Incomparable showmanship keeps Prince’s career afloat, regardless of the mess in other domains.
The late careers of many music superstars share certain features: compilations of hits (sometimes in new versions); albums in collaboration with other musicians, often selected from younger generations; tours every few years where they play pretty much the same old hits all nights; and releases of remastered albums from their heyday, including outtakes, to please old fans and re-sell old material.
For better or worse, Prince’s late career defies all assumptions, and none of the above mentioned features applies to his:
The few compilations of hits from Warner Bros. were almost certainly released against Prince wishes (and this includes the triple CD The Hits/The B sides, in 1993); the only album which explored the collaborations with other artists (Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic) was one of his biggest flops, despite being organized by Clive Davis with the goal of relaunching Prince’s career; he’s being touring on an almost continuous -yet scattered and often not organized by professionals- manner since the beginning of this century; and last but not least, the much hyped remaster of Purple Rain (which was officially announced by Warner Bros. a couple of years ago, and was expected to be the first in a series) has not been released thus far.
So the question is: how does Prince manage to remain in the headlines and receive the accomplishments of a top figure, without using the standard tricks?
Let’s have a look to the last years of his career:
The end of this decade was a period of discographic silence for Prince, who broke his long, non-written tradition of at-least-an-album-per-year with three years without release (despite touring extensively with his girls band 3rd Eye Girl). Then, out of nowhere, in November 2014 Prince released simultaneously Art Official Age and the 3rd Eye Girl albumPLECTRUMELECTRUM. The content of these albums was of diverse qualities, but provided abundant evidence that he was alive and kicking in studio.
At that time, fans probably were ready for another pause in official albums; but, against all expectations, Prince entered a prolific period: in a matter of a few months, in March 2015, Prince released a free download of Judith Hill’s album Back in time (which was later released also on Tidal and CD), produced by him. In September 2015, HitnRun Phase 1 was released, first through Tidaland then on CD, distributed by… Warner Bros, no less. And then, out of nowhere, in November 2015, Prince released on Tidal -for a limited time: 12 hours, being later removed- another album from Andy Allo, Oui Can Luv, composed of nine songs where Andy sung and Prince played acoustic guitar.
Five albums with direct Prince involvement in one way or another were more than enough for one year. But the game was not over: in December 2015, Princeland in full was surprised by the release of… yes, another Prince album, entitled HitnRun Phase 2, which is his last official album at this time (March 9, 2016).
If releasing almost non-stop Prince albums (solo or in collaboration with a band, productions, albums where he played, etc), was not confusing enough, he provided more matter for confusion: this series included strong returns to form (Art Official Age) with half-assed efforts (PLECTRUMELECTRUM); elaborated productions with a magnificent singer (Back in time) with stripped down songs displaying the nice-but-underwhelming Andy’s voice and Prince’s guitar as only resources (Oui Can Luv); and probably the sharpest contrast: cheap, digital machinery pop productions au goût du jour (HitnRun Phase 1) followed without pause by an album recorded in the good old way, in strictly analogue recording equipment (HitnRun Phase 2). To add some more spice, the later two albums share almost the same title, despite being conceptually opposite:
I might be overanalyzing things probably, but the choice of songs included in Phase 2 vs those included in Phase 1 could have been decided on purpose to make (painfully) clear to fans (and maybe to Joshua Welton himself, the co-writer and producer of the album) what a huge difference there is between (and I quote the Tidal press release) “current computer-driven trend prevalent in practically all popular music today” -which seems to me a very precise description of the music included in Phase 1– and (I quote Tidal again) “Prince’s quintessential songwriting and inimitable vocal abilities…HITNRUN PHASE TWO was recorded fully in analog, giving it a lushness and human quality”.
I know this sounds weird, as actually it means Prince would be making a wordless statement by releasing two opposite albums, back to back, and under his own moniker, to “give a lecture”. And this might also explain why Josh was so prominently displayed in all the promotion of Phase 1, as opposed to his conspicuous absence in Phase 2. It’s like Prince was saying to us “see, I can do all of this by myself; and when I let somebody else take control of my music, look what happens”.
Regardless of Prince’s intentions with those comments, we have a nice great mess of albums containing all kinds of music, production styles, collaborators, etc. In this situation, you can easily figure out that record labels are, at least, as confused as we are, an therefore you can understand why some of those albums were released by big labels (Art Official Age, PLECTRUMELECTRUM, HitnRun Phase 1), while others are restricted to download stores (Oui Can Luv); finally, for some albums, the CD has been released almost confidentially, with only a handful of small stores, or even fans themselves, being involved in their distribution: this was the case for Back in Time and HitnRun Phase 2.
The very fact that such a good album as HitnRun Phase 2 (with a masterpiece entitled Revelation, and several great songs, as Black Muse, When she comes or Look at me, look at U), from a major music figure, was not released by a major label, is a clear evidence showing how messy is the state of affairs around Prince, in 2016.
Add to that the fact that pretty much nobody is selling many CDs -let alone making a significant profit out of them, these days (and you can include here former multimillion sellers playing the industry game every day, as Madonna, Lady Gaga and the like), and you can quickly conclude that CD sales can’t be the main income to sustain Prince’s expensive lifestyle.
The bad side of this flood of music is the confusion it creates in the market and also among fans, since we are used to a far slower release rhythm for most musicians. The good side: it shows that Prince is relentlessly working on music, be it writing, rehearsing, recording, arranging, producing or performing. He is as workaholic as ever, and this is a rather shocking way of working for someone who has been actively engaged in the world of music since he was a teenager, almost 50 years ago.
So if we return to the initial question: how can Prince remain at the top, when he’s not following the usual guidelines prescribed by music doctors of today?
The answer is simple:
Music and showmanship.
And to fully understand this answer, you just need to listen to one of the circulating recordings from Prince’s current “Spotlight: Piano & a microphone” tour, which started in Australia and recently jumped to the USA, beginning in Oakland. I would very much like to use a recording for this demonstration, but since I suspect Prince might be a little bit annoyed, I leave the readers to their own devices.
This tour started, as in the case of 21 Nights in London, under incredulity from some longtime hardcore fans: they found hard to believe that he would play long shows, alone and without external help to keep the public entertained. I have been reading complaints for years because Prince was using the band as a way to remain less time onstage and get some rest. Complaints also about the same old songs being played forever in similar track lists. And complaints as well because all he did on piano was to play little bits of every song, in a small fragment of the live shows.
Now, he became corageous, and is playing two shows per night, averaging 90–120 mins per show, in audio-friendly, intimate venues. No band, no dancers, no back singers taking time in the show. No horns. Nothing at all: Prince, a piano, and a microphone. He is all the time onstage, playing piano and singing. And he DOES manage to keep the whole show interesting, not only playing and singing with inspiration, but also getting into personal stories like he has very seldom done onstage. Besides, he is mixing old and new songs, adding often to the mix obscure tracks which are unknown for the majority.
Furthermore, his voice, and the quality of his singing, is comparable to very, very, very few musicians (and even less from his generation). He commands the crowd, who can go from strictly silent to fully involved singing choruses with him.
If all of that was not feat enough, he tried (in theory, prompted by the tremendous demand for tickets) to perform this same show in a large arena, for the first time in Perth. Some videos of the event were shared online, and it was astonishing to watch such a tiny performer, in front of a huge crowd, having a great time together, using his voice and a piano as the only tools for entertainment.
And this is the answer for this weird mystery of Prince: he breathes music. He owns the stage, and he is uniquely enabled to transform a music performance into a mindblowing personal experience for listeners, who leave the auditorium with the feeling of having attended a truly extraordinary music event. With this tour, Prince is demonstrating that he is, truly, the ultimate performer of our time. More so, he is doing it on piano, while most people consider that guitar playing is his prime ability onstage. It’s like a swimmer winning a competition with an arm tied to his back.
I say often to friends that it’s very difficult for a hardcore fan, like me, to remain objective when judging Prince’s work. But listening, and watching, Prince live shows, I think you can attest that nobody compares to him onstage. He’s a force of nature, and probably that explains why many people suggest, after a show, that live audio or video recordings do not capture, at all, the enjoyment and the feeling of attending a live Prince show. You have to live it to fully understand it.