HITnRUN Phase One: the first Prince album that could appear under another name
Just a few months after the release of Art Official Age and PLECTRUMELECTRUM in September 2014, Prince surprised everyone in Princeland with the announcement that he would release a new album with Tidal in September 2015, entitled HITnRUN Phase One (from now on, I will stick to HITnRUN only).
This would be a no-surprise with the prolific Prince of the 80s, but he had been on a release hiatus since 2010 (20TEN) to 2014, and consequently, this made some of us scratch our heads in speculation: why did he change his pace so abruptly? But taking into account that normality has never been the main feature of Prince, we just jumped in the wagon and waited to hear the contents of the new album.
The next surprise was to learn that HITnRUN had been produced and written in collaboration with Joshua Welton, husband of 3rd Eye Girl’s drummer Hannah, who had been also listed as coproducer of Art Official Age. This turned out to be, probably, the biggest shock for many of the fans, particularly those hardcore who had been used to the mantra of “Written, per4rmed, arranged and produced by Prince” for decades.
Whether this investment from Tidal makes sense or not, I don’t know: this label is reportedly struggling to gain recognition and market, and an universally known superstar as Prince might bring new customers onboard (although it is widely known that Prince never worked for cheap figures… ).
On the other hand, Joshua Welton received a prominence in this album which is almost unprecedented: not even in the heyday of The Revolution, Wendy & Lisa received such an intense focus from media. Furthermore, Prince has not been sharing the spotlight with Josh; on the contrary, he has been hiding on the sidelines while journalists published nonstop interviews with Josh, stressing how important his input has been in HITnRUN.
And this leads to possibly the main feature of HITnRUN: According to Josh himself, Prince has given him full freedom to make music. It seems that often Prince sent vocal tracks to Josh to be completed; later Prince would add bass or guitar if he thought it was required, but if reports are to be believed, most of the music backgrounds, embellishments, arrangements etc are the responsability of Joshua, even if obviously Prince was giving the final ok. This allowed Josh to claim in an interview that there were tracks in HITnRUNwhere Prince did not play any instrument.
Hence we have a rare Prince album which, under the brand of “Prince”, actually contains an album which belongs to “Prince Rogers Nelson & Joshua Welton”. Or even to “Joshua Welton feat. Prince Rogers Nelson”, depending on your take.
For some music critics and Prince fans, this has been a very nicely implemented idea, which has renovated Prince sound, by using current sounds and production to bring the classic purple personality to the trends that rule electronic dance music in 2015. It is worth noting however that there is a significant part of the fans (maybe the majority), and also some critics, considering that Joshua simply has made a cheap conversion, putting run-of-the-mill EDM production into minor Prince compositions to quickly produce an album ready for massive consumption, but lacking the main hallmarks which have defined the Paisley Park sound in the last four decades.
Before going to comment the different tracks, let me state from scratch that, unlike other longtime Prince fans, I don’t think Prince only way to create great music is to do it mostly on his own. There is clear potential in the collaboration with Joshua, as demonstrated by Art Official Age, which was widely received as a step forward in Prince’s discography, and contained a masterpiece song with a strong contribution from Joshua (Way back home).
So, after all these considerations, let’s go to the central question when listening to a new Prince album: how good -or bad- is it? What is its significance, in the context of a career spanning almost 40 years?
Judging from the many reviews published in the last week, it is hard to get any conclusion: overall, I would say that most media have been quite positive on the new album (with a couple of relevant exceptions, as Pitchfork and Popmatters). Yet if you read reviews from quite a few hardcore fans, HITnRUNis close to the worst album ever released by Prince.
In my personal opinion, HITnRUN is somewhere in the middle. The main quality I value in any album, let alone a Prince album, is The Songs (way above music style, production, arrangements, etc). And truth be told, there are no masterpiece songs in HITnRUN, in sharp contrast with its close ancestorArt Official Age. This atenuates the brilliance of the album, no matter how hard Josh (and Prince?) tried to polish the music.
But this does not mean the album is garbage, far from it:
HARDROCKLOVER is an excellent song all the way, one of those screaming “Prince” from beginning to end. The melody is simple yet extremely effective, the voice of Prince sounds effortlessly powerful and convincing (despite the rather conventional lyrics which add nothing to his catalogue). And the guitar… the guitar is Prince at his best, and the production (this time) gives it plenty of space to shine. There a few keyboards and side percussion effects providing a beautiful framework to the core. And the core, here, is pure purple music. The fact that this song (simple in production, almost a skeleton of voice and music, where I presume Prince needed very little help from Josh) is, by far, the best of HITnRUN might be food for thinking on the design of the whole album, but that’s another story.
The second standout track here is an old friend from the vault, entitled A thousand hugs and kisses (which this time, in Princebonics, was translated to1000 X’s & 0’s). It was circulating among fans in a version sung by Nona Gaye and Prince, in a mostly acoustic take (although the story of the song is more convoluted, as you can read in the detailed explanations from Princevault). Here the sound is completely transformed to the Josh standards, yet it retains all its charm, enhanced by the presence of Prince vocals, which are in magnificent shape in this album. (But if you trust my word, look for recordings of this song from the 21 nights in London: Prince voice & acoustic piano. You can’t top that!). This is a clear example evidencing that, when the song is strong, Josh can clearly spice it up to make a modern sounding version with no harmful effects; I know many hardcores disagree with me on this opinion, but I think it is backed by facts (if you listen without prejudices to Art Official Age or HITnRUN, that is).
June closes the album, and the reactions to this song have been really diverse: some people consider it the best of the bunch, while others have found maybe too obvious similarities to Moments in love (from The Art of Noise). Putting its inspirations aside, I think it is an enjoyable song: Prince phrases it quietly, although the melody is not particularly memorable, serving to end the album on a calmed note, where digital trickery does not get in the way of the divagating vocals.
The previously released Fallinlove2nite appears here devoid of the voice from Zooey Deschanel, and I can’t say I miss it. This song is a guilty pleasure of mine: I think it sounds different enough from the usual Prince writing style, to the point I might believe the melody has been fully penned by Josh. Regardless, it is beyond catchy, it has almost viral properties that make it stick to your mind with the first chorus. I admit the song is hardly original, either in the composition or production, but still it is one of the most commercial songs released under the “Prince” name in a very, very, very long time. I would say as far as back to the times of The most beautiful girl in the world, which is saying (1995, i.e. twenty years ago). And all quality considerations be damned: I enjoy every time I hear it, feel free to stone me as I am completely aware that my taste is reprehensible.
Following with a similar line of pop caramel, Mr. Nelson starts in a very compelling remix of Lianne La Havas audio samples taken from Clouds(included in Art Official Age); but the beginning is more promising than the actual fulfillments of the song: starting at the 1 min mark, the song evolves into a different melody which loses, in my opinion, the allure of the beginning, and somehow gets lost along the way with a final part on guitar. A failed attempt in my book, wasting the potential which could have been contributed by Prince with a more imaginative guitar playing.
The other remix in the album, This could B us, is more successful. It provides a clear case for comparison, between the Prince-made original in Art Official Age, and this track subjected to the Josh production. I like both, to the point I can hardly decide which one I prefer. This duo illustrates how different productions can drive to appreciable results, and also why (contrary to the popular rumour in hardcore Princeland) not all Josh-produced songs are trash.
Million $ show had appeared in some recent Prince shows, and here it is sung by Judith Hill (responsible for a great album which was also produced by Prince, Back in time). Her wonderful voice is more adequately showcased in other songs, as there is not enough room here for Judith to play in the big league; besides I don’t think that Million $ showis a great song. Actually, I wonder why this rather mediocre track was selected to open the album. (And yes I am aware that wondering for reasons in Princeland is a nice way of losing my time). Oh, and let me add that the samples from past Prince classics at the beginning of Million $ show seem pointless to me. Maybe Josh wanted to confirm listeners that yes, this is a Prince album: who knows…
Finally, we have four songs which, to my eyes, belong to a separate group, as they share the Josh sonic signature: Shut this down, Ain’t about to stop, Like a mack and X’s face. Their sound is trending electronic dance music(or EDM muzak, as some are calling it) with bits of industrial sound. This is not good or bad, per se: it depends on the songs, as always, and how fitting this style is with respect to the compositions.
In this regard, X’s face is the most accomplished effort here. Samples of it were broadcasted in the Prince & 3rd Eye girl Yahoo live stream from Minneapolis in September 2014, receiving a good response from fans. The full song succeeds at blending Prince’s falsetto with a dark, hypnotic groove, reminding of some past numbers from Prince (notably Pheromone or Loose, from the album Come).
Shut this down is also interesting -if not great, although one can not avoid to notice that it shares more than some bits with My name is Prince. Regardless, it fits the bill and latenite dancers in purple discos will have a great time with it.
The much discussed collaboration with Rita Ora Ain’t about the stop is the next installment of this series, and besides showing that Rita Ora is no great singer -no matter how sexy she looks on videos-, it illustrates that Prince seems to have fun singing this kind of songs lately. I bet Prince was more interested in the collaboration with Rita (not only for being a hot celebrity) than in the innovative features of the song.
The last song in this group is Like a mack, another collaboration with Curly Fryz this time. I might sound harsh, but I think this is close to a throwaway song, one of those which pop up from time to time in Prince’s discography as style exercices, rather than proper artistic attempts.
If you managed to read this review to this point, you already noticed that I have mixed feelings about HITnRUN. It is by no means a catastrophic release, but I think Prince has not been too concerned with the creative aspects of the album, and this becomes obvious when listening to it a few times in a row. Still there are several enjoyable songs in the combo, and specifically Hardrocklover is the highlight here.
Whether the Phase One part of the title means we should expect more releases in the same vein, I don’t know. But if so, may I humbly suggest to Prince to get more involved in the process, so that the “Phase Two” gets closer to the masterful Art Official Age than to HITnRUN. Collaborations with other producers might be a clear path forward for Prince’s future projects. Josh contributed big time to the success of Art Official Age, and thus I think dimissing his role next to Prince is baseless. Yet I can’t avoid to dream on similar collaborations with other talented musicians soaked in purple essence, as a certain D’Angelo to name just one.
In my review of Art Official Age, I stated that Prince had found the way back home in terms of moving forward in his career. HITnRUN Phase One represents a momentary pause in that route. Let’s hope he restarts the journey in forthcoming albums.