Prince and the Revolution – “Mountains (Extended Version)”/”Alexa de Paris (Extended Version)” (1986)
This has left me in complete shock. One of my all-time musical idols, gone way too soon. I can’t even put into words how tragic this is.
Chris Gerard’s recent PopMatters review (dated Dec. 14th) of Prince’s 2nd phase of Hit N Run. This album has not yet been released in physical form, only as a download…
It’s been a mere three months since Prince dropped Hit N Run Phase One first on Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service, and then a few weeks later via more traditional outlets. Arguably the single worst album of his legendary career, the sterile and soulless Phase One quickly sank like a stone, notable more for being the first product under Prince’s highly publicized deal with Tidal than for its music. At the time there was speculation as to whether a Phase Two would materialize—that speculation can now be put to rest. On Saturday, 12 December, without any warning whatsoever, Prince fans awakened to the news that Hit N Run Phase Two is available via Tidal to either purchase and download or to stream via the subscription service. Happily, even though it relies heavily on previously released material, Phase Two outshines Phase One by a mile—it’s not even close. Phase Two boasts enough classic Prince moments to sufficiently wash the worst memories of its vapid predecessor out of fans’ memory banks permanently. It has a completely different vibe than Phase One, eschewing producer Joshua Welton’s impotent and amateurish digital wreckage for a funky, horn-heavy sound that’s altogether more real.
Hit N Run Phase Two opens with “Baltimore,” which Prince first released back in May 2015 following the riots in Baltimore sparked by the ghastly murder of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Featuring prominent vocals by Eryn Allen Kane, “Baltimore” is Prince’s obviously sincere call for peace, love and understanding as the country grapples with ongoing turmoil in the wake of numerous incidences of police brutality caught on video. It’s not hard to figure out which side of the controversy Prince stands on, as he takes up the rallying cry of the protesters, “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace!” “Baltimore” is slick and highly polished, lacking the emotional power of Prince’s strongest works about social justice (it ain’t no “Sign o’ the Times”), but it’s still an engaging song that captures for posterity a moment in our history that may turn out to be a tipping point for the better—or so we can hope.
“Rock N Roll Love Affair” is a brisk guitar rocker that first appeared as a standalone single in late 2012. It was barely promoted and disappeared without a trace, but it’s a solid tune worthy of resurrection and it fits right in with this Princely mix. “2Y2D” is a blazing slab of funk with a sizzling horn arrangement. Prince returns to one of his favorite topics—sex—with the main hook, “She’s old enough to do ya, but too young to dare.” His work has been somewhat sanitized in recent years compared with his notoriously raunchy past, and while “2Y2D” is a far cry from Dirty Mind it’s still sexy enough to show that whatever religious leanings Prince may have these days, he hasn’t left his career-long preoccupation with the joys of the flesh behind.
“Look at Me, Look at U” by itself blows anything on Phase One out of the water. A smooth mid-tempo R&B gem with a terrific vocal by Prince, “Look at Me, Look at U” is notable for its shimmering electric piano, flute and the sensual sax solo that closes the song. “Stare” is a slice of “Musicology”-type funk that Prince released as a standalone track via Tidal this past summer. With its wildly popping slap-bass and tightly-wound horn riffs, “Stare” is among the hottest tracks that Prince has released this millennium. It also finds Prince embracing his past as he includes sly sonic references to two classics, “Kiss” and “Sexy Dancer.”
Speaking of classics, “Xtraloveable” is a song that’s been percolating in Prince’s vault since at least early 1982, when he recorded it for potential inclusion on his 1999 album or perhaps for his all-female protégé group Vanity 6’s self-titled album, both of which he was recording simultaneously. Prince’s original recording, a white-hot funk/rock epic with some decidedly racy lyrics and scorching guitar, ended up not making either album but has been widely bootlegged over the years. In 2011 he released a newly recorded version of the song, and then another take featuring a prominent brass section was issued in 2013 via his website. It’s the 2013 version that appears here, and while it isn’t close to being on par with the electrifying 1982 recording, “Xtraloveable” is still an eminently funky tune that deserves to finally land a spot on a proper Prince album.
“Groovy Potential” is another killer track that first appeared on Prince’s website in 2013. It’s a long and sinuous piece with an elaborate arrangement and an outstanding vocal performance by Prince. It begins with delicate piano and guitar over a simple backbeat as if it’s going to be a mellow soul track, but soon builds layer by layer to a thrilling climax with horns, guitar, and thunderous percussion ascending in waves of musical bliss. The sweet soul waltz “When She Comes” sounds like it may have been recorded around the same time as “Groovy Potential”, although with Prince it could just as easily be a nugget he plucked from the vault after leaving it to gather dust for who-knows how many years. Whenever it was recorded, we are fortunate that he decided to unearth it. Prince’s falsetto vocal is gorgeous over an exquisite musical backdrop that includes an accordion humming faintly beneath the glistening brass. “Screwdriver” is a fiery guitar rocker that Prince recorded with his backing band 3rdEyeGirl and first released as a standalone single in February 2013. With the mischievous catchphrase “I’m your driver, you’re my screw”, “Screwdriver” harkens back to Prince’s edgy, more sexually brazen work from his younger years.
The smoldering 7+ minute “Black Muse” dates back to 2010 when it was performed live on Prince’s Welcome 2 America tour and sung by backing vocalists Elisa Fiorillo (now known as Elisa Dease), Shelby J. and Liv Warfield. The version included here has Prince taking the lead, although prominent backing and harmony vocals remain. It’s an ambitious and densely complex track that unfolds a little bit more with each listen. It’s hard not to wonder how Prince could leave a track this fine sitting on a shelf while releasing so much inferior material in the five years that it took “Black Muse” to see the light of day. “Revelation” is another breathtaking reminder of how great Prince can still be. A simmering, sexy ballad with elegant riffs of sax, “Revelation” features Prince delivering a knockout falsetto vocal performance and an absolutely scalding guitar solo. This is Prince operating at his highest level, a song destined to rank with the best work he’s done since his ‘80s creative pinnacle.
Phase Two closes with “Big City,” a buoyant rocker with big horn riffs and a heavy, infectious groove. “Big City” is another song that’s been stewing for a couple years at least, as it has occasionally appeared in his live performances starting in 2013. It’s an upbeat, raucous jam that closes Phase Two with an exclamation point.
Yeah, Phase Two is a grab-bag of older recycled tracks and a few newer recordings that were obviously not originally intended to be grouped together as an album. That in itself isn’t a problem—some of Prince’s best works have been similar hodgepodge collections of diverse material. After all, over the course of his career he’s often used older material when he felt the time was right for a song to finally emerge (although not necessarily previously released material, as is the case here). Whether the songs were originally intended to be collected on the same album is completely beside the point—Phase Two hangs together remarkably well as a cohesive listening experience that is as exhilarating as it is unexpected. As for its predecessor, the less said about it the better. Phase Two makes it very easy to pretend that Phase One never existed. Does it stand up to Prince’s very best material? No. But it does stand up to his best work of the 2000s (3121, Lotusflow3r, and Art Official Age), and it’s certainly true that even an average album by Prince’s standards is better than just about anything else out there. For those disillusioned by Hit N Run Phase One, Phase Two is good enough to renew faith in the mercurial Minneapolis wunderkind. He may have had to trawl through the vault to make it happen, but who cares… Prince is back with an album worthy of his name.
This review of Prince’s two (!) new albums, out today, comes from Greg Kot, writing for the Sun-Sentinel, Sept. 29th…
Prince Says Let’s Go Crazy in 2 Different Ways
In one of the most improbable reunions of the last few decades, Prince is back with the label that he claims done him so wrong in the ’90s that he was compelled to scrawl the word “slave” on his face. No one does drama like the multi-purpose entertainer from Minneapolis, though, and he’s back with two albums on the same day for nemesis-turned-benefactor Warner Brothers.
The two albums couldn’t be more opposite. PlectrumElectrum, with his new rock quartet 3rdEyeGirl, is basically an excuse for Prince to go nuts on his guitar. Art Official Age is an opportunity for the solo Prince to go nuts as a studio innovator playing with his toys and personas.
Hardcore Prince guitar-freaks—those who yearn for an entire album of six-string slash-and-burn in the mold of Jimi Hendrix, Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel and Prince himself on “Purple Rain” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”—will find much to love on PlectrumElectrum.
Prince is an appreciator as much as an innovator, and he compresses about 50 years of guitar history into 12 tracks: the screaming punctuations on the feedback-saturated “Ain’tTurnin’Round” and “AnotherLove,” the Curtis Mayfield-style lyricism of “Whitecaps,” the punky urgency of “Marz.” But though the 3rdEyeGirl rhythm section of Donna Grantis, Hannah Ford Welton and Ida Nielsen provides a solid foundation, and shares some lead vocals, the songs feel slight, a touch predictable.
It’s not meant to be a particularly heavy album lyrically or conceptually, more of a blow-out. If there’s an underlying theme, it revolves around the 56-year-old elder statesman dispensing tips to the younger artists who have emerged in his wake, many of them in his debt: Frank Ocean, Miguel, Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, OutKast, Maxwell, Lianne de Havas (who sings backing vocals on Art Official Age). On “FixUrLifeUp,” he counsels, “Don’t worry about what the crowd does, just be good at what you love.” And what Prince loves on this album is clear: guitar, guitar and more guitar.
The emphasis shifts on Art Official Age, a more substantial and stranger album. After about a dozen listens, I still found myself discovering new twists and surprises in the dense, sometimes downright exotic arrangements (the same can’t be said for PlectrumElectrum).
It’s a concept album of sorts, a tour through the wilderness of Prince’s imagination, a maze of sound effects and funk set 45 years in the future after the groggy narrator emerges from a period of “suspended animation,” as a female narrator with a British accent informs him. Prince slides back into the Afro-futuristic tradition of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic. Space is the place where humans can roam free of petty earthly preoccupations such as celebrity worship, social media and material possessions (presumably including swimming pools, trophy wives and one-sided record-company deals).
The freedom the narrator craves is evident in many of the arrangements. “FunkNRoll,” also the title of a track on PlectrumElectrum (where it’s a fairly conventional funk-rock track), opens with guitar fanfare, dives into the shadows beneath percussion that sounds like a dripping faucet, slows down and then speeds up behind gothic keyboards. “Art Official Cage” zigs and zooms across time, with its booming EDM-style rhythm track and funk rhythm guitar flowing across dance-music history as if to one-up the concept on Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning 2013 album, Random Access Memories. The distant percussion in “Way Back Home” sounds like sheet metal flapping in a strong wind amid a matrix of sci-fi effects, and there’s the illusion of clinking cutlery on “Time,” which closes with a voracious bass line. The guitar is more sparing on this album, certainly less of a focal point, but its presence is crucial, particularly in the deft fills on “This Could Be Us” and the finger-snapping seduction of “Breakfast Can Wait.”
It’s an erotic and weird album, heavy on ballads that twist in unexpected directions. In an era when innovative artists such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are redefining the form and feel of R&B seduction ballads, Prince sounds not just relevant, but renewed. As Prince declared on his 1982 classic “D.M.S.R., “I… try my best to never get bored.” He sounds like he’s staying true to his word.
Live on The Jimmy Kimmel Show Oct. 23rd, Prince performing his latest single…
Pianist and composer Clare Fischer, responsible for adding orchestral arrangements to many Prince songs over the years, has sadly passed away at the age of 83. Supposedly Prince and Fischer never met and Prince refused to even look at a picture of Fischer for fear of breaking the “spell” they created together.