After shamelessly taking over the 80s with masterpieces of the size of Sign O’ The Times (1987), Prince’s career started to get in troubles in the 90s, despite major albums as The Gold Experience (1995) and Emancipation (1996). At the end of the decade, his name was very low in the world of music. In this article we will have a look at his evolution since 2000 to this 2013 which, seemingly, is going to be a great year for him, including an homage from Billboard and three shows at the Montreux Jazz Festival, among other events.
The hangover after Rave un2 the joy fantastic
The year 2000 surprised Prince in low shape: his project Rave un2 the joy fantastic had failed, despite the enthusiasm deployed by Clive Davis –then, head of Arista- to try another star resurrection, like he had done with Santana. In this case, the idea –an album of collaborations with stars of the moment- didn’t work. So Prince was, possibly, in the lowest point of his career: the big labels turned their back on him, and the future of the superstar of the 80s appeared very dull.
The “independent” phase: The Rainbow Children / One Nite Alone
Due to either strategic reasons, or to real conviction, fact is that Prince turned his regard to his hardcore fans, and focused his attention on them. He took a piooner rabbit out of his hat: he created in internet the New Power Generation Music Club (2001-2006), where upon subscription, his fans had access to different materials, provided directly by Prince without any middle man. The “independence” hour had come. In the NPGMC, several full albums were released (Rave in2 the joy fantastic, The Rainbow Children, One Nite Alone, One Nite Alone… Live!, N.E.W.S., Xpectation, The Chocolate Invasion, The Slaughterhouse, Musicology; some of them were also released out of the club), besides a series of NPG Ahdio Shows, songs, videos, pictures… straight from Paisley Park. In addition, he offered the best seats for his shows, something very appreciated by the many fans hooked on his shows.
In 2001, the album The Rainbow Children was released, followed by a tour in 2002 through USA, Europe and Japan, One Nite Alone, planned for middle size auditoriums, where Prince exhibited his instrumental mastery with an extraordinary band, which was very appreciated by the attendance. His trust in the band and in the repertoire made him shout: “If you came here for your Purple Rain, you’re in the wrong house”, while he chose setlists widely mixing songs from his neverending catalogue, avoiding the massive hits. Thus far, there is great consensus among Prince connoisseurs in considering this his best recent tour. Prince possibly felt similarly proud, since he released his first live album in his career: One Nite Alone… Live!, a beautiful box with a luxury booklet and three CDs.
Musicology: the return to the premier league
After the tour, 2003 was a transition year, with the release of another two albums in a jazzy vein (Xpectation and N.E.W.S.), preparing a new attempt to return to the mainstream. 2004 started strongly with a stunning appearance at the Grammys, where Prince performed a medley with Beyonce. Some weeks later, Prince joined the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; during the event, he closed a performance homage to George Harrison of While my guitar gently weeps with a mind-blowing guitar solo. But the main dish came with the edition of Musicology, whose tour became a huge success, with almost 100 shows in the USA (the tickets included the CD) and a total income of almost $ 90 million. The figure of Prince had recovered his prestige, after being neglected for many years.
3121, the failed attempt
The return to the premier league led to another album, prepared with care during 2005 and released in 2006 by another big label, this time Universal: 3121. The album was announced together with another CD of the protegee Tamar Davis, for whom he composed Milk & Honey (which was however shelved at the very last minute with no explanations). However, after a number 1 in the USA sales charts reached in the first weak, the evolution of 3121 was disappointing, helped by a sudden stop in the promotional activities which never received an official explanation. The history had a surprising turn when Prince announced a residency of shows in the Rio Hotel & Casino at Las Vegas, from November 2006 to April 2007, on weekends, in an intimate environment, which helped to rehearse a band which was going to star in many big moments in 2007.
21 Nights in London / Planet Earth: the legend, live
The starter was the appearance of Prince, on February 1st, 2007, in the Super Bowl 2007 halftime show, the final of the American football, with stratospheric audiences. Prince performed a medley of songs, some from other bands, ending with an astonishing rendition of Purple Rain, where he received the unexpected help of a downpour, which helped to enhance the dramatism of the moment. This appearance was unanimously acclaimed, being considered by many as the best in the history of the Super Bowl.
But there were many more things ready for that year:
On July 15, 2007, Prince did the first of his appearances at the very reputed Montreux Jazz Festival, demonstrating that, besides a massive success artist –at least onstage-, he retained the label of cult artist in selected shows.
On May 8, 2007, Prince officially announced a residency of 21 shows in London during the summer, inaugurating a 20,000 seats auditorium, the O2, with reasonable prices. Despite this, and despite offering again his new album, Planet Earth, with each ticket, it seemed a bet of impossible success. However, the idea worked, receiving very good critics, and fulfilling the expectations both of generic fans (with a concert focused on his hits) and also of hardcore fans, with a series of after shows in a smaller venue, in which he played a heterogeneous repertoire. After the end of the residency, the balance couldn’t be better, receiving the acclaim of other figures of rock, as Brian May, who published an article full of praises. The success was so big that it inspired future (and unfortunately, failed) achievements in other superstars, as Michael Jackson, in the same auditorium. In 2008, a large format pictures book was released, containing a live CD from two after shows.
After the apotheosis of 2007, 2008 was a quieter year, with some scattered shows. And in March 2009, a triple album, Lotusflow3r, is presented with three shows in the same day, each of them with a different band, performed in different venues in Los Angels. Besides, he opened the page http://www.lotusflow3r.com, in which he promised to release exclusive material upon subscription. The project was damaged because it was distributed only through the US chain Target, and also due to the lack of interesting contents in lotusflow3r.com. As in many other occasions, the lack of success provoked a rapid loss of interest from Prince, who turned page (leading to the disappointment of fans who had paid the subscription, receiving little in return).
The European tours — 20TEN
Only a few weeks later, Prince appeared by second time at the Montreux Jazz Festival, this occasion with two shows, which were warmly received by the public and by the Festival founder, Claude Nobs.
In 2010, Prince released a minor album, 20Ten, distributed by some magazines in several countries, as a promotional item for the summer Europe tour (in fact, it was not released in the USA, and few of its songs were performed during the shows). The tour was well-received, since Prince had not toured Europe since One Nite Alone, although in this case the shows were focused on his old hits. And this idea continues in 2011 and 2012, two of the few years along his career in which he did not release an album, although he remained busy with shows in Europe and North America. In summer of 2011, he did a few shows for hardcores (North Sea Jazz Festival, Amager Bio, Melkweg), with an extraordinary reception. And at the end of 2012, against expectations, his last protegee, Andy Allo, releases Superconductor, an appreciable album with two great songs (Yellow gold and When stars collide), in which Prince is much more involved than the credits suggest.
Despite the irregular album releases, Prince keeps a high creative rhythm, far above other stars from the 80s who were forced to slow down their album releases due to lack of ideas. And precisely because he is so prolific, the lack of new material becomes remarkable. Although the cause is unclear, some speculations suggest there is lack of interest in labels, after the failed 3121. On the other hand, Prince stated that he doesn’t want to release material in iTunes and similar outlets. In fact, after the disappearance of lotusflow3r.com, and despite being one of the pioneers in the music distribution through internet, Prince lacked an official site in the net.
Two years without album and…”2013 will be big”?
In this situation, 2013 starts and very soon, some insiders start suggesting that “2013 will be big for Prince”. And Prince announces in January a series of “rehearsals” in a club of his hometown, performing very diverse material with two different bands: a small one composed mainly by women, and another, bigger and composed mainly by men, including a 10 horns section. In both there are new members, suggesting he is preparing a new ensemble of musicians for big scale projects in the coming months, which remain undisclosed. And few weeks later, Prince surprises with a new twitter account, @3rdEyeGirl, where he uploads several videos for new songs, followed by two websites: Prince2013.com and 3rdEyeGirl.com. The later sells songs that are being uploaded without previous notice, at the reduced price of $ 0,88. However, there is no preview, and there are few promotional devices allowing to listen to them elsewhere, restricting their possible impact –at this time, at least- to the circles of Prince fans.
Today, there are just a few hints on the big plans for 2013, although it has been already confirmed the third appearance of Prince at the Montreux Jazz Festival 2013, this time with three shows; Billboard will do an homage show after awarding him the Billboard Icon, and a tour along the West Coast of the USA has been announced in April. It remains to be seen whether 2013 will eventually be a big year for Prince, although the quality of the first songs released in 3rdEyeGirl.com, and his effervescence in the last weeks, seem positive signs.
Looking with some perspective, Prince’s career seems to have overcome the abyss in which it had fallen at the end of the last century. However, his erratic trajectory, and his obvious aversion to plans, provoke the incertitude on any forecast. What seems clear is that we are not going to get bored following his evolution in the next years. And that, regardless of the quality of the new albums, his superlative prestige as live musician is out of question. The big question is whether this artist with musical superpowers will mature at some point, to deal with adult topics with the corresponding sonic vision, or whether he will keep on trying to get a number 1 while singing the zillionth horny song… more or less moderated to avoid trespassing the boundaries of his religion.
The Rainbow Children (Red Line, 2001)
After becoming Jehova Witness, Prince melts a new sound in jazzy vein, with voices in the Darth Vader style in some songs. The album contains controversial lyrics with a strong religious accent, with a splendid musical elaboration, including some aspects of experimentation in the sound that were missing in previous albums. Although it lacks extraordinary songs, the sound quality of the whole is exceptional and marks a turn Prince’s career. The critics had a moderate view of this album, but there are many fans who consider it his last masterpiece.
Musicology (Sony, 2004)
In a strong effort to return to the premier league, Musicology includes a collection of songs with commercial ambition, and mostly with the goal of reminding the American fans that Prince was alive and kicking. And it succeeds, with the homonymous song and with obvious singles for all publics, as A million days or Cinnamon girl. The freak side remains in jewels as Illusion, coma, pimp and circumstance. Without being an essential album, it fulfils its goal to perfection, reinstating Prince as a reference figure.
3121 (Universal, 2006)
After the return with Musicology, the ambitions with 3121 are even higher, and Prince exhibits vigorously his large music palette: traditional (Get on the boat) or mutant funk (3121, Black sweat, Love), slow songs with the household strings, with the collaboration of the disappeared Clare Fischer (Te amo corazón), or ballads with complex production (The dance), spiced with a latin touch. A compendium of big potential, which incomprehensibly was left to fall after reaching the first direct number 1 of Prince in the US album charts.
Lotusflow3r (NPG Records, 2009)
Three years are enough for writing a lot, and Prince came back to his uses with a triple album containing a rock CD (Lotusflow3r), another more centered on pop/funk (MPLSound) and Elixer, of his protegee Bria Valente, whose inexpressive voice was unable to remove the charm of quiet pop songs, more creative than those released under the name of Prince. The set, irregular, included an appreciable amount of great songs, as Feel better, feel good, feel wonderful, Colonized mind or Something U already know.
After announcing “I don’t do albums anymore, now I do songs”, Prince starts selling them in his own web. And the balance is mixed: there are from minor pop songs (Rock & roll love affair) to strong rock numbers (Screw driver), purple boutique finesses (Breakfast can wait) or embroidered in horns (Boyfriend), ballads in voice & guitar (That girl thang)… Further, he even leaves the main role to the girls in his band in Live out loud, with an apparent simplicity enabled to hook you up on first listen. It’s still early to get conclusions, but the inspiration seems to be back and the story is promising. Although it’s unclear whether this web is a carrot to attract a big label, or a serious attempt to sell his music without middlemen.