Never one to do things the easy way, Prince delivers a concept album, a collection of dance tracks, and a protégée.
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.