If you believe the official critical record, somewhere in the mid-’90s Prince fell off the pop culture radar, with only die-hard fans left paying attention as he released a string of increasingly difficult records. As a longtime resident of the Twin Cities, what’s difficult for me is to not take issue with such a dismissive assessment for an Emancipation‘s worth of reasons; but, put simply, when your local celebrities are fewer and further between, you tend to pay closer attention to what they’re doing even when all you can do is shake your head in disbelief. Which is not to say that Prince’s local hero status acquits him of harsh scrutiny; quite the opposite, in fact — and anyone who needs proof need only go back to 1999 and “All the Critics Love U in New York”.
Provincialism aside, it’s still distressing to see this depreciated view of one of the most prodigiously talented and prolific artists in popular music, especially now that it’s come back around to the — perhaps inevitable — comeback lovefest. In 2004, Prince released Musicology, a listener-friendly collection of new songs, decked out with all the toppings: a U.S. Tour, press events, no deliberate obscuring of his personality or name, no record label drama. For Prince fans, die-hard or no, it was nearly 1984 all over again. But there was one small, nagging feeling left in the wake of it all — beyond a solid first single (the disc’s title track), it was almost as devoid of Prince’s musical personality as if he’d hired a cadre of purple-clad, pencil-mustached imitators to execute his calculated return to the mainstream.
Two years later, 3121 presumably looks to seal the deal — cementing Prince’s “comeback” to the soundtrack of gushing prose written by critics from New York to New Mexico. And it’s not a bad record, per se; in fact, it’s better as a whole than Musicology, while suffering from a similar loss of momentum toward the end. It’s actually a difficult dynamic to explain: many of the classic elements of a Prince record are there, but it also feels considerably safer, more calculated — like a poorly concealed attempt to recapture past glories at the expense of his wilder creative muse. That probably makes 3121 sound more dismal than it really is, and in reality, its three or four great songs surrounded by mediocrity is more entertaining than you’d think.
After Musicology‘s heady tribute to one-man/one-woman relationships, Prince has resorted to a simpler theme for 3121, one that served some of his most classic recordings — but also fully plays into the sense of nostalgia that permeates the disc. Here, the main preoccupation is with igniting the dancefloor (a.k.a. “dance, already; damn!”); and to be fair, a couple of these tracks are incredibly successful at achieving that goal. Even from the leadoff title cut, the notion rears its head with a midtempo funk couched in a series of unlikely references, from the chorus’ flipping of “Hotel California”‘s creepy captivity into PG-13 innuendo to declaiming that the entire proceedings are “going down like the wall of Berlin”.
In a similar vein, the record’s first single “Black Sweat”, while not a wholly original entry in the Prince oeuvre, is freaky brilliant nonetheless — all minimalist beats and slinky keyboards, it’s like the single that never was from The Black Album. He even makes another attempt at lewdness — remember, this is the kinder, gentler, religious convert Prince we’re talking about here — with lines like “you’ll be screaming like a white lady when I count to three”. As loathe as it may be to suggest it, if that’s as raw as he can get these days it might be best if he put it behind him, especially when South Park beat him to that one by almost 10 years.
Which brings us to the fact that he hasn’t gotten the Prince-as-monogamy-spokesperson bug out of his system, even after the multiple-song cycle on Musicology‘s second half. Don’t misunderstand — I’m with him 100 percent, but there’s something about it that just seems a bit, I don’t know, unnatural coming from the same guy who wrote “Erotic City”, “Lady Cab Driver”, and “P Control”. On 3121, the theme persists mostly in a handful of tepid neo-soul slow jams, except for “Lolita”, where Prince reveals a sense of humor about the whole situation, as he admonishes his underage temptress that she’ll “never make a cheater out of” him. Even after she professes that she’ll do whatever he wants, all he’ll concede is a dance; the female chorus response is as incredulous as that of anyone with a shred of familiarity with who they’re listening to would be — “Dance?!?”
Aside from “Love”, which finds Prince at his catchiest funky pop star mode and sounding even a little bitter about life in relationship land, the rest of 3121 is comparatively lackluster. At worst, he proves — intentionally or not is anyone’s guess — that he’s not exactly cut out for cruise ship entertainment with “Te Amo Corazón”; otherwise, he’s breaking out the dreaded vocoder for “Incense and Candles” (because nothing says “monogamous sex” like a vocoder) or wasting time with tracks like “Fury” — a passable enough pop-rock tune, but there are least a dozen like it in Prince’s back catalog, all of which are catchier and don’t have the hot guitar leads buried in the mix beneath huge ’80s-style synth chords. By the time the disc ends with the James Brown-inspired tight funk workout “Get on the Boat”, complete with guest saxophone solo by Maceo Parker, you’d be excused for having so muddled a perspective as to not remember the few truly standout tracks.
The upside to all of this recent “comeback” activity is that Prince honestly appears to be reemerging from his introverted shell, which is good news for anyone who appreciates his music at any level of scrutiny. Before 3121‘s release, he’s already played a handful of concerts to “introduce” his latest protégé Támar, made a recent episode of Saturday Night Live interesting (which is no minor accomplishment these days), and still found time to get news headlines with his recent squabble over adding a few “personal” touches to the Los Angeles house he’s been renting from NBA player Carlos Boozer for $70,000 a month. In that sense, 3121 is an appropriate verification of Prince’s return to the mainstream; and while I, for one, would like to dance and be awed by all the crazy shit he came up with, I’m willing to suffer a few slick records in the hope that his unpredictability is merely on hiatus and not permanently tempered with age.