These two new albums are welcome additions to Prince's canon, as none of his post-2004 comeback discs are as wall-to-wall fun as these are.
"The internet's completely over. I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it. The internet's like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can't be good for you." -- Prince (to The Mirror, 5 July 2010)
Ten years ago, Prince woke up one day and casually decided that he wanted to be a superstar again.
Having gotten lost in the wilderness of spiritual-jazz experiments like 2001's The Rainbow Children and the 2003 instrumental set N.E.W.S., Prince was basically making music for only the most hardcore of his FAMS. His commercial prospects had long since passed, as his major-label Arista debacle Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic ended up proving that even when making what he thought was very radio-friendly hits, his reputation as a genre-busting trendsetter had waned inexorably. His own output was then reduced to sounding like carbon copies of acts that actually cited him as an influence.
With the release of 2004's Musicology, however, Prince just decided he wanted to be back in the limelight. The album got some of his best reviews in years, and soon he was everywhere on television with Grammy performances featuring Beyonce, a stage-stealing bit of guitar noodling at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and then just so happened to headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2007. In this time frame, he dropped 3121, his first #1 album since 1985, and a decently-received follow-up in the form of Planet Earth. Amidst all this, of course, he was committed to a seemingly unending cycle of touring.
Yet even with his casual support of artists like Janelle Monaé, Prince seemed to get tired by the end of the decade. His supposed throwback gift to fans, a triple-disc set of music released exclusively through Target in 2009, proved to be more of a curiosity than a lasting cohesive statement, and 2010's appropriately-titled 20Ten was released as a physical giveaway with a bunch of European newspapers, but never got released commercially in the U.S. or even digitally -- not that it really mattered, given that it proved to be the downright laziest Prince record since 1994's Come. Whatever muse lead him to revitalize himself in 2004 had clearly given Paisely Park a bogus forwarding address.
Yet now, ten years since Musicology's breakout success, Prince has decided to do the exact same career rehabilitation one more time, releasing two albums on the same day, one solo and one with his long-gestating female band 3rdeyegirl. And, lo and behold, they are hands down the most energetic, focused, and engaged efforts Prince has released since, well, Musicology.
Although Prince has been dolling out one-off singles like the guitar zinger "Screwdriver" and the surprising Zooey Deschanel collaboration "Fallinlove2nite" (not to mention an album's worth of teaser tracks on the 3rdeyegirl website), none of these songs appear on either Art Official Age or the long-delayed PLECTRUMELECTRUM album. Instead, Prince appeared to want to start from scratch, Official being a expansive album in the standard-issue soul/pop Prince solo mold, while PLECTRUMELECTRUM was undoubtedly his return to rock.
The live dates, the post-Super Bowl New Girl episode, the Fallon appearance where he casually broke Roots' guitarist Kirk Douglas' borrowed guitar without permission, etc. Prince was ready to be famous again, and, fortunately, he now had the music to back up such bold media plays.
"Welcome home, class!" his Royal Badness declares on Art Official Age's club-driven opener "Art Official Cage", as if he's about to drop some knowledge on all the young'ns who wanted to know more about who Prince is beyond his collaboration with Jess from New Girl. Yet with its funk bass-pops, choir vocals, Arabian affectations, and a Teddybears-styled vocal breakdown, "Cage" reads more as a bombastic declaration of "look what I can do in the studio" rather than work as a cohesive standalone song. In truth, as Art Official Age plays out, it winds up being less of an introduction to a new generation as much as it is the treat for loyal fans that MPLSound tried so hard to be but end up felling short of. Art Official Age is actually littered with numerous allusions to his discography but cleverly adapts them into new, modern stylings.
Take "The Gold Standard", for example: despite sounding like an almost-reference to 1995's The Gold Experience, the opening keyboard trill is copped wholesale from the start of "Controversy" while the stuttered guitar tics in the verse are liberally borrowed from the Morris Day song "Love Machine" from Graffiti Bridge. Yet, despite pulling from these seemingly disparate sources, he marries these elements over a fun, almost-goofy bass groove, and ends up with one of his least self-conscious dance songs in years, proving nothing to no one, instead focused on just having a good time, which is more than you could say for any of the jams on either 3121 or Planet Earth (save "Chelsea Rogers", of course).
While some ballads ultimately curdle due to the fact that Prince has never been one to wield overt sentimentality very effectively (as in the case of this album's "Breakdown"), others, like the remarkably sensuous, Weeknd-aping "Way Back Home", sound focused in a way that a majority of Lotusflow3r and 20Ten's slow-jams were not. Part of this is due to the fact that instead of just getting further lost in his own sense of studio craftsmanship, he seems to be challenging himself to do better versions of current chart trends, much in the way that he gave a sly nod to the Neptunes with 3121's "Black Sweat" after they themselves built an empire of the minimalist sounds of Sign 'O' The Times' "Housequake".
At times, Prince doesn't even try to hide these obvious mods to the modern, his version of "FUNKnROLL" outright stealing the radar-ping beat from Jay-Z's "On to the Next One" without as much as batting an eye. Time has shown that Prince's sense of humor has always leaned to the obtuse (see: the "who has the most money on their person" routine from Graffiti Bridge), but Prince carrying on the impish prankster of pop music is a role we rarely see him in. That Prince appears in this way on a majority of Art Official Age, and that wry sense of joviality alone makes it worth the price of admission.
The sense of playfulness carries over to the 3rdeyegirl album as well, PLECTRUMELECTRUM, serving as the first what is arguably the first ever full-out rock album that he's ever recorded. Even if it doesn't carry the same song-per-song consistency of Art Official Age, it still makes for a mighty fine six-string workout, its high points proving to be some of the most fun Prince moments he has given us in nearly 20 years.
"A girl with a guitar is 12 times better / Than another crazy band with boys," he sings on the excellent single "FIXURLIFEUP", its own stop-and-start intro weirdly recalling Collective Soul's "Why, Pt. 2" before launching into a straight-ahead alternative rock raveup that features a looseness we haven't heard from him since he started writing angry response songs to PrinceFansUnited. As has been proven throughout the years, Prince also enjoys writing from the female perspective, often forming girl groups on a whim in order to filter through some of his more eccentric lyrics. Even the rap portion of "BOYTROUBLE" contains the line "99 problems and a boy ain't one," again showcasing an aloofness that Prince normally isn't all that privy to, even if the song itself falls on some rather bland funk stylings.
Early on, Prince indulges in some hard psych-rock, at times delivering some melodic phrasing that is reminiscent of both Zeppelin ("AINTTURNINROUND") and Black Sabbath (the title track, which unfortunately borrows a few too many chord changes from Audioslave's "Cochise" along the way). But by the time the straight-ahead ballad "WHITECAPS" comes around, he begins treating his girls as just another pop experiment, "STOPTHISTRAIN" coming off as dry Bria Valente leftover, thereby leaving the sticky-sweet "TICTACTOE" to drown in its own sense of schmaltz. The best moment on the album's last half comes in the form of "MARZ", a Plastic Bertrand-esque rocker that provides wisps of social commentary before abruptly ending, its pleasures not even lasting beyond the two-minute mark.
While Art Official Age is assuredly the more melodically assured of the two discs, PLECTRUMELECTRUM is at times way more fun, with Prince unleashing his iconic guitar skills in a litany of rockers that call to mind early cult favorites like 1979's "Bambi" before falling into a generic pop spiral that he never really recovers from. Still, these two new albums are welcome additions to Prince's canon, because even with all of the material he released after his 2004 return to the spotlight, none of them were as wall-to-wall fun as these discs are.