plays right into the “lotus flower” lore and cosmology of the East, but relayed through a decidedly Western lens. And it rocks.
LotusFlow3r, conceptually and in musical diversity, operates as a cross between Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants and Me’shell Ndegeocello’s The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams. Like The Secret Life of Plants, the songs on this set explore, in some way, various aspect of the lotus flower mystique. “Love Like Jazz” and “77 Beverly Park” might even fit the mood and music of Plants.
Lovers of Prince’s guitar work might not be so forgiving of LotusFlow3r‘s musical variety, wishing instead that every song had been a rock banger. Prince’s guitar heroism here is nimble, inspired, and delightful, so I can see the attraction of hearing an album that would be “all rise” and nothing but scorchers, with no low key moments, like a Barney Stinson mixtape on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
Falling into the “low key” category would be the lovely, if saccharine “4ever” and the cover tune “Crimson & Clover”, with its vocal delivery the sonic equivalent of shimmering water. The problem with the “all rise” and “all rock” approach is that it ignores the theme of evolution. The ebb-and-flow feel of the album reflects that process. Sometimes it is relatively gradual, like the progression from the opening track to “Boom” and then to “Crimson & Clover”. Sometimes it is abrupt and visceral, like the dramatic shift from “Colonized Mind” to “Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful”. In this instance, Prince’s eclecticism has a purpose other than putting his wide ranging influences on display.
About “Crimson & Clover”, please note that this song only appears on the physical release. The www.LotusFlow3r.com download version contains the song “The Morning After” instead. As a title, “The Morning After” seems like a natural follow-up to a track called “Boom”.
A buddy of mine has both the download from the website subscription and the physical release, and has been puzzling over how to fit “The Morning After” into the same playlist as “Crimson & Clover”. Where do you put the two songs without disrupting the flow of the album? Well, after some tinkering, I think I’ve figured it out. What you do is keep “Crimson & Clover” after “Boom”, and then let “The Morning After” follow “Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful.” If you are so inclined and own a copy of the song, you should then let the rompin’ NPG Music Club track “Glasscutter” come behind “Wall of Berlin”, preceding “$”.
Whatever you do, please listen to these albums, but especially LotusFlow3r, on your headphones. Regular speakers won’t do it justice, and you’ll miss a lot of the nuances that make these songs tick. Also, I suspect these songs would sound marvelously warm on vinyl. Prince might get my $77 if he offered a vinyl version on www.LotusFlow3r.com.
Most people, I think, will agree that LotusFlow3r is the most serious of the three discs. The controversy will be about MPLSound, the package’s other Prince disc, apparently aimed at bringing the “Minneapolis Sound”. Some of us will see it as a colossal failure. Others will see it as a creative triumph and a return to form. It will be polarizing, and the division around this set of songs will continue. At the same time, I think some people who hated MPLSound will eventually cozy up to it, and vice versa. Some who love it now will want to recant, saying, “What in the Morris Day was I thinking?”
For me, since LotusFlow3r is the main course, I see MPLSound and Elixer as side dishes. Despite being advertised as three separate albums, I see MPLSound especially as a set of bonus tracks to compensate for the fact that Prince isn’t really doing “b-sides” anymore. Fun, spirited, and dance-oriented, MPLSound doesn’t waste time pretending to tackle the type of subject matter presented on LotusFlow3r. For better, and for worse because it becomes overdone, Prince’s familiar Linn Drum programming is back with a vengeance.
That realization comes right at the start with “(There’ll Never B) Another Like Me”, one of those I’m-so-cool party songs Prince is so fond of doing (see also: “Get Your Groove On”, “Life ‘O’ the Party”). This track, along with “Chocolate Box” and “Dance 4 Me” are heavy on rhythm and rump shaking, and light on depth. Whether this development calls for cheers or tears is up to you. These songs work well enough for me, with “(There’ll Never B) Another Like Me” being the weakest of the three. (Yo, what’s up the parentheses in the title?). Strangely, I get the impression that these songs, perhaps with a little lyrical tinkering (or maybe not, who knows) might have worked just as well for the ladies of R&B group TLC in their heyday (RIP, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, much respect). “Chocolate Box” sports a deft cameo from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip that makes me wonder if there’ll be a Q-Tip remix with an extended rhyme. Meanwhile, “Dance 4 Me” embellishes Zapp’s “I Can Make You Dance” with chipmunk vocals in the vicinity of Prince’s alter ego “Camille” and his characteristic musical layers.
Balladry is to be expected from a Prince album. Here, the slower numbers aren’t as challenging as they are pretty. “Here” sports a memorable melody while “Better With Time” totes a tender, reminiscing vibe. Prince’s falsetto and backing voices are also well-placed. “U’re Gonna C Me” updates the previous piano-built incarnation from 2002’s NPG club release One Nite Alone, with varying degrees of success. It’s kind of catchy, but I’m also kind of indifferent to which one I prefer.
Okay, but where’s the weirdness? Oh, yeah, that. “Valentina” and “No More Candy 4 U” were put here to mess with our minds. “Valentina” finds Prince asking Salma Hayek’s daughter to “tell yo’ mama she should give me a call”. Now, I’m not mad at a brotha for tryin’ to holla at a sista, but I will admit to the weirdness of it. Wonder what Salma Hayek would think of it? Me too! And when Prince sings, “Yo’ mama was a movie queen, she was one of the best,” I can’t help but think she’s looking sideways at the speakers like, “What does he mean ‘was’?” Strange, but pretty cool.
Likewise, quirky album closer “No More Candy 4 U” takes a page from the Controversy songbook, sounding like a brilliant reworking of “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”. Prince is on fire here, turning up the heat on “freaks” who can’t sing and “haters on the Internet”, although sometimes I think this Internet thing is getting to be too much for him. Sometimes you just need to log off. Incidentally, “No More Candy 4 U” is a hoot to listen to if you play it after Robyn’s bonus track piano version of Prince’s “Jack U Off”. Maybe it’s just me.
Which leaves “Ol’ Skool Company”, the song Prince performed for his Wednesday, March 25th stint on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He also performed on the next shows, Thursday and Friday, to promote the new music. “Ol’ Skool Company” was given a different treatment on Leno than it received on the album. It was faster, fleshed out by female background vocalists, and of course helped along by real live drums. An excited harmonica soloist threatened to drown out Prince’s guitar, so that bothered me. Then again, I was probably bothered already by having to sit through the bulk of Leno’s show, where he somehow managed to make it boring to look at Halle Berry. (Free Kevin Eubanks!).
But, even though the Tonight Show rendition sounded like a remix of “Musicology”, I liked it better than the album version. On the album, it tends to drag along for me because the tempo is slower, like a slowed down version of New Power Soul‘s “Push It Up”. The production effects, along with the sped-up vocal enhancements, can make the song seem busy too. That’s a strike against the album as a whole—there’s a lot going on, and very little negative space, which gives it a messy, cluttered feeling. Sometimes silence is golden.
Everyone I’ve played “Ol’ Skool Company” for loves it, but lyrically it falls into one of the song categories I’m tired of hearing from Prince. It’s the “back in the day” song, the clichéd knee-jerk reaction to the current era, asserting that music isn’t good now, but it was “deep” or had meaning or touched our souls at some nebulous point in the past. What is this utopia of which you speak? I have to say I agree more with Prince when he sang in “New Power Generation” about “your old fashioned music, your old ideas / we’re sick and tired of you telling us what 2 do.”
I’m going to offer a wild theory here. MPLSound shows us that Prince is still curious and still interested in trying some new things. All the while, though, I get the feeling he could really use some input from his former homegirls, Wendy and Lisa. Listening to their White Flags of Winter Chimneys, I really felt like Prince could use their flare for song composition and structure. I felt like they, in turn, could use a bandleader, someone crazy enough to break some rules and challenge them to bring some semblance of order to that breakage. Who’s better for that than Prince?
I’ll be honest. I popped this CD in the player with no hope for enjoyment. I thought I’d be asking for permission to give the first ever negative-five-out-of-10 rating. Maybe I was turned off by having an ostensibly non-Prince album bundled with a Prince release. Maybe seeing the third in a trilogy of goofy album title spellings (“Elixer” instead of “Elixir”) was the last straw.
What a pleasant surprise, then, that Elixer offers a solid helping of easy listening and smooth R&B. In interviews leading up to the release date, Prince reportedly (“reportedly” because I can not believe it) said the Bria Valente CD came about because “we got sick of waiting for Sade to make another album”. Prince must have been dreaming when he said that, so I forgive him for going astray, but Sade’s name never should have been mentioned in connection with any of this. Nothing against Bria Valente as an artist, it’s just that there are some people in this world whose names can’t be used as reference points for the rest of us. You can’t, for example, say, “We decided this kid should go ahead and turn pro so we could have another Michael Jordan.” Michael Jordan is in his own category. Something truly exceptional has to be happening to bring his name into the conversation. Same thing with Sade.
Nevertheless, Ms. Valente’s CD holds up pretty well, to be perfectly honest. The most impressive aspect, and biggest surprise, is the restraint in Prince’s production. Normally, I’d go against the grain and say “restraint” is not a good thing for Prince but, here, instead of every song carrying his signature sounds and each note being sung to imitate what Prince would do, these songs actually sound like they were written with someone other than Prince in mind. That’s a big deal in my book, as Prince-related projects usually just sound like Prince songs with a less interesting person on vocals. There are a couple of exceptions to that. I found Paisley Park albums by Jill Jones and the Family rather interesting, vocally, even though the music was unmistakably Prince’s. And the Time was always enjoyable, and less moody, irrespective of Prince’s massive input.
Except for his duet with Ms. Valente on the title track, you’d never guess Prince had anything to do with Elixer if it had been sold separately (Prince absolutely nails the falsetto in that duet, by the way, wow!). Maybe you’d think of Babyface producing it or George Duke, although I see Babyface writing better lyrics in certain spots. Babyface is not immune to cheesiness, mind you, but there are some spots where I doubt he’d be trying so hard to sound hip. Like, in “Something U Already Know”, when she sings, “I love it when you tell me stories straight from the dome”, the phrasing strikes me as awkward. How do you tell a story straight off the dome?
There are some grooves here, although not as layered and dense as most of Prince’s work. “Home” has a catchy synth along the lines of Prince’s own “Vicki Waiting” from the Batman soundtrack. Some of these tunes might put you in the mind of artists such as Chante Moore (“Something U Already Know”) or even Amel Larrieux (“All This Love”). I could imagine the hopping, carnival-esque “2nite” on a Madonna album.
The un-Prince-ness of it all is a good thing because it offers Ms. Valente the opportunity to carve out an identity for herself. Sometimes, I just don’t believe she’s invested in the song. At other times, her vocal performances don’t allow her to completely capitalize on the moment. Too often, her voice lacks the character to fully accentuate her individuality, and she seems to whisper rather than sing, as if breathlessness alone can be equated to seduction. Either that, or Prince goes nuts in the studio like that chef dude from the reality show Hell’s Kitchen and, when he fell asleep, she tried to record her tracks without waking him up.
Overall, she’s better than Mayte was, but nowhere near Rosie Gaines.