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