If there’s any artist who would be a balm for the uniquely awful past couple of years we’ve had globally, it’s Prince, who always expertly paired social awareness and activism with partying in the face of the end times. See “Let’s Go Crazy”, or “1999″, or Sign o’ the Times, which opens with the title track’s depiction of the effects of AIDS and drug use and then moves on to “Play in the Sunshine” and “Housequake”. Work and play were equally important to him, and this duality is fully present on his new record, Welcome 2 America, which he recorded in 2010 and then shelved, as Prince was wont to do. (He did go on the road from 2010 to 2012, playing various cities in North America, Europe, and Australia with the New Power Generation on the Welcome 2 Tour.)
The album’s opening track, “Welcome 2 America”, is a valid yet on-the-nose critique of the state of the country in 2010, during Barack Obama’s first presidential term. Over a sinister driving bassline, the backing vocalists pose a question: “Hope, and change?” Prince scoffs and responds in spoken word: “Everything takes forever, and truth is the new minority.” He asks “Think today’s music will last?” while simultaneously producing today’s music. He namedrops Google, the iPhone, Viacom, and other corporate entities, which would be more overbearing if it weren’t coming from someone who fought publicly with such entities for artistic control of his own music during his career.
Most of the album’s songs are by-the-numbers Prince, which still makes them better than what the majority of other artists could pull off. It wouldn’t be a Prince album without an existential crisis party song, which is “Hot Summer” here: “Why is life always a mystery / It will be whatever it will be / It all depends on what you think you see / You, I don’t know, but me / I think it’s gonna be / A hot summer.” It would also be out of character if Prince weren’t peacocking around; “Check the Record” finds someone else’s girlfriend in his bed as he shouts out two Sheryl Crow ’90s classics: “If it makes her happy, can it be that bad? / Like Sheryl said, it might be the most favorite mistake I’ve ever had.” (It’s so great to learn about Prince’s secret obsessions, e.g., when he asked to be on the Zooey Deschanel show New Girl and announced that he loved “Somebody That I Used to Know” while presenting Gotye with the Record of the Year award for the song at the Grammys.)
There’s also another entry in his catalog of straight-up sex jams, which Prince could write in his sleep, with “When She Comes.” The caliber of musicians on Welcome 2 America is what you’d expect from a Prince album (i.e., the best), and they do a lot of heavy lifting here, elevating the more basic material. The roster includes bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, drummer Chris Coleman, keyboardist Morris Hayes, and NPG vocalists Elisa Fiorillo, Shelby J., and Liv Warfield.
It’s bittersweet to hear Prince sing a song like “1000 Light Years From Here” in 2021, five years after his untimely death, but it’s one of the album’s highlights, along with its closer, the lovely “One Day We Will All B Free”. Also worth noting is his cover of “Stand Up and Be Strong”, a song by politically like-minded Minneapolis musicians Soul Asylum (with whom he has drummer Michael Bland in common) from their 2006 album The Silver Lining (“Be” becomes “B” here, of course). It starts out slow and spare, picking up speed as it progresses from melancholy to inspired to jubilant: “If your life’s a mess, remember you’re blessed / Stand up and be strong.”
The album’s inherent tragedy, aside from the fact that Prince is no longer with us, is that the social issues regarding race and capitalism and their overlap in his music are as relevant now as they were in 2010 (and in the 2000s, the 1990s, the 1980s, etc.). There are better versions of most of the songs on Welcome 2 America in his catalog already, but if you’re salivating for new Prince music and are open to whatever his vault has to offer, you could do much worse than this. It’s not groundbreaking, but Prince pulled his weight in that department and then some during his lifetime. He’s allowed an album that’s just plain fine.