The Purple Experience: Your PopMatters Primer on Prince's Pop Life

So many Prince albums, but where do you start? Here's a funky little list designed to aid your quest.

Vivian (Julia Roberts): [after Edward catches her singing along to "Kiss"] Don't you just love Prince?

Edward Lewis (Richard Gere): More than life itself.

-- Pretty Woman (1990)

After years of languishing on the outskirts of musical "coolness", I am breathing a sweet sigh of relief. At long last, the day I've been waiting for has arrived: it is once again a great time to be a Prince fan. The Purple One has been sitting pretty since 2004's Musicology, apparently rebuilding his credibility after what the naysayers were calling his willful and woeful descent into obscurity. His 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction and performance was a hit, as was his appearance on 2006's American Idol finale. At the 2007 Golden Globes, he won the Best Original Song in a Motion Picture award for "Song of the Heart" from Happy Feet, and was tapped to perform during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. So, since liking Prince is cool again, now's the time to raise awareness about his rich discography. Trust me, there's more to this guy than "Purple Rain" and "Kiss".

Say what you will about His Royal Goodness (he claims his "bad" days are behind him) and his supposed mid-'90s slump. Blame it on any or all of the following: his very public feud with his record company (can't a brotha write "slave" on his face without it turning into a "thing"?), his unchecked productivity (can't a brotha release seven or eight albums a year without it turning into a "thing"?), his much talked-about ego (can't a brotha try to control everything around him without people saying, "He's trippin'"?), or his lawsuits against websites (I suppose a brotha can't sue his fans now without it becoming a "thing"). Take your pick, and don't forget you can always blame "the rise of gangsta rap".

With this in mind, I offer this primer on Prince's official albums (I'm omitting box sets like The Hits/The B-sides and Crystal Ball, compilations like 1-800-New-Funk and Ultimate Prince, the Girl 6 soundtrack, 1999's The Vault, side projects credited to the New Power Generation, and anything released exclusively via membership in Prince's online music club). I've divided these releases into cycles, or "eras", with ratings. The eras aren't official or anything; I made them up for convenience. This list is intended as a springboard for further investigation because, like the G.I. Joe cartoon said, "Knowing is half the battle." As for the ratings, well, I love Prince's music, and tend to enjoy Prince's "bad" stuff better than some of the "best" stuff by other artists, but I'm also critical of his work. Now, my sister, who averaged my album ratings, says I've actually proven I don't like Prince at all, since I've awarded him a lifetime achievement rating of 6.5833, "with that little repeating line over the three-three." To that, I say, "First of all, you gotta round that to a seven, because PopMatters doesn't do decimals -- fractions are for punks. Second, if Prince gets a seven, then the most anybody else would get is a two." At any rate, I was critiquing when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray.

Prince Era (1978-1981)

[Rating Total: 26 out of 40]

I call this the "Prince Era" because, during this period, Prince introduced himself to the world and followed his first album, For You, with an album called Prince.

For You (1978)

[7 out of 10]

Prince jumps out the gate on his debut with an R&B jones we don't see again until 1996's Emancipation. One of his most underrated efforts, For You is sugary sweet in its declarations of love ("In Love", "My Love Is Forever", "Crazy You"). There's a hint of his naughty side ("Soft & Wet"), as well as some prime guitar work at the finish ("I'm Yours"). To me, the most interesting (if not best quality) pieces are "Just As Long As We're Together", in which young Prince alternates between his falsetto and his lower register in what amounts to a duet with himself, and "Baby", a ballad whose tenderness almost makes you forget how tough it is to raise a child in the first place, let alone with little experience and hardly any money. And of course Prince plays all the instruments, which is almost always the case on his albums.

Prince (1979)

[6 out of 10]

The funky stuff takes center stage, but it doesn't overwhelm. Things start nicely with "I Wanna Be Your Lover", "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?", and the disco-chic "Sexy Dancer", but it's hit or miss after that. "Bambi", the story of man finding out his girlfriend's cheating on him with another woman, is a hit -- I never looked at the Disney movie the same way after that. "Still Waiting" is more of a miss. In retrospect, which I admit isn't "fair" to the album, Prince's "I Feel for You" gets blown out of the water by Chaka Khan's 1984 remake, but at least the album ends on a high note with "It's Gonna Be Lonely". In what I think is a bizarre move, Prince appears nude on the back cover riding a Pegasus. While I love Prince's music, I don't always love his art direction. Yes, that means I'm applying for the job. Prince, if you're out there, get at me. I can hook you up.

Dirty Mind (1980)

[7 out of 10]

For some, this album is Prince at his best. Ever. I disagree, but I think he honed his style with his album. From his first two outings, it seems Prince learned a few important lessons: 1) his "sex" talk ("Do It All Night", "Head", "Dirty Mind") is more interesting than his "love" talk (which still holds true, for the most part); 2) if he's gonna do "love" talk, he's better at being torn up about it ("When You Were Mine", "Gotta Broken Heart Again") than happy (which also holds true, mostly); 3) he's more compelling when he varies his subject matter, especially where sex meets politics (the incestuous "Sister" bleeds into the anti-war anthem "Partyup", a medley trick he's been working ever since); and 4) less is sometimes more (a lesson he hasn't always heeded), as these songs are famously of demo quality, which gives them an appropriate grit and edginess.

Controversy (1981)

[6 out of 10]

"Don't let your children watch television until they know how to read / Or else all they'll know how to do is cuss, fight, and bleed"

-- "Sexuality"

Prince is known for a great many things and we, as fans, hate how underrated we feel he is when it comes to stuff like guitar playing and lyricism. One of my peeves has been the tendency to downplay Prince's desire to use his music as a platform to address important issues. Controversy is an album of statements: there's the I-just-can't-believe-all-the-things-people-say message of the title track, the interplay of sex and politics in "Sexuality" (in essence, "I'm gonna let my body be free"), a plea to the President to tone down nuclear armament and reconsider the Cold War ("Ronnie, Talk to Russia"), and a song about the state of the world ("Annie Christian", the personification of evil that Prince holds responsible for horrors like the Atlanta child murders and the killing of John Lennon). Even the frankly sexual material takes a stand (if only under the freedom of speech banner) in songs like "Do Me, Baby", "Private Joy", and the malt-shop rocker "Jack U Off".

Revolution Era (1982-1986)

[Rating Total: 31 out of 40]

I call it the "Revolution Era" because the album 1999 marks the first album reference to Prince's band, the Revolution, written backwards on the cover in the letter "I" of his name. After 1999, the next three albums are attributed to Prince and the Revolution. For many, this period represents the golden age of Prince.

1999 (1982)

[9 out of 10]

People say Prince is arrogant. Fine. But I'd be arrogant too if I could put my name on an album like 1999. I wouldn't be able to fit my ego through the door. 1999 is a powerhouse, boasting some of the man's best jams, in particular the longer ones: the title track (6:22), "Little Red Corvette" (4:58), "Let's Pretend We're Married" (7:20), "Automatic" (9:24), "Lady Cab Driver" (8:25), and "DMSR" (Dance Music Sex Romance) (8:05). Nobody squeezes more goodies out of synthesizers and keyboards than Prince does on 1999. He's a funny guy, too, like when he takes the airline metaphor of "International Lover" into deeper sexual territory than it should've been able to yield or when he critiques his own "Jamie Starr" pseudonym in "DMSR", saying, "Jamie Starr's a thief! It's time to fix your clock! Vanity 6 is so sweet. Now you can all take a bit of my purple rock!" Never forget, however, that there's a serious side to Prince. "Free" -- a star-spangled mass of sentiment -- sometimes makes me teary. Outside of the music, I can't help but giggle at the album cover's strangely drawn lettering and the photo inside of Prince lying naked on his stomach (well, he's got gloves on) with a paintbrush, a sketchbook, and a watercolor set. Prince. Dude. Seriously. I want to help with the cover art. E-mail me.

Purple Rain (1984)

[7 out of 10]

Let's say Alex Trebek reads the Jeopardy clue, "Pop star Prince produced an album with this title and a movie of the same name." Most of us could buzz in with, "What is Purple Rain?" and a smirk that says, "Come on, give me something difficult for a thousand, Alex." This release and its film made Prince forever synonymous with violet precipitation, doves, steamy bathtubs, a wardrobe that resembles leftovers from the set of Amadeus, a pin-up girl named Apollonia, and a darling girl named "Nikki" who unnerved the lyric police. Thanks to songs like "Let's Go Crazy" and the famously bass-less "When Doves Cry", Prince's fame catapulted beyond the stratosphere (no wonder its initials are "P.R."). But surprise! I can't say PR's my favorite album. In spots, it sounds like a hack job, with "Let's Go Crazy" (you can hear more of the original in the movie) and "Computer Blue" (I've heard an 11-minute version with smoother transitions) getting chopped in the worst way. Don't you hear the editing? Don't you?! Please tell me it's not just me. The musical decisions are dictated by the needs of the film, which I think hurts the album. And I know I shouldn't admit this, but I'm here to tell ya -- there's something else. I don't love the song "Purple Rain". I know, I know. Very odd, almost unheard of for a Prince fan. It's something I've learned to live with.

Around the World in a Day (1985)

[7 out of 10]

Where do you go after you reach the mountaintop experience of something like Purple Rain? You go and record "Purple Rain, Part Two", right? Well, actually, no, not if you're Prince, who followed Purple Rain by diving into his new Paisley Park studio and coming back with a psychedelic exploration into the intersections of spirituality and inner peace (the title track, "The Ladder", "Paisley Park"), heartbreak ("Condition of the Heart"), patriotism ("America"), and sexuality ("Tamborine", "Temptation"). "Temptation", in particular, dramatized Prince's conflicts (between "good" and "evil", "love" and "sex", "God" and the "Devil") in a manner that paved the way for his later releases (notably, LoveSexy and Batman). Its running theme of spirituality should put the brakes on the assertion that Prince "got religious" when he began studying with the Jehovah's Witnesses, but whatever. Hit songs include "Pop Life" and "Raspberry Beret" and, for what it's worth, I dig the Impressionist-styled cover art.

Parade (Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon) (1986)

[8 out of 10]

We knew from the Purple Rain movie that Prince's acting chops weren't on par with his music, so we can't assign all the blame to him for Under the Cherry Moon. It's really not that bad of a film -- that is, if you like the idea of Prince in a black-and-white musical comic-tragedy. Album-wise, Parade is a sprawling work of art, part carnival ("Christopher Tracy's Parade", "New Position", "I Wonder U", "Life Can Be So Nice") and part melancholy ("Under the Cherry Moon", the jazz instrumental "Venus De Milo", "Do U Lie?", "Sometimes It Snows in April"). "Girls & Boys" is a wonderfully sly, Pepé Le Pew-like come-on, and there's no denying the catchiness of "Mountains" and "Anotherloverholenyohead" (a lesson in What Not To Do With Your Song Titles). Nevertheless, the undisputed champ of the album is the minimalist "Kiss", a song Prince reclaimed from the group Mazarati. Look, here's the general rule: if Prince gives you a song, go ahead and record it, even if you think it sucks. You never know, you might get something nice. As a side note, the Tom Jones remake of "Kiss", accompanied by the Art of Noise, is pretty hilarious.

Black Era (1987-1989)

[Rating Total: 26 out of 40]

This period is named after The Black Album, Prince's famously shelved and rabidly bootlegged project. As I understand it, the plan was to send the album to the stores with no writing on it, just a black cover. There are conflicting stories about the project's fate, but the one I like states that Prince was unhappy with the mood of The Black Album's material -- too negative, he might've thought -- and decided against its release at the last minute. For an album that wasn't released until seven years after its completion, its presence looms over its original time period.

Sign 'O' the Times (1987)

[9 out of 10]

So imagine you're touring with Prince as part of his band and entourage. You get back to the home base expecting to go straight into the studio with new material. After all, your bandleader/boss is a notorious workaholic. Instead, he fires you -- all of you -- and returns to the solo grind. Ain't that a trip? It's a productive period, though, with the possibilities presented by projects like The Dream Factory and Crystal Ball. What begins as a triple album gets sanded down to a double LP, Sign 'O' The Times (that 'O' is a peace sign in real life), which I'm inclined to rate as Prince's best record, if pushed. It's got everything (too much, according to some): the rubber band bass of the title track, rock ("Play in the Sunshine", "The Cross"), country-lite ("I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", with a hint of jazz improvisation in the middle), a duet ("U Got the Look" with Sheena Easton) and a live recording ("It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" with Sheila E. rapping!). Prince also does his best love songs -- of the romantic variety and without the heartbreak -- since For You and Prince ("Forever in My Life", "Adore"). Sign has its share of weird moments, like the sped-up vocal performances attributed to alter-ego "Camille" (the "Hot Pants"-inspired "Housequake", "Strange Relationship", "If I Was Your Girlfriend", "U Got the Look", and b-side "Shockadelica"). You'll also find think-about-'em-all-day-but-never-quite-"get 'em" songs like "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" and "Starfish and Coffee". If I were stranded on an island and could only take one Prince album, I suppose I'd take Sign, although I might prefer access to a steady food supply. By the way, the Sign 'O' the Times concert film is highly recommended.

The Black Album (1987; officially released in 1994)

[4 out of 10]

"Who? Prince? Ain't that a b*tch? That skinny motherf*cka with the high voice?"

-- "Bob George"

When this legendary album (by Prince, not Jay-Z) finally arrived in stores, 1) everyone who wanted to hear it had already heard it and 2) it didn't seem worth the fuss. The Black Album, or Funk Bible as it is sometimes called, is an extended jam session of funk without the distractions of actual melodies. Lyrically, nobody does "strange" like Prince does it here: tawdry pickups ("Le Grind", "Cindy C.", "Rockhard in a Funky Place") keep company with Prince's purplish gangsta lean (the anti-rap song "Dead on It", the menacingly distorted vocals of "Bob George") and his quirky incantations (apparently, a brotha can serve squirrel meat without it being a "thing", as in "Superfunkycalifragisexy" -- who knew?). A dope instrumental, "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton", meanders a little, but the lovely "When 2 R in Love" survives the fracas to see the light of LoveSexy's 1988 release date. Bizarre lyrical moment: "All the sistas like it when you lick 'em on their knees / Don't believe me (no!), do it once, then stop, they'll be beggin' please please please" from "Dead on It". In a weirder twist, I'm sort of feelin' the all-black album cover.

LoveSexy (1988)

[7 out of 10]

The album that was released in lieu of The Black Album, LoveSexy abounds with symbolism to the point that it almost promotes its own cult. Listeners become fluent in LoveSexy, with terms like "glam slam", "positivity", and "spooky electric". The conflict dramatized by Around the World in a Day's "Temptation" is extended into an album-length obsession that's not quite "gospel" but not quite "R&B" either. I don't know what to call it, but it's great. Lead single "Alphabet Street" made waves, but the masterful "Anna Stesia" remained the album's best-kept secret. Funky but risky, LoveSexy only has two flaws, and both are unrelated to the quality of the music. First, there's that terrible album cover of Prince seated (in the nude, of course) on a friggin' flower petal. Second, whose idea was it to sequence the album as one long track? When cassettes, not CDs, ruled my world, I had no problem with it, big deal. But making listeners fast-forward a CD? Bad pop star! Get this album, for sure, but get the desktop tools you need to track it yourself, if necessary.

Batman (1989)

[6 out of 10]

"I told her [Vicki] the joke about the woman who asked her lover, 'Why is your organ so small?' / He replied, 'I didn't know I was playing in a cathedral'"

-- "Vicki Waiting"

The fact that Batman is the soundtrack for the mainstream movie headlined by Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, and Kim Basinger doesn't obscure its musical value. Prince did the smart thing -- he embraced the movie, sampling audio snippets from the film like he was Biz Markie. What I love is the way he gets inside the characters ("Batman", "Bruce Wayne", "The Joker", "Vicki Vale"), to the point of crediting them with the lead vocals for particular songs: "The Future" (Batman on lead), "The Arms of Orion" (Bruce Wayne performs a duet with Sheena Easton's Vicki Vale), "Partyman" (the Joker), "Vicki Waiting" (Bruce), "Trust" (the Joker), "Lemon Crush" (Vicki), "Scandalous" (Batman), and "Batdance" (featuring everybody and then some). Check, for example, Batman's somewhat ironic lead voice on the opener, "The Future": "Systematic overthrow of the underclass / Hollywood conjures images of the past / New world needs spirituality that will last / I've seen the future and it will be." Prince set out to capture the tension between Batman and Joker, but the real success is how well he interprets Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne (along the lines of Christopher Reeve's brilliantly stumbling Clark Kent) and gets inside the Joker's psyche. Tangential note: the album cover featured the Bat symbol, which was probably mandatory. Not too much I could've done about that, Prince, as chief of your Art Direction team.

New Power Generation Era (1990-1994)

[Rating Total: 24 out of 40]

This era is named for Prince's band, the New Power Generation, that appears prominently on Graffiti Bridge, gets credited on the spines of Diamonds & Pearls and The Love Symbol Album, and has endured through side releases (Gold N*gga, Exodus, New Power Soul) and through Prince's former online music service, NPG Music Club.

Graffiti Bridge (1990)

[5 out of 10]

Another movie? Yeah, and it's actually Purple Rain, Part Two. Prince reprises his role as "the Kid" in a power struggle against Morris Day's character over the local club scene. If I had a choice between watching the film and having my eyes drilled into like Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, I guess I'd go with watching the film, but I'd really spend some time weighing my options. On the other hand, there's a lot to love about Graffiti Bridge the album, though I admit to despising the title track. Guest appearances abound, with young Tevin Campbell on "Round and Round", Mavis Staples on the sassy "Melody Cool", and a rejuvenated push from the Time ("Release It", "Love Machine", "Shake!", and "The Latest Fashion"). It's been said but it bears repeating -- if you put the Prince tracks together, you get a damn good album, boasting some swaggering rock ("Can't Stop This Feeling I Got"), gettin' funky ("New Power Generation" and "We Can Funk" with George Clinton), and gettin' deep (the esoteric "Joy in Repetition"). Plus, there's "The Question of U", "Tick, Tick, Bang", "Thieves in the Temple" (substitute the maxi-single's extended version for the album version), and "Still Would Stand All Time". Unfortunately, the album would need a new title because the title track, sounding like some sort of show tune, gets absolutely no love. Prince's willingness to experiment and cross genres is endearing -- it even reminds me to keep an open mind -- but there's one territory even he should've thought twice about entering: rap. It's just not an easy thing for him. Before he got on the bandwagon, he was doing just fine with his quirky brand of spoken word. You know what they say: if it ain't broke, work it 'til it is.

Diamonds & Pearls (1991)

[6 out of 10]

To me, D&P is a touch overrated. It produced the radio monster "Gett Off", the ultra-smooth "Cream", and the tightly constructed title song and "Money Don't Matter 2 Night", but it's too sleek in its production and delivery for its own good. The gloss of the music, I think, is a symptom of Prince's eagerness to pen radio-friendly music. Maybe that's the subject of "Willing and Able", in which the singer says he's ready to "place my cards on the table" and "you know there ain't nothing, nothing that I wouldn't do." At any rate, Rosie Gaines's contributions to the set are more than welcome. While "Thunder" boldly name drops "Jesus" in the chorus, the risk-taking is minimal here, with "Gett Off" and "Insatiable" leading the charge. As fun as it all is ("Daddy Pop" and the wiggly bass in "Live 4 Love"), the lows are tough to swallow, from the traffic sound effects in "Walk Don't Walk" to the hip-hop pandering in "Push" and "Jughead". I say "Graffiti Bridge" is Prince's worst song; maybe "Jughead" would come in second. Some people don't like Prince's jazz music (I do, actually), but D&P didn't calm my nervousness about his entryway into hip-hop. He's not terrible, but he's not exactly Rakim either. On a positive note, D&P's holographic cover photo, like a prize from a super-sized Cracker Jack box, is way cool.

The Love Symbol Album (1992)

[7 out of 10]

Prince introduces the symbol (O{+>) that continues to haunt us. The album, affectionately referred to as The Love Symbol Album, grabs the D&P baton of slick production. Admittedly, Prince exhibits greater fluency in his hip-hop, but he's still forcing it. Nevertheless, it all makes for a more substantial and satisfying listen. Touted as a "rock opera", with some of the blanks in the audio libretto filled in by the 3 Chains O' Gold video, Symbol opens with an introduction that's about 14 years late in "My Name Is Prince". Prince throws his entire bag of musical tricks into the project, and about 80% of it sticks: the big numbers blow the roof off the sucker ("The Continental", "The Max"), the raps work better than expected ("Sexy M.F.", "Arrogance", "The Flow"), and Prince's falsetto is ridiculously on point ("Sweet Baby", "Damn U", "And God Created Woman"). Add to that the apocalyptic "7" and the rave track "Eye Wanna Melt With U", and Symbol is easily the most potent blend of the period. You should also know that Prince's gun-shaped microphone kicks major ass.

Come (1994)

[6 out of 10]

Prince retires his name with a "1958-1993" dedication on the album cover, but the funk lives on. Containing a series of songs with one-word titles, Come keeps it fresher than you'd expect after 23 albums (not counting the Hits/B-sides box set). I'm actually quite fond of it. The title track romps through 11 jazzy minutes of Prince flaunting his oral stimulation skills, which pretty much gets a hefty "All righty then". It's a "phat" track, though. From there, it's the futuristic and ethereal "Space" (and the Universal Love version on the maxi-single is phenomenal), the heavy bass of "Pheromone", and a burst of techno in "Loose!" Prince is still concerned with important issues, as witnessed by the anti-abuse message from "Papa", the promotion of racial harmony on "Race", and the keenly introspective "Letitgo". Check out Prince's a cappella on "Solo"; it's one of those polarizing moments that you either love or immediately want to toss in the garbage. I dig it, if that makes any difference.

Symbol Era (1994-1998)

[Rating Total: 28 out of 40]

No surprise here. I named the era for Prince's adoption of the "Love Symbol" as his name, after which he was referred to as the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. The overlap in years between this era and the previous one is due to the release of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" under the Symbol emblem in 1994.

The Gold Experience (1995)

[7 out of 10]

I remember the anticipation surrounding this record. It was supposed to be his "return to form", the heir to the Purple Rain throne, or some other such nonsense. Truthfully, Gold is an extremely solid record that falters from a few bad decisions. Bad decision #1: overproduction, like giving "Endorphinemachine" -- the gritty rocker that brought the house down in live performances around this time -- a pop makeover (including a what-the-f*ck addition of cowbell). Bad decision #2: track selection -- when you've got an ever-increasing vault of songs like the Artist has, I'm sure it's hard to decide which ones to release, but releasing yet another version of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", which enjoyed several permutations on The Beautiful Experience maxi-single, was so unnecessary. On Crystal Ball (mentioned later), he released a few of the songs he wrote for Gold but later rejected. He really shouldn't have rejected them ("Acknowledge Me", "Interactive"). Bad decision #3: the female-voiced computer menu on the tracked interludes (but thanks for tracking them!). The one that really sticks in my craw is the album closer during "Gold": "You are now an official member of the New Power Generation." What, are you serious? Can't a brotha listen to an album without being drafted into a posse? But ignore me sweating the small stuff. Gold cranks the hip-hop with "P Control" and "Now", and jams on the petty revenge track "Billy Jack B*tch". "Dolphin" is easily the loveliest composition in the bunch and you can't help but smile when the Artist snatches the song "Shhh" back from Tevin Campbell (although, theoretically, I guess it's "the Artist" covering "Prince"). No disrespect, but Campbell had no business whatsoever singing lines like, "I wanna do you after school like some homework". Sorry, kiddo, I know you were following the "take whatever Prince gives you" rule I mentioned earlier, but "Shhh" was a job for Symbol Man.

Chaos & Disorder (1996)

[5 out of 10]

If you dismissed C&D as an obligatory release intended to hasten the Artist's exit from his relationship with his record label, you'd probably be right. But if that prompts you to skip the album, you're missing out on some exceptional guitar playing. "I'm just a no-name reporter," the Artist sings on the title track, "I wish I had nothing to say." Edgy, but nowhere near as visceral as it ought to be, C&D blazes through a lineup of rock and blues tunes ("I Like It There", "The Same December", "Zannalee") before succumbing to energetic rhythm-and-rhyme ("I Rock, Therefore I Am", "Dig U Better Dead") and mellow musings ("Into the Light", "I Will"). "Dinner With Delores" wins the Award for Best Insults Backed by the Smoothest Music. Here's a sample: "Damn, Delores, pick another subject please / Introduce the carpet to something other than your knees"). I know some people don't like his country accent at the beginning of "Right the Wrong", but I thought it worked. Can't a brotha channel the western frontier without it becoming a "thing"? Overall, C&D is more interesting than people think. When the wind is blowing in a different direction, I'm often inclined to give it a six.

Emancipation (1996)

[8 out of 10]

Freed from the chains of a conventional record deal, Minnesota's favorite son celebrates with a creative explosion -- three CDs, each made of 12 tracks and calculated to be exactly 60 minutes. Perhaps, as critics still suggest, this kind of "freedom" is in need of a good editor. Nevertheless, Emancipation is blazing with strong, carefully arranged compositions. The Man is up to his usual genre-hopping, traversing R&B, rock, soul, techno, new age, and twinges of hip-hop. There's a lower rock-to-other-styles ratio, though, which is somewhat of a downer. The best of Emancipation deserves praise, with the honors going to the more low key but thoughtful songs like "Curious Child", "Soul Sanctuary", "Let's Have a Baby", "Holy River", "The Love We Make", and "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife". The racier numbers aren't as lyrically complex, with the possible exception of Disc Two's "Joint 2 Joint". Prince wasn't much for doing other people's songs, but apparently Symbol Man is cool with it, performing the covers "Betcha By Golly Wow!", "La, La, La Means Eye Love U", and "One of Us". Emancipation is like a humongous book everybody says you should read, but you're intimidated by the size. It takes awhile to get through, but you're rewarded for embarking on the journey.

The Truth (1998)

[8 out of 10]

"I've seen the mountaintop and it ain't what you said"

-- "Don't Play Me"

Technically, The Truth isn't a "release", it's a bonus CD for buying the official Crystal Ball compilation, another gargantuan three-disc affair. For Crystal Ball, the Artist chose songs from his vault that were circulating in the bootleg community. Granted, no tracklist would have satisfied everyone, but what resulted contained some questionable picks -- a couple of dude-you-can't-be-serious tracks (the 15-minute talk-fest fiasco called "Cloreen Baconskin") and some unnecessary remixes (the "Love Sign" remix by Digital Underground's Shock G is kinda cool, though). Anyway, the bonus disc, The Truth, finds the Artist in (mostly) acoustic mode, getting back to basics and constructing an intimate set. I love playing this for people who think they've heard everything Minneapolis Man has to offer. Dude can strum a mean groove, evidenced by "Don't Play Me", "Third Eye", "Dionne", and "Man in a Uniform". Even his ode to animal rights ("Animal Kingdom") is tight. Actually, the whole damn thing is worth hunting down. Some fans still speculate that The Truth would have fared well if released on its own, but I'm afraid we're deluding ourselves. Technically, 1999's The Vault should be included in this list, maybe even instead of The Truth, but 1) adding it would screw up the neat four-album "era"-system I've got going and 2) I wouldn't recommend buying it before anything on this list (it wouldn't have rated higher than a three).

Neo-Prince Era (1999-2006)

[Rating Total: 23 out of 40]

"Prince" returns as the "producer" of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and resumes his place in the credits as arranger, producer, composer, and performer on the albums that follow. By my calculation, this era has the lowest ratings total of all, yet enjoys a high approval rating.

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)

[7 out of 10]

Dig, if you will, this story -- a record label inks a deal with a guitar-wielding wizard, promising to release an album packed with guest appearances and star-studded cameos. The album climbs the charts and garners critical and commercial acclaim. The guitar wizard wins several of those goofy looking gold phonograph awards. Everybody cheers. Hoping to follow this success, the same record label inks a one-time deal with another guitar wizard who used to be called Prince. The proposed album features guests from all over the musical map -- Chuck D, Gwen Stefani, Ani Difranco, Eve, Maceo, Sheryl Crow -- and when it's finally released, the formula doesn't produce the expected hit. Only a few people cheer. That album, of course, is the awkwardly titled Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, which is a respectable effort, if a little spotty. It's like the Artist is imitating himself, whether he's digging into the Prince archive for the title track or pulling out a Black Era Camille performance in "Baby Knows". At one point, he's covering Sheryl Crow ("Everyday Is a Winding Road"); later, he's getting his James Brown on (the hidden track "Pretty Man"). It's not as derivative as I'm making it sound -- I'm all about "Undisputed", "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold", "Man O' War", and "Strange But True" -- but, despite my rating, this might not be the best onramp to the Prince album highway for a newbie.

The Rainbow Children (2001)

[5 out of 10]

First, the packaging: I dig Rainbow's cover art, reminiscent of work by the artist Ernie Barnes (the artist who painted the "J.J. Evans" artwork shown in the sitcom Good Times). I'm still down for that Art Direction gig, though, P. On the flipside, I don't like those cardboard CD cases that are too easily bent and worn -- Ani Difranco is overly fond of them, too. Quit using cardboard. That goes for Musicology and 3121. Second, the music: Rainbow's spiritual leanings (title track, "The Everlasting Now", "1 + 1 + 1 is 3") and cultural engagement ("Family Name") make for an interesting way to spend an hour or so on a Saturday. It's heavily influenced by funk and jazz, which Prince handles like a pro. I suppose it might be considered a "Jehovah's Witnesses" album, which isn't a positive or negative for me, actually. It is what it is (but I'm proud to say I hip the Witnesses to Rainbow and Witnesses-related First Amendment cases whenever they knock on my door). Besides, can't a brotha read The Watchtower without it turning into a "thing"? For its attention to matters of the soul, Rainbow could be grouped with Around the World in a Day, LoveSexy, and Batman, although I still argue that Batman's ideological death match between "good" (Batman) and "evil" (Joker) is, comic book characters aside, the most realistic and psychologically shaded of the bunch. Rainbow's absolutes (the "rainbow children" and the "banished ones") remain polarized, but the execution is engaging. The James Brownish "The Work, Pt. 1" stands out, as does "Muse 2 the Pharaoh".

Musicology (2004)

[5 out of 10]

This album has me scratching my head. Upside: it's a popular album. Downside: I don't think I like it very much -- a little too safe, too inside-the-lines and by the numbers. Only half of it interests me: the old-school motif of the title song, the uproarious funk of "Illusion, Coma, Pimp, & Circumstance", party jam "Life 'O' the Party", "What Do U Want Me 2 Do?", "The Marrying Kind", and "If Eye Was the Man in UR Life". The rest is bland, the type of stuff Prince does when it seems like he wants mass appeal (see also: Diamonds & Pearls). Don't get me wrong, the slow grinds ("Call My Name" and "On the Couch") and the rockers ("A Million Days", "Cinnamon Girl") are competent, but I'm surprised (though extremely pleased) this stuff is so well received. For my money, Rave would beat the daylights out of Musicology in an arm-wrestling contest. Prince's no-cursing policy bothers me too, but I can respect it. I am, however, delighted by this delicious little conspiracy theory: Prince used to shock people with what he dared to say -- built a career around shock value -- but in a climate where there's hardly anything shocking left to say, maybe he figured he could only shock us with what he wouldn't say. Okay, that makes my head hurt.

3121 (2006)

[6 out of 10]

Is anybody else noticing that "3121" is the number of Doug and Carrie's house on the King of Queens sitcom? Perhaps not, but I think 3121 outranks its predecessor. The single "Black Sweat" grabbed attention, but almost all the grooves are irresistible, working a slick dance angle without becoming too overproduced (maybe "Incense and Candles" gives in a little). I'm "Te Amo Corazon" intolerant, but overall pleased with the collection of weird sounds (title track, "Love"), rock ("Fury"), slow grooves ("Satisfied"), R&B (gospel-like "The Word", "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed"), and funk ("Get on the Boat"). Although he sold another version of "The Dance" through his website, I like the 3121 version better, so it's all good.

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