Prince and the New Power Generation: Diamonds and Pearls begins with some context: a flashy montage of MTV news footage and television appearances touting the prodigy’s return, this time with a powerhouse band and a fresh political message. Viewers of a certain age will recognize Tabitha Soren, Kurt Loder, Arsenio Hall, and the aesthetic excesses of the early ’90s: hyper speed edits, whizzing graphics, big hair, and bigger shoulder pads. One sound bite says that Prince and NPG have a central message of racial unification. It’s a good enough place to start.
Prince has always been a brilliant common denominator. Historically unforthcoming about his exact racial background and his sexuality, he has managed to reach a universal appeal of unlikely scale: as the mainstream audience of the early ’80s digested the androgyny of ’70s glam rock, even frat boys and preteen girls embraced Prince’s fey manner and eccentric persona during the Purple Rain era. But it’s his ability to unite music genres across racial divides and his expansive sound — he effortlessly alchemized hip hop, jazz, blues, new wave, punk, and post punk to make his singular and immeasurably influential early sound — his fabled perfectionism, ability to perennially transform his image, and his bravely vulgar lyrics that made his reputation as a musical genius so well earned. The costume design and art direction may seem dated now, but his pansexual, pan racial, and Dionysian vision remains genuinely inspired, and inspiring, particularly when compared with the queasy tropes of say, Michael Jackson.
Prince and the N.P.G.-Diamonds and Pearls documents the star at what could have been an awkward time. It’s a new decade, and after reigning over much of the ’80s, he needs to reinvent himself. It seems like a delicate balance: coming up with something timely without calling his own relevance into question. Prince and the N.P.G.: Diamonds and Pearls is a collection of music videos and concert footage from his 1991 album, Diamonds and Pearls. Diamonds and Pearls was his first collaboration with the backing funk band New Power Generation, who played with him for three years. The album was a critical and commercial success that generated several hit singles, including “Gett Off”, “Cream”, and “Insatiable”. The overall mood is buoyant and positively dirty-minded. In short, he finds the changing times another opportunity for reinvention and for recharging his old formula, so we find him at the top of his game. And while some of the videos indulge in recognizable trends of the early ’90s MTV climate — most obviously the cinematic videos with long, dramatized intros, period costumes, and high concepts pioneered in part by Madonna (this is a year after Vogue and the same year as Truth or Dare) — to varying degrees of success, he always manages in a confidently offhand playfulness once each song is underway.
The DVD contains eight music videos plus four live concert songs, interspersed with some interviews with NPG band members and press archives. The best is “Gett Off”. It begins with two gorgeous performers, named Diamonds and Pearl, arriving on the NPG soundstage to audition for parts. They quickly get swept into Prince’s perfectly choreographed spectacle of horny revelry, their tentative approach overtaken by all the right moves as Prince makes them both instant stars. It’s a classic Prince narrative: he’s the mysterious Svengali who inspires the ladies’ rebirth as nasty vixens. It’s a masterpiece, combining humor, athleticism, and the sheer joy of unrestrained naughtiness.
Some of the other videos start with high-concept scenarios, imagining Prince as a noir gangster in one, that are less rewarding, and the fashion-shoot inspired “Strollin'” is forgettable filler that achieves the artistic height of a cheap fashion shoot. The interviews are generally boring but do provide insight by isolating the rap and funk elements to the overarching sound. The concert footage is incredible when the polished confidence and seamless choreography of the videos is replaced by pure intensity; Prince is a consummate performer. But some may grow squirmy during the extended jam sessions. The DVD has no extras, other than individual song selection.
Prince and the N.P.G.-Diamonds and Pearls is both a time capsule and timeless, with forgivable missteps and moments of transcendent artistry. Though the production values of the DVD are average, the content is what matters. It’s a look back on a certain chapter of a long career of constant evolution and generally consistent quality by an innovative and eccentric master. That chapter is marked by confidence and optimism, and a joyfully excessive aesthetic.