Prince: HITNRUN Phase One

Can we assume that “direct-to-streaming” is the new “direct-to-video” for really bad albums?

There are few artists that can create as much excitement with a new release as Prince. After all, the mercurial genius has been churning out classic albums for over 35 years now. Although his masterpieces of the ‘80s will always be considered his artistic peak, Prince has been on a rather torrid streak over the last 15 years. Several of his more recent albums — particularly 3121 (2006), Lotusflow3r (2009), and last year’s Art Official Age — have been important and quality additions to his peerless discography. When news hit a few months back that Prince would be issuing an all-new studio album exclusively to Jay Z’s new Tidal streaming service, fans were understandably torn between excitement over the prospect of new music, but frustrated over its limited access and the uncertainty about any physical release (especially on vinyl).

But after hearing the new album, HITNRUN Phase One, it’s doubtful many fans will care one way or another about a physical release. Prince has slammed the brakes on his hot streak with this one. In fact, one could make a strong argument that HITNRUN Phase One is the single worst major studio album of Prince’s legendary career.

Much has been made in the press lately about how Prince has entrusted production and some of the playing on the album to 25-year-old Joshua Welton, the husband of Hannah Ford Welton, current drummer in Prince’s terrific backing band 3RDEYEGIRL. Welton seems to have had almost no musical pedigree when Prince brought him in to help produce last year’s superb Art Official Age. It was a successful collaboration, producing a slick and inventive pop/R&B album that was Prince’s strongest release since The Gold Experience in 1995. How Prince and Welton went so dramatically downhill from the razor-sharp Art Official Age to the completely disposable HITNRUN Phase One is hard to fathom. HITNRUN Phase One sounds like Prince dumped a load of throwaway demos of songs not good enough to make Art Official Age into Welton’s lap to see what he could do with them. Unfortunately the results are uninspired at best. Welton’s amateurish new age/techno programming is all over this record. Musically, for the most part, HITNRUN Phase One sounds like something an aspiring DJ working ‘til three in the morning in his parents’ basement on Garageband might come up with.

Samples of “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy” at the start of the opening track “MILLION $ SHOW” only serve to remind listeners of how great Prince can be: it seems almost sacrilege to append them on such dross. “MILLION $ SHOW” is a brazen heist of Janelle Monáe’s far superior “Dance Apocalyptic”, from her album The Electric Lady (Prince appeared on the track “Givin’ Em What They Love”). Unfortunately Judith Hill, the former contestant from The Voice who Prince plugs in to sing on “MILLION $ SHOW”, delivers none of Monáe’s charm, and the song feels forced and contrived.

“Shut This Down” is a sorta mishmash between dubstep-light and heavy old-school hip-hop beats. The result of this uneasy stylistic marriage is a stilted mess that would have been awkward even if it wasn’t about five years out of style. Prince’s braggadocio vocals have been delivered a thousand times before on songs far better. The fact that his performance is so convincing and so evidently sure of the scalding nature of the funk surrounding him is actually distressing. Surely he can’t be that out of touch, can he? We can’t forget the spears of cheesy synth riffs beamed from some club lost in the ‘90s that start about midway through to add one final touch of outdated inanity.

“Ain’t About to Stop”, featuring British vocalist Rita Ora — yet another reality show vocal contestant — has some of the more interesting textural elements and a wicked vocal by Prince. There’s also a rather funky instrumental breakdown. Unfortunately, it’s all still trapped in the hard-drive of Welton’s soulless digital hell. It sounds like Welton got his hands on a demo that Skrillex rejected five years ago, and he somehow tries to make it current and fresh. Needless to say he doesn’t pull it off, and the result is a scatterbrained mess.

Unfortunately “Like a Mack” makes the preceding songs sound like the height of Sign o’ the Times-era brilliance. It prominently features the previously unknown rap/vocal duo Curly Fryz, who at best sound like a fourth-rate Nicki Minaj. Their whiny delivery gets old immediately and unfortunately their vocals are plastered all over the song (not that it would be much better without them). With Welton’s limp musical accompaniment, Curly Fryz’ flavorless delivery, and Prince overcompensating by adopting his “tough” hip-hop persona, it all adds up to what can only be a colossal joke played upon all of humanity by the musical Gods. That’s the only rational explanation for a song that is destined to rank among Prince’s very worst ever. “Like a Mack” is “Jughead”-level bad.

For some reason Prince decided it would be a good idea to include a remixed version of the lovely ballad “This Could Be Us” from Art Official Age. The new version is layered with Welton’s faux-dubstep “whah whah whah whah” keyboard that is hilariously out of the place. It’s clear Prince is working in a medium with which he is unfamiliar. He not only doesn’t know what works and what just sounds comical, the man he’s entrusting to bring a new youthful energy to his music is just as clueless. “You ready? No, you ain’t ready,” Prince coos at one point. For what, exactly? Ready to dash off a nasty e-mail demanding a refund from Tidal, most likely. At best, the new version of “This Could Be Us” is the equivalent to one of those crappy ’90s remixes you’d skip over on a CD single. There was no reason to mess with the original recording, which is one of the nicest ballads Prince has recorded in recent memory.

Prince dusts off another oldie with “FALLINLOVETONITE”, a song he performed early last year during a guest appearance on the Zooey Deschanel sitcom New Girl. The song was released as an internet single, along with backing vocals by Deschanel herself, in March 2014. It was inexplicably omitted from Art Official Age, but appears here a year and-a-half later, minus Deschanel’s vocal parts. Even though it’s previously released, “FALLINLOVETONITE” is clearly one of the stronger, more effective upbeat pop tunes on the album. Too bad it didn’t plug into Art Official Age in place of the hamfisted “Breakfast Can Wait”, that album’s weakest track. Instead this slick pop gem is wasted on an album that will likely be forgotten (blissfully so) rather quickly.

“The X’s Face” is another song that will be familiar to some die-hard Prince fans. Prince sent it out as a free download for fans who bought tickets to certain of his Hit ‘n’ Run shows earlier this year, and it was also played by a Los Angeles radio station. It’s a repetitive funk groove with Prince singing in a funky falsetto during the first verse that seems to show promise for the song, but unfortunately there is no melodic hook and it eventually deteriorates into just Prince deadpanning “The X’s Face” over and over again atop the dull rhythm. “HARDROCKLOVER”, the album’s first single, is one of the strongest tracks on the album by a mile. Prince delivers a sizzling vocal over steaming guitar and a funky rhythm. When it premiered as the lead single for the forthcoming album, hopes were high that we’d get something at least on par with Art Official Age. If only. The brief “MR. NELSON” is nothing but samples of the outstanding “Clouds” from Art Official Age swizzled into a nondescript pseudo-techno instrumental segue. It serves no discernible purpose but filler.

“1000 X’s and O’s” is an old song resurrected from the ‘90s. Prince had initially intended it for Rosie Gaines (who delivered such a remarkable performance on “Diamonds & Pearls”) and later it was mooted for a proposed album Prince was producing for Nona Gaye, but it ended up relegated to The Vault where’s it’s been collecting dust for two decades. It’s a nice track for Prince to have unearthed, but unfortunately the melody is overwhelmed by the heavy electronic rhythm that stumbles clumsily throughout. Still, it’s clearly superior to just about anything else on HITNRUN Phase One . The album’s finale, “June”, is a dreary ballad that’s obviously supposed to sound spacey and ethereal but the wobbly synthesizer and plodding rhythm that forms the base of the song ends up sapping any possible beauty or grace. It’s a shame because Prince’s vocals are lovely, but the musical accompaniment sinks it.

HITNRUN Phase One is a throwaway album by someone who has released very few such clunkers in his long and amazing career. It’s disappointing given the career trajectory Prince seemed to be on with the excellent one-two punch of last year’s Art Official Age and Plectrum Electrum. But then again perhaps it’s not so surprising. The outstanding 2009 release Lotusflow3r was followed by the mediocre-at-best 20Ten. The song that he released to Spotify a few weeks back — a lithe funk workout called “Stare” — is miles better than anything on HITNRUN Phase One. Not that it would have fit stylistically on the album — it’s too well produced, and has real instruments. Remember when Prince used to rail about “real musicians playing real instruments”? Apparently that’s all been forgotten now that he’s released the most artificial album of his career. And, by the way, are we to endure a Phase Two? One wonders why that’s even necessary, given the 38-minute running time of Phase One. That’s remarkably short for an artist as prolific as Prince. If there’s a “Phase Two,” why release an album so short? This is Prince regressing. He’s clearly trying to sound ultra modern, hip and futuristic, but unfortunately the whole thing is so inept that it’s hard not to imagine it will be largely forgotten a few months from now. The quality control is AWOL.

HITNRUN Phase One seems almost like an adjunct album to Art Official Age. The sound is similar, and even the cover art seems to be generated from the same conceptual framework as its much superior predecessor. HITNRUN Phase One is to Zooropa as Art Official Age is to Achtung, Baby! — except Zooropais actually quite good. We’re talking about one of the greatest musicians and songwriters in pop/rock history. He shows almost none of his blazing talent here. Why? It seems like he handed everything over to Joshua Welton and was willing to go with the end results. But let’s not blame everything on Welton. After all, just imagine: you’re a 25 year old, struggling to make it in an unforgiving and notoriously cruel industry, and suddenly you find yourself not only in Prince’s inner-circle, but actually producing and collaborating with one of the all-time greats. He no doubt did his very best, and it’s not his fault he’s been thrust in a position in which he’s in way over his head. Prince’s name is on the record, and it’s ultimately his decision on what to release.

This is not the first time Prince has relied heavily upon questionable and unproven talent. Some of his mid-to-late-‘90s work bears the mark of Kirky J., a producer, musician and engineer that Prince worked with closely for several years. Many fans blame the soulless, plastic production of some of Prince’s ‘90s work on Kirky J. It sounded dated almost before it hit the stores’ shelves. Then there is Prince’s extensive work with the much-reviled rapper Tony M., whose presence is a blight upon both Diamonds & Pearls and the “Love Symbol” album of the early ‘90s. He’s also tried to create stars out of singers of rather unremarkable ability. Anybody remember Carmen Electra, Tamar Davis, Ingrid Chavez, or Bria Valente? No? True, he’s also worked with people like Boni Boyer, Michael Bland, Eric Leeds, Rosie Gaines, Sheila E., Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, all of whom elevated him and his music. It’s frustrating for fans because Prince could work with anybody on the planet. Very few artists, musicians and producers are going to refuse a call with Prince on the other line. Perhaps he’s afraid of being outclassed. He’s shown a fragile ego at times that seems to walk hand in hand with his towering genius. Perhaps he’s so controlling that the notion of working with someone who doesn’t owe their very existence in the music industry to Prince himself is intimidating. Whatever the case, instead of working with the best in the industry, Prince chooses inexperienced collaborators with questionable talent, and it’s finally bitten him big time on HITANDRUN Phase One.

I’ve been listening to Prince for over 30 years. I own every note he’s ever released, and have absorbed every album, even the bad ones. I have every B-side and remix. I’ve even tracked down all the scattered tracks he’s released online over the years, and have collected works by his protégé artists. I’m as familiar with his catalog as anybody, and I have immeasurable respect for Prince when he’s at his best. It brings me no joy to say this, but it’s simple truth: HITNRUN Phase One is far and away the worst album of Prince’s career. If one were to look at Prince’s previous worst major studio album (not counting his limp forays into lite-jazz like N.E.W.S.,) it would be 1998’s New Power Soul. Although it’s mostly a collection of slick, disposable R&B/pop with little to no heart or energy, New Power Soul still contains one stone cold classic — the exquisite ballad “The One”. It also includes the funky mid-tempo “Come On”, and the slightly warped and malicious hidden track “Wasted Kisses”. There is nothing on HITANDRUN Phase One that approaches any of those three. It’s best three tracks — “FALLINLOVETONITE”, “HARDROCKLOVER”, and “1000 X’S & O’S” — are, in the context of Prince’s amazing catalog, average at best. The rest are mediocre to bad to horrifying.

And there are a couple questions which remain unanswered. With Prince’s exclusive deal with Tidal, can we assume that “direct-to-streaming” is the new “direct-to-video” for really bad albums? As to what purple smoke Prince blew up Jay Z’s ass to get him to pay a premium for exclusive access to this mess, we can only speculate. If history is any guide, Prince will largely ignore the album anyway, as he has almost all his recent work. In his live shows he’s basically performing the same string of hits he’s been doing for years, and largely ignores the many great tunes of the last 15 years. He shows almost no investment in these albums, with haphazard promotion at best. If he doesn’t care, why should the fans?

RATING 2 / 10