Background & (lack of) expectations
Since I am a hardcore fan of Prince music (and have been in this category since 1988), my expectations before the release of this particular album were mixed. I know Prince can blow you away anytime with his music (as could confirm anyone attending often his live shows); since the mid-90s (when he released Come – Chaos and disorder — The Gold Experience — Emancipation in a truly golden phase), though, his career has been a fascinating but wildly uneven series of proper albums, scattered songs released through different channels, and live shows.
The commercial return of Musicology in 2004 marked a clear change of his public figure, which was reinforced by the excellent 3121 in 2006. At that time, I had hopes that the big Prince was truly back to stay in the field, linking great albums with great tours. Obviously the unreachable superstar of the 80 was gone, but a talent this big had more than enough potential to become a consistent music force in the 2000s.
However, once more -”expect the unexpected”- those expectations proved wrong. And so I watched the release of some amazing songs mixed with other less remarkable ones, sometimes buried in protegée’s albums (as Tamar’s Milk & honey, Bria Valente’s Elixer or Andy Allo’s Superconductor), and also in his own albums, which have been oscillating in qualities (from lower efforts as 20Ten to more elaborated attempts, as Lotusflow3r). Prince output was never short in volume, but the inspiration was not always at hand, and I had the perception that most of the albums were a compilation of songs, probably written at different times, without a clear linking motif. Prince was trying hard to find a pathway forward in his career; still, the outcome was unclear, and some specific songs which looked promising for the novelty of sound or structures (Black sweat, Glass cutter, 3121) ended becoming loose ends, rather than the begining of a new lane.
In other words: he had been trying hard, for more than 10 years, to find a way back home. “Home” being, in this metaphor, a flourishing state of inspiration allowing to make a solid series of albums with a marked sonic signature. Something he had done several times in his career, seemingly without strong efforts, but was elusive since the late 90s.
Since I am well aware that it’s hard to hit home, I decided to avoid any expectation (as much as possible) on the new Prince album since its announcement in August 2014. I wanted to have a blank page in my mind, ready to fill with the new songs.
When I downloaded Art Official Age, by chance I was alone at home, and thus I had the very unusual opportunity to listen, for the first time, to a new Prince album in the best possible conditions: using a good hi-fi system at loud volume. And when I started playing Art Official Cage, it was immediately clear that this was not another half-crafted album –Welcome home, class-: the song is another lesson on how to integrate rhythm patterns –Joint 2 Joint, anyone?-, there is the weirdness of processed voices, the sound is fresh and renovated compared to previous albums… it is not among the best songs in the album, but it certainly succeeds in telling you “this is not your zillion Prince album digging in the old purple vein”.
Clouds comes next with a delicious melody and a compelling change of tempo driven by the seductive voice of Lianne La Havas, which works wonders in the context of the song. The song illuminates the beginning of the album, setting up the tone for the rest with the polished, effective but not overblown production (whose credits are shared by Joshua Welton and Prince, whatever it means).
Breakdown is the next song, and the first masterpiece of the album.
Breakdown is the next song, and the first masterpiece of the album. It had been released months ago, as a celebration of the new deal between Prince and WB, and its charm is intact: it contains some of his most personal lyrics in years, the music is extraordinary, and I have been moved to tears more than once listening to it. This is the Prince I love, the one capable of writing (still today, in 2014) a ballad that puts you upside down with every listen. In my opinion it has the same unreachable quality level of his finest ballads in the past (and this is quite saying). And his vocal performance is second to none: at 56, Prince singing remains at his top.
The gold standard is an enjoyable funk number with a pretty forgettable chorus which prevents it from full accomplishment. The song flows easily and you will find many classical Prince resources in here -the horns, the funky guitar licks-, and possibly because of that, it was been warmly received by many fans. To me, it is a minor song in this album.
U know has been more than a bit controversial because a significant part of the synth hooks and vocals have been lifted from Mila J’s Blinded. The tune is however quite different from Blinded. Regardless of the authorship issues, I think the song works and is a welcome step towards more current arrangements, in line with other tracks in the album.
Breakfast can wait is a truly excellent pop song, with an unmistikeable Prince signature all over it; there are apparently silly keyboard motifs, a wonderfully sticky chorus and it’s a pure delight for lovers of those crazy pop songs that nobody else can do. I love even the Donald duck vocals at the end, which have been criticized quiten often. And the lyrics include one of those sentences that make you smile, when sung by Prince (“you can’t leave a black man in this state”).
This could be us is, together with Breakdown and The gold standard, one of the few regards to the past included in the album. Samples of it had been released some time ago, and in my opinion the whole song is much better than suggested by them. The falsetto of Prince’s voice, which is in stunning shape, shines particularly here and in Breakdown as well.
What it feels like and Time are sung by Prince and Andy Allo, and their sound suggest they were recorded when both were closely working together, a few years ago, before the release of Superconductor. Andy’s voice is far from a diva but she does contribute a lovely touch to both songs. The composition of What it feels like is fairly simplistic, yet its repetitive structure succeeds after a few listens and you will easily find yourself singing along its lines. Time, on the other hand, is more adventurous writing, with a catchy production and an upbeating tempo that gets in full force with the entry of a majestic bass -played by Prince- at roughly half the song. While I have the feeling that both songs belong to another, independent Prince & Andy Allo album, they fit nicely in Art Official Age because of their contemporary, sparse vibe.
Another song whose origin seems to be elsewhere is the remix of FunkNRoll, a song that was premiered at the Arsenio Hall show. A guitar-driven version is included in PLECTRUMELECTRUM, but the take included in this album is very different: after a common beginning, it evolves into a sketchy, minimal series of samples as background for Prince’s processed voice. The end is overcrowded with high pitched synths, while Prince overlayered vocals get unchained. This remix sounds strange on first listens, but prolonged exposure allows to appreciate that the mutation is very enjoyable, and very cohesive with the sound of Art Official Age.
And we reach the end of the album with three songs which are actually the same, in my opinion (despite the fact that in the tracklist, FunkNRoll and Timeare in the middle). I mean the amazing set of Affirmation I & II — Way back home-Affirmation III. This sequence is truly impressing, to the point that I can’t understand why it was not used in the final configuration of the album.
In Affirmation I & II, Lianne reads those futuristic affirmations, riding on some harp strings to highlight the text. Immediately, Way back home begins, with an captivating groove and then, Prince singing emotional lyrics (“I never wanted a typical life / stripted role, trophy wife”) on the background of a crescendo of percussion, keyboards and sound effects which keeps growing, around a magnificent chorus. Some sentences will go straight to the list of boldest Prince lyrics ever (“Most people in this world are born dead, but I was born alive”). Prince sings with conviction and I have the feeling that he is dealing with moving issues, although the real meaning of the song is elusive. The tremendous potential of the crescendo seems to be broken at the end, but it is completely fulfilled in Affirmation III: there, Lianne continues reading the Affirmation, with the same background, and the addition of a stunning arrangement of strings, which is the perfect complement for this amazing theme. The final strings part is epic (trust me: you need to listen very loud to this beauty, to fully appreciate it), before Lianne ends the affirmation. Delilah (Paloma Ayana) provides a vaporous hook by repeating “Until I find my way back home” all over the song. Way back home has a deep hypnotic effect, which highlights the quality of the composition and begs for repeated listens.
I must say that not only do I consider Way back home as the second masterpiece in this album: it is one of those songs that blow you away on first listen. Some will consider I exaggerate if I say its impact is similar to If I was your girlfriend. But I am not overblowing it: Way back home truly is outstanding, one of those songs that very few musicians are enabled to create (with significant input from Joshua again, as reported by The Current). Furthermore, it sounds so different compared to previous Prince songs that it has been qualified as forgettable by some reviewers. I think it epitomizes the whole album, capturing the vibe and the feeling of a revitalized Prince who demonstrates, once again, he is alive and kicking in studio recordings.
Note: I am avoiding on purpose the analysis of the lyrics, which would be hard to do, as usual lately with Prince songs. The only clear idea in the album -as inferred from some lyrics of Clouds and from the affirmations– is a supposed jump towards the future after 45 years of hybernation, or something along those lines, leading to a period where Prince needs to get re-adapted to reality. Don’t ask me much more…
In an album which will surprise most people, Prince managed to offer a cohesive proposal, with a clearly invigorated level of quality not only in the writing of the songs, but also in the production and in the palette of sounds displayed. The impact of Joshua Welton on this new sound is undisclosed, but regardless, it is a very welcome change in the sonic landscape of Prince, which had been a bit stuck since 2006. The fresh vibe would nonetheless have little effect if great songs were lacking. Fortunately, it is not the case. Furthermore: possibly the best song, Affirmation I & II — Way back home — Affirmation III, shows Prince actually digging into new ground. This achievement alone would be sufficient to consider this a remarkable album, and especially in the context of a career as varied and vast as Prince’s.
Yet if we add the overall quality of the songs, I think Prince truly found his way back home: he developed a new concept which still smells distinctively purple, and at the same time reflects its time. He IS moving forward here without the need of prothesis from the 80s, or from cliche structures to please the old fans, as he has done sometimes in recent albums.
Am I saying this is an unexpected chef d’oeuvre from Prince? No, but it admirably succeeds in the “jump to the future” goal he has been trying for years, with limited success. Until now.
Now, I think that we have all the technical conditions required to expect a full Prince masterpiece in the future. Some changes in his life would possibly be another essential condition for that to happen, changes which seem hard to expect at this time.