Looking at the world through purple-colored glasses, opinions about music, especially Prince's, are all over the map.
"Dig If You Will, The Picture..."
-- "When Doves Cry", Purple Rain
You just have to dig how appropriate it is for Prince to call his latest release "Planet Earth". After all, if we really want to delve into Prince's music, I can't think of a better place to start than a map.
Yep, that's right. A map.
It doesn't matter which one you pick. Try a version of Ptolemy's map, which would only depict the world as Ptolemy knew it. He lived in the second century A.D., and he was aware of, like, three continents. That's like being really into Prince's Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain releases, but having little or no idea about the rest of the Prince dynasty: 23 other official releases, counting the newly minted Planet Earth; loads of music previously available through Prince's mail-order (1-800-New-Funk) and website outlets; three box sets (The Hits/The B-sides, the rarities collection Crystal Ball, and the One Nite Alone concert set); various b-sides and maxi-singles; three New Power Generation albums; lots of cameos; multitudes of songs written for and performed by other artists; and a staggering amount of bootlegged material.
Not down with O.P.P. (Old Ptolemy's Projection)? Try the Mercator projection, which is quite popular in US schools, although it distorts the earth's proportions to the point that Greenland ends up looking like it's the size of Africa when Africa is about 14 times bigger. Greenland is Africa's Mini-Me. But since it handles latitude and longitude fairly well, the Mercator map will get you where you want to go. That's like being aware of Prince's massive output, but only giving credibility to a few albums (let's say Sign "O" the Times, LoveSexy, and Musicology for this one) while completely marginalizing the rest. In terms of the Prince-ly critique, this view can sometimes turn into the "Prince-will-never-return-to-his-golden-age" projection.
If you like, you could try the Peters projection, a map that keeps it real with the relative areas of the landmasses but looks like the continents were absurdly stretched out. In this analogy, you'd have to assert that all of Prince's albums are equally awesome, a position I respect as a diehard fan but don't find useful.
Whichever map you choose, the problem is always the same: how to represent the spherical planet earth on a flat sheet of paper. To borrow the name of Prince's cheesy anti-conflict song that closes Planet Earth ("Resolution"), the only resolution is to accept the inaccuracies and distortions, and figure out which characteristics are most worthy of emphasis. For instance, the song I just slammed, "Resolution", definitely has cheesy lyrics, but the layering downplays them, and the background vocals make them more tolerable. Also, I could have played up the song's bumping drums and plucky guitar if I'd wanted to.
Mapmaking, it seems, is similar to music criticism: it's a matter of perspective and point of view.
"What's the matter with your world?"
-- "Pop Life", Around the World in a Day
And so it is with Prince, our planet's resident musical genius, the man who not only sang about "controversy" ("I just can't believe all the things people say") but is often at the center of it (the infamous ass-out pants he wore on 1991's MTV Video Music Awards, the writing of "Slave" on his face to broadcast his feud with his record company, and so on).
Prince's awareness of perspective is evident from Planet Earth's cover, recalling the holographic cover of 1990's Diamonds & Pearls. Move Planet Earth's cover from side to side and you see different images. One way shows you Prince standing over our dear planet like a fortuneteller over a crystal ball -- on purpose, maybe, considering "Crystal Ball" is a song title and was a scrapped album title that was eventually used for a collection of outtakes and rarities. Then again, he also looks like a chef hovering over a stove pot. Tilt the cover the other way, and you see the unpronounceable symbol that was once Prince's name, back when he was dubbed the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
Pinpointing the issue of perspective in the title track opener, Prince sings, "Imagine holding planet earth / in the palm of your hand / with no regard for your place of birth / or claim to any land." That's the spatial, external view, in which we're holding the globe, seeing ourselves from the outside.
Regarding this spatial dynamic, there's "Somewhere Here On Earth", also an acronym for "shoe" (you're clever, Prince), with lines like, "I know you're out there / I feel you getting closer to me". Lyrically, it's real "K.I.S.S."; that is, "Keep It Simple, Silly", not too anemic, but mostly letting the instrumentation carry it over. It delivers a light, jazzy mood accented by muted trumpets and punctuated by nimble piano playing. The horns remind me slightly of Sign "O" the Time's "Adore" and Crystal Ball's "Crucial", but mostly it puts me in the mind of the classic b-side "Power Fantastic". "Power" is of course superior to "Somewhere" but damn if Prince doesn't absolutely kill this falsetto. Love the voice -- love it, love it, love it. Maxwell, are you out there? Then let me see you dance! You said you was funky!
The distance motif of "Somewhere" can be seen on a more psychological level in "Lions of Judah". One of this album's bonuses is that it features (you know I couldn't wait to mention this!) former Revolution members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (also known for their many movie and TV scores), as well as contributions from percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E.
"Lions of Judah" might be the most Revolution-ary joint on the LP ("All the Midnights in the World" is in the running too), hitting us with a dose of that old school sound right at the outset. Wendy, does the opening guitar chord sound enough like the one in "Purple Rain"? Yes, Lisa. Could the song have fit comfortably amid the psychedelic pop on Around the World in a Day? Yes, Lisa.
The psychological "distance" here is at its most blunt in this rigid chorus: "Like the Lion of Judah / I strike my enemies down / As my God is living / surely the trumpet will sound". Damn. Back in '92, when I was jamming to "7" from The Love Symbol Album, I thought "One day all seven will die" was hardcore. What a difference 15 years can make.
"Planet Earth", the song, adds another element to the perspective trip: "Fifty years from now / what will they say about us here? / Did we care for the water / and the fragile atmosphere?" That's the temporal view, looking back at ourselves from the future, assessing the legacy of the current era. It's a time shifting technique Prince also employs in the smooth (but is it too smooth for it's own good?) R&B number "Future Baby Mama", projecting the future Mrs. Right from today's pool of potentials, but without the silly vocoder tricks from 3121's "Incense & Candles".
"Future Baby Mama" is slicker than most of us would really want it to be, but it has a charm vaguely along the lines of Allure's "When the Shades Go Down" from The Best Man soundtrack. If you didn't think you needed a map before, check out the part in "Baby Mama" where Prince tells his lady he'll take her anywhere she wants to go: "Paris, London, Africa, San Lucas, Mexico." Cool, but why is "Africa" always listed alongside cities and countries like it's not an incredibly huge continent?
Speaking of "time", have we flattened our concept of time as much as we've flattened our maps? Are we simply telling our stories more or less by chronology, "This happened... then this... then this"? Ask any expert audiophile how flat our music sounds on a compact disc. We've got some problems.
Rest assured, however, that Prince never -- okay, wait, "never" is too strong, how about "rarely" -- Prince rarely sounds flat. On the song "Planet Earth", but also throughout much of the album ("All the Midnights of the World", "Resolution"), he hits sincere, haunting notes, his voice fluctuating between his lower and higher registers like a small plane being batted around by turbulence. If you answered the door on Halloween with "Planet Earth" blaring behind you, you'd scare the candy out of the trick-or-treaters. Nevertheless, the song sticks with me, like Emancipation's "The Love We Make", as only the weirdness of a Prince song can. It has me humming its chorus while I wash dishes, even while I recognize that it sounds all Barry Manilow-ish with that "Could It Be Magic" piano and melodrama.
Don't be too alarmed by the song's preachy lyrics, although there's no denying the mixture of Al Gore in Inconvenient Truth and Prince's vintage brand of proselytizing. It goes down as easy as children's cough syrup; easier, in fact, since you can nod your head to it. Trust me, it's smoother than Prince's "Animal Kingdom" track from The Truth ("Leave your brothers and sisters in the sea") and less in-your-face than The Gold Experience's "We March" and its denouncement of racism and sexism ("Next time we march / We're kickin' down the door"). I've got no problems with animal rights, combating racism and sexism, or otherwise saving future generations from asking, "Why did everybody have a bomb?" It's just that sometimes I "wish there was no black and white" and "I wish there were no rules". That includes rules advocated by Prince. Yet, at the same time, a sermon and a little melodrama will do a body good if that's what it takes to make you dance.
Spontaneously bizarre Lorelai Gilmore impression: "Go, Prince, go! Rant, rant, rant! I love 'Ranting Prince'!"
"How can I put this in a way so as not to offend or unnerve?"
-- "Gett Off", Diamonds & Pearls
It's like Prince was born with a "controversy" gene. You're not going to find a unified view of Planet Earth. Some will praise it; others will pan it. A few will say, "It's better than most releases today, but so what." I know this because those are the things we always say about Prince, only the names and the song titles change. If he were one of the X-Men, his mutant power would be ticking people off and causing confusion, in addition to the one that allows him to kick so much ass on so many instruments. It's in his nature. Considers these royal skirmishes:
January 2006, "A House Is Not a Home": Prince, who had rented a Los Angeles, California mansion from NBA star Carlos Boozer, decides a 10-bedroom, 11-bath Hollywood home just doesn't feel right. He paints the outside of the house purple, along with the unpronounceable symbol and the numbers "3121", the name of his nightclub and 2006 album. Inside, he brings in a purple monogrammed carpet and hooks up additional plumbing for his newly installed beauty salon chairs. I'm trying to picture Boozer when he first sees how Prince got his massive Zorro on with the "love symbol" on the exterior. In my mind's eye, Boozer is yelling while Prince, shifting uneasily like the "Bruh-man" character from the Martin sitcom, says, "I guess I shouldn't have done that, huh?"
February 2007, "The Fallacy": Prince rocks the Super Bowl Halftime Show, playing a well-chosen set of oldies and covers, and making all the right moves -- well, almost all. Apparently the bit with the guitar-wielding silhouette being projected to a large sheet had some folks saying he was going for phallic imagery. Plus, some weren't feeling his scarf either. Only Prince could stir up so much trouble over a shadow and some headgear. But I ask you, if you see a "phallus" when a man's playing his guitar, doesn't that say something about you and not the guitar player? To the rest of us, the silhouette looked like a wholesome basket of fruit -- because we're Prince fans and we're way cooler than you and there are no kings on this earth, only princes. Loser.
But while we're on the subject of guitar playing, boy oh boy can Prince play the strings off his. There are some fine examples on Planet Earth. Sometimes, it's kind of twangy, as in "The One U Wanna C", as it rolls and rumbles like Sign "O" the Times's "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", except in "The One U Wanna C", he's chasing his pretty woman. In "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", he was pushing his seductress away (and he dismissed another one in Musicology's "What Do U Want Me to Do?", and another one in 3121's "Lolita" -- what happened to the beautiful and irresistible ones?). Despite funky fresh, but not necessarily truly fresh, lines like "I ain't tryin' to be a hater" and "every nickel in this club lookin' for a dime", I'd still like to see what a country station would do with this song.
The other hot guitar track is (surprise, surprise!) the lead single "Guitar". Swirling and twisting its searing tones in a way that 3121's "Fury" could have but didn't because "Fury" buried the guitar beneath 1999-worthy synthesizers, "Guitar" threatens to rock your socks off. The threat is there, but it never quite comes to fruition. Instead, it fades in the middle of the guitar work when I'm almost positive it's about to get extremely rowdy up in there, and then it's got that blatant riff from U2's "I Will Follow" that makes me dig the Verizon version of the song slightly more…and I generally abhor anything to do with cellphone companies. Nothing against U2, though.
At the same time, it just makes sense that Prince would do a song in which he says, "I love you, baby... but not like I love my guitar!" Ha! Send an ambulance to help the person who tries to get between Prince and his precious axe. Remember what happened to the woman in the b-side song "Shockadelica", the one who wouldn't "let you play your guitar"? In the long version of the song, Prince calls her a "bitch" and demands that she get up and stop "layin' on my guitar". What a difference 20 years can make.
July 2007, "The Greatest Newspaper Insert That's Never Been Sold": Prince partners up with UK newspaper The Mail to supply a free copy of Planet Earth with each paper for one day. The result is that, in the UK, the CD would only be available by buying a copy of The Mail or by getting a free copy at one of Prince's UK concerts. British music retailers don't like it, to put it mildly. One is quoted as saying, "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince should know that with behaviour like this he will soon be the Artist Formerly Available in Record Stores." Not the most original response, which might be part of the problem. Fans, of course, love the giveaway. Leave it to Prince to make an entire population of people love and despise him all at the same time.
July 2007, "Shut It Down Already... Damn!": Prince returns to his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota to rock for an amazing 12 hours! He tops the whole thing off with a performance at First Avenue nightclub, where he filmed Purple Rain and where he hadn't performed in 20 years. Maybe they'd heard "Let's Go Crazy" too many times, who knows, but the police had to step in and shut the show down because the club had stayed open beyond its 3:00 a.m. operating permit. According to the papers, the police sergeant remarks, "I think it's very arrogant of him to think he [Prince] can hold us here like this. The law is the law for everybody." Good point, but I wonder why they didn't shut things down at three o'clock when they saw that Prince didn't take the stage until 2:45 a.m.? They waited almost a full hour before they took action. Admit it, y'all. You thought he was gonna play your favorite jams, didn't you? I'd bet dollars to donuts the police were hoping for "3 Chains 'O' Gold" and got "Call the Law" instead.
July 2007, "My Name is Still Prince!": While listening to Planet Earth, my sister asks, "When Prince handles all the voices and plays all the instruments, who presses 'record'?"
"Stop worryin' about what people say
When you... ain't gonna stop 'em anyway"
-- "Love", 3121
In addition to the dilemmas of mapmaking, the earth itself presents a challenge of perception. After all, it's a round planet, which means some of us should be living on this rock "upside down" or "diagonally", but we all generally experience life as if we're "up". Not only that, this thing orbits the sun at a rate of about 66 or 67 thousand miles per hour while tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees. As if that's not enough, it spins on its axis. Maybe our problems stem from the fact that we're on a gigantic merry-go-round and we're dizzy!
Although the human condition necessitates different points of view, few musicians inspire such widespread and diverse opinions as Prince does. What's his best album, you ask? The answers you'd get are scattered throughout his discography. You want to know which songs would work on a "Prince mix" CD designed to interest a friend of yours in Prince's music? Good luck getting a consensus. Even if you go with your favorites, don't assume your friend will be receptive. Reactions to Prince always run the gamut. It's A-X-I-O-matic.
For every listener who thinks Prince's LoveSexy album is his mountaintop moment, surpassing Sign "O" the Times, 1999, and even Purple Rain, there's another listener who thinks LoveSexy is perfect for leveling a wobbly table or playing Frisbee ("Since it only has the one album-long track, it glides through the air better than most"). The people who say he stopped making good music around 1988 are always surprised to meet people who only got into Prince because they loved 1996's Emancipation.
My sister told me yesterday she didn't like the very quiet, mellow "Don't Talk to Strangers" (most easily obtained on the Girl 6 soundtrack, but was originally intended for the I'll Do Anything soundtrack).
Whatever. That's fine. She loves Planet Earth's "Mr. Goodnight" more than I ever will, with Prince doing a rap that's part Smoove B. of the Onion and part "Turn Off the Lights" by Dr. Dre's World Class Wrecking Cru. Doing smoothed-out R&B and Fly Guy raps will not keep the lights on at Paisley Park or 3121, but... I'll admit it has its moments. It's ah-ite. It doesn't really feel like it should be on this album, although removing it would keep the album from being exactly 45 minutes. I think the 26-minute jam "The War" would have made a nice bonus track, especially for those who've never heard it and those who only had it on cassette. What do you think, Prince fans?
The references in "Mr. Goodnight" to "Somewhere Here on Earth" is kind of a nice plug. And saying, "I've got a mind full of good intentions and a mouth full of Raisinets" -- well, that's a pickup line I have got to try. It's gotta be better than the "Do you have a pocket full of horses?" line I adapted from "Little Red Corvette".
What we have to do is prevent things from getting blown out of proportion. Truth is, I don't think Prince really makes "albums". He writes songs. Lots and lots of songs. They seem to pour out of him at a rate that cannot be measured by "album" standards. In the past, he has referred to them as "children", which might explain why he often gives us songs about people and why they sometimes have people's names. Some are intuitive, like the film characters Christopher Tracy, from the film Under the Cherry Moon ("Christopher Tracy's Parade", "Sometimes It Snows in April"), or Vicki Vale, from Batman ("Vicki Waiting").
Others are more lively, such as: Bambi, the girl who doesn't know "it's better with a man"; the incestuous Sister; Annie Christian, the personification of evil; the escape-providing Lady Cab Driver; Darling Nikki, who loves hotel lobbies and magazines a wee bit more than most; Dorothy Parker, in "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker", whose remedy for turmoil is to take a bubble bath with your pants on; Cynthia Rose and her puzzling, troubling meals of starfish and coffee; the soul searching, mind-liberating Anna Stesia; the abusive Papa; the vixen in "Dinner with Delores". A few more: "Zannalee", "Sarah", "Dionne", "Lolita", and "Cinnamon Girl".
Planet Earth has "Chelsea Rodgers", a song that's almost disco (but not quite) and funky as hell, with feverish horns and a female co-lead vocal that blows the roof off the sucker. Chelsea Rodgers, the song tells us, is a model who digs a good chat with "Jimi's ghost" and reads her bodyweight in books. She's a "21st century hippie" who doesn't wear "blood diamonds" or "designer chic". Although she doesn't eat meat, she's "still got a butt like a letter C", which gives me a whole new view of "Alphabet Street", let me tell ya. "Chelsea Rodgers", I think, would also work in a runway episode of America's Next Top Model. Go 'head, Chelsea!
In the end, a Prince release is a collection of songs, some of them new, some of them brought to light after being shelved, some of them related, some of them stuffed awkwardly between tracks that sound totally different and incongruent. Some are moody and strange; others are forgiving. A few are petty and vengeful; others are happy and life affirming. His songs run the gamut.
A Prince "album", I suppose, is similar to the planet earth. And his songs are a lot like us.