The past 10 years have been difficult for Prince, the once-brilliant performer whose grasp on songwriting and production slowly loosened following a decade of unmatched creative fertility. Following his “emancipation” from Warner Brothers Records, Prince was free to do whatever he desired—as they say in the comics, with great power comes great responsibility. Prince didn’t handle this responsibility carefully; ultimately his status as an independent musician turned out to be a curse disguised as a blessing. Perhaps it was his ego and/or a lack of direction that helmed many a problematic release: the three-CD Emancipation, four-CD Crystal Ball, and even single disc releases like Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and The Rainbow Children were just too damn long. There were some worthwhile gems to be found, but they were well-hidden among hours of uninspired, pedestrian pop.
While it’s fair to say that Prince will never again reach the heights of his golden years in the ‘80s, Musicology is a step in the right direction. Clocking in at about 48 minutes, it’s his most focused and lean effort since the Warner Bros. days. He opens with the title track, a simple one chord groove of JBs-inspired funk, and gets down to business: “Keep the party movin’ / Just like I told U / Kick the old school joint / 4 the true funk soldiers”. As its title suggests, the song is a four-minute lesson in music, a reminiscence of funky things past (he name checks James Brown, Sly Stone, and Earth Wind & Fire) and a call-to-arms for those who want to get this party started again. On top of his one-man rhythm section—an infallible palpitation of drums and bass—Prince sounds re-energized and re-awakened. It’s so obvious that he’s having fun again, and that infectious feeling is what comes through loud and clear throughout the entire album.
“Life ‘O’ the Party” is a jam in the vein of the title track with a little bit of “Housequake” tossed in the mix. “Throwin’ records out the window / CDs out the door” Prince frenetically shouts over a kick drum heavy beat. “Might as well give ‘em 2 the milkman / ‘Cause we don’t want ‘em no more”. During the song’s bridge, he jokingly pokes fun at his own persona: “I don’t care what they said / He don’t play the hits no more / Plus I thought he was gay / It ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t fun / My voice is getting higher / And I ain’t never had my nose done!” Not only does the song herald a new chapter in the life of the Purple One—a return to a recreational atmosphere—but it also shows us that, thankfully, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor in the wake of several self-indulgent, over-productive years.
“What Do U Want Me 2 Do?”, a tale of mutual attraction between two involved people, is a silky and sensuous mid-tempo number that highlights Prince’s ability as performer and arranger. He provides the bubbling slap-and-pop bass, jazz-infected acoustic guitar, and multiple warm keyboard layers over a minimal digital groove. His ability to single-handedly sound like a full band is still awe-inspiring, even if it’s hardly noticeable while the record’s playing (the latter point further enhances the former, as Prince so effortlessly constructs these arrangements that other bands could never perfect, even on multiple takes).
The storytelling in “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” rambles on a little too long, but is saved by some truly inspired guitar work. Prince fills in the gaps with some delicious clean guitar riffs à la “Kiss”. His fluid, fluttering fretwork is a language and a class unto itself. Despite being known as a virtuoso on any instrument, he has historically saved his jaw-dropping guitar work for his live show. It’s really nice to hear him let loose on a record like this.
Prince enlists the help of some of his New Power Generation players on a four-song stretch in the record’s second half, including drummer John Blackwell, the horn section of Maceo Parker, Candy, and Greg, bassist Rhonda Smith, keyboardist Renato Neto, and percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E. (vastly underused here by simply providing “shaker” per the liner notes). “The Marrying Kind” dazzles with classically-infused flurry and a deftly precise use of brass; “If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life” is a splash of stop-and-go hard rock with sprightly Zappa-esque passages and great lyrical imagery (“Now you got that triflin’ barracuda hangin’ round / Hangin’ round Ur neck like a cheap gold chain”); and “On the Couch” boasts some of Prince’s best desperate, ragged soul crooning over a slow burning R&B workout—no one makes pain sound as good as he can.
As the case has been with other recent Prince records, the funk and rock numbers are more successful than the emotionally thick ballads. “A Million Days”, true to its title, is a predictable piece of up-tempo balladry. Both run-of-the-mill lyrics (“It’s only been an hour since you left me / But it feels like a million days / If I had a magic wand that could turn back time / I would never let you go away”) and an obligatory monologue/interlude doom the song from the start. “Call My Name” suffers from similar lyrical problems and ups the sentimental ante with its lighters-waving-in-the-air, crowd swooning chorus.
Another miss is “Cinnamon Girl”, which, despite containing a soaring chorus melody rooted deep in the era of Around the World in a Day, stumbles around racism in the wake of 9/11 and its aftermath. He’s much more successful with “Dear Mr. Man”, which feels more developed, less off-the-cuff than “Cinnamon Girl”‘s bland lyricism.
Prince has provided plenty of fodder for discussion and speculation in recent years. His supposed door-to-door endorsement of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, his performances at the Grammys and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and induction to the latter), and his recently launched “greatest hits” tour (after which said hits will supposedly be retired) have all got his name swirling around in the papers once again. The most important thing, however, is that Prince has learned how to have fun again. He has put himself on the road to reclaiming that expressive joy he once so fondly possessed in his heyday. While Musicology isn’t a brilliant brushstroke or a complete return to his past, it is without a doubt the best record Prince has made in a long time, a release that provides plenty to be excited about while he continues to find his way back to pop bliss.