To say that digesting Emancipation (1996) is a rather daunting prospect for a first-time listener would be somewhat of an understatement. Prince’s nineteenth studio album, his first release after the acrimonious dissolution of his eighteen-year recording contract with Warner Bros Records, is not just a single album, nor a double album, but a TRIPLE album.
The Unique, Structural Complexity of ‘Joint 2 Joint’
Collectively, the album’s three discs clock in at roughly bang on three hours, each disc occupying around one hour of the album’s overall run time. For a new listener to absorb and process such a gargantuan collection of songs in one, two or even three sittings is quite an undertaking. Coupled with the fact that fifteen of the album’s thirty-six tracks exceed the five-minute mark, it is easy to see how a new listener may be reticent to undertake such a daunting task.
And though it is a journey some may never choose to embark on, if one is willing to persevere with Emancipation, with the understanding that it may take four, five or maybe even six listens to fully digest the album’s extensive contents, the rewards reaped will be great. Though fairly well-received critically and commercially upon its release, Emancipation is far from Prince’s most widely known record. Yet in and amongst the album’s three hours’ worth of material, one will find songs that stand exceedingly proud within the annals of his extensive songbook. One such track lies at the heart of the album’s second disc and is, (in my estimation) the album’s unsung masterpiece, its centrepiece and one of the most overlooked entries in Prince’s sprawling catalogue.
One such track lies at the heart of the album’s second disc and is, (in my estimation) the album’s unsung masterpiece, its centrepiece and one of the most overlooked entries in Prince’s sprawling catalogue.
At just under eight minutes, ‘Joint 2 Joint’ is the longest song to be featured on Emancipation, and structurally stands in stark contrast with the album’s surrounding material. Much of the album’s tracklisting is populated with songs that either adhere to a single unfaltering groove throughout (e.g. ‘New World’), or are entirely founded upon more traditional modes of popular songwriting (e.g. ‘Saviour’). While this first groove-oriented category may be somewhat self-explanatory, for the sake of clarity, I’d like to elaborate on what I mean by “traditional modes of popular songwriting.”
“The Beauty of Your Grand Design…”
Without delving too deep into music theory, most popular music structurally relies on three key building blocks. To be specific, those three elements are, a number of verses, a chorus and, more often than not, a middle eight section, sometimes referred to as a bridge. It is common for a verse to open a song and for it to be then followed by a chorus, while the middle eight invariably occurs towards the second half of the song, and is musically distinct from these other two sections. While most of the material on Emancipation that utilises these principal elements, in fact, begin with the chorus rather than the verse, this structural model is still the most predominant one that permeates the album. One such song that is indicative of this mode of songwriting on Emancipation is ‘One Kiss At A Time’, the second track on the album’s second disc.
‘One Kiss At A Time’
Pictured above is a diagram that illustrates how ‘One Kiss At A Time’ breaks down into those three core structural elements of multiple verses, a chorus and a middle eight section. The track also features the inclusion of the less widely used, but still fairly common, pre-chorus, which can confusingly also be sometimes referred to as a bridge. Despite following the album’s trend of opening with the chorus rather than the first verse, what is mainly evident from the above diagram is the extent to which the track relies upon those aforementioned core elements, and as such is a fairly typical example of the structural nature of much of the material featured on Emancipation.
“One in the Universe So Supreme…”
Consequently, in this company, ‘Joint 2 Joint’ stands alone. Unlike the album’s surrounding thirty-five songs, ‘Joint 2 Joint’ eschews those traditional modes of construction exemplified by the likes of ‘One Kiss At A Time’, and instead opts for a more experimental structural approach. Rather than consisting of a repeating series of verses and choruses, ‘Joint 2 Joint’ structurally consists of not just one distinct musical sequence, or even two or three, but FOUR separate and disparate musical movements, the totality of which constitute the most structurally ambitious and complex composition to be featured on Emancipation.
Indeed, Prince was no stranger to deploying this multi-part, multi-movement mode of musical expression, and did so numerous times throughout his extensive career. Songs such as ‘Computer Blue’ and ‘3 Chains O’ Gold’ showcase his extraordinary ability to seamlessly weave together various and distinct musical pieces to create one single, structurally complex song, with an ever-changing and unpredictable sonic landscape. It is certainly a particular mode of song construction that does not rear its head elsewhere on Emancipation, and as such separates ‘Joint 2 Joint’ from the flock.
The genius of Prince’s songbook is that both of these modes of construction reside side by side (or joint to joint, if you will).
Such an appraisal of the structural ambition and complexity of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ does not seek to suggest that song’s such as ‘One Kiss At A Time’, that adhere to structural norms, lack complexity or are in any way inferior to these more structurally ambitious pieces. On the contrary, the genius of Prince’s songbook is that both of these modes of construction reside side by side (or joint to joint, if you will) within the annals of his extensive back catalogue, and he was profoundly proficient at both of these formal approaches. ‘One Kiss At A Time’ and ‘Joint 2 Joint’ are both truly great songs, but for different reasons and those reasons are not mutually exclusive. Though, it is hard to deny the immense structural complexity ‘Joint 2 Joint’ achieves in just under eight minutes, and the sheer awe such an undertaking elicits from the listener.
Between the Joints of ‘Joint 2 Joint’
The above diagram illustrates how ‘Joint 2 Joint’ roughly divides into its four distinct musical movements. While the first three sections each roughly occupy two minutes of the track’s overall runtime, the fourth is around one minute in length, with the rest of the runtime being dedicated to a section of dialogue that functions as a transition between ‘Joint 2 Joint’ and the next song in the tracklisting, ‘The Holy River.’ While I hope the above image manages to communicate the profound structural complexity of ‘Joint 2 Joint’, if only at a cursory level, I think it would be further illuminating to take a closer look at each of the song’s four composite sections in greater detail.
What is immediately made evident by the above diagram, is that there is nothing untoward about the manner in which the first two minutes of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ unfold from a structural standpoint. While the chorus component of this section of the song isn’t quite a chorus in the same manner as ‘One Kiss At A Time’ or songs of that ilk, and instead features Prince merely repeating “joint to joint,” it still serves a similar function, bridging the gap between the section’s two verses.
As the diagram indicates, by utilising two verses and a repeating chorus, these opening two minutes broadly adhere to the structural characteristics that likewise define the other, more traditionally structured material on Emancipation. Indeed, another similarity that these opening two minutes share with the rest of the album is the previously noted manner in which it begins with the chorus as opposed to the verse, a structural flourish that can be found throughout the album’s three discs.
Built upon a smooth, seductive groove, one may be mistaken for thinking that these opening two minutes are indicative of the style that the track will proceed in for the remaining six minutes of run time. It would certainly not be an outlandish assumption to make. For example, ‘Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife’, which is also just under eight minutes in length, does not deviate wildly from the structure and aesthetic it establishes within its opening two minutes for the track’s remaining six minutes of run time. This approach is fairly indicative of the manner in which much of the longer material on Emancipation operate in regards to their progression, so as such, it would not be unreasonable to expect the same from ‘Joint 2 Joint’. Prince, however, had other plans.
At just under the two-minute mark, the song’s seductive groove abruptly ceases, with only some minimal percussion remaining. Above this, we hear Prince declaring “Come upstairs to my room,” followed by a creaky door opening and the growing ambient sound of a crowded room, an indication that we are proceeding into the track’s second section.
The audible difference between the sonic landscape of this second section, compared to that of the track’s opening two minutes, is striking. While it similarly occupies a further two minutes of runtime, it dispenses with the seductive groove of the opening and instead adopts an atmosphere far more indicative of a lively party. Musically, this portion of the song consists of two alternating passages, both noted in the above diagram as the verse and chorus respectively, with the introduction being a truncated version of the musical sequence that underpins the verse portions of this second section.
The sections labelled chorus have been labelled as such due to the fact that they mainly serve the same function as the chorus sections of the track’s first two minutes, with Prince likewise proclaiming “joint to joint” at various junctures during these passages. While both of the sections labelled verses broadly defy what we would come to expect from a verse, given the manner in which they alternate with the already identified chorus passages, for simplicity they have been labelled as such. Coupled with the fact that both of these verse sections are musically identical, the notion that these two portions largely serve the same structural and musical function of a traditional verse is fairly self-evident.
The first of these verse sections opens with a rap delivered by then Prince protégé Ninety-9, while the second is completely devoid of lyrics and is instead host to a tap dance performance by dancer Savion Glover. Consequently, both verse sections represent a clear departure from the musical structure the opening of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ introduces, neither section utilising lyrical passages underpinned by a repeating melody in the same manner as those opening two minutes.
However, not content to let the track stick with the joyous groove of this second section, just shy of the four-minute mark, Prince elects to introduce the third musical movement of ‘Joint 2 Joint’, with all the instrumentation once again coming to an abrupt halt, leaving only a distorted drum beat to pave the way.
Of the track’s four distinct musical sequences, the third part of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ is the one least easily divided into definitive structural sections. Ushered in by a distorted drum beat and a brief but equally distorted vocal performance, the celebratory atmosphere of the preceding sequence is replaced by a low brooding synth groove that persists throughout the entirety of the section’s two minutes, and barely falters. From this standpoint, this third section has more in common with the aforementioned more groove-oriented material featured on Emancipation, as opposed to the ‘One Kiss At a Time’ structural approach the opening two sections of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ broadly exemplify.
The above diagram attempts, in an admittedly somewhat arbitrary manner, to subdivide this third portion into three identifiable sections, the first being the introductory drum beat, followed by the section’s lyrical component, and finally the concluding guitar solo. However, while the introduction and guitar solo very much structurally and aesthetically distinguish themselves from the rest of this third section, the middle lyrical portion is far harder to untangle and subdivide. This difficulty is largely due to the fact that, as previously noted, this particular section of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ is primarily based upon one single repeating groove, and consequently lacks the clear verse/chorus divisions that are musically suggested in the track’s preceding two sequences. Whether the lyrical portion of this third section consists of one chorus and two verses, or one whole verse, or any number of other permutations of possible division, is certainly up for debate. As such, the above diagram is far from the definitive way in which this third section of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ should be divided, and instead represents one possible way in which this section can be separated into its individual structural components.
Either way, what is readily apparent is just how aesthetically distinct this third section is from the track’s preceding two sequences. Prince opts to employ a more pronounced groove-oriented approach for these two minutes, as opposed to the more traditional musical structures he employs in the prior two sections. While both approaches sit side by side within the tracklisting of Emancipation, nowhere else are they inter-mixed quite so brazenly within the same song as they are in ‘Joint 2 Joint’. The groove-oriented material, and the more traditionally structured material are mostly kept separate throughout the duration of the album, each track broadly adhering to one structural approach or the other. Whereas here, both styles are positioned next to one another within the same song, the only constant binding these three disparate sections together, being Prince’s repetition of the titular phrase, “joint to joint.” Such an audacious aesthetic decision, all within the space of six minutes, only further serves to reinforce this notion that ‘Joint 2 Joint’ is indeed the most structurally singular and ambitious track to be featured on Emancipation, and prominently stands apart from the album’s surrounding material.
And yet, after having unexpectedly shifted gears twice already, Prince is restless once more. Following the climactic guitar solo, we are once again faced with a solitary drum beat, this time accompanied by a spoken vocal passage from the artist himself.
Following the introductory and humorous “Cap’n Crunch” sequence of dialogue, we are introduced to the fourth and final section of ‘Joint 2 Joint’, which is approximately one minute in length, the rest of the track serving as the aforementioned spoken segue into ‘The Holy River’.
The “Cap’n Crunch” episode aside, the musical portion of this fourth portion of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ can be roughly divided into two sections. Dispensing with the low brooding synth groove of the preceding part, this fourth sequence predominantly features an incredibly funky bass passage, accompanied by Prince once more proclaiming “joint to joint” at various intervals. The second half of this section, on the other hand, functions as somewhat of a conclusion for the song as a whole, by reprising various elements from the preceding three parts of the song. Musically, this second half returns to the brooding groove of the third section and likewise repeats many of the lyrical passages also featured in that same portion of ‘Joint 2 Joint’.
Finally, in the track’s closing moments, Prince declares, “If we’re ever naked in the same machine/Baby, we can kick it joint to joint,” an implicit invocation of the lyrical content of the very opening section of the track. This concluding lyric is a conflation of the two passages, “If we’re ever naked in the same machine/I’m gonna lick it, baby, joint to joint,” and “If you want to we can kick it, baby, joint to joint,” both of which feature prominently in the track’s opening two minutes. By implicitly invoking these two lyrical passages, Prince brings ‘Joint 2 Joint’ full circle, and coupled with the reprise of the brooding groove of the third section, helps to structurally bind these four disparate sections together as one united, cohesive whole.
What I hope the above deconstruction helps to illustrate is the sheer extraordinary level of intricate, structural ambition ‘Joint 2 Joint’ exemplifies. As previously noted, the iteration of ‘Computer Blue’ featured on Purple Rain (1984) likewise exhibits Prince’s proclivity for writing songs that consist of various distinct musical sections. But ‘Computer Blue’ can broadly be divided into two sections, the musical shift occurring two minutes and fifteen seconds into the track’s roughly four-minute runtime, which already represents a level of structural complexity few musicians working in the realm of popular music dare to undertake. On the other hand, as demonstrated above, ‘Joint 2 Joint’ can be roughly divided into not two, but FOUR distinct musical sections, and as such stands as one of Prince’s most structurally ambitious and complex tracks.
The musical and artistic achievement of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ is unparalleled when compared to the album’s other thirty-five cuts.
The Crown Jewel of Emancipation
While ‘Joint 2 Joint’ is far from the only truly great song to be featured on Emancipation, it is (in my estimation) one the most important ones. Other songs on the album, such as the titular track, may possess more lyrical significance in how they reckon with Prince’s self-proclaimed artistic emancipation from Warner Bros Records. But the musical and artistic achievement of ‘Joint 2 Joint’ is unparalleled when compared to the album’s other thirty-five cuts. It is nearly eight minutes long and consists of four distinct musical movements seamlessly woven together, with each part lasting just long enough for the grooves to get under your skin, yet not long enough to outstay their welcome. It is simultaneously seductive, groovy, funky and on top of all that, infused with humour. The track is fundamentally a veritable musical feast with something for everybody. Whether you’re a fan of Prince’s seductive side, or his unique brand of funk, or whether hearing him flex those unrivalled guitar skills of his is your jam, everyone one is catered for on ‘Joint 2 Joint’. Separated from the whole, each distinct section would be noteworthy songs in their own right, that any artist would be more than proud to pen. For Prince to use all four in a single song, and still have an abundance of creativity left over, is a testament to his inherent prolific artistry and a portrait of an artist firing on all cylinders.
Despite its gargantuan length, Emancipation yielded only two singles, ‘Betcha By Golly Wow!’ and ‘The Holy River’, backed with ‘Right Back Here In My Arms’ and ‘Somebody’s Somebody’ respectively. Which is an exceedingly low number of singles given the amount of material this triple album houses. Had ‘Joint 2 Joint’ been selected as one of the album’s singles, it is possible that the track may have received more of the recognition it deserved from the wider culture, and now be recognised as one of Prince’s most unique and spectacular musical accomplishments. But alas, it did not, and remains something of (in my estimation) an undiscovered masterpiece. A testament to Prince’s unique artistry and virtuosity and the ambitious crown jewel of Emancipation. And above all else, it is a testament to the rewards that perseverance with a daunting work of art may reap.