The raddest song on the second consecutive album to reassert Prince's funk bona fides is arresting in part because it's so unassuming. Spare bass and drums, then an acoustic-sounding guitar, catchier synth and a conversational vocal with a devilishly hooky street-chant shape -- not futuristic, but definitely not trad. The rad part is a lyric that explicitly invites us to "get saved." Christ is never mentioned, but Prince's talk of "new exaltation" and "streets of gold" can't be rationalized away as sex talk. More than any Kirk Franklin or Stevie Wonder number, "The Word" makes religiosity sound hip.
Doing his best to reassure fans who think their souls are fine, thank you, Prince doesn't abjure sex talk on 3121. But the famed Lothario turns down the ID-needing "Lolita": "What do you want?" "Whatever you want," she saucily replies. "Then come on, let's dance." She's shocked: "Dance???" The greasy organ R&B of "Satisfied" "ain't talking about nothing physical." And "Incense and Candles" turns on an unusual entreaty: "I know you want to take off all your clothes/But please don't do it."
As Prince well knows, however, these songs are erotic regardless -- more recognizably than those on 2004's Musicology, where he turned down yet another hottie in "What Do U Want Me 2 Do?" That's because lyrics always come second for the most gifted popular musician of our era -- amid the keepers are bad poetry you ignore on tracks you can't get enough of. As on Musicology, the beats get pretty wicked here -- wildly canted, eccentric, exciting. But while 3121 is no funkier than Musicology, it does emphasize speedier tempos and, two nods to Zapp aside, more conventional sonics. Guitars and synths tend toward the middle registers: "Fury" is a slightly grander rewrite of the indelible "U Got the Look." This is all reassuringly normal for fans put off by the artist's recent forays into jazz and such. Anyway, Prince leaves no doubt that he's still interested in sex. He can resist temptation, if that's what gets him through the night. We don't have to. And we can still dance together. Right? (ROBERT CHRISTGAU)
Prince is one of those rare artists who can remain relevant without compromising
his eccentric style. Though his last few albums have been less than stellar, "3121" is
a testament to the singer's versatility and musicianship. The 12-track set
runs the gamut from uptempo pop ("Fury") to steamy R&B ("Incense
and Candles"). It also finds Prince revisiting racier themes, as on
the bluesy bedroom ballad "Satisfied" and the guitar-driven "Lolita," a
potential pop hit about affection for a younger woman. While "Black
Sweat" is too erratic, live instrumentation is celebrated as usual (saxman
Maceo Parker graces "Get on the Boat"). Despite several lukewarm
tracks, "3121" proves that Prince has not lost his luster and could
very well return him to the top of the charts
When Prince staged a colorful 2004 resurrection (Musicology "sold" over 2 million copies, thanks to an ingenious ploy of bundling a CD with every ticket purchased for that year's top-grossing concert tour), he achieved something resembling renewed cultural relevance. Playing mostly smashes from his prolific career and impressing a new generation with his enviable instrumental chops, the tour made a convincing case for why the art of showmanship sans pricey effects and grotesque production numbers should be preserved. And two decades past his commercial peak, Prince also proved that there's still no other artist who can simultaneously captivate and baffle an arena with such an arresting arsenal of humor, charisma, weirdness, and undeniable talent.
But lest there be any confusion, the masses were actually celebrating a peerless stage performer and combustible musical force, not the return to form of an ex-hitmaker. Musicology hardly constituted a bona fide comeback disc; its derivative, retro-tinged tunes barely made a squeak at radio, and simply buckled in concert when sandwiched between classics like "Kiss" and "Let's Go Crazy." Apologies, O Purple One--having once raised the pop-music bar means you get away with less than the rest.
And so comes his umpteenth disappointment--3121, a messier, more self-indulgent affair than its predecessor. At least Musicology had a coherent point to prove: that Prince could make real music with real instruments as the old-soul masters--and he--used to. Sonically, this new disc feels like a random sampling of 12 tracks from his unedited unconscious. Zigzagging from a distorted synth-funk groove on the title track to the abominably boring slow-dance "Te Amo Corazón" to the Muscle Shoals-style gospel-blues of "Satisfied," it finds Prince striking his familiarly cocky I-Can-Do-It-All pose.
Only he can't do it all anymore, at least not on record. While his electro-soul stylings are regularly referenced by the likes of OutKast and the Neptunes, Prince hasn't figured out how to reach back into his '80s bag of tricks and create something that feels contemporary in the way those disciples have. Instead, tracks that might have rocked in 1986, like the guitar-heavy romp "Fury," feel perilously caught in a time warp somewhere between cool-dated and wack-modern. Only the new single "Black Sweat" does a laudable job of referencing O.G. Prince while still reminding the industry's young 'uns that he's got more mojo in just one of his meticulously plucked eyebrows than all of them combined.
But that's not to imply said young 'uns couldn't help him make something truly great. Maybe let Andre 3000 and the Roots' ?uestlove put some sizzle on those used-to-be-fresh, middle-aged-man beats. Because when left alone with his own limitless potential, Prince can't resist getting in his own way, as evidenced by "The Dance," an overblown Latin-shuffle melodrama loaded with every superfluous bell, whistle, clap, and string sound at his disposal. And while the song climaxes in some passionate, cord-shredding screams that recall Purple Rain's orgasmic symphony "The Beautiful Ones," it's a contrived moment. One that epitomizes why 3121's tired tracks aren't worthy of Prince's prodigious gifts. C+
-- Raymond Fiore
In the Sixties, when record companies thought nothing of squeezing two albums a year from their artists, the music industry benefited rampantly productive artists. As such, it didn’t seem incredible that, during a period in 1967, the Beatles released the Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane double A-side, Sgt Pepper and All You Need is Love.
Back in those days, no one dreamed of likening major record labels to slave-drivers. When Prince made the analogy, writing “slave” on his face at the 1995 Brits, it was hard not to smile at the irony. Interviewed at the time, the singer criticised a record company that refused to put out his records when he wanted them released, citing “market saturation” in their defence. They wanted him to slow down, but Prince’s work-rate defied the notion. By the end of the decade he was hawking CDs over the web to a dwindling fan base.
With hindsight, it’s easier to see both sides. When supply outstrips demand — whether it be Crazy Frog merchandise, solo projects by ex-members of Blue or noodly treatises on cosmic sexuality by once-great Minneapolis monoliths — people’s interest inevitably wanes. Perhaps it’s something that he has belatedly come around to realising. Two years after the patchy Escapology he sounds like a man set on arresting his commercial decline.
At last month’s Brits performance he adhered to the first rule of commercial rehabilitation: the best way to get people interested in your new stuff is to mix it with the old. So along with a honey-dripping Purple Rain and a rousing Let’s Go Crazy, we got a balmy, Santana-esque newie, Te Amo Corazón, and Fury. If the latter sounded familiar, that’s because its synth riff first appeared as the chorus of Boys and Girls in 1986.
It’s not the only time you suspect that Prince has been perusing his back pages for inspiration. Black Sweat, more of an erotic mood piece than a song, sees its creator deploy a trick its creator first used to thrilling effect on When Doves Cry: forgoing bass for space, in which his priapic falsetto gets busy over a primitive robot groove.
The levity that seems to permeate almost every track here is unmistakable. On the title track he’s cast as a pygmy pied piper of funk, supplying helium harmonies over a moreishly sluggish rhythm: “You can come if you want/But you can never leave.”
He also wants us to know that he may be dirty but he still has standards. In Lolita he ventures into the same treacherous terrain as Björn from Abba when he wrote the belief-beggaringly bad Does Your Mother Know. The 48-year-old singer rebuffs the advances of his teenage muse, but where the Swede came a cropper Prince prevails with prizewinning couplets such as: “You’re much too young to peep my stash/ You’re trying to write cheques your body can’t cash.”
Better still is The Word, a lithe, locomotive call to arms against unspecific satanic forces, in which Prince intones: “Get up, come on, Let’s do something” over a sinuous acoustic loop.
He’s still practically peerless when he’s funky; less so when he’s soppy. As such, it’s no coincidence that the two skippable songs on 3121 merge to form one sloppy suite. Beautiful Loved and Blessed — a ploddingly generic duet with his current purple protégé Tamar — is just the kind of joyless soul ballad that made Prince such hard work through most of the Nineties.
And while you have to admire his insistence on playing everything himself, Prince’s Claydermanesque plinking on The Dance does little to stop the song resembling the incidental music you might hear when a postcoital James Bond pours himself a cognac.
But, of course, there’s no telling a control freak. He has to learn his own lessons. And Prince’s 25th album portrays an artist learning to make peace with his past without turning into his own tribute act. If the generous proliferation of tunes on here is anything to go by, Prince has freed himself from a more pernicious form of self-inflicted slavery. Which can only be good news for all of us.
Of course, it's not totally unexpected. You could feel this coming after Prince's 2004 comeback album Musicology and hits heavy tour of the same name, restored him to his rightful throne. And 3121 shows that His Purple Highness has no intention of stepping down anytime soon. Even better than its double-platinum predecessor, it boasts higher highs: "Lolita," along with "Black Sweat," gives this disc the best one-two punch he's had since "Gett Off and "Cream."
With its bright synth lines and tight rhythm guitar, "Lolita" is classic 80's Prince, though now that he is a Jehovah's Witness, he won't surrender to the nubile temptress who's "fine from head 2 pumps." Elsewhere, the scorching, electric guitar charged "Fury" takes him back to the funk-rock glory of the Revolution era, while the spiritually glowing "Beautiful, Loved & Blessed" pairs Prince with new protogee Tamar, a much better duet partner than Apollonia ever made. A couple of lesser slow jams, including the Latin-flavored "Te Amo Corazon," make 3121 fall short of the slam dunk it could have been. Still, there's plenty here to make you go crazy all over again.
Puttin' on the Funk, Playing Sly Games
Prince doesn't sing any complicated messages on his new album, "3121." He has his perennial topics in mind: love, partying and sex (monogamous now that he has declared himself a Jehovah's Witness), with some salvation on the side. It's a friendly, happy, concise album, clocking in under 54 minutes and just about always putting the funk in the foreground. But within the grooves, Prince enjoys some sly musical games. It's not what he says, but what he plays, that gives the songs their snap.
When Prince went fully independent in 1996, his first impulse was to pour out all the music he made: triple and quadruple albums, cover versions, Internet-only songs, instrumentals. But since 1999 he also has been making deals with the major conglomerates, one album at a time, and giving them some of what they want: songs that reaffirm his gift for pop hooks and that also deliberately stir memories of his 1980's hits. With any luck the new songs could sound familiar enough to reach a generation raised on sampled 1970's and 80's R&B. He reaches back to "1999," for instance, in "Fury," a tale of pop ambition and parted lovers.
Yet he's experimenting too, perhaps goaded by atonal liberties of hip-hop. Working alone in the studio, Prince becomes the opposite of his onstage self. Instead of working in real time with live instruments, he goes for a dizzying mix of the handmade and the surreal. "Black Sweat" is an electronic maze of claps and bass thrusts with a whistling, sliding synthesizer high above, while the murky P-Funk vamp of the song "3121" carries dissonant distorted guitars and voices that have been sped up and slowed down. When Prince proselytizes in "The Word," the track is a shifty mixture of staccato acoustic guitar, washes of string sound, a lone saxophone, simmering electronic sounds and clipped percussion.
Meanwhile, when he's not being futuristic, his music holds a history of soul. "Satisfied" is an old-fashioned falsetto ballad, complete with horn section, "Get on the Boat" mixes James Brown funk with salsa, and "The Dance" builds up to an orchestral supper-club bolero.
Prince has done some careful ethical balancing to square his old lascivious self with his openly devout one, and on "3121" he shows his sense of humor about it. He's still a seducer, but one with boundaries. In "Lolita," he's tempted by a young girl, yet insists, "you'll never make a cheater out of me"; then he starts a call and response, asking, "What you wanna do?" She responds, teasingly, "Whatever you want," but when he says, "Then come on, let's dance," she says, with disdain and disbelief, "Dance?" Still, Prince understands what made him a star, and he's not giving it up. "I'm hot and I don't care who knows it," he declares in "Black Sweat," then immediately gets pragmatic: "I got a job to do." JON PARELES
CD review: Prince has fun
with latest album
We knew what the song "1999" was all about. It's not clear what the significance of "3121" is. (I hear it's the address of his Los Angeles home.) The title song, which opens the disc, is a dense dance jam inviting you to a party: "U can come if U want to/But U can never leave." Sounds like shades of "Hotel California."
Prince is clearly in a different head space for "3121" than he was on "Musicology," 2004's strikingly mature celebration of marriage and monogamy. He seems less focused and less happy this time. In fact, he sounds a little horny, but, despite his R-rated thoughts, his lyrics are strictly PG.
"Lolita," the playful second track, is a little suggestive but no more so than any similar come-on by the Time. The album's best numbers, "Black Sweat" and "Satisfied," are sexy but hardly risqué by Purple standards.
"Black Sweat," the current single, is slinky synth funk,
a spare electronic workout oozing with Prince's most emotional vocals. His "oohs" on
this number provide some of the most thrilling moments on the album.